In 2012, theologian and childhood-abuse survivor Dawn Eden published My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints (Ave Maria Press), in which she briefly mentions the idea of God healing our memories. Like many abuse and trauma victims, Eden was plagued by her memories—plagued until she saw God at work, healing them.
Many readers latched on to this and asked Eden to write more about memory. Her newest book, Remembering God’s Mercy, is her response. It is a much-needed book. As she says in the preface, “There has been a growing recognition in recent years that those of us who suffer the effects of painful memories need more than just psychological help. Therapy can help us cope, but if we are truly to break free from the grip of past pain, we need spiritual help…only the Divine Physician can heal our heart” (ix).
Remembering God’s Mercy is both a meditation and exploration of Ignatian thought on memory, especially the thought of Pope Francis. Eden structures the book around St. Ignatius of Loyola’s famous Suspice Prayer, in which the saint offers his memory to God:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
In an interview with Catholic World Report, the author of My Peace I Give You, Remembering God’s Mercy, and The Thrill of the Chaste shares more about how this prayer and Ignatian spirituality can provide healing for abuse and trauma victims.
CWR: In your previous book, My Peace I Give You, you briefly discuss the healing of memories as part of recovering from sexual abuse. Like so many other readers of that book, I also wanted to learn more from you about the healing of memory. I am excited to have your newest book, Remembering God’s Mercy, and learned a lot from my first read.
Dawn Eden: I’m so glad to hear that. That was my hope in writing Remembering God’s Mercy—to help people better understand how Jesus heals and restructures our memories.
CWR: Memory is a tricky topic. Reading your book, I was reminded of a line from Jane Austen’s Fanny Price in her novel Mansfield Park:
“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” (II.4)
Given memory’s powers to be “particularly past finding out,” what approach did you take in exploring the topic of memory, and why?
Eden: That’s an intriguing quotation! I would say the intended audience for Remembering God’s Mercy is those who find memory to be “tyrannic,” as Austen puts it. They are readers who, like me, have times when they feel the effects of past pain intrude into everyday life. I seek to help them by sharing the wisdom I have learned from the Jesuit tradition—the same tradition that Pope Francis transmits so beautifully in his homilies and writings. Jesuit spirituality is wonderful for healing of memory because it shows me how to turn my imagination into a friend rather than an enemy. Through the writings of Francis and the Jesuits who inspired him—especially St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Peter Faber—I have learned that my memory, and all it contains, binds me to the love of Christ in the most intimate way.
CWR: What particular challenges do victims of abuse face when it comes to memory?
Eden: There is one effect of abuse that is so common that, out of the hundreds of victims whom I have met since I began to write and speak on healing, I have yet to meet a single one who did not suffer from it. It is misplaced guilt and shame—the feeling that I am personally responsible for the evils that were committed against me, or that they somehow stained me.
This misplaced guilt and shame is a toxic lie that, sadly, often festers inside victims through the course of their lives. It leads many of them to become irrationally fearful of being discovered to have been victimized, so they avoid seeking help. I have had men and women in their 70s or even older who come up to me after my talks and tell me they have never told anyone about their abuse, not even their spouses.
One of my aims in writing Remembering God’s Mercy, as well as my previous book My Peace I Give You, was to help such victims see that they are not alone. When they learn that there are saints who suffered trauma, anxiety, and depression—and who found healing in Christ—it can motivate them to open up to another human being about what they suffered. Then they have a chance of getting the spiritual and psychological help they need.
CWR: I can see some people saying, “It’s in the past. Why bring it up again?” How might you respond to someone with this objection?
Eden: As you know, Rhonda, I don’t at all recommend that readers relive painful memories. That’s not the spirituality of Remembering God’s Mercy. What I do is help readers understand their lives within the context of the Paschal Mystery—Jesus’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. That way, when painful memories insinuate themselves, readers will be able to see them not as moments of forsakenness and isolation but rather as moments of intimacy with Jesus, who suffered every kind of trauma and is now radiant with healing grace.
CWR: You mention in your book that psychological help can only go so far in healing memories. For the fullest healing, one needs God’s grace and spiritual healing. How do spiritual direction and psychological treatment work together?
Eden: Our Catholic faith teaches that, although the spiritual takes precedence over the physical, the human person’s body, mind, and spirit all work together. If we’re hurting emotionally, it also affects us spiritually, and vice versa, so we need help for all areas of the problem. A spiritual director can address our problems insofar as they affect our spiritual well-being and our relationship with God, whereas a psychologist can address them insofar as they affect our emotional well-being and our relationships with other people.
CWR: For myself, I have a tendency to approach my spiritual director in the same way I approach a therapist, emphasizing my present psychological and emotional issues and then bringing up my prayer life. This seems to me like the wrong approach to spiritual direction. Thoughts?
Eden: I don’t think that’s necessarily a wrong approach if you are using your present psychological and emotional issues as a lead-in to discussing your spiritual state. But it’s important to remember that your spiritual director is not normally going to be the person you’ll consult about navigating relationships with friends and family, unless he or she is a psychologist as well.
CWR: What recommendations might you give to spiritual directors who work with trauma sufferers? Are there approaches that work better than others?
Eden: The best advice I can give to spiritual directors who work with trauma sufferers is to avoid approaches such as inner healing or other practices—I would include here certain types of deliverance ministry—that involve reliving trauma and “inviting Jesus in.” These approaches are tempting for some directors because they seem to promise a quick fix. In practice, however, they often put trauma sufferers in a position where they are likely to feel emotionally manipulated. When it comes to healing from trauma, we should be very wary of quick fixes; that’s not the normal way in which the Lord works. There is grace in the very slowness of healing, and we shouldn’t discount that.
By contrast, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Stations of the Cross, or the Seven Sorrows have shown themselves over the centuries to be powerfully effective in helping people to heal over time. They work because, instead of placing Jesus in the mysteries of the sufferer’s life, they place the sufferer in the mysteries of Jesus’ life. Those kinds of prayers are what helped me personally get out of my own navel-gazing and discover the Lord’s greater purpose for my life.