New Life

Christmas Eve morning 2011

Katie is asleep in my bed. I’ve done dishes which were piled in the sink from yesterday, fed the cats and taken my turn on a few games of Words with Friends on my iPhone. This is normally my prayer time, but I find myself recalling something I wrote in my prayer journal on Wednesday and decided to share a few thoughts first.

In his book “He Touched Me: My Pilgrimage of Prayer,” John Powell, S.J. wrote, “The real gift of love is self-disclosure. Until we have given that, we have given nothing.” This meditation is a gift of love.

It may make some readers uncomfortable. I apologize in advance, and encourage you to stop reading if you find yourself becoming angry. Stretched to the point of reflection is good, and may be a blessing in the long run. However, finding yourself so far out of your comfort zone that you become angry is not. Trust what you are feeling, and find something else to read or do. Don’t  continue to read.

Having said that, I’m not sure where to start. Do I start with the wounds, with the healing or with my reason for sharing this with you? The easiest starting place would be sharing my reflection from Wednesday.

My spiritual director currently has me reflecting on a passage in Luke’s gospel — the healing of the blind beggar (Luke 18:35-43). Each day, I read that passage and ask God to let me hear his voice, to let me know what he would have me understand. On Wednesday, I was struck by the final verse: “He (the blind beggar) immediately received his sight and followed him (Jesus), giving glory to God. When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.”

In response, I wrote: “When Jesus passes by, he changes lives. And when we see this, our faith is renewed.

“Lately, I have felt touched by the hand of God. I have felt a miracle unfolding in my life — the healing, especially from shame; the peace in the midst of uncertain circumstances; the deep sense of surrender I experienced at the (Diocesan Women’s) retreat (at Outlaw Ranch in October); the grace to hear God’s call and answer; this time to become centered. It’s all part of the miracle of God transforming me from the inside out, cleaning me up so that I can better reflect him into the world.

“This miracle is not for me alone. This miracle is for God’s people. This miracle is so that I can lead people to him, point people to him, help people to know his deep and abiding love for them.”

His love his deep and his love is abiding.

I know that on this Christmas Eve morning in a new way, because this week I have been healed in places I didn’t know needed healing. When I went forward last Sunday at the healing Mass to be anointed, I was asking God to heal a deep inner shame, a shame which shaped my worldview, a shame which prevented me from seeing his will for  my life.

The roots lay in childhood, in second grade, to be exact. My dad’s sister had come to visit. She lived in another state and I had no memory of having met her previously. I wanted her to like me. My family had moved to my dad’s hometown just a year earlier, and I had not found making friends there to be easy, so being liked by my aunt was incredibly important to me.

During her visit, we visited some elderly relatives whose lifestyle was somewhat primitive. They still used an outhouse and did not have running water in the house beyond a pump in the kitchen. Corncobs were used to heat the stove which was used for cooking and baking. I’d always enjoyed visiting, though, because I enjoyed playing with the antique toys which were so unlike my own.

However, that visit was different. After dinner, Mom told me to help my great aunt with dishes. I helped with dishes at home and was willing. However, when I went into the kitchen, I didn’t know what to do. At home, we did dishes in the sink with a tub for washing and a tub for rinsing. My great aunt, who had been crippled by polio, didn’t have a sink for dishes. I didn’t know how to help. While she bustled around, filling a tea kettle by ladle from a bucket and setting it on the stove to heat, I was at a loss to know my role.

I went into the dining room to tell my mother. Mom was engaged in conversation and did not want to hear what I had to say. She observed that I was being disobedient in not helping with dishes and sent me out to the car. It was fall and dark and I was scared, but I knew better than to rebel against the punishment. As I sat in the car, I cried with shame and helplessness. I had been willing. I just hadn’t known what to do.

Out of that experience grew twin fears that shaped me. The first emerged directly: that I wouldn’t know what to do, do the wrong thing and be punished. As a result, I became hesitant about trying new things. I would watch others and participate only after I  thought I understood what was expected. Sometimes I didn’t participate at all, because I couldn’t figure out what was expected.

Reading became both a refuge and my instruction manual for life. Sometimes, though, what I read and what I experienced conflicted. That led to the second shaping fear: that a fundamental misunderstanding about something  important would lead me to make a gross error that would change my life — which is exactly what happened.

I was 12 when the seeds for that fear were sown. I had read about St. Maria Goretti, an Italian girl who was stabbed and died while attempting to thwart a rapist, and I wanted to emulate her. However, as I was walking home from a school dance one night, I was sexually molested by a high school boy. When I told my mother, she provided me with the only instruction she ever gave me on relationships. She told me  boys showed they liked girls by treating them that way.

I went to bed and cried. The experience had left me feeling soiled, not liked, and what Mom said was not what I had believed after reading about St. Maria Goretti. I was confused and ashamed. High school didn’t provide me with the opportunity to gain any better understanding of male-female relationships.  Later, after Mom died and I left home, I would remember what she said, and become a girl who didn’t say, “No.” My first experience of intercourse was having two drunk strangers enter an apartment I shared with three other girls and take turns with me. I didn’t even learn their names, but being liked, even for a little while, was better than having no one at all love me.

Ten years later, a gifted therapist helped me understand Mom had been wrong. No one had the right to touch me without my permission, and touch was an expression of affection only in an existing relationship. In the years since then, I’ve  lived celibate for the most part. A  couple times I entered into relationships, but they were short-lived and disappointing. 

I suspect I was too wounded by the dark years to have the capacity for healthy intimacy. I know the dark years had the tragic effect of permanently severing my relationship with my dad. Recently, I found a letter in which he called me a tramp and said he couldn’t be proud of my children because they didn’t have a decent mother. I cried when I read the letter. I cried for myself, for the pain his bluntness caused, for the way my children suffered because of my personal shortcoming, and for dad. He must have been deeply hurt by  my actions. The result was a rift that never healed, even though I attempted to rebuild a relationship with him when I found some semblance of stability in my own life.

But, I’ve come to realize other areas of my life were affected as well. This past week, I was reflecting on my experience in formation 10 years ago, and could see how those dark years affected that experience, too. I had hoped that by joining a religious order, I could stop living a divided life, a life in which work and faith were separate from each other. I also hoped to find community. I was tired of being a woman alone, exhausted to the bone by the responsibility of it. Too, I think I was called.

I think I am called, but I have no idea what that means at this juncture in my life. I can see now that the religious order I chose was probably not a good fit for me. I admired the women and their work; I believed I could be a contributing member of the congregation. But, I didn’t experience community in the way I desired. I spent nearly two years in formation without forging a single friendship. In part, that was due to the way the vocations director managed those of us seeking to enter religious life. However, I suspect that had any spark of mutual appreciation existed between me and sisters I met in passing, we would have managed to become friends regardless of the way formation was structured.

No, the reciprocal spark of appreciation simply wasn’t part of that experience. However, I stayed the course, even though the vocations director kept encouraging me to consider other options, because I felt called — and, I suspect now, out of a deeper need. I wanted a new start, a fresh start. Unconsciously, I wanted to replace the identity I carried in my heart of being an unlovable daughter with a new identity.  I wanted to become a beloved daughter, and something in me said evidence of this would be living a vowed life.

Withdrawing from formation was a painful decision for me, one that has haunted me for the past decade. Until this past week, though, I had not made the connection between that experience and my relationship with my dad — or seen how my poor mother had unintentionally planted the seeds which caused me to be alienated from my only living parent after she died. But I do see these things now. The blindness that I asked to be healed on Sunday has been healed.

Too, the shame which has haunted me and shaped me for decades has been healed. On this Christmas, God has given me new life, not just in the birth of his son, but in the birth of new possibilities within me, possibilities I could have have seen or embraced without the gift of his healing, without the gift of his love. And so, as an expression of that love, I share this with you with the hope that he will bring healing into your life in the same way and you will respond with love by glorifying his name.

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