Over the course of the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of running “7000 in Solidarity: A Campaign Against Sexual Assault” at UCLA. The campaign is a threefold effort: awareness, education, and advocacy through a coalition of student groups of a variety of topics and communities working…
Brachychiton acerifolius, commonly known as the Illawarra Flame Tree, is a large tree of the family Malvaceae native to subtropical regions on the east coast of Australia. It is famous for the bright red bell-shaped flowers that often cover the whole tree when it is leafless. Along with other members of the genus Brachychiton, it is commonly referred to as a Kurrajong. The tree can grow to 40 metres but only in warmer regions, in sub tropical regions a height of 20 meters is more common.
What the scientific description is missing is what else the tree was. My tree was more than a scientific description. My tree was my friend. My confidant. My spaceship. My safe place. Many of my earliest memories are of my tree.
My tree was my safe place a place where I could relax. I recall sitting in its upper branches lying back and feeling like I could relax and go to sleep and feel like I was safe. I remember running through grandmas house jumping over the frog statue over the garden across the lawn and up the tree. God only knows how many times I did this. I used to love sitting in that tree pretending it was a spaceship flying around and exploring things.
When I was smaller I would run to the front of the tree, place my foot onto a knob that stuck out around knee height jump up grab a lower branch with two hands swing my legs up onto the branch next to it, put my head on the branch I was holding and use my neck to help pull my body up. After that it was easy climbing.
I only remember nearly falling out of the tree once when I missed my footing. I managed to reach out and grab a branch though so didn’t fall to the ground.
When I imagine my tree in my mind it is tall and green and healthy with a straight strong round trunk. I imagine it watches like an ent, keeping an eye on things to make sure I am safe. I always imagined my tree would be there, I felt like it was owed that, for the time it kept me safe. I used to walk under it as I got older and look at where I had written my name in its trunk and put wax from cheese in it. I would feel its familiar bark and it made me smile to see it there still. It was as if by it being there safety was real. Solid.
After finding out my tree was cut down, I felt as though a close part of me died. I felt like I never got to say good bye and to sit in its safe branches that one more time. I don’t feel angry about it, just sad. I think I really did think it was going to always be there and that was a comforting thought.
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose branches I do trust
Against the leering glares of lust
A tree that looks up at the sun
Branches lift me when I run;
A tree that may in Summer wear
flowers of fire as her hair;
Upon whose bosom I have lain;
and kept me sheltered from the pain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I write this reflection seeking to relinquish the stigma of victimisation, choosing to embark upon the road to freedom and liberation. It is my story of a spiritual journey while trying to make sense and find meaning after naming sexual abuse in my life. The journey has not been easy as I have grappled with Institutional Church, the abuse and my faith. I would hope that some fellow travelers would draw strength from the telling.
The abuse and its effects
As a young man in training for Catholic priesthood I was sexually abused by a Catholic priest. The world as I knew it came to an end. My spirituality was gift and strength but, my being experienced a travesty. The experience of abuse and living with the aftermath has interfered with my sense of worth and goodness. The indifference of those who should have supported me challenged my trust in humanity. My sense of emotional connection with self, with God and with others has been sorely tested. My personality has been influenced by oppression. An inner conflict challenges my daily existence.
I have continued to work for more than thirty years in what I call my vocation within the Catholic Church despite the abuse by a member of the clergy. Within this there has been an inner accumulation of layer upon layer of unresolved bitterness, resentment and anger at repeated injustices and unjustifiable suffering. The inner suffering has been so intense that it has become crystallised in my body. The traumatic effects of the abuse have been so severe that they have manifested themselves as physical and psychological symptoms.
Questions of faith and the Institutional response
I have questioned how can one discern the presence of God in the atrocity of sexual abuse? I believe that a process of bringing into the light what has been done in the dark can be seen as part of an ongoing process of healing for survivors, for the Church and the wider community. Martin Moran in his book “The Tricky Part” carries the reader to the heart of a paradox: that what we think of as damage may be the very thing that gives rise to transformation, even grace (beauty). For me the God within is real and known. I understand that through and in all of this pain there was, is and will be grace, as my God embraces me.
How has the Church as an institution embraced me? This question has been a cause of great pain. The Catholic Church of Australia provides the Towards Healing process to survivors of abuse by Church personnel. I have been in the Towards Healing process now for fourteen months. In this time and as part of this process I have not met pastorally, face to face with any representative of the Church entity. I continue to search for the pastoral embrace at the institutional level.
I am privileged to belong to a worshipping community that has embraced the efforts of the Royal Commission. Our community held a special prayer gathering at the beginning of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. A candle burns in our Church at all community prayer, acknowledging those who have been abused and those who are supporting them. Our priest has been open and honest in delivering the Jesus message in the story. Our parish newsletter has an article each week reporting developments of the Commission and resources. Only a few people in this community know my story but I experience support here as there is a communal spirit of compassion toward those abused and their families.
The Spiritual Life
"The spiritual life is not a specialized part of daily life. Everything you do in the day, from washing to eating breakfast, having meetings, driving to work, solving problems, making more problems for yourself once you have solved them, watching television or deciding instead to read, going to a restaurant or a movie or going to church, everything you do is your spiritual life. It is only a matter of how consciously you do these ordinary things, how attentive you are to the opportunities they offer for growth, for enjoyment, and how mindfully, how selflessly, how compassionately, you perform them." — Laurence Freeman
Meaning making and my spiritual life
My God, my spirituality, our Church has been an integral part of my life story. I consider myself fortunate to have travelled a personal spiritual journey where the words, “I love you.” were heard loud and clear. The response to this love has been lived in the Catholic faith. My call to mission has been explored in the lived experience of priesthood, marriage, fatherhood and the learning world of children. Within this mission I locked the story of sexual abuse away. Mission is about opening up, setting free and thus after more than thirty years my body would no longer hold the secret. I needed to dig to the depths of my spirituality and hold on with whatever strength this gave me to open the story of sexual transgression.
What then have been my spiritual supports in making meaning of this story of abuse? Theologian, Ron Rolheiser maintains that Jesus prescribed four essentials in living a healthy spiritual life;
- Private prayer and private morality
- Social justice
- Mellowness of heart and spirit
- Community as a constitutive element of true worship
I have taken these essentials and worked with each one to try and sustain my relationship with God and the world. How have I worked at this?
Private prayer and private morality (Daily time with the God within)
- Spiritual reading
- Fidelity to the Jesus story
- Spiritual direction
Social justice (Being active in the life of others – the weakest members. Where I stand with the poor)
- Forcing myself to keep contact with others.
- Setting diary dates for outreach weekly
- Keeping others in mind
- Visiting residents at an Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Centre
- Mindfulness to the moment, within the community of the universe. I am part of the “big bang” what is my responsibility in this creation?
Mellowness of heart and spirit (Loving kindness, good friends, creativity, healthy living, wine drinking)
- Practising compassion to self (acknowledging all that is happening, it is what it is and not beating up on self)
- Getting dirty – put my hands into soil, around plants – being creative – physical exertion
- Acknowledging a thought is only a thought, it is not reality
- Healthy leisure - play
- Take time to see creation around me – search for beauty
- Make some contact with three friends each day – texting, email, phone, card
Community as a constitutive element of true worship (The communal search for the Divine. How we relate to each other is part how we relate to God).
- Finding a community in which you are enabled to acknowledge the Divine
- Acknowledging the Divine as an integral part of my life with others – talking about this search with men and women. Being involved in the muck and beauty of community life.
- Men’s Group – Living Well
- Engaging with Brother Sun, Sister Moon – touching the magnificence of life forms, being in relationship with the ocean, bush, mountains, flora and fauna. Joining others to celebrate the Divine through nature.
In attending to my spirituality I am aware of these pillars as a guide to health and well-being. It is an endeavour to seek harmony. I continue to seek and ask the question ‘How do I walk the Earth as a person of loving kindness?’ In this question there is hope. I hope that I am able to live well. I am unsure of how the future will play out for me but I believe that the road to recovery will continue to grow and change as I do. I want to eventually come to reject completely the perpetrator’s lie. I want to stand in a place where God can be seen.
In conclusion I borrow the words of James Newton Poling.
With God’s love, I can have the courage to accept my own suffering and the suffering of others in the knowledge that God will sustain me. Everything that I am, without exclusion, is received into the experience of God.
In Jesus I can see a God who can embrace the full ambiguity of good and evil without losing integrity.
Even when evil seems to penetrate everything in my sight, still there is hope in a God who strives for beauty and justice. I do not need a perfect God to rescue me from the mess of this concrete life. Rather I need a God whose power is sufficient to sustain resilient hope for justice in the midst of ambiguity. The Abuse of Power: A Theological Problem – James Newton Poling