Part of the Patheos Book Club–go and read the other posts on this book as well!
My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, by Dawn Eden, is the first book I’ve read from a specifically Catholic perspective on healing from sexual abuse. I don’t come to this as an expert so I’ll just tell you what the book is, and what it does which is especially valuable.
The book is structured around saints’ lives. Eden works to uncover hidden aspects of saints’ experiences which have resonance for those who were sexually abused as children. She seeks to correct the record when saints’ lives have been misused (as when St Maria Goretti becomes the object of a kind of purity cult in which people speak as if a saint couldn’t be raped) and to show how many saints had experiences which are relevant to people who were abused. Some of these experiences are well-known, like St. Josephine Bakhita’s enslavement as a child, but Eden makes them vivid and visceral (without giving unnecessary detail, a choice she explains in the text). Others are well-known but haven’t typically been considered in the light of how they might help sexual-abuse victims, like the story of St Thomas Aquinas rejecting the prostitute pushed at him by his family after they kidnapped him. And others are simply more obscure, at least to Americans, like Bl. Laura Vicuna and Bl. Karolina Kozka.
This is a very personal book. It’s the story of Eden’s own discovery of these saints and their stories, and her use of those stories in order to heal her own wounds. Reading the book is like watching Eden open a jewelry box and draw out each of her most treasured, personal, and beautiful items one by one, because she wants you to have them too. You may not always agree with her reading of the saints’ lives or find that her reading resonates with you; that’s okay, since she’s more, I think, trying to provide a model of Catholic practice, Catholic seeking. What she found in the saints’ lives helps her, but it’s more important that you seek out the saints whose journeys and sorrows resonate with you.
My Peace I Give You does not do a lot of things I think people might expect from a book on Catholicism and sexual abuse. It does not offer a theodicy. It does not grapple with the abuse scandals within the Church.
What Eden offers instead is a way to find companions, sisters in the goblin market. One of the most shattering things about child abuse, I think–speaking as someone who did not experience it, but has seen its effects in many of my friends’ lives–is the way it makes children feel utterly alone. Not only is the temple of their body desecrated but they are made to feel that no one is watching, loving, holding and believing them. This overwhelming loneliness is made even more painful when the child tells a trusted adult about the abuse and is doubted, dismissed, or punished. The child in this case is truly made to feel friendless.
Eden’s book is about overcoming that devastating loneliness, that crushing silence. Eden shows how she went looking for friends and helpers among the great cloud of witnesses, and what she found there.
Eden emphasizes that she’s approaching the saints as one in need, ready to receive what they can give her. She notes that “there is a long tradition of calling saints patrons of psychological or medical conditions not because they had those actual conditions, but because they underwent experiences like them.” It’s a sort of reader-response approach to the saints, and in Catholicism it’s often got a strong flavor of gallows humor, as with St. Lawrence becoming the patron of rotisserie operators. (I am not making that up.) The saints are spending their heaven helping us, so it’s okay to turn to them for what we need, and to find the elements of their stories which resonate most strongly with us. Eden’s book may actually be useful for Protestants or ex-Protestants struggling to understand the Catholic relationship with saints–I’ve spoken with a couple guys who had a really hard time figuring out just what we think we’re doing when we pray to saints, and Eden’s book may provide some useful praxis there.
This book is neither the first word on Catholic healing from abuse, nor the last. Parts of this deeply personal book may guide and comfort you while other parts make you angry or puzzled. (And I have one specific problem with the book’s resource guide, which I’ll post separately.) But the way Eden engages with the Church and with the saints provides a model for how we can respond to our own needs and sorrows. She might prompt you to strengthen your own devotion to and relationship with the saints who speak to you most. May this book prompt many more like it.