By Sue Magrath, MC | Sacred Mountain Ministries
For thousands of survivors of sexual abuse and assault around the country, the past two years—and especially the past couple of months—have been trying times. Memories and emotional wounds that had been “in remission” have been reawakened by the overwhelming number of women and men who are coming forward with stories of harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual assault by men in positions of power.
Social media is exploding with a tidal wave of posts as people on all sides of this issue struggle to make sense of recent events, and some of the comments will trigger victims even further. Some victims/survivors are sharing their stories of abuse for the first time after years of silence. As clergy, this means the chances are high that you will be the recipient of a disclosure, perhaps more than one. These are not easy conversations.
As a spiritual director, I recently experienced one such conversation. Just a few days ago, a former rape victim came in for her monthly session. When I asked my usual opening line, “How is it with your soul?” she immediately began to cry. She gestured widely with her arms, and said, “Big.” Eventually, I came to understand that this meant overwhelming. She was experiencing so many big emotions that she couldn’t contain them all—anger, sorrow, compassion, frustration. She was being hit by a tidal wave of her own memories and the memories of other women she knew who had shared past experiences of abuse with her. I listened and let her process, validating that everything she was feeling was natural and to be expected. After a while, I asked her another of my frequent questions, “Where is God in this?”
“I think He’s really pissed off,” she said and then put her hand over her mouth as though saying such a thing were a sin. Actually, I agreed with her, which led to a deep conversation about God’s anger at this kind of violence against the most vulnerable of God’s children, male or female, young or old. We talked about the nature of justice, God’s and ours, whether God forgives sexual predators, and whether they will ultimately go to hell or not. We even explored the more tricky question of what hell is and isn’t. I didn’t claim to have all the answers, or even any of them. Ultimately, we had to acknowledge that the answers to those questions are elusive at best, but whether we could sense it or not, God was still present in the midst of the turmoil.
This conversation points to a couple of the essential elements in any discussion about personal experiences of sexual abuse or assault—compassion and listening. It is vital that you indicate by word, posture or affect that you believe the person as they tell their story. It’s really that simple. You don’t have to know all the answers, and you don’t have to be “therapeutic.” You just need to be a caring presence.
However, conversations like this might be difficult for clergy who are dealing with memories of their own sexual abuse. They too are being triggered by the non-stop news cycle, the “he said, she said” bickering, and the accusations and minimizing that are thrown around by some of our politicians. For these clergy, self care is imperative. Talk with someone you trust. Make an appointment to process with your therapist or spiritual director. Get enough rest. Go for a walk in a peaceful environment—a park, the woods, the beach. Take a break from the news and social media so that you aren’t continually bombarded with the messages of disbelief and blame.
It is only when you are grounded in your own healing and truth that you will be able to be present to those who might come to you for spiritual guidance during this time of crisis.
But then what? What do we do when anything we can do seems like sticking our finger into in the dike in an attempt to fend off a tidal wave? As God’s messengers of social justice in the world, we are called to action. One thing that feels essential to me is for victims/survivors and their advocates to raise their voices against misogyny, injustice, and physical and sexual violence of any kind. The vast majority of victims/survivors know what it is to be silenced, and the #metoo movement suggests that they have had enough silencing.
So now is the time to speak up and speak out about the massive consequences of sexual abuse and assault and the need for sweeping social change. This means creating environments in which boys grow up learning to respect women, and girls learn that it is okay to say no, loudly and vociferously. It means refusing to accept the voices that say “boys will be boys” or claim that a stellar reputation is an acceptable rebuttal to allegations of rape or abuse. It means fighting for stronger sentencing guidelines for perpetrators.
We can all use our voices to raise awareness of this scourge on our society. When we do what we can where we are, we create a different kind of tidal wave, a tidal wave of love, compassion and hope.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” With God’s help, may it be so.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and author of the book, Healing the Ravaged Soul: Tending the Spiritual Wounds of Child Sexual Abuse. Her previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field, where many of her clients were victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.