God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms for awhile. At least, it didn’t seem as if He had any interest in speaking to me.
Since I was a teenager, I’d struggled with Obsession Compulsive Disorder manifesting as extreme scruples, or the idea that all of what I did, even prayer, was somehow displeasing to God. When I went to college, my mental illness (later professionally diagnosed and treated), combined with being in a new environment and membership in a deeply unhealthy cultish college ministry program, led to frequent panic attacks. Prayer and any practice of my faith became a torture. I remember being in the midst of a particularly bad panic attack and lying prostrate on the floor of the chapel, begging for some sort of relief or peace.
God remained silent.
I suffered for two years, and it ultimately culminated in me being sexually assaulted in the confessional by my spiritual director, the one person I had thought I received any sort of help from, just before I graduated. I left college a wreck, still Catholic, but partially through denial of what had just happened. I was able to pull myself together enough to marry my husband and we began a life together, following Church teaching as best we could.
Two kids and five years later, The McCarrick scandal re-opened my college wounds, and I found myself considering leaving the faith. But I couldn’t. The truth of Catholicism is just too strong to walk away from, and I knew that I couldn’t do it without denying a reality as real as the ground I was walking on.
I knew I had to stay.
That didn’t mean that I had healed. Faith was a matter of obedience, not much more. I still prayed occasionally, but most of the emotional connection to my faith was gone. I felt numb. When women in the mother’s group I attended spoke about receiving consolation or feeling God’s presence in prayer, I couldn’t relate. Any attempt I had made in the past to receive it had only led to anguish, and I had given up trying. I would react as best I could to the circumstances God sent me using my reason, making sure what I wanted to do wasn’t against Church teaching, but that was it. God wasn’t going to hand me any answers or give me any peace to guide me; I knew that from bitter experience.
My faith life was, strictly speaking, functional, but I wanted more than mere functionality for my children. It was too late for me to have any sort of personal or intimate relationship with God, but perhaps it wasn’t for them. They didn’t have the scars that I did: maybe they would be able to hear the voice of God and sense His presence where I couldn’t.
The mother’s group met in a Church hall that was at a parish with a perpetual adoration chapel. I started bringing my children into the chapel after the meetings for a few moments before we left. We would kneel for a moment in silence, say a few simple prayers, and then be on our way. The whole thing took maybe five minutes (I knew any longer than that would likely lead to a small scale riot). I remember looking at the monstrance the first time we came in and praying, “I don’t expect anything from you from this. I just want my kids to have a chance to be able to hear you, and I know introducing them to you is their best chance for that to happen.” I promised myself that I wasn’t going to expect any change in my own prayer life. I would show up, I would say the prayers with my kids, and that would be all.
For the first few weeks, things went pretty much exactly how I expected them to. We went in, said our prayers, and then left before the kids could get bored and revolt. Nothing emotionally compelling or interesting happened beyond the fact that kids almost always went in willingly and seemed to enjoy saying the prayers. It went on like this, going in twice a week for five minutes, nothing much happening, for a few months.
Then, little by little, I began to notice something different. I felt more peaceful as we left, and it was making a difference to my day. That peace began to be noticeable when we were actually in the chapel too. One day, after we’d been going for quite some time, I felt the presence of Christ in that chapel in a way I hadn’t remembered feeling for years, back before all my trauma had begun to happen. He was present, He loved me, and I could feel that. He wanted me to know that. For the first time in a long, long time, I could hear Him. I didn’t try to hear Him or do anything other than be present; it was something unlooked for and unexpected.
My problems didn’t go away. I still struggle with anger at God sometimes for letting what happened to me happen, and I still feel like I can’t trust any of our leadership in the Church. I still grit my teeth when I force myself to go to confession, and I still don’t expect to hear God in prayer any more. I know now that I can’t predict when or how God will show up, or even that He’ll show up when I think I need Him.
What’s changed is that sometimes I do hear or see Him, and that I know that He uses the graces of my vocations as wife and mother as a doorway for grace. If I hadn’t decided that a relationship with Christ was something I wanted for my children, if I hadn’t decided to take the spiritual part of my vocation as a mother seriously, my own relationship with Christ wouldn’t have experienced the healing that it has.
I think a lot of people are struggling with disillusionment and spiritual trauma right now. Our spiritual and magisterial leadership is a mess, to put it mildly, and many people carry painful experiences of priests, bishops, or other ministers in the Church misusing their God-given vocation and authority over them to dominate, subjugate them, or indulge their lusts.
It’s a painful time to be a Catholic right now, and the storm doesn’t seem to show any sign of letting up soon.
Perhaps it sounds trite, in the face of so much suffering, but I think at least part of the answer lies in focusing on our individual vocations. I’m not saying that the “big picture” stuff doesn’t matter. It does. The decisions the magisterium makes will either save many souls, or end up sending them to Hell. I am saying that our answer to this ought to be in focusing on our primary vocations as spouses and parents and priests and neighbors. The organism will only heal when its cells begin to heal and function as they ought to, focusing on the specific tasks that they were made for. It’s in those smaller tasks that love moves and heals and restores.
I still have some things to work out. There are still things I’m healing from and having to re-learn how to do spiritually, much as someone who loses a leg has to re-learn how to walk again. But healing has begun, and it’s begun through living out my vocation and just showing up.
Emily Hess studied philosophy at a small Catholic liberal arts college and has been published at Catholic Lane, CatholicMom.com, and FemCatholic. A survivor of abuse in the Church, she is motivated to pass on the heart of the true faith to her children, and help others to do the same.