Of all the issues people don’t like discussing, high on the list is the emotional and spiritual pain caused by a personal loss or trauma.
In her new book, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories, Dawn Eden writes about this sensitive issue powerfully, explaining what secular medicine cannot offer:
I wrote this book to share the good news that Jesus Christ heals our memories. . . . Therapy can help us cope, but if we are truly to break free from the grip of past pain, we need spiritual help. Only the love of God can untangle the web of regrets and resentments that prevent us from moving forward. Only the Divine Physician can heal our hearts.
Remembering God’s Mercy draws upon Holy Scripture and the great Catholic spiritual masters—particularly Jesuit saints such as Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber—to discuss painful memories through the lens of Christ’s Passion.
Pope Francis speaks often about the way memories shape our lives—for better and worse. Just weeks after his election, Eden notes, “the Holy Father gave an Easter vigil homily in which he spoke of how the risen Christ leads us to heal our memories.” And in a later interview, he “spoke of how the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola—which were part of his training as a Jesuit—had helped him develop ‘a prayer full of memory.’”
Francis’s comments led Eden to research Jesuit spirituality more, and she found particular inspiration in Ignatius’s best known prayer, called “the Suscipe” (known for its first word in Latin). That prayer begins, “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. . . .” Each chapter of Remembering God’s Mercy is organized around one phrase of the Suscipe, and provides the basis for her reflections on healing painful memories.
Eden’s approach differs substantially from books on “inner healing,” because it reverses the process often recommended by the latter. Instead of starting with oneself, and trying to recall every painful trauma for God to treat, Eden begins with Christ’s sacrifice, and encourages us to unite our wounds to his, as a means of receiving his infinite mercy. She also places a high priority on the Sacraments—especially Confession and the Holy Eucharist—whose transformative qualities she describes movingly.
At the heart of her analysis is the importance of not holding anything back, and surrendering to God completely, having the courage to ask him what those of us in silent anguish need most. She takes great comfort and strength, as can we all, in the words of Francis, who has urged Christians to memorize the manner and circumstances in which God has been present in our lives:
We must look back to see how God has saved us, follow—with our hearts and minds—this path with its memories and in this way arrive at Jesus’s side. It’s the same Jesus, who in the greatest moment of his life—Holy Thursday and Good Friday—in the Last Supper, gave us His Body and His Blood and said to us, “Do this in memory of me.”
Eden doesn’t write as a distant observer, but as someone who has lived through all these experiences herself. As a child, she was sexually abused, causing years of wrenching emotional pain, confusion, promiscuity, and near-suicidal despair. To this day, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and occasionally experiences flashbacks. Yet, she has been able largely to overcome all that, and to live a productive and fulfilling life, because of the graces she has received from Ignatian spirituality. Remarkably, she recently received her doctorate in sacred theology from Mundelein seminary in Illinois—the first woman ever to do so—and now speaks all over the world to Christian and non-Christian audiences alike.
One of the most affecting parts of this book is Eden’s account of an intense flashback she had a few years ago. For several excruciating weeks she cried every day, until finally she was relieved by the Jesus prayer, and humbling herself before God: “Those words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,’ tore into me like steel wool, reaching into my depths and cleaning out the spiritual rust.” It took courage for her to pray the Jesus prayer, in her vale of tears and agony, but through it she learned that when we pray courageously, the Lord not only gives us grace, but his very self in that grace.
In the beautiful words of Pope Francis, “certain realities in life can only be seen through eyes cleansed by tears.”
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.