I am in a bad state, lately.
Healing goes in long, slow cycles, and it’s extremely difficult to heal in the place you’ve been wounded, and here we are spending another summer in Steubenville. Every year I pray it’s our last.
I insist on healing in public, and writing about it. People tell me this is scandal, but I feel it’s absolutely necessary. Because here in my work at Patheos, I have met scores of people wounded as badly as I am or much worse, and our story is considered dangerous. We’re not supposed to talk. I’ve been told it’s “grave scandal” to talk about having been hurt by this cold and abusive institution we’re supposed to call our mother. People around here really do pull Michael and me aside and inform us that I create grave scandal here at Steel Magnificat. It makes me even more afraid to go to church.
Which is where I am today. I’m afraid to go to church this weekend. And I know that there’s no guilt involved in that. Trauma is a real, physical injury. Going through abuse and trauma changes the brain; it changes the nervous system. And, the nervous system controlling every other system in the body the way that it does, trauma can be said to injure the whole body as well. Trauma is cardiovascular. Trauma is hormonal. Trauma is gastrointestinal. It is absolutely true to say that, for spiritual abuse survivors, going to church can give you the runs. I just might have to stay home.
The nice lady who gives me rides to Sunday Mass wished me “happy feast!” yesterday, meaning absolutely no harm, when I texted her about a ride this weekend. I’ve been shuddering since. I don’t like the Sacred Heart. I don’t like most Latin Catholic devotions because of what they meant to me growing up, and the Latin lung of the Church has been the only one available locally for me to worship in for nearly two years.
She’s not the one who triggered that whole trouble, of course. I’ve been dreading church since at least Pentecost. That just happened to give me another bad shudder.
I was afraid of Jesus– not the real one that I choose to believe exists, but the Jesus of my childhood. The Jesus I found here in Steubenville after I left home. The Jesus of the Charismatic movement and of Regnum Christi and of emotionally abusive priests. The Jesus of the plaster statue, the cheap stained glass and the laminated card. That suspiciously white, sentimental prude in a nightshirt, wearing his heart outside of his clothes. The petty god who cries with dismay when you say a bad word or don’t attend to your Rosary. The one who will damn you out of spite if you don’t do just what this or that spiritual director orders you to do. The Jesus who has chosen a vocation for you whether you like it or not, and your vocation is to suffer whatever he inflicts and obey the abusive leaders he appoints and make the best of it.
I have decided not to follow that particular Jesus anymore.
If the god of my past is real– that cloying Jesus who allows little children to become possessed as a punishment for watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks; that cold father who takes people’s guardian angels away so that they can become victims of natural disasters; that unholy ghost you can conjure up inside yourself if only you are fervent enough and call it “Charismatic Gifts”– if that god is real, I am better than he is. I have no qualms at all about saying that. Because I can look at that being and say that he is unethical and cruel. If that being exists, he isn’t love, and if he isn’t love I’m better than he is, because I can love– poorly, but I can love. I can discern right from wrong– poorly, but the capacity is there. And if that being is capable of damning me to hell, then I will thumb my nose at him and go to hell knowing that I am better than he is.
I have found that the journey of a victim of spiritual abuse involves quite a few descents into hell. Perhaps every soul’s journey does; I can only say for sure about mine. I find that quite often, I have to thumb my nose at that miserable idol and descend into a dark place where it seems there is no God at all.
If, on the other hand, God is Love, then God descends into hell with me.
That’s what Love does. Love descends. Love pours out and down, into where there is no love, filling the void with Love. Love is lifted up from the earth for mockery and torture by people who have no love; Love submits to be exalted in this dreadful human way, and then Love descends into hell. And, hell being too small to contain it, Love rises and ascends to the Highest Place. In doing this, Love gathers all people to Himself and, if we will it, draws us up to the Highest Place. And as long as I live in this world of idols, I will thumb my nose at that counterfeit god, descend into hell, and wait upon Love to draw me to Himself.
That is the wager I have decided to make: to abandon the Charismatic superstitions of my childhood and the clericalist hero-worship of Steubenville, and to follow Love. To try to love my neighbor as best I know how and to repent when I fail, which I do several times a day at least, because in loving and repenting I honor the God Who is Love. To worship that Love through the sacraments whenever I can, but to not be afraid when the injury inflicted on me keeps me from going into a church. And if the god of my past turns out to be real, I am lost. But if the God of Love is real, He will save me.
If God can save me from this burning darkness, may He save me. But I refuse to worship a god smaller than I am.
This is terrifying.
But I don’t see another way that I can live. If you’ve found one, good for you. But here I am.
The cycle of Love pouring out to hell and back, I suppose, is a sort of pulse, the pulse that is the Life of everything that lives.
To be a Christian instead of an idolater, I suppose, is to be drawn into the very center of the Love that pulses eternally; to become one flesh with the Love that became Flesh in order to draw us into Himself. We are not slaves or victims of the small god. We are, and are becoming, real members of a real Body that was born of the Virgin for love of us and made His dwelling here; a body that suffered agony and trauma, permanent trauma to all of His members, injury beyond my ability to describe, trauma that killed Him and saw Him buried under the earth while His spirit descended into hell. We are members of a Body Who rose from the dead and ascended into glory, still bearing a physical wound through His Heart for love of us.
I suppose, in that sense, that you and I ourselves are the sacred Heart of Jesus.
(image via pixabay)