22 February 2017 : A newsletter of the Australian Jesuits

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Hard thinking for Lent


Sexual abuse is difficult to think or talk about. It is horrifying and it pushes us brutally into areas of our own lives that we habitually enter only with great delicacy.


Our discomfort is doubled when the abuse happens close to home - within our family, local church or school. It is natural to want to feel the pain and shame of it silently and distantly.


We know now, though, the heavy cost of silence and of eyes turned away.  It creates an atmosphere in which abuse can continue and the abused, so often children, have their lives slowly tortured out of shape. It also creates ultimately a crisis of trust, where institutions like families and churches are assumed to be dangerous places in which we must perpetually be on our guard and suspect the worst.


So it is important to attend to the reality of sexual abuse, to become familiar with the human reality of lives that have been affected by abuse, to stay with the pain and the evil involved in it, to appreciate good and bad responses to abuse, and to retain our faith that God can make light in darkness and bring endurance out of pain. Sexual abuse discloses the terrible spiritual need both of people affected by it and of the communities in which it takes place.


To be attentive we need help. That is where a little book by Beth Crisp comes in, Beyond Crucifixion: Lenten Meditations on Surviving Sexual Abuse. A book of applied Ignatian spirituality, it encourages a quiet, meditative attention that avoids quick judgements.  It takes the form of a book of meditations for Lent. Lent traditionally is a time of reflection on the lights and shadows of our own lives, done in the shade of the great darkness of Jesus' crucifixion, out of which great light came. It is a time when reflection on Christ's passion may lend us the strength to think of the unthinkable and unendurable in solidarity with those who were forced to endure it, and who now have no option but to think constantly of it.


Of course, a book like this does not need to be used during Lent. Any season of the year where we are focused on deep things can be our Lent.


The emphasis on meditation is very important.  It provides a basket of prayer in which we can hold confronting realities and thoughts. For each day of Lent we are offered a quotation which touches on one of the aspects of abuse and on relationships that can help people live through it.  I was pleased to notice quotations from Bishop Geoffrey Robinson included. He has done much to focus Catholic attitudes on the reality and causes of sexual abuse in their church.


A scriptural passage from the Lenten readings is also cited, followed by the writer's reflections. These link the passage to the effects that abuse has had on her and to the way in which it has been handled in the church and in society. These reflections are demanding reading, because she rightly points out the damage done by all attempts to move away from the harm done by sexual abuse - the advice to victims to forgive, the expectation that they will ‘get over it' and the complacency that good protocols mean that we can all move on.  


This can be confronting. But the final section of each day's prayer brings these hard reflections into honest and generous prayer.  The prayers are down to earth - for balance when blown by strong feelings, for survival in bad days. They embody the hope that God is with us wherever we are taken, and that we don't have to soften our description of reality in order to trust in God's care and protection.  The prayers start off from a hard place, and consistently reach out to God from it with confidence of being heard, even in doubt and anger.


This is a thoroughly Ignatian Book. Beth Crisp was associated with Jesuit retreat centres in Great Britain, and has written for the Jesuit magazine of Spirituality, The Way.  She is deeply immersed in Ignatian spirituality, and it shows in her constant attention to finding God in the movements of the heart, even when the heart is a place of storms and alarms. It also shows in her attention to reality, refusing to soften or to make less complex the disclosure of the effects of sexual abuse on people.  It also shows in her commitment to the Catholic Church, despite all the affronts that she, like any person who has been abused, feels at the denial and lack of responsibility that abused people have often met in the response.


Great reading for Lent.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ


Beth R Crisp, Beyond Crucifixion: Lenten Meditations on Surviving Sexual Abuse, Clouds of Magellan Press.


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