Guest Post: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse

My friend and fellow blogger Dawn Eden has a new book that shows readers “how the lives of the saints have given her hope and aided her journey of spiritual healing after childhood sexual abuse. One in four American women and one in six American men report having been sexually abused during childhood and My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints provides a much-needed resource for spiritual healing from the isolating effects of these wounds.”  A Roman Catholic, Dawn “uses her own story as a backdrop to introduce numerous holy people— like Laura Vicuña, Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux—who suffered sexual abuse or sexual inappropriateness, as well as saints such as Ignatius of Loyola who suffered other forms of mistreatment and abandonment.”

June 28, Dawn will be speaking here in Madison as a part of the Theology on Tap series sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Madison. The details haven’t been finalized yet but  the title will be: The Love that Transforms:  Healing Sexual Wounds Through Christ & the Saints. This event is open to all 20 and 30something young adults, married or single, Catholic or not, beer drinker or not… I do drink beer, I’m not Catholic, I am married and I’ve not seen my 30’s since, well for a while. I will however God willing be at Dawn’s talk and will post details as they become available.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

When I announced last year that I was doing research on holy men and women for a new book to be called My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, a fellow blogger suggested a saint I never would have considered: the Roman martyr Sebastian.

I knew of Sebastian from the famous images of him shot through with arrows. But what I did not know, until blogger Terry Nelson directed me to his reflections on the saint, that he is the saint who was “martyred twice.”

As I write in My Peace I Give You, Sebastian was an officer in the Roman imperial guard who took advantage of his privileged position to visit Christians imprisoned under the sentence of death and secretly encourage them to stay strong in the faith. In A.D. 286, the Emperor Diocletian discovered Sebastian was Christian and ordered a squad of archers to execute him. Pierced by numerous arrows, he was left for dead.

That is where many people assume his story ends. But he in fact revived—regaining his health miraculously under the care of St. Irene, a widow who went out to collect his body and instead found he was still alive.

No sooner did Sebastian recover than he placed himself alongside a path where Diocletian would pass, so that he might warn the emperor that his soul was in danger. Shocked to see the man he thought he had killed, Diocletian ordered that Sebastian be clubbed to death. This time, the saint did not revive.

Terry Nelson, who, like me, was victimized at a young age, sees in Sebastian “an allegory for what happens to a person who has been sexually abused in childhood.”

“[He] died in a sense, only to be revived, yet the stigmata of his wounds remaining,” Terry observes. He compares Sebastian’s experience to “the mystery of the saints who actually had the stigmata, which would open and bleed on Fridays and feasts of the Passion.”

“In similar fashion,” he continues, “I believe the person who has been abused, while on the road of recovery, perhaps all of their lives, will periodically relive the event with all its pain and suffering—only now, like the stigmatist, the person may have a better awareness of who they are and what happened to them and what the pain means. . . . [In this way,] the suffering becomes redemptive and healing.”

The account of spiritual renewal that Terry presents—in which the lingering effects of past wounds, which were once cause for despair, become an opportunity to draw nearer to the wounded and resurrected Christ—reminds me of what tradition tells us of St. Photini’s death.

Photina, Samaritan woman, meets Jesus (Orthodo...
Photina, Samaritan woman, meets Jesus (Orthodox icon). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Eastern Christian tradition, St. Photini is the Samaritan woman described in St. John’s Gospel, who met Jesus at a well. We can gather from the fact that she sought to draw water in the middle of the day, at a time when others would be unlikely to see her, that she was publicly known to be living in sin. Her efforts to draw water out of a hole in the ground symbolized how, in forsaking the fountain of living waters for her own broken cistern (Jer 2:13), she had hit bottom. “[You] have had five husbands,” Jesus said to her, “and he whom you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18).

Through her encounter with the Saviour, Photini, whose name means “the enlightened one,” became a bearer of the light of Christ—evangelizing her fellow townspeople and, according to tradition, embarking with her family on a lengthy missionary journey.

The Samaritan saint is said to have met her death at the order of Nero, who, after subjecting her to numerous tortures, all of which she miraculously survived, finally had her thrown down a well. I see Photini’s being forced down the well as symbolic of the emotional “stigmata” of which Terry speaks, for the well now had a different meaning for her than before she encountered Jesus. It no longer symbolized her interior dryness, her isolation, her sinfulness.  In the light of Christ, what had been a hole in her heart now showed itself as a God-shaped vacuum. The dark depths of the well could destroy her body, but they could never again own her soul.

I believe Photini must have realized, as I write in My Peace I Give You, that “because our present identity is formed by our past experiences[,] … when God’s healing rays reach into our present, they cannot but help suffuse our past as well. We begin to see that even our most painful times contain beauty, inasmuch as they led us—however tangled our path—to our present life in the love of God.”

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