Forgiving the unforgivable: A conversation with Dawn Eden
For many of you, Dawn Eden needs no introduction. She’s a popular blogger, a former rock journalist, Catholic convert, and author of the bestselling book The Thrill of the Chaste. I recently had the honor of interviewing her for the National Catholic Register, where she spoke for the first time publicly about her own experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. When I talked with her for that interview, I was overwhelmed by the amount of wisdom Dawn has gained on the subjects of healing and forgiveness. It was immediately clear that there was far more material here than could be contained in one interview.
So I wanted to share with you an informal Part II to our interview, in which Dawn speaks candidly on the subject of forgiveness — particularly forgiveness when you’ve been deeply hurt. The insights she’s gained through her healing journey carry powerful lessons for everyone, and so I am thrilled to share them here. And be sure to check out her brand new book, My Peace I Give You, which deals with these same subjects. Like with these interviews, I believe that the book contains powerful lessons for anyone who’s in need of healing and a deeper understanding of forgiveness.
Q: A central concept of your book is how to go about forgiving the unforgivable. In particular, you mention a quote from St. Josephine Bakhita in which she says that if she could meet the people who kidnapped and tortured her she would kiss their hands, because that was part of her journey to Christ. Do we all have to forgive in that same way?
Though we are all called to be saints, in daily life there may be many things that the canonized saints did that we are not called to do. With regard to Bakhita, what each of us is called to do is what’s within the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive, but not necessarily to reconcile.
In ministering to victims of abuse, we need to be very clear about the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Many victims are under the mistaken impression that they are remaining in sin unless they reconcile with the abuser, but that’s not true.
Yes, we have to forgive. To forgive someone is to want God’s best for them. Thankfully, we don’t have to do the heavy lifting: all forgiveness comes from the Holy Spirit. When we forgive someone we ask the Holy Spirit to enter into us and forgive that person on our behalf, and we set our will on cooperating with the Spirit’s act of forgiveness.
Q: So there may be cases where people forgive, but don’t reconcile?
Ideally, forgiveness leads to reconciliation. But, unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is a two-way street. If someone is still abusive, the most loving and forgiving thing may be to not attempt reconciliation, inasmuch as having further contact with that person would only give him or her the opportunity to abuse again.
Q: How has this understanding of forgiveness helped you in your own journey of healing?
It is very freeing. No longer do I have to worry about whether I’ve worked hard enough to forgive. I just have to ask the Holy Spirit to work forgiveness in and through me. Then I need to trust that, with my having made the choice to forgive, the Holy Spirit will continue to work in me, taking the wounds that remain and join them to the wounds of Christ.
Q: You mention that it is good for abuse victims to pray for those who have harmed them, but acknowledge that doing so may be impossible without stirring up up painful memories. What do you recommend for those kinds of situations?
I once got a very helpful tip from a Sister of Life. I was talking to her about how I felt that I owed it to God to pray for a certain person, but that it was painful for me to think about this person. The sister advised me to commend this person to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to say to Mary, “Please place this person inside your Immaculate Heart, so that every time I’m praying for the intentions of your Immaculate Heart, I am praying for him.”
Q: That must help channel your negative energy toward that person in a more positive direction.
You know that Twilight Zone episode where there’s a child who has a dark supernatural power, and uses it to cast anyone who crosses him out into a cornfield? He casts out anyone with whom he’s angry, sending more and more people away to this place, which is an allegory for hell.
I think many of us do that in our minds sometimes, cast people away, send them to hell in our thoughts. To place them instead into the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a positive counter to that attitude. In both cases, you’re removing those people from the foreground of your thoughts — but, through Mary, you’re able to wish them into a good and holy place.
Q: Those of us who are longtime fans of your writing notice a change in your topics and tone: You used to be known for getting into heated debates with secular feminists, but you don’t do that anymore. Did this journey of healing have anything to do with that?
Yes. There was one event in particular that led me to reconsider the way I’d been acting out against feminist bloggers:
I discuss this in more detail in the book, but there was a time several years ago when I antagonized feminist bloggers, because I saw them as encouraging the same kind of attitudes that fostered my childhood sexual abuse. Though I make no apologize for proclaiming those truths about human life and dignity that the Church proclaims to be true, it was wrong of me to lash out in uncharity.
A turning point came after a woman named Zuzu began a series of blog posts reviewing The Thrill of the Chaste at the blog Feministe. She was picking and choosing things to insult me about, setting out to thoroughly shame and embarrass me, making fun of me in the most uncharitable way.
At first I just wrote her off as a mean-spirited person. Then one day I saw a blog entry of hers about her childhood, in which she talked about the difficult aspects of her relationship with her mother. She gave specific examples of her mother transgressing certain boundaries, and while they weren’t acts of sexual abuse, learning about them made me have so much compassion for her. I realized that it was a shame that I had burned so many bridges, and therefore couldn’t reach out to Zuzu and say, “I know how you feel.”
It was a point of conversion of heart for me, which led me to seek to avoid vitriol and uncharity in my public witness.
Q: What would you say to someone who feels trapped by old wounds, not sure where to even begin down the path of forgiveness?
I recommend partaking of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That may sound strange, because certainly those who have been abused have no reason to confess things done to them that was not their fault. But, as I write in in My Peace I Give You, although the primary reason we go to Confession is to be forgiven our sins, forgiveness is not the only thing that happens in that sacrament. Christ touches us, and, whenever He touches us, He gives grace.
A problem that many abuse victims have is anxiety caused by their uncertainty over the state of their soul. They have so absorbed the lies imprinted upon them by their abuse that they have trouble discerning the difference between the lingering effects of the sins committed against them, for which they are not responsible, and their own sins, for which they are responsible.
Recently a friend who suffered from this painful uncertainty asked me for advice on confession. I recommended to her that when she went to confess, having told the priest the sins that she was certain were her responsibility, she should add, “Since Jesus is with me in this sacrament, I want to ask His healing grace while I am here, because I was abused when I was a child. I know I am not responsible for my abuse, but it has led to my having thoughts that distance me from Him. If any of those thoughts are sinful, I am very sorry, because I don’t want anything to separate me from Him. And even if they are not sinful, I ask Jesus to cover me with His Precious Blood and heal my hidden wounds.”
A few months after suggesting that approach to my friend, I went into the confessional and was moved to say the very words I had recommended. It was very powerful. Afterwards, I could not believe it had taken me so long to take my own advice.
A big thank-you to Dawn for taking the time to chat with us. Do check out her book My Peace I Give You, where she shares more profound thoughts on peace, forgiveness, and healing.