Religious Trauma and Lent: What are We To Do?

Religious Trauma and Lent: What are We To Do? March 2, 2022


I just want to remind everyone that if you suffer from religious trauma, or really any kind of trauma, you don’t have to give something up for Lent. You don’t have to add a penance that hurts for Lent. On this blog we’ve covered the fact that penance isn’t about hurting yourself in the first place, but especially if you’re already hurting from trauma. It is perfectly fine to do no special penance for Lent, or to resolve to permit God to be extra kind to you this Lent, or to take up a practice of being kind to yourself for Lent.

The word “penance” just means “turning around,” after all. Penance is about stopping when you’ve realized you’re going the wrong way and re-orienting yourself toward your goal. People with religious trauma have had ourselves twisted in painful ways, not by our own fault but by somebody else’s sin. Our experience of God and the Faith was warped and made ugly by people we ought to have been able to trust. Our repentance, our turning back around, is going to look different from anybody else’s.

And this is in addition to the fact that trauma is a genuine injury to the body. The nervous system isn’t ethereal, it’s a body part. We were hurt so badly that our nervous system sustained an injury and now works overtime. The name of that injury is post-traumatic stress disorder, and PTSD is a chronic illness. People who are ill aren’t supposed to fast or hurt themselves with penances. Our penance is to try to heal our illness.

Everyone is different, so it’s not up to me to tell you exactly what to do. But maybe this is a year you just need to take off from Lenten penance entirely. Or maybe you can resolve to meditate for ten minutes a day on how God genuinely likes you and wants you to feel better.  Maybe you were taught that you don’t deserve good things and you should never take time for self-care, in which case a good penance might be to make time for a hot bath or a trip to the gym every so often. Maybe you were taught that you’re unlovable and Jesus is only tolerating you to be nice, in which case you might want to buy yourself a treat every Friday and take time to sit there and eat it, pretending you’re on a date with Jesus and talking to Him casually like a friend. Perhaps you were taught that the things you like are stupid and you ought to care about the more important things your abuser likes, in which case it might be a good Lenten penance to take those passions that God gave you back for yourself: get out your painting supplies and paint a picture for a few minutes every day, or sign up for those karate lessons you wish you’d had, or go back to teaching yourself to speak French.

As for me, I’m going to go swimming.

There’s a rec center with an indoor pool across the river in Weirton. When I can afford the day pass, I’m going to go there and swim laps this Lent. Swimming is the only exercise I really like. It’s less painful and more fun than going for walks. And I find that I can quiet my mind and meditate when I swim. I can’t do that very well in a church. Churches give me anxiety and panic. It hurts to go to church. But the rec center doesn’t intimidate me. And swimming laps is a quiet exercise where nobody tries to talk to you.

I’m not even going to try to make myself pray while I swim laps. If all I do is relax and write bad fan fiction in my head, as I tend to do when my mind is at peace, that’s fine. But sometimes I find myself praying in the lap lane, and that’s a good thing. That’s my penance. I’m going to learn to allow myself to pray in a place where it won’t make me panic, by swimming.

Lent is a good time to find your version of swimming, the thing that lets you pray without fear.

It’s a good time to find that your Father loves you and doesn’t want to hurt you, in spite of what you’ve been taught.

So what are you going to do?



Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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