Many will turn to a priest when they are desperate to make sense of their story. Will they be helped or harmed? The kind of care we offer varies significantly – depending on whether we ourselves have been brave shepherds.
Have we explored with curiosity and courage all the shame-filled or fear-filled places in our own story – or have we bypassed that difficult work? Are we aware of and able to express our own grief and anger – or do we pretend they aren’t there? It makes a big difference when it comes to our willingness and our capacity to accompany others who are suffering!
I will share two stories with permission, and with changes of name.
Sally was a stay-at-home mom who kept going to Confession because she was drinking alone and drinking a lot. But Sally was not an alcoholic, and alcohol wasn’t her real problem. Some priests would give her information about 12-step groups. Others counseled her on how to pray in the moment of temptation, or how to have a better daily prayer life.
Sally’s struggles didn’t go away, no matter how hard she tried. She felt more and more like a failure. “I must not be doing it right!” One day a different priest was present. He wisely recognized that this wasn’t about alcohol at all. He connected with her emotional and spiritual pain, and was curious. He asked with gentleness about her urge to drink and why it was so strong sometimes. He asked about her marriage. They began talking about the relentless abuse from her husband, and how powerless and trapped she felt. It was a turning point for Sally.
What was different for that priest? He had long ago faced his painful childhood in India, and the abuse that he, his mother, and siblings had suffered. His facing and feeling of his own heartache opened him intuitively to Sally’s experience. He was a brave shepherd.
Susie confessed using contraceptives in her marriage. The priest began asking all kinds of questions, but not with curiosity about her story. His apparent goal was to establish the kind and number of her sins – which felt to her like a creepy interrogation of how often she and her husband were having sex. She felt invaded, violated, and dirty. She also felt an urge to punch the priest through the grate. And then she felt shame about being so angry at a priest. Father then asked her pointedly about her intention to stop using contraception – apparently seeking to establish contrition and a firm purpose of amendment.
Susie’s nervous system launched into a flight response. Everything in her wanted to run out of that confessional. But she couldn’t. A good little Catholic girl would never do that. So she froze. I just have to take it. She felt trapped, powerless, and utterly ashamed. She was bad if she left and bad if she stayed. She began fawning, telling the priest whatever he wanted to hear – which is so unlike her normal tendency to be a truth-teller. But it felt instinctively like her only lane of escape. Afterword, she felt intense shame about how she had behaved.
Aside from my own tears and rage in hearing this story, I invited Susie to look upon her reactions with curiosity and kindness. They all happened within milliseconds. That’s how our nervous system and our fight-or-flight response works!
I also noticed with a twist in my gut how shockingly similar this experience was to the experiences of sexual abuse survivors. In my trainings, I’ve had the painful privilege of being with many survivors in their stories of harm. The way Susie felt, reacted to, and survived that traumatic confession was so similar. The body reacts with an urge to get away or an urge to fight. But a wise survival instinct tells them that the safest path is to fawn or to freeze. Later, they will put all the blame on themselves. Why didn’t I just get away? Why didn’t I say anything? I’m such a fool!
If I offer the most generous interpretation, this priest was so focused on ensuring her firm purpose of amendment and her having confessed every sin that he didn’t notice the shift in her tone and pace of speech. Another interpretation is that he noticed and didn’t care. Unfortunately, my intuition tells me that part of him really enjoyed feeling powerful and in control. Jesus will unveil the full truth on the Day of Judgment. I certainly wanted to advocate for Susie, but it’s her choice, and she does not want to pursue the matter further.
I sometimes wonder how often during my 20 years as a priest that I either “treated the symptoms” or “blamed the victim.”
One of the greatest problems in our current medical system is the tendency to treat the symptoms rather than getting to the roots – much less seeking the flourishing of the whole person. It’s easy to hear a particular sin and fixate on it. When I do so, I am treating the person in front of me as a problem to be fixed rather than a person who is in the middle of a story. Success is then defined as making this particular struggle go away rather than inviting the person into wholeness and fulness of life.
The particular sins or struggles we are consciously aware of are very often symptoms of deeper wounds in need of healing. And they are happening in the context of a larger story.
It was only in facing my own “problems” (which were not the problem!) and only in discovering the fuller truth of my own story that I became more effective at tending to the stories of others. The more I allowed myself to receive care amidst my own grief, loneliness, shame, or rage, the more I was able to notice when others were experiencing similar heartache. I became much more attuned and much more capable of holding space for others so that they feel the freedom to explore their heartache and feel safe (enough) to believe that they won’t be abandoned amidst their pain.
The shift in my experience is shocking. Over the last 2 years, I think I’ve had 40 or 50 different individuals open up about past sexual harm. The conversation usually began talking about something else – pornography use, unhealthy eating, body image, an eating disorder, cutting, anxiety, or confusion in a marriage. Curiosity about the present-day symptoms led us to the roots, and we were able to begin exploring moments in their story they had never previously been ready to face.
Sometimes I wonder – had these individuals come to me 5 or 10 years ago, how would the conversations have gone? In most cases, I probably would have focused more on the immediate symptoms, and they would be left unable to make sense of their stories. They would still feel unloved and unlovable in those deeper places. I wonder how many times that I “helped” others with advice giving or behavioral modification – and totally missed the opportunity to be curious about their story!
That tendency has the effect of “blaming the victim” – a cliché that I use with caution, for lack of a better term. I don’t like the word “victim.” But over the years I have almost certainly been guilty of adding more shame to survivors of abuse who already carry the shame of their abusers and of the Church community that has left them alone to suffer in silence.
Too often the questions I was asking in my head were “What’s wrong with you?” or “How do I fix you?” But the questions that person needed were “What happened to you?” or “What’s really your story?” That is because, for many years, I was seeing myself through that self-contemptuous lens. I am not a problem to be fixed but a child of God to be loved! Only in that secure love can I grow and mature. The more I internalize that truth, the more skillful I find myself in exploring story with others.
Everyone has a story – usually with far more moments of betrayal or powerlessness or marring than we ever want to admit. We who are shepherds are often asked at a critical moment to hold with reverence the story of a suffering sheep. Whether or not we do so with kindness and care depends in large part on whether we, like Jesus, are brave shepherds who have gone before.
Categories: Abandonment Abuse Affective Maturity Anger Apprenticeship / Mentoring Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Grief Neglect Neuroscience and Trauma Research Polyvagal Theory Sexual Harm