By Victoria Schmidt
St. John of the Cross is a classic study about the Dark Night of the Soul. His writings have touched the hearts and spirituality of millions. The imagery of a dark night speaks to our inability to see clearly and climb out of deep sadness because of obliterating circumstances. Unable to fix a situation despite our best efforts, the dwindling of hope, disillusionment, and feeling obsessed with the problems all speak to a personal dark night says Sr. Constance Fitzgerald, O.C.D.
It was sinking into this liminal chaotic space that led me to seek help. Suffering an authentic dark night is a helpless feeling. Although I was in denial about the abuse, I soon realized I was being used by my pastor and knew it wasn’t anything I could mend alone. I needed help, but where or to whom was I to reveal such fear and shame?
The fear of being judged harshly about something so intimate was a colossal and oppressive barrier to seeking help. I felt powerless to alter the circumstances of my life and I was beleaguered by my own inability to create change. Hope felt elusive as I faced such a painful process of self-disclosure. However, I did see glimmers of hope as I began to move through the healing process.
Finally, a religious sister recommended that I see a counselor in St. Louis, 100 miles away. She didn’t know about the abuse, but she knew of my intrinsic anxiety. Making a phone call to the therapist was a frightening task. I recall closing both doors leading into my office so no one could hear or know what I was doing. I had to leave a message and wait for a call back. After first meeting with my counselor, I was calmed by her compassionate and kind demeanor. She was easy to talk to and she laughed easily. She made the initial meeting in a few weeks possible.
At the age of eight my family was in a terrible car accident and my sister Becca, age five, was killed instantly, I was eight. All five of us were injured. Our pastor moved into our lives and in a matter of a year had become a surrogate father to us. We deferred to him. My parents were blinded by their own grief and couldn’t see this. This man remained a strong force in our lives, particularly for me as we grew up. He was grooming me and the abuse began in my late teens and continued for many years. No one saw it happening.
I was 35 when I first began counseling sessions. I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the sexual abuse at first. I chose to process the loss of my sister first. It took me a year to have the courage to tell my therapist that I had been abused by my pastor. And, even then, I had to send it to her in writing. This was pivotal for me because now we could begin to heal the wounds from this part of life. And it was much larger and more painful than I imagined. Yet, I knew deeply that I needed to walk through the pain of it in order free myself. I realized I had to do the hard work of unpacking this experience to understand how and why it happened.
Slowly, over time I was ready to reveal the abuse. Only then could my therapist begin to help me understand that none of the abuse was my fault. She masterfully helped me to understand that adults in my life failed to care for my best interests and that I had been used and taken advantage of by my perpetrator, our parish priest. It was so hard to let go of the guilt and shame. After therapy and group sessions, I would drive 100 miles home crying a bucket of tears, weeping for all that had been taken from me. I grieved my inability to marry when my peers did and to have children of my own. He had held me emotionally captive and I felt like a slave to him.
Courage to tell my story, anger, and grief were all issues I had to journey to find healing. Centering Prayer, meditation and processing my experience with my therapist are what guided me through all of the questions and powerlessness. Silence allowed me to embrace the questions for which I had no answers. Silence guided me to a peaceful acceptance of the questions. There came a time when I had to just hold the tension of unanswerable questions. What to do next? Will this sadness ever end? These questions held me captive for a long time. Ultimately, they led me, in time to a place of forgiveness and then transformation. Only in retrospect was I able to see how important it was to just hold the questions and tension until their answers emerged. And they did.
Pema Chodon, a renowned Buddhist monk, shares wisdom in her book, When Things Fall Apart, “To stay with that shakiness-to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” Now I know it is the path through the dark night. We have to walk through the pain to get to the other side of it. There is abundant hope on the other side.
Spiritual masters, like John of the Cross, have taught that it is in human suffering that we learn our greatest lessons. Today, I know that I would not be who I am had I not had the experience of such a Dark Night of the Soul. This journey truly became an unexpected grace.
Victoria S. Schmidt lives in Springfield, IL. She considers working with Mother Teresa of Calcutta from 1981 to 1995 to be the highlight of her life. She has been involved with ministry with the poor most of her life and currently serves as Executive Director of Theresians International, an international Catholic ministry for women. Vicki was a contributing author to Broken Trust: Stories of Pain, Hope, and Healing from Clerical Abuse Survivors and Abusers by Patrick and Sue-Lauber Fleming (Crossroads, 2007). She co-authored a second book with the Flemings entitled Shattered Soul? Five Pathways to Healing the Spirit from Abuse and Trauma (Wordstream Publishing, 2011).They are currently working on a third book of daily reflections based on the Five Pathways to Healing the Spirit. It is due for publication in 2017.