Healing in the Heart of the Church
As a Church, once again, we find ourselves in the thick of sexual abuse inquiries, allegations and accusations. Not to take from the particular gravity of crimes committed by those holding office in the Church, but as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and movements such as #MeToo are revealing, this is a wider pressing societal issue, as well as ecclesial. Many amongst us in church and in the world, have been affected directly or indirectly by sexual abuse or violence, myself included. Rightly so, much emphasis is being given to transparent and thorough investigation of these matters and greater space is being created to allow victim-survivors to tell their stories, to allow them to be heard. However, I wonder what more can be done to accompany people affected by sexual abuse and/or violence (clerical, familial or other) to help them experience greater healing and peace?
I ask this question, as having experienced years of sexual abuse at the hands of family members, there seems to be a great emptiness once the cogs of investigative procedures have stopped turning and ‘justice is served’ in one form or another. Post-investigation you are expected to be happy that things have now concluded and you can finally move on with your life, yet judicial procedures are really just one of the first steps towards the longer journey of greater healing. The reality is you are very much left on your own, left to pick up the pieces of a life forever marked by the most hideous of crimes. It took nearly ten years after the trial, for me to realise I was dealing with Complex-PTSD and the still, unresolved, fall out from abuse and to begin to seek support for that. This journey towards healing and greater freedom has been bolstered by good networks of friends, a skilled therapist and my catholic faith, and it is the latter I would like to focus on.
Despite her failings and the steps now being taken to remedy these, the Church still has at her fingertips a trove of treasures to help victim- survivors face their trauma and to walk towards the fullness of life Jesus promises each of us in the Gospels. Yet the continued hope and healing that can be offered to victim-survivors in the heart of the Church, is often overshadowed by the grave sexual sins, abuse and violence we have committed in this area. I feel this is a story that needs to be told for some wounds, only the power and hope of God can bring deep and lasting healing. I think of the infinite wisdom and truth of Scripture spoken over people who have often been manipulated, groomed and made to believe things about themselves that are simply not true in the course of their abuse. I think of the healing and redemptive power of the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. I think also of the patient pastoral accompaniment of priests and people alongside those suffering. Then there are fantastic books such as Dawn Eden’s ‘My Peace I Give you’ and retreats such as ‘Grief to Grace.’ These have all been sources of great healing for myself or others I know who are dealing with the fall out of abuse.
One little underused ‘resource’ which has been a great source of healing for me personally is that of ‘pilgrimage’ and specifically pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. I have just returned from a week of service in the baths at Lourdes and have, once again, accompanied women in making their act of faith in bathing in the miraculous healing waters there. I have heard stories from women who have experienced sexual abuse and/or violence. This sharing is not just confined to the baths, I have heard from pilgrimage directors that they would receive similar stories from their pilgrims when they come to Lourdes. It seems to be a space where people feel free to share such tragic, life altering experiences. Reflecting on this and my own continued attraction to Lourdes, I shared this with a friend back in May and she drew a simple connection which I had overlooked: ‘Is it any wonder that those most gravely affected for sins of impurity (those of the perpetrator and not theirs of course) should feel drawn to the place where the purest of pure appeared under the title ‘The Immaculate Conception?’ It has given me much to think about and I would like to offer 6 brief observations/thoughts on the power of pilgrimage to Lourdes for those who have suffered abuse and violence.
- The Grotto
When Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette in 1858, the now famed and beautiful grotto, was nothing more than the local rubbish dump. She appeared to a simple girl in a dump of place. I love the symbolism of this. Our Immaculate Queen and Mother is not afraid to draw to close to us, to enter into the messiness and brokenness of our lives. She waits at the Grotto for us and bids us to come to her. This is the place and point of encounter, not in some imagined place where I have got all my ‘stuff’ together but here and now exactly as I am. It is here that she comes to touch the hurt, pain, sorrows and trauma of abuse with her gentleness, with her presence, her smile and gaze. Bernadette said she looked at her like one person looks at another, and she does the same with us today, inviting us to let down the walls we build so her Son can begin his work of healing.
- The Waters
Lourdes is famous for its miraculous spring which Our Lady asked Bernadette to unearth, then drink and wash at, during the 9th apparition. There is also the River Gave which cuts through the sanctuary and provides gentle background noise to the daily events of the shrine. Water is rich in its own symbolism, worldly and biblical, it revives, cleanses, heals, renews, it is used in baptism, in Mass, it is sacramental and it is used in Lourdes to bathe men and women as they make their act of faith. Many who have experienced abuse are violated at their deepest being and can be left feeling unclean. Until I began trauma therapy last year, my own skin would quite literally crawl in disgust and shame when my mind was drawn back to my own experiences of sexual abuse and violence. I felt unclean, my therapist would say that is a sanitised way of of saying dirty. I felt dirty. Within this context, the healing, clear and pure springs of Lourdes take on a greater significance. We are invited to bathe in these springs, to be washed clean and to be renewed in the waters here.
- Restoration of Identity
Lourdes is also a place where identity, your true identity as a beloved son or daughter of the Lord, really begins to shine and where it begins to experience a restoration of sorts. Last year I heard a story from many years back in the baths involving a Madame who bathed many women who had spent time in Nazi Concentration Camps. Tattoos marked their bodies, serial numbers and those thought to be prostitutes were branded with slogans such as ‘Prostitute’ and ‘Good for F@*king’ on areas of their body so men would know exactly what kind of woman she was. They would come to bathe in the waters of Lourdes, this woman would pray with them and as they left the waters the tattoos had disappeared. There was nothing there and their skin was clean and completely unblemished. This a powerful reminder that no matter what has happened to you, no matter what people say of you, that this does not define you and it is not the truth of your life. Your identity is in Christ alone, the very core of who you are is a beloved son and daughter of the Lord Most High and nothing and no one can ever take this identity away. Yet sometimes through the sins of others it can become hidden, it is buried deep and needs bringing to the surface and a little restoration of sorts. That might be in the experience of the baths, where I know many women I work with speak words of truth, love and mercy over the lives of the women they accompany in this most precious moment. It is in the words of the priest spoken in his preaching or in the sacrament of compassion. And it is also experienced in the love, tenderness, gentleness and compassion of those who serve there, their actions affirming the worth, dignity and sacred identity of every pilgrim in their care.
- The Power of Relations
I often think the sins of sexual abuse and violence need to be healed within a community, for they occurred in community and trust has been damaged on multiple levels, each level in need of restoration. Lourdes is a great place to begin to rebuild this trust, where the power of love and the goodness of people is evident in many place. A good pilgrimage, and I have seen this on the wards of the Accueils and out and about in the Sanctuary and the bars, creates a beautiful space for healing, for the restoration of trust in humanity. Yes, it is often only a short week that pilgrims spend in Lourdes, but this time can be a powerful testament to the fundamental goodness, kindness and generosity of people and this can offer more than a glimmer of hope that not all people are bad and will do bad things. It also allows pilgrims to simple be loved, to begin to learn that they are lovable not because of what they do but because of who they are. Often those who have experienced abuse have incredibly skewed self-images but its amazing what a little love and acceptance can do here. Good relationships heal. I often seen this at the baths, women are invited into a space where other women serve them, love them and stand in true solidarity alongside them, sharing their pain and praying for their healing.
- Happiness in the next world
One of the things Our Lady said to St Bernadette was ‘I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other’. A bishop said in Lourdes last year that Lourdes is the grace to live the second station of the cross: Jesus receives, accepts and carries his cross. Perhaps I will never receive complete healing from the wounds of abuse, even Our Lord Himself appeared with wounds after his resurrection, glorified yes, but still wounds. Lourdes is testament to many people carrying their cross, we suffer together and we keep walking towards eternity; where tears will be no more and the wrongs of this world will be definitely put right. And saints like Bernadette lead the way, we have friends on heaven and earth who have made or are making the same journey, carrying their cross with great strength and hope. I often wonder will this trauma ever fully be healed in this life? Probably not. Do I want it to be? Perhaps not, as it keeps me reliant on the Lord. Do I want to be freer than I am now? Of course I do and I want to live the fullness of life Jesus has promised us, that’s why I started therapy a year back. Yet wherever this journey takes, whatever the sorrows and pains of this life, my load is made lighter by the promise of eternal happiness with the Lord.
- A place where the kingdom reigns
Finally, Lourdes is a place where the veil between heaven and earth thins, where heaven touches earth. Here the gospel is lived in its purest and simplest form. The values of the world are tipped upside down. The sick, vulnerable, disabled and marginalised are cherished, protected and loved. We see radical generosity and love from the people who serve here. We often get the ‘theory’ of the gospel- hope, heaven, the kingdom, healing, freedom, but we often don’t ‘get it’ and it remains distant conceptual knowledge. Lourdes offers a tangible experience of the things Jesus spoke of and the things he has promised us in the Gospels, the Kingdom of God really is close at hand. In a very real way it shows me that whatever has happened in my life, the grave sins committed by others towards me and their continuing impact, is not what God intended for my life and it will not have the last word. Lourdes is a testimony to hope, it is a radiant testimony to how God intended us to live here on earth. This is restorative and healing. No a pilgrimage isn’t a one stop remedy shop for years of abuse, but it is a beacon of hope and healing and more needs to be done to share this message with those suffering in the Church at the moment.