This is my last post in a series of three dealing with sexual abuse and Christian spirituality. I wrote these as a way to process some of what I’ve been noticing as I work with women in the Church who have experienced sexual violence and abuse. There is something about the traditional messages of the Church that impedes healing for many of these women, and Christian feminists have been articulating this for many years. It seems absolutely essential that Christians become broadly aware of these dynamics so that we can make our communities places that provide safe space for those experiencing abuse instead of places that exacerbate harm. While I’m speaking particularly into the Christian tradition, I’m interested to know how these dynamics manifest in other communities of faith.
In my first post, I talked about the need to know which messages will actually communicate good news to survivors and which will cause harm. I also spoke of the need to reinterpret God so that God is known as a liberator and not an oppressor. In my second post, I mused about the helpfulness of reconnecting with “the sacred feminine” – by which I mean biblical women of faith, historical women of faith, and images of God that reflect female identities. I also spoke of the importance of community in providing space that models elements that are foundational to spirituality: healthy relationships, mutuality, respect, love, support, etc.
Here, I list two more components important for a Christian spirituality that offers healing and hope to survivors of sexual violence:
A part of the process of healing is to confront, hold and lament pain and brokenness. Women who have experienced abuse can carry profound loss in their bodies and souls. The system of patriarchy works such that this loss often cannot be acknowledged. Thus, women experience profound loss of self, loss of voice, loss of worth, loss of control, loss of body, loss of spirit, loss of relationship, all without acknowledgement. Acknowledgement is finally possible once women have regained a spirituality that allows them to value and love their own selves.
While this is a step forward in the journey of healing, it is an excruciating part of the process. Women must relive trauma, confront their own shame and self-hatred, and be honest with themselves about how deeply they have been hurt. Anger, shame and desperation can be overwhelming. When a woman is forced to deal with the pain she has experienced in her lifetime all at once instead of having been able to process her feelings as she received them, the world can become dark, frightening and seem quite out of control.
Patriarchy can be defined as “control by men.” So, it is also “control denied to women.” In the thick of processing pain, survivors of abuse may become overwhelmed by all the ways they have been denied control that was rightfully theirs. At this point, it becomes very important for these women to find, nurture and protect areas in life where they do have control. This is where ritual comes in.
A ritual is something performed according to a prescribed order. It is something shaped and outlined according to the spiritual needs of the person performing it. It can be repeated whenever it is needed. Ritual provides security, familiarity, and clarity. Ritual gives structure to chaos. Ritual helps move people through difficult times that may otherwise entrap them. Designing and performing rituals gives women a sense of agency and authority and control in times when these are hard to come by.
Ritual is an important component of a spirituality of healing for survivors, because it offers a dependable way for them to come back to themselves and God when they find themselves shaken by the pain of patriarchy.
6. Self-expression. Faith enacted.
It is good for women to cultivate healing within themselves. But, all of life exists in relationship with itself, God and all other life. In order for healing to produce new life, women must find ways to take what has become beautiful within and release it into the world. This is a sign that the deep divisions created in a woman by patriarchy have the ability to heal and that women can regain vitality and connection. There must be as many forms of enacted faith as there are people and moments in which to exist:
Joy. Laughter. Planting a garden and thus insisting that creation is stronger than destruction. A woman telling her story and demanding that her worth be honored. Art. Speaking truth. Sharing righteous anger. A woman caring for herself. Creating beauty and believing that it will not be swallowed by darkness. Teaching others the way of healing. Delighting in the taste of good food. Setting healthy boundaries in relationships. Dancing. Trusting. Loving. A woman telling herself she is beautiful every day. Voicing objection to further experiences of patriarchy. Refusing to be silent.
Enacted faith both serves as a sign of new life and also is itself a part of the process of rebirth. This is an important component of a spirituality of healing for women, because it refuses the tendency for pain to shut women down. It prevents patriarchy from having the final say over a woman’s experience, and it allows women to join God in deciding the trajectory of their lives themselves.
Given the degree to which patriarchy is harmfully entrenched in our cultures and in churches, it is important to me that the Church give attention to building spiritualities that will promote healing for women. It seems important that all our faiths give this topic sustained attention. The more attention given to this subject the more variations of such a spirituality will arise. Surely, many already exist. My three posts are musings about just one way this sort of spirituality could take shape.
If you’re willing, share with me and with others the ways your tradition supports those vulnerable to harm from patriarchy. It is a blessing to have the opportunity to learn from one another.