Monday, December 16, 2013

Blessed in Bratislava: Notes from my first-ever speaking tour of Slovakia

One day in August 2012, an e-mail popped into my inbox from Father Josef (Joe) Hegglin, M.S.C., a Swiss German Missionary of the Sacred Heart working in Nitra, Slovakia. He wrote:

During the last 9 years I have been working with victims or survivors of CSA here in this country. Your book [My Peace I Give You] is the very best I have ever seen: I have read a lot about this 'issue.' I would like to do whatever I can to have it translated and printed either in Slovak or in Czech language (people here understand Czech). How to go about? Finding an editor? Get from you authorization?

So I just thank you for having written it! It is an inspiration of light. I am of course touched as my vocation is to be a Missionary of His Heart.

And so it was that, fifteen months later, in the midst of the fall semester of my graduate-school studies, I found myself spending Thanksgiving break speaking in cities across Slovakia to promote the Slovak edition of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

Taking an overnight flight that lasted ten hours, I arrived in Vienna the morning of Tuesday, November 26, and was met by Father Joe. The one-hour drive to Bratislava passed very quickly and we went to the Salesian sisters' convent, where I managed to catch a nap before the first talk of my tour, at Quo Vadis, a Catholic cultural center run by young-adult laity, located right in the center of town. It was a great venue, with a café on the first floor and a room on the second floor for lectures and films.

The event was billed as the launch for the Slovak edition of My Peace I Give You. A staff member from the publisher, Luc, was there and gave me what she said was the very first copy of the book to come off the presses. The cover was different from the U.S. version; I liked it, because it seemed to represent the purifying fire that I talk about in the introduction. (I liked it even more later on, when someone pointed out to me that hidden within the fiery image is Jesus; it calls to mind the line I quote, also in the introduction, from the Litany of the Sacred Heart, which speaks of Jesus' Heart as a "glowing furnace" of love.)

A standing-room-only crowd of about eighty people awaited me in the upper room. I was very glad to see that most of the people there were in their 30s and up, since the people who respond with the most joy to the message of My Peace I Give You are those who have been living with the burden of painful memories for some years. With the help of an excellent interpreter, Monika (that's her sitting next to me in the photo uptop), I gave a talk that was a shortened version of the most recent one I have given to American audiences.

After my talk, as usual when I speak publicly, there was a question-and-answer session. The questions were just like those I get wherever I speak: Is healing really possible? (Short answer: Yes! Long answer: Yes, over time.) How do you forgive? How can I help a friend or loved one who has suffered abuse? (If any of these questions are yours, I answer them and others in my interviews for "Life on the Rock" and "Catholic Answers Live.")

I quickly discovered that people in Bratislava were, in the most important ways, just like those I had addressed in Texas, California, Canada, England, and everywhere else. There as elsewhere, I saw how Slovakian adults who were sexually victimized in childhood typically suffered misplaced guilt, blaming themselves for the evils that were perpetrated against them as children. Such guilt often comes from an unconscious self-protection mechanism.

Here's how such a self-protection mechanism operates: if the abuser is a parent or guardian, or someone known to the parent or guardian—which is usually the case—then the victimized child is in a quandary. The child cannot afford to be angry at his parent or guardian who enabled the abuse, because if the parent or guardian were to leave, then the child would have no one at all to protect him. So the child, in order to continue to emotionally belong to his parent or guardian tells himself or herself, "What happened was not the other person's fault. It was my fault. I let that person do that to me." Or, worse, he may tell himself, "I must have wanted it." That hurts, because, aside from any moral guilt he may feel (such as being "dirty"), the child likely feels ongoing physical, emotional, an spiritual pain as a result of the abuse. With no one else he can blame, he is liable to feel he brought this pain upon himself.

So, my message about healing sexual wounds with the help of the saints was relevant in Slovakia as it is back home—and in some ways, more relevant. I learned, for example, that, unlike many audiences in America, they were all familiar with the Anima Christi prayer that is a cornerstone of my book's spirituality. So I did not have to give background on the prayer; I only had to bring out the particular aspect of it that was relevant to my book's message, and so, Lord willing, bring new meaning to the words they knew by heart.

But even with the similarities to audiences I had encountered in the past, there was yet one thing noticeably different about Slovakian audiences compared to those I had encountered in the United States, Canada, and England. I noticed it immediately during the Q&A, and even more so when people who had suffered abuse, or friends and family of victims, spoke with me privately. In one key area of healing, Slovak victims had an advantage over their counterparts in more liberal nations.

Their advantage was that they had not had so-called "comprehensive sexual education." American-style sex ed has not yet hit Slovakia, although the International Planned Parenthood Federation and their allies are fighting hard to change that.

Why does not having had comprehensive sexual education make a difference in healing from childhood sexual abuse? Because here in the United States, children who have such in-school education are taught that they are sexual agents. In this kind of program, which is the norm in American schools, the age of sexual responsibility has no lower limit. You are ready for sexual contact at the age when you are "comfortable" with it. For example, the most recent standards developed by sex-ed promoters tell kindergartners "how to respond if someone is touching them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable." They say nothing about whether there is a kind of touch, whether from an adult or a peer, that is simply wrong and unacceptable. It is all about how the kindergartner feels. So, if the kindergartner either doesn't feel "uncomfortable" from the abuse, or, more likely, is so confused by the experience of the abuse that she can't articulate whether she is uncomfortable, then, by U.S. sex ed guidelines, she is given no means of understanding why abuse is bad.

Imagine what happens when an abused child grows up not only bearing misplaced guilt, but also being unable to mentally write what happened to her as abuse. That is the plight of adult victims in America and elsewhere who have had comprehensive sexual education. They cannot say that what was done to them was wrong—not only wrong, but evil. Slovak adult victims, not having been programmed in such a way, at least had the advantage of knowing that they had been mistreated. And, just like in the fairy tales, with childhood sexual trauma once you are able to name the demon, you are able to gain power over it.

After the talk, as you can see in the photo above, I enjoyed meeting audience members as I signed their copies of my book. One woman, who looked to be in her fifties and not very well off, stopped by my signing table to ask a question about whether it was possible to be healed from the compulsion to self-harm. I told her it was, with the right spiritual and psychological help, as I discuss in My Peace I Give You.

Afterwards, when I went downstairs to wait until Father Joe was ready to take me back to the convent where I was staying, the same woman approached me again and, with the help of a young passer-by who knew English, asked me a question like the one she had before. Since I knew that chapter one of My Peace I Give You had the answer to her question, I took out my prized first-off-the-presses copy and gave it to her, signing it personally. Her name is Katarina; pray for her.

Katerina then asked me, with some embarrassment, whether she could also have the plastic Barnes & Noble shopping bag that I had used to carry my copy of the book.

So I gave her the bag, and she gave me in return her plastic own shopping bag, in which she had been carrying her snow boots. She told me it had belonged to a younger friend of hers who had cancer, and asked me to pray for the friend. She added that she hoped I didn't think she was silly for wanting my bag.

"Not at all," I said. "I like saints, and I like relics, so I can relate to wanting a personal item from someone. I've given you a 'relic' of me, and now you've given me a 'relic' of yourself and your friend."

She seemed satisfied by this, and we both went away happy.

The following morning, I had the opportunity to tape an interview for a show on Slovakia's Catholic TV station, Lux.

Here I am with Lux host Zuzana and Father Joe. Zuzana asked great questions, and I was very thankful for the recent experience I had giving interviews on EWTN, as the experience of being interviewed for TV now felt familiar and comfortable.

After the interview, Father Joe drove me to the diocesan seminary in Badin, on the outskirts of Banska Bystrica, where I took a short nap before doing another interview, this one for local radio. Then I gave a talk for seminarians and locals. The seminary has kindly posted many photos from the event, which you can see on this page. Although the crowd was smaller than the night before—about sixty people—many more copies of my book were sold, because the seminarians were very enthusiastic about it and were buying multiple copies for people they knew.

At the seminary, and pretty much everywhere I went in Slovakia, people told me how much My Peace I Give You was needed. I can't express how much it meant to me, to know that this book that I wrote out of deep personal experience was meaningful to people whose culture was markedly different from my own. I took it as an affirmation of my apostolate, and it was deeply encouraging.

On Thursday, while my family back home was preparing to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, Father Joe and I headed to Presov, in the eastern end of the country, where I was to speak that night at the convent of Congregatio Jesu, aka the Mary Ward sisters. On the way, we stopped at the home of a mother and her daughters, friends of Father's, who hosted us for lunch. To my surprise, the main dish was turkey! It turned out the family did not know it was Thanksgiving, but one of the daughters had advised the mother to make turkey because she had been to America and knew that Americans liked it. Amazing! You see me communing with my meal in the photo at left, with the mother in the background, catering kindly to me. It was one of those moments when I especially felt the love of God.

I love this photo! It's from my Presov talk, which was to a packed room that included Congregatio Jesu nuns, priests and seminarians from the local Greek Catholic seminary, and lay folk. You can see from this picture what it is like to speak with an interpreter; it's as though that hard-working woman is striving to be in sync with me.

After the questions and answers, I had a beautiful surprise when an audience member brought me a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. Father Joe was seated by me and took this photo, which almost amounts to a Dawn's-eye view.

The following morning, Friday, November 29, we set out on the four-hour drive back to Nitra, in the western part of the country. By the time the day was over, we had covered more than 1,100 kilometers since the start of my tour.

On the way to Nitra, we stopped at a hospital, where Father Joe visited one of his spiritual directees, a married woman who struggles with the temptation to self-harm. It is sadly one of the more common effects of childhood sexual abuse, especially in women, although few people are as badly afflicted by it as this woman. Father went in to see her while I waited in a nearby café. I was very happy to see Father return with the woman by his side; she was able to greet me and have me sign her copy of my book, and she permitted me to give her a hug. As much as I could see of her arms were covered in white bandages. That night, when I woke up unable to sleep because of jet lag, I remembered her and prayed through St. Josephine Bakhita's intercession that she might resist the temptation to harm herself.

In the late afternoon, Father Joe and I arrived in Nitra at the House of the Sacred Heart, which Father founded. Here is a video, in the Slovak language, where you can see the beauty of the sacred art that has been installed around the house, and get an idea of Father Joe's calming presence.

For the past ten years, about every two months, Father Joe, assisted by a Catholic therapist, has led weekends at the House of the Sacred Heart for women recovering from childhood sex abuse. From Friday night through Sunday afternoon, I had the great honor of participating at the fiftieth such weekend. More on that in a moment.

But first, I have to tell you about what happened at dinner. The house is run by religious sisters from one of the women's branches of Father Joe's order: the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. These sisters are from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where Father Joe was previously stationed for many years. We arrived on Father Joe's birthday. So, after the evening Mass that began the weekend, when we sat down with the fourteen women who had come for the weekend, the Kiribati sisters had something special for Father Joe, and for me: native entertainment.

The sisters put on a recording of joyful Kiribati music, and one of them—Sister Mary, I think—did a folk dance. Then they proceeded to sing a cappella in beautiful three-part harmony. To give you an idea of what the music sounded like, here is a video of a Kiribati gospel song that I am almost positive the sisters sang:

Watching Sister Mary dance, and hearing the sisters' beautiful singing, I was reminded of the Simpsons clip about Catholic vs. Protestant heaven.

And I wondered, how could anybody think that my life became less fun when I entered the Catholic Church?

Father Joe got crowned with a floral wreath. And I too was treated with all the dignity of a guest of honor.

After dinner, the real work of the weekend began. Although I gave one last public talk before leaving the country (at a Nitra parish), my main efforts between that Friday evening and Sunday afternoon were spent co-leading several group sessions for the fourteen women who had come to the House of the Sacred Heart for healing. Also on hand were Father Joe, Catholic therapist Elena, and my interpeter, Monika (with me at left).

I cannot show you the faces of the group, which included several religious sisters. But I would like to tell you about what happened on that weekend. It was an answer to prayers that I have been making for the past three years, since I first conceived My Peace I Give You.

What I have been longing for is to find a way to change the way the Catholic Church reaches out to abuse victims—all victims, not just those abused by people representing the Church.

As it stands, in the words of a prominent clergy-abuse victim speaking at a Vatican conference, "there's very little spiritual help given to survivors." Our response as a Church to childhood sexual abuse, such as it is, is primarily concerned with getting victims psychological help. Such help is needed, certainly—but when an adult walks into a church seeking help recovering childhood abuse, the primary thing she is looking for is not a therapist. So we need to do more.

What we do have are scattered outreaches in the form of charismatic-type "Healing Masses" and retreat weekends along the lines of what has been done in post-abortion ministry. I am not going to dismiss these efforts out of hand; many of them have helped people. Any effort at all to show compassion towards abuse victims is laudable. But I do have an issue, generally speaking, with the model on which many charismatic approaches are based.

Many of these approaches use the catharsis model. The underlying presumption is that "you, the abuse victim, are broken, and we will call down God's grace from heaven to fix you. You will, during the course of our Healing Mass or weekend, have a dramatic conversion that will make you a new person. With God's grace, we will 'unbind' you from the power of the demon, we will heal your family tree, and you will be free from the crippling burden of trauma." The intentions are good, but the effect is to make the victim an object to be acted upon in a hurry, rather than a person to be accompanied over an indefinite period of time.

Not all people who promote Healing Masses or other charismatic-style events are like this. I am speaking of those who treat grace as magic, who insist upon quick fixes and only quick fixes. People like that do exist, and some of them write books. They are, I believe, scandalized by emotional and spiritual suffering. They think that such suffering cannot coexist with true Christian joy. And it is there, I believe, that they are profoundly wrong.

Can God heal the wounds of victims of childhood sexual abuse so quickly? Absolutely. But does He normally work that way? No. The toxic effects of trauma do not only come from psychological memories. They also come from toxic hormonal reactions to stress, which the body has learned over time, and which normally can be healed only over time.

What happens, then, when a trauma survivor who has attended one of these catharsis-based events finds that, a day or week or month later, he is back to having flashbacks, panic attacks, anxiety, or hypersensitivity? If he has been told that his faith has set him free, he may fear that he is now to blame for his own relapse. He just isn't surrendered enough.

There is a better way. And that is what I saw on that weekend at the House of the Sacred Heart.

Here is what the fourteen women and I did on that weekend, with the help of Father Joe and the therapist:

  • We attended daily Mass.
  • We ate all our meals together.
  • We met several times as a group. During each meeting, we sat in a circle and I began with an inspirational talk. Then the women would ask me questions or offer their own thoughts and experiences. Afterwards there would be time for us to be on our own to reflect.
  • Those who needed more attention could make appointments to meet privately with me, Father Joe, or the therapist. Many did.

That's it.

No catharsis. No guided meditations. No dramatic flourishes.

Just fourteen women sitting around talking, aided by access to daily Mass, the opportunity for Confession, a chapel where they could pray before the Eucharist, and guidance from concerned members of the Church who had some expertise in the area where the women needed help.

In other words, it was like a Catholic version of a twelve-step group—minus the twelve steps.

Is it that simple? Is that all it takes for us as a Church to have a meaningful and truly helpful spiritual outreach to people who have suffered psychological trauma?

If you talked to the women who were there, I know that many of them would say yes. I know that, because many of them have been coming to such weekends at the House of the Sacred Heart every two months, for years. And, to hear them tell it, they are experiencing healing. But what is just as important is that they know they are no longer alone. They are walking with one another, and, through the presence of Father Joe and the therapist Elena, the Church is walking with them through their Gethsemane.

And it is there, united with Christ on the Cross, with their fellow members of the Mystical Body at their side, that they find joy. True Christian joy. The kind that can not only exist with suffering, but that is even known in a special way by those who suffer in Christ.

Two and a half years ago, I read these words of Dorothy Day when I was writing the chapter about her in My Peace I Give You:

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

I saw the love that comes with community on that weekend at the House of the Sacred Heart. I saw that we, as a Church, can bring Christ's healing to victims of childhood sexual abuse, just as we have been bringing it for years to alcoholics and drug addicts. We do it by walking with them, recognizing that they are wounded members of our very own Body.

On Sunday morning, December 1, at the last meeting of the group, they gave me a gift: a beautiful artwork by one of the group's members, who had taken up painting to help herself heal. It depicts a wounded swan rising in victorious flight.

Please pray for all the wounded swans, both men and women, whom I had the honor of meeting in Slovakia. Please also pray for me. I pray daily for all my readers, including you who are reading this blog.

If you are a priest or pastoral caregiver who would like to work with me on outreach to abuse victims, contact me through the e-mail address listed at the bottom of my home page,

If you have benefited from my writing or speaking, please consider making a donation to help pay my living expenses. I am a full-time graduate student and rely on the generosity of donors in order to continue my studies and apostolate. Thank you and God bless you.