Sunday, February 2, 2014

"A serious, profound, and beautifully written work of theology and spirituality"

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Dr. Stephen Bullivant, Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at St Mary's University College, England, has written a beautiful review of My Peace I Give You that appears in the latest issue of ET-Studies, the journal of the European Society for Catholic Theology. He writes in part:

Being fortunate enough never to have experienced sexual abuse myself, I can only comment on the book as an "outsider"—albeit as an outsider who is a fellow Catholic and theologian with a personal and professional interest in this topic. Viewed from this perspective, My Peace I Give You is assuredly a serious, profound, and beautifully-written work of theology and spirituality. At its heart is the realization that the saints are our guides and examples of how to live out our lives as Christians and as human beings. The saints are, as Popes Benedict and Francis are fond of pointing out, "living translations of the gospel". Furthermore, the communion of saints is no stranger to the horrors of sexual abuse, in all its many varieties: "[A]mong those whom the Church has formally declared to be in heaven [are] people who were sexually abused as youths. [...] What surprised me was the sheer number of saints who experienced such abuse – there were many more than I had imagined – and how relevant their stories were to people living in the present day." (p. xxxi)

Some of these are, of course, very well-known. Most obvious here are those who were killed or injured resisting sexual assault, such as—in the twentieth century alone—St Maria Goretti, Bl. Alexandrina da Costa, Bl. Laura Vicuña, and Bl. Karolina Kózka. Eden makes the crucial, but all-too-often overlooked, point here that the Church rec- ognizes such heroic women as virgins even if they are in fact physically violated by their abusers, a teaching which she traces back to Augustine (p. 94). This is a very important point given the guilt and shame that survivors still often feel, even when—at an intellectual level—they recognize that they are not, and cannot be, to blame.

Weaving together the lives of the saints with a highly personal narrative of confronting her own "wounds", Eden also identifies a host of other, less obvious companions—including St Gemma Galgani, St Josephine Bakhita, Dorothy Day, St Thomas Aquinas—all of whom suffered gravely, often (but not always) from sexual abuse of one sort or another. (Her discussion of the familiar story of St Thomas and the prostitute is especially illuminating in shedding light on the various ways in which abuse can occur – pp. 158-68.) There is no space in a book review such as this to detail all the many, theologically deep and deeply moving, lessons she draws out of these. Not surprisingly, the book also possesses a rich, christological seam. Much is made, for example, of the ancient prayer Anima Christi’s entreaty: "O good Jesus, hear me, Within they wounds hide me, Suffer me not to be separated from me..." (p. xxi). Eden’s own gradual and painful journey of being drawn to Christ’s wounds, and thereby better understanding her own, is a running theme throughout the whole volume.

It is a rare book that is both theologically rich and original, and has the potential to offer significant "joys and hopes" to many of those afflicted by the darkest and most widespread "griefs and anxieties of this world" (Gaudium et Spes, 1). From my limited outsider’s perspective, My Peace I Give You might well be just such a rarity.