Scott Eric Alt is a freelance writer and blogger, and managing editor at Catholic Stand, living in Cincinnati. He has an M.A. in English literature (1998) from Southern Illinois University, and in a past life taught introductory college composition and literature. Scott converted to the Catholic Church in 2011, after many years of Protestant church-hopping. He is a Third Degree Knight of Columbus and Benedictine Oblate of St. Meinrad Archabbey. You can find his blog at http://www.scottericalt.org.
Catholic author Dawn Eden is a former rock journalist and editor for the New York Post, and a convert from Judaism. Since her conversion, she has written and spoken on the topics of chastity and the healing of sexual wounds. Just this month she successfully defended her dissertation for a doctorate in dogmatic theology from Mundelein. In her latest book, Remembering God’s Mercy, she writes about how God can set us free from any emotional wound of our past. Recently, Dawn Eden spoke with me about this wonderful new book that is a particular joy to have around during the Year of Mercy.
SCOTT ERIC ALT. What led you to write this book?
DAWN EDEN. I wrote Remembering God’s Mercy in response to many requests I received from readers of my book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. Those readers told me that they so benefited from the message of My Peace I Give You that they wanted to have a book like it that they could share with loved ones who perhaps had not suffered sexual abuse but needed healing from other spiritual wounds.
ALT. You say that you have written your books to help others who have suffered abuse and the pain of memory. Do you think you have also chosen these subjects as a way of writing away your own suffering as a victim of childhood sexual abuse? Some authors have said the act of writing helps them in this way.
EDEN. No, I am more like Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., who said that he never sat down to write without having a particular reader in mind. But I do find that the prayer and reflection that goes into writing on healing helps me in my own journey.
In a larger sense, any kind of healing outreach, if it’s done right, is therapeutic for the healer as well. That’s why the Twelfth Step that Bill W. composed for Alcoholics Anonymous is so important. When we carry the message of healing to others, it deepens and solidifies our own experience of healing.
ALT. Your book is ostensibly about healing from painful memories, but you spend a lot of time instead writing about surrender to God. This is a very difficult trick to pull off, and you have said it was deliberate on your part. Why did you choose to write your book that way?
EDEN. I’m really glad you picked up on the fact that the book’s invitation to find healing from painful memories is really meant as an entrée into a deeper experience of divine providence. The reason I make that shift is because, from a psychological standpoint—and this is something acknowledged by spiritual writers such as Augustine and Teresa of Avila and beyond—we can’t find healing if we remain fixated on the details of our messy lives. Healing comes through seeking God’s grace that we might cooperate in His plan for us.
So, there is a real need for those of us who have suffered spiritual wounds to stop asking “why did I suffer this wound” and start asking “how can God use me in my woundedness”? When we see how God, in His mercy, wishes to bring us exactly as we are—with all we’ve done and all we’ve suffered—into His divine plan for the salvation of the world, that’s when we find healing.
ALT. Your book’s title announces that it is about mercy, but in what sense do people who suffer painful memories like the loss of a child through no fault of anyone, or sexual abuse, need mercy? Isn’t mercy just for one’s personal sins?
EDEN. Divine Mercy does refer, in its primary meaning, to the mercy of God that forgives our personal sins. But all wounds come from the original sin of Adam that created a crack in all of creation. Jesus, in dying on the Cross, redeemed us both from original sin and from personal sin. God’s mercy therefore saves us not only from our own sins but also from the effects of sin. When we surrender our heart to it, whatever harms us physically or mentally can no longer separate us from Him. It can only draw us closer to Him by making us more like His wounded and risen Son.
ALT: So is your book about mercy, healing, or surrender? Or are these three inseparably connected somehow?
EDEN. Yes, that’s exactly right—mercy, healing, and surrender are inseparably connected, and Remembering God’s Mercy is about all three. The part about surrender can be hard because, having suffered evil, we find it hard to trust in the goodness of God. So, I gently walk the reader through the journey of discovering where God is in the reader’s heart right now, even in the midst of suffering. Once you can identify that place in your heart where God’s presence is active, it becomes easier to follow Him toward the healing that He wishes to bring you. For me, as I share in Remembering God’s Mercy, I find God’s active presence in my very desire for Him.
ALT. You talk about “breaking free” of painful memories, and yet by your own admission still have episodes of PTSD. Since this is so, in what sense can you say that you have “broken free”? Does the healing of memories mean you no longer suffer?
EDEN. I am open in Remembering God’s Mercy about continuing to suffer the physical effects of post-traumatic stress because PTSD is first and foremost a physical condition, and I believe it is important to emphasize that our Catholic faith does not promise us healing from physical ills. There’s a line in the “Princess Bride” film about how pain is an inescapable part of life: “Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Likewise, anyone who tells you that spiritual healing necessarily leads to physical healing is trying to sell a false gospel of prosperity.
What I do write is that when we bring our spiritual wounds into the light of Christ, it changes the way we perceive our bodily ailments. And that is absolutely true. I know now that, when I suffer, Christ is with me in a profound way. That changes how I experience flashbacks. It keeps me from being wrapped up in my own pain and instead brings me to enter into dialogue with Jesus.
ALT. What would you say to people who do not suffer from the pain of memory so much as the pain of memories they want to have but don’t have–such as someone who has lost a close relative before they were old enough to remember?
EDEN. The spirituality of surrender that I lay out in Remembering God’s Mercy is about discovering divine love at work in our memory, with all its abilities and limitations. I have come to see that, although I can try to jog my memory or improve my mnemonic skills, ultimately I remember no more and no less than what God wants me to remember. As long as I seek to maintain a state of grace, I am not lacking anything that I need if I am to be happy in Him.
ALT: In your book, you note that the brain can sometimes “consign” memories to inaccessible areas, and that this explains the “blocking out” of memories that sometimes happens to victims of severe trauma. Can you say more about that, and how someone to whom this has happened can find healing?
EDEN. You’re referring to an observation I make in Remembering God’s Mercy as I discuss St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Suscipe prayer, which begins, “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will.” The great thing about the offering of memory that Ignatius invites us to make is that it doesn’t require identifying or revisiting particular memories. So it’s perfect for those of us who, for whatever reason, are unable to call to mind the traumatic events of our past. Instead of having to painstakingly invite Jesus into my memory–as I was once advised to do by a well-meaning therapist–Ignatius would have me invite myself into Jesus’s memory, locating my own wounds within His Passion. I have found this classic approach to be terrifically healing, and it is a joy to share it with readers.
ALT. In your book you write: “What matters most in love is not what we feel–because feelings can change–but what we will.” Applying that observation to the healing of memories, is it as simple as saying you can will the pain away?
EDEN. I certainly don’t believe that healing is a matter of will power. When I write in Remembering God’s Mercy about love being essentially a matter of the will rather than feelings, it is to make a point concerning prayer. There is the temptation to focus on whether we have the right feelings or not, when the important thing is simply to give ourselves to God and trust Him to guide us to the feelings He wishes us to have. Many saints went through long periods of their lives when they felt completely dry in prayer, yet, through their dryness, the Spirit of Christ was working invisibly within them to draw them into a deeper union with Him.
ALT. You use the word “transfiguration” three times in the book–first in the preface when you speak of Christ’s wounds being transfigured in heaven; again in the middle when you speak of how the liturgy “transfigures” time, and again at the end when you quote Pope Francis’s prayer: “Transfigure us, O Lord.” How are these three things connected, that you would reference the Transfiguration in each case? Is healing a form of transfiguration, and in what way? And did you have the Divine Mercy Image in mind when you were writing this?
EDEN. That’s a great question! Healing of memories truly is a form of transfiguration, because our memories are closely tied with our identity. We shape our understanding of ourselves based on what we remember about our experiences. If I allow Christ to shine His light upon my memories, then I understand myself in a way that I did not understand myself before—as His beloved daughter.
But let’s take the light image further. The Divine Mercy image, which shows rays of light emerging from the risen Christ’s wounded Heart, suggests to me that Jesus wants to radiate His light, His grace, into my own wounded heart. Therefore, when His light shines upon the wounds left by my painful memories, those wounds become, in a sense, transfigured. I come to see that the Lord was loving me in the midst of my pain and I did not know it.
ALT. Much of your book is a working through of the Suscipe and the Ignatian spirituality of Pope Francis as it sheds light on how to heal from painful memories. What do you hope that people will understand better about the Holy Father?
EDEN. I think the media soundbites often fail to capture the true depth of Francis’s spirituality, and particularly how Eucharistic it is. When Francis distills the thought of classic spiritual writers such as Ignatius Loyola and Peter Faber, the things he brings out all have to do with how, in his words, “through the Eucharist, … Christ wishes to enter into our life and permeate it with his grace,” giving us “coherence between liturgy and life.”