Dawn Eden Goldstein is a theologian who rocks. Not only has she written many excellent, helpful books. She has also written a pop song, “Girl on the Northern Line,” which has been recorded by The Anderson Council and released this year on their Assorted Colours CD. This love song shimmers with a jangly melody that is harmoniously propelled by especially intelligent lyrics. Dawn’s connection to pop music is an interesting part of her life story. It comes from her extensive background as a rock journalist. In her new 2016 book, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past Free Yourself from Painful Memories, published by Ave Maria Press, Dawn draws upon this personal experience of hers, in order to serve up some eminently practical theological reflections.
Adorning the lovely book cover is the phrase: Embracing the Wisdom of St. Ignatius and Pope Francis. This accurately conveys Dawn’s approach, in which she has recently learned to draw upon the riches of Ignatian spirituality, a resource dear to Pope Francis, in order that she might be able “to live the life of heaven on earth”.
“Before I received faith in Jesus,” writes Dawn, “I knew that I wanted love, but I did not believe I was truly lovable. The abuse I suffered in childhood led me to believe I was valuable not for who I was but only for what I did. In my loneliness, I sought love in things that were not love.”
Dawn shares a story in this book about how, back in October 1995, when she was twenty-seven, she was still suffering from PTSD from the abuse she experienced in childhood. In her previous book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints (2012), she wrote in order to help other survivors of abuse, by sharing what she has learned on her own journey. But in this book, she also tells us about what she has learned since, in a way that makes it helpful life wisdom for anyone, even if they are not themselves struggling with issues like PTSD.
Concerning where she was at in 1995, Dawn tells us that she was “plagued by thoughts of suicide”, despite being prescribed three different medications by her psychiatrist. Even if we ourselves might not be engaged in exactly this particular type of struggle, we are still able to benefit by what she learned as she sought to find spiritual resources to cope with it. After all, everybody tends to deal with difficulties in life, whatever they might be, in this same way that Dawn writes she did: “To keep myself going, I would fix my thoughts about some exciting event in the future”.
For Dawn, the music journalist, this usually meant thinking about some rock concert coming up soon. Her bargain with herself was that she would not inflict self-harm until the event had passed; such was the nature of her struggle and how music, for example, helped her to cope with it. But the story can be told about anyone one of us, for the ways we all delay and project into the future seem to be a universal coping mechanism. We operate in “survival mode”, that is, at least until we can find a way to experience divine healing.
Yet even when we are delaying, unable to find the answers we are seeking to our difficulties, Dawn observes that God is nonetheless still preparing the way for our future healing. Dawn writes that, in retrospect, she can see how an “Easter sunrise was on the horizon” for her “even during those years when I was living as if God did not exist”. She illustrates this with a story of how, back in 1995, one of her favorite male singers was on tour and she went to go see him at a Manhattan nightclub. “I had admired the singer from afar for ten years,” she writes, “building up a romantic fantasy around him as people do with their idols.” Because she was a music journalist, she was allowed to remain at the nightclub after the concert was over, as the singer relaxed after the show with his friends. And then, something special happened that night…
But it was not what Dawn was expecting. Yes, she got to meet her idol. Predictably, he didn’t fall in love with her on the spot, to thereby bring her romantic fantasy to life. Although she knew how unrealistic such a happening would be, she still felt “a twinge of disappointment” when the fantasy didn’t come true as they met. Nonetheless, Dawn kept hanging around after the show at the club, because she didn’t want to return home to the further thoughts of suicide that she feared awaited her. The concert had been her escape from those dark thoughts, and she didn’t want to return just yet to the darkest corners of her PTSD.
As it turned out, the singer happened to pick up an acoustic guitar and, even though the concert was over, still kept on doing his thing. The musical magic was still within him, and it kept flowing out, unstoppable. He softly played and sang, and all the while his friends around him talked and socialized. As this unusual dynamic unfolded naturally, Dawn got excited. Because there was a favorite song of his that she was still longing for him to play. Should she call out to him and request it?
She hesitated, because she feared that interrupting his spontaneous outpouring with a request would spoil the magical moment that was currently unfolding. So, she held herself back. But then, when the singer finished playing a song and his friends responded by stopping their conversations and applauding, Dawn felt comfortable enough to make her request. Maybe it was because the spontaneous music-making, upon being met with applause, was now feeling more like an impromptu performance? At any rate, Dawn felt like she was now able to call out the name of the song that she longed to hear.
Yet because she had so shyly called out her request, she wasn’t sure that the singer had heard her. His friends had turned away and had resumed talking amongst themselves. And the singer, acting as if he had not heard her shy voice at all, fiddled with his guitar, putting it back into tune.
Dawn felt awful. Her stomach turned at the thought that she had overstayed her welcome. The silence with which her request was met seemed to be signaling her to leave. She was being quietly cast out and excluded, with nothing awaiting her back home except more darkness and sadness.
But then suddenly the singer started singing the song. Because Dawn had requested it, it was as if he was singing her song, just for her. Yet, as he sang, what happened turned out to be even better than her previous romantic fantasy. The reality of the beauty of the song in that moment led her to have a new experience, unlike any she had ever had before. With these words, she describes what she heard in the song that night:
“It was a kind of love song, but it was more about what it feels like to realize that you will never get to the bottom of the mystery of another person. It expressed how the beloved is present within the lover, and yet the lover can never fully contain the beloved.”
In other words, she seemed to be having an experience of a fullness of reality that was transcending the merely common dimensions of a typical romantic fantasy. As Dawn writes, “An overpowering sense of wonder washed over me.” Those of us who are music lovers know these kinds of special moments as rare and precious experiences. They open us up to the transcendent and transform our minds so that we are able to conceive and perceive reality in more expansive ways. They come upon us unexpectedly, and graciously bestow new insights and feelings.
As Dawn recalls that night, she remembers how she longed “to freeze that moment in time,” which is a typical response of music lovers whenever they have those transcendent musical experiences. And yet, Dawn also realized that the moment could not be frozen in time, no matter how much she wanted never to let it go. In fact, the song itself sung about the very theme of how “the lover can never fully contain the beloved”, as previously mentioned. The song itself, unexpectedly, was thereby lifting her out of her very romantic fantasy. As she tells it:
“With surprise, I was struck by the thought that the singer, in playing my request, had given me something far more intimate than if he had spent the night with me. Yet, the intimacy I felt was somehow not with him but rather with something beyond him, something that was beautiful and just out of reach.”
In short, it was an intimation of the beginning of an amazing journey that Dawn has been on now for just over twenty years. Since that night in 1995, she has gone on to find healing for her painful memories. As yet further evidence of the superabundance of gifts flowing from God, he has also helped her to write three excellent books and to obtain a doctorate in Sacred Theology from an institution where she has been the first woman to do so (namely, the University of St. Mary of the Lake). Looking back on that October night, she reflects on how her path to healing was opening up that very night:
“If you told me at that moment that I was really longing for God, I would not have believed you. I was certain that I was longing for a person, and God to me was not a person. Yet, in the depth of my soul, I felt the desire for something that could not be fulfilled by the lifestyle I was living. And at the same time, whereas normally my feelings of unfulfilled desire brought loneliness and even despair, the desire I experienced at that moment contained within itself a taste of the very thing I longed for. That, I now realize, is why I felt wonder. The desire gave me a vision of what my life would be like if I allowed God to reorder my desires. So strange and yet so familiar, it was a foretaste of the beatitude of the pure in heart.”
On this basis, Dawn is able to offer in her new book the incredible fruits of her wonder-filled journey since. She shares with everyone a kind of wisdom that is applicable to all and not just to survivors of abuse. This eminently practical wisdom is about the reordering of desires, and the purification of heart and mind. Remembering God’s Mercy takes us on a meditative path though the “Suscipe” prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. It is a path that takes us to the God who can redeem our most painful memories.
By also drawing upon the prayerful reflections Pope Francis, Dawn explains how we can make St. Ignatius’s prayer our own daily prayer. Once of the most moving things about this book is the profoundly humble spirit with which Dawn seeks out the spiritual wisdom of our current Pope and, in combination with the gifts of Ignatian spirituality, applies it to the real struggles of everyday life. Helpfully, she organizes and presents her thoughts and experiences along the lines of the petitions of the “Suscipe” prayer.
We can pray, “Receive, O Lord, all my liberty,” and surrender our hearts to the Divine Mercy. We can trust that God, in his mercy, will love us and redeem us and heal us.
We can pray, “Take my liberty, my understanding, and my entire will,” which involves entering deeply into the spirit of the liturgy. We can begin by ordering our life around liturgical rhythms, a time-tested habituation that can set the stage for deep healing.
We can pray, “Whatsoever I have or hold, you have given me,” and share in the grace of memory by which Mary remembers God. With Mary’s help, we can obtain a grace of memory, since Christ’s resurrection does not abolish Mary’s memory of the Passion. Rather, the Resurrection completes her experience and allows her to integrate her trauma into her identity in the most proper way. “Her past pain becomes an integral part of her present joy,” writes Dawn. This chapter in her book is one that I found especially helpful and enlightening.
We can pray, “I give it all back to you, and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will.” We can learn to rely on God, in order to live the beatitudes. They are the path to finding healing and happiness. By encountering Christ though his own wounds, we can learn how attain purity of heart and thereby build up our capacity for experiencing God. Jesus suffers with us and redeems our memories. In short, he is able to touch our hearts when we give everything over to him to redeem.
In her chapter on praying with courage, Dawn shares her story of how she came to be able to pray the Jesus Prayer. It is very moving and as many people as possible should read it. As Dawn testifies on the basis of her experience, “I had asked for a grace, the grace of Jesus’ presence in my suffering, and had received it.” Again, it is very moving and highly inspirational.
Finally, we can pray, “Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.” By expanding our hearts through prayer, we are able to grow in intimacy with God by surrendering ourselves to him. This is that wonderful sort of intimacy that Dawn had an inkling of back on that October night. By sharing the light of Christ with others, our joy is multiplied: not just among people, but also within our joy-filled hearts. Doesn’t it remind you of the way a good song spreads?
Thus, I am grateful for Dawn sharing her joy with us in this book. I especially like how she concludes it with yet another story about a song. As a teenager, she felt an affinity with a certain strange song in Spanish that was sung by an obscure band. I won’t spoil the ending of the book by giving away what she learned about it many years later, after she found healing with Jesus. But I would like to quote her here on how she sees this one song as integrated into her whole life story, simply because she expresses it in such a lovely way:
“I had forgotten God. But God had not forgotten me. He had put a song of love for him in my heart and on my lips—even though it would be years before I would be able to sing it with understanding.”
I find it remarkable how God is able to work in these amazing ways. For a music journalist, for someone who is so attuned to beauty of song, how fitting is it that her life story can be so providentially ornamented in precisely this kind of way? Just as with the bittersweet song sung by the male singer on that October night that wondrously exceeded all her natural expectations, here too we can say: Dignum et justum est.