In my new book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, I tell about saints who suffered childhood sexual abuse or other forms of trauma—from Church doctors like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, to lesser-known figures like Josephine Bakhita and Margaret of Castello. I also share my own story as an abuse victim who has found healing through Christ and the Church.
Admitting my need for such healing is more than I was able to do when I was writing my first book, The Thrill of the Chaste, published in 2006. When I began promoting The Thrill, I was eager to tell people how the love of Christ had healed me from suicidal depression and enabled me to break free from a sexually degrading lifestyle. What I did not say was that, despite having made such progress, I still bore unhealed wounds. Even as critics praised me for my honesty about my past, I carefully avoided revealing the hidden pain that prevented me from fully experiencing Christian joy. If I were being completely open, I would have had to reveal that I had suffered sexual abuse as a child.
The abuse left me with post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifested itself in anxiety, social fears, and flashbacks. I also suffered ongoing emotional fallout, including misplaced guilt—blaming myself for my own victimization.
Taking my troubles to the Lord helped, especially after I found an ancient prayer called the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ), which pleads, "Within thy wounds hide me." It gave me hope that there was a place in the pierced Heart of Jesus for my own wounded heart.
Although I felt isolated, in fact I was far from alone. The Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men report having been abused in childhood. That amounts to at least one person in every pew in every parish. But because childhood sexual abuse is rarely discussed openly, it is not easy for victims to find fellowship.
I tried to find friends in heaven, but the saints' sufferings seemed far removed from my own; that is, until one day in December 2010, when, opening a book on a friend's shelf, I found the story of a South American girl that shattered my preconceptions of sanctity.
From the age of nine until her death three years later in 1904, Blessed Laura Vicuña was preyed upon by her mother's violent live-in lover, Manuel Mora. Although Laura's mother was aware her daughter constantly had to fight off Mora, she refused to leave the cruelrancher. Once, she even begged Laura to dance with Mora at a party—afraid of what he would do if he were denied.
Reading about Laura's victimization, I was struck by how similar it was to my own. Like Laura, I was abused by my mother's lover. That is, in fact, a common situation among victims: a child living with a single parent with a live-in partner is 20 times more likely to be abused than one living with both biological parents. Twenty times.
It was profoundly affecting to learn that the Church had recognized the sanctity of a girl whose sufferings were like mine. I could also identify with Laura in her response to the abuse. She sought Christ's presence in the Eucharist, drawing spiritual strength as she knelt before the tabernacle at her school chapel. It does not take much imagination to think that, as she moved her gaze from the tabernacle to the crucifix above, she too must have longed to hide in Jesus' wounds.
But it wasn't enough for Laura to remain hidden with Christ. She had to bear him to others. She did so most dramatically as she lay dying, when, after receiving final Communion, she indicated to the priest that she wished him to move aside so she could speak privately with her mother. It was then that she revealed she had offered her life to God for her mother's conversion. Her act of forgiveness sealed her sanctity.
Laura's courageous witness gave me the courage I needed to give a witness of my own through My Peace I Give You. I believe that a strong public witness to those who bear sexual wounds is particularly necessary as Catholics recover from their own Church's abuse crisis.
Even as the Church continues its internal purification, it cannot forgo or delay its mission to the world at large. The overwhelming majority of adults who were sexually abused in childhood were victimized at their own house, a public school, or a neighbor's house—not at God's house. Many victims will need psychological help—and part of the Christian's duty is to help them get it—but their primary wounds are spiritual, requiring spiritual healing. Most importantly, anyone who has suffered any trauma needs to know that even the wounds that have yet to heal become sanctifying when brought to the light of the wounded and resurrected Christ. The saints show us the way.
For more conversation on My Peace I Give You—and to read an excerpt—visit the Patheos Book Club here.
6/16/2012 4:00:00 AM