The Painful Journey Toward Forgiveness
A true story of one survivor’s forgiveness journey as told by Fr. Joe Hegglin, MSC, a Catholic priest serving in Nitra, Slovakia.
A young lady in her early thirties, but looking not older than twenty, wanted to talk to me. She was taking part in a weekend renewal course in our retreat centre in Slovakia. For at least five minutes, she said nothing, just sitting there and starring into a corner. To look at her beautiful face was like looking at sadness itself. Eventually she said: “I have been sexually abused as a child.” Thus began her journey from darkness to light. Noemi, as she wants to be called, in many ways got stuck in her personal development by what happened to her when she was about ten. After that she no longer knew how to relate to herself and to people. She had literally to come back to life and learn to live again. When I met her in a corridor at the end of that weekend, I felt compelled to say: “One day you will experience resurrection.”
From then on, Noemi came regularly to spiritual direction, “spiritual therapy” would be a more correct expression. Like others in her situation, she was at that early stage not able to enter psychotherapy: except for a handicapped woman she was nursing, I was the first person with whom she was beginning to have a normal human relationship. Being a priest who provided a safe place to talk made it easier for her to try trusting again. Building up this trust took a lot of time and patience. Only after about two years was she confident enough to seek help from a lady psychotherapist. For the first appointment, she asked me to accompany her.
I was convinced that Noemi needed more than simply regular sessions of accompaniment and decided in her case to invest what time I could and to let her have contact with me also in between, whenever and as much as she needed and wanted. Corresponding by text messages became her preferred way of communicating: it provided the distance she needed and yet allowed her to be open.
Suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, quite a few times she had flashbacks, violent trembling of her legs and feet or her whole body shaking. Her feelings of sadness, anger and rage were sometimes extremely strong. I have been accompanying victims of CSA for five years now and had learned about this special kind of ministry through courses, reading and just by doing. But in this case I was more than once afraid to have overstepped the limits of what I could and should be doing and was near to giving up. But my supervisor, a priest-psychologist in Vienna, encouraged me to go on: I couldn’t possibly leave her out in the dark alone, for she was someone who had confidence in me and who, at that time, had nobody else to go to.
Learning to touch and letting herself be touched was a long and important part of her reconnecting with life: she avoided giving a simple handshake to anybody because it required too big an effort. When she let herself be hugged for the first time by one of the sisters from the retreat centre, it was like a victory for her, and she was proud to tell me. Longing for touch, yet at the same time dreading it led to great inner tension and strain.
Usually she sat and still continues sitting on the floor on a cushion rather than in the easy chair. Being a very creative person, she likes expressing herself by drawing. Sessions often take unforeseen turns: Once she brought a stone which symbolised her body and her sexuality. While wrapping it in tissues she experienced and expressed strong feelings. Another day she asked for a match box, wrote a few words like shame and guilt on a piece of paper, put the paper into the box as if into a coffin and asked me if we could go and burry it on top of the Calvaria hill outside the town. At times, she walked out of the office and even out of the house when it became too intense for her but always returned after 10, 20 minutes. During one session she withdrew into a corner, covered herself totally with a blanket and lay down on the floor. After a few minutes, I tried to contact her, but to no avail. Then I grabbed a Bible and began reading the story how Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. She began to sob, to cry and eventually screamed “no.” To come out of her grave was extremely painful: to suppress her feelings would have been much easier than feeling them and facing the truth.
In a women’s support group, Noemi made her first friendships. The group is lead by a woman, herself a victim who studies psychology, and by a professional psychologist. Very slowly Noemi’s capacity to trust and to connect with other people was growing. She began studies, at her age not easy, and found new employment in a hospital. She moved out of her family and for the first time is living on her own in a small apartment. There are still many ups and downs, set-backs, crises and at times even temptation to give everything up. Yet she expressed many times that she could no longer go back into her tomb: “it would be too small for me now.”
An important issue on her journey has to do with forgiveness. All those years I had never mentioned it, knowing that in cases like hers forgiveness is a very long process. Nearly a year ago, Noemi began to mention some kind of inner call to forgive. Once she asked me to find some passages in the Bible, especially in the psalms, about forgiveness. I printed out a little card: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, light to the eyes” (Ps 19, 7-8). “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6). In June, she showed me a handwritten letter addressed to her cousin:
“Hello, I would like to tell you about something that has been tormenting me for a long time, something I have been going through. I don’t have enough courage to go to you and speak about it. So I choose this way to say it all to you.
I would like to take you back to a time when I was a child and you were almost an adult, a time that heavily marked the rest of my life. Maybe– surely–you could help me clarify some things, events that I’m not quite sure about. So, no beating about the bush. I simply want you to know this: I remember that when I was about ten years-old I spent my holiday at your family’s home. I remember watching a boy (you) and some other people jumping and swimming in the lake at the back of your garden. I really liked it and I so wanted to learn to swim too but I never did because later on I could not bear anybody touching me while teaching me to swim.
I remember the door of your bedroom being partly open. I remember me stepping into that room the one and only time in my life as a young girl, a child really. I looked around that cosy, clean (for a boy’s room surprisingly tidy) bedroom. There was a desk and a chair by the window and I noticed an album full of precious, carefully arranged stamps. Suddenly you walked through the door. I saw an almost grownup young man, to me still a boy I had never feared, since I never assumed that a cousin would take from me anything that didn’t belong to him. You entered the room quietly, sneakily, as if with mischief on your mind, closing the door very softly. You were smiling, though your smile was somewhat “sly.” You asked what I was doing. I just pointed at your album and smiled. You sat on a chair; I was standing at the desk leafing through the album. You told me to sit on your knees, saying that we could look at it together. I sat at the very edge of your knees with elbows leaning on the desk to get a better view of the album–the dark red one, full of stamps. First you started to stroke my back under my t-shirt. It tickled a little; it was nice, I wasn’t afraid. I trusted you. Then? It hurt a lot. Afterwards there was just a black hole in my memory. I only recall hunkering down by the bed in your room. You weren’t there anymore, I was alone. Then I went to the living room, where both your and my parents were.
What I just described is called sexual abuse. What you did had terrible consequences to all levels of my personality–physical, psychological, social and spiritual. I was unable to bestow trust on anybody, I felt guilty all the time, I had problems communicating, I shunned boys, I was unable to have a relationship. I lived in complete isolation and loneliness. I thought I was supposed to forgive all the time. My mind was infected with the idea that I wasn’t clean, not good enough, not able to cope, that I was just a bag of garbage wearing human skin. I was convinced I had to run and hide all the time, that I had no future. I considered several times committing suicide. I was unable to feel, accept my body, my feminineness. The real world ceased to exist for me; there was only terror and dread at the thought of someone’s touch.
I want you to know that there is someone here whom you hurt and wounded badly. You mutilated something in her that you had no right to touch. I want you to know how much it cost me to get this far, to realize who I am, to admit that I was a victim of your perhaps impulsive act. I want you to know that there was bitterness, anger, hatred and terrible pain in my heart, that I cursed a lot, cried, mourned. I want you to know that even what you did as a teenager perhaps having problems with his sexuality, it does not excuse you! But I want you also to know that in my heart there is a desire to forgive you, though I do not condone what you did.
I want you to know that when you entered into my life, even if you didn’t mean to hurt me but lost control, doesn’t justify what you did. I want you to know of those nightmare moments when I wasn’t able to mix with people. In spite of the great impact your selfish and impulsive behaviour had on my life, you did not destroy me. I live as well as I can, I respect my body, I learned to communicate, to have relationships, I do have my values.
I want you to recognize the seriousness of your action. I want you to be completely honest and true to yourself–even if the truth is very painful. I would like to ask you to help me to forgive you. For I want you to know that I wish to let you out of the prison of “unforgiveness,” so your life can be fuller and blessed.
I could have confronted you, shouting and cursing, I could have asked for damages, truly justified. I could have soiled your name in front of your and my parents, while speaking the truth all the time. I could have taken legal action, but I just want to come to you and with trust and respect say three words: “I FORGIVE YOU.” I would even add a fourth word, your name: “I FORGIVE YOU, J.” I have no proof of what you did, the greatest proof is me.
Deeply moved I asked her what she intended to do with this letter. She thought to burn it and thus finish with this part of her life and move on forward. I suggested that she wait and consider sending it to her cousin. Afraid that it could fall into the hands of a family member, she said the only feasible option would be to hand it over to him personally. But to do this she needed more time. For several weeks nothing happened except that she read the letter to the support group. Then she added a last page to it:
“Some time has passed since I wrote the above and I want to add this. The time that has passed has been important and valuable for me because of new insights I have gained. I want to add this: Today is the 16th of October, about ten o’clock at night. I am quite positive now that forgiveness is something that can help us both you and me. I want you to know that there is no more bitterness in my heart, though the chill remains. Thanks to crossing the river over a bridge that first seemed so dangerous to me, thanks to being on the other side, I can tell you with peace in my heart: You are forgiven, I tore up the “outstanding debt” and I send you what I have received myself. You are forgiven, and if you destroy this letter I’ll understand. Believe me, I wanted to do this as a sign of complete human and divine forgiveness. I am offering you the opportunity to embrace the forgiveness which you know exists.”
She asked me to put this letter for a while into the tabernacle of our chapel and to pray daily for what would be the next step: giving it personally to her cousin. In November, she rang him–the first contact for years–inquiring when he would be at home. She asked me to drive her to the town where he now lived with his family. Her plan was simply to ring the doorbell, hand him the letter there outside the house and tell him that there was no time to stay because Father had an appointment in a different town further away. (As a good reason not to stay there, we truly intended to visit another woman of the support group).
The town of B. is some 150 km away from where I live. During the trip, Noemi was very tense. We tried to joke in order to release some tension. But then, things did not turn out exactly the way they were planned: When we arrived in front of the house, a 10 year old boy and his mother came down and told us: “He just went out. Come in.” J. had announced the visit not only to his own family, but also to his mother. There was no other way than to enter, drink tea, eat cakes and wait, trying to look relaxed.
After half an hour J. returned. The way he greeted and kissed her had something passionate about it. Later she said that it was a horrible moment and that she became as stiff as a statue. At least there were some other people in the room: Noemi’s aunty and an elderly man. But the heaviness of the situation was difficult even for me to bear. My nervousness grew by the minute as I was afraid we had to leave with no possibility for Noemi to give him the letter secretly.
We stayed for an hour and only at the very last moment when he accompanied us to the car did she get a chance to be with him alone for an instant. She handed him the letter saying simply: “Read it, when you are alone.” Outside the town in front of a wooden cross I stopped: she needed three quarters of an hour to release the tremendous tension built up within her. On the way back home, she relaxed more and more, but felt extremely tired. Up to now, two months later, her cousin has not responded.
Noemi has the grace and chance to have a psychotherapist, a support group and a priest to accompany her. Yet with all that help, the road has been extremely difficult and she is not yet at the end of her healing journey. My heart goes out to all the women out there who have been abused and who suffer in silence having nobody to listen to their story and to offer the help they need.
Fr Joe Hegglin, MSC