About 15 years ago I was involved in a church whose leaders were into something called “listening prayer.” Based on the concept of practicing the presence of God (see Brother Lawrence) as the way to healing, the term was coined by Leanne Payne, a woman I’d describe as a conservative Christian writer and teacher.
There were two women in the church in particular who took the tools Payne suggested and began to offer a listening prayer ministry – healing sessions held in their homes. God knew I needed healing, so one evening I found myself in a cozy living room, anticipating a few hours of prayer that I hoped would cleanse me from the inside out.
I don’t remember exactly what my presenting issue was. At that time, in my late 20s, I often struggled to feel physically safe in the world; maybe that’s what I told the women I wanted to pray about. In any case, the session moved quickly to focus on one of my most painful emotional knots – being molested by a stranger when I was 11.
The man had filled the doorway of the sauna where a friend and I were lounging alone, pretending to be women. There’s no need to fully describe the encounter here – suffice to say I was terrified, heart racing, palms clammy. He released us, we escaped; safe grownups did their best to take care of us. But as I went through high school and college I found the experience wouldn’t digest. It stubbornly refused to break down.
Which is why I found myself in that cozy living room, hoping for healing. I know the two women were earnest and well-intentioned in their desire to help me as we zeroed in on the molest and “waited on the Lord.” But I also detected a veneer of ego in their ministrations that I couldn’t articulate at the time. It was as if they were the doctors and I was the patient, and my raw experience was the laboratory.
Of course I remember a few zingers from that night — memory tends to hold thorns closer than blooms. “You need to forgive this man. Forgive him now, Kate,” the women told me. Even more upsetting: “It could have been worse. Be thankful that Jesus protected you from worse.”
For years I carried these two comments around, dazed. I stuffed the recollection of this evening of prayer in the same mental bag as the molest and filed it under “Shit I Don’t Understand.” The women praying for me that evening had no idea how I had made sense of my experience with the curly-haired, half-naked masked white man who’d trapped me and my friend in the sauna. Hell, I didn’t have much idea myself. But I knew wasn’t ready for forgiveness or gratitude; I had barely scratched the surface of anger, decades later. That night, I could not make sense of the idea that because I could have suffered more, my response to being molested at age 11 should have been one of thankfulness.
At least it wasn’t worse.
Of course there are grades of suffering. Things can and do get worse in the world. For whatever reason, I was not kidnapped that day in the sauna. I was not kept in a shed and raped repeatedly. I was not killed at knife point and dumped under a freeway overpass. But when that man appeared, growling that if we were quiet we wouldn’t get hurt, I was knocked out of normalcy, tipped into that discordant place I imagine other trauma sufferers experience – a place where, in an instant, some intrinsic trust is slashed.
I suppose the issue is one of timing. How could these two women have known that it would have been more skillful to sit with me and witness whatever feelings I was having, as God does with us, instead of pushing toward resolution? And the thing is, years after that night of prayer ministry I understand why these women urged me to forgive, why they urged me toward gratitude: Because holding bitterness only keeps me bound — it does nothing to punish the other person –and it actually is true that after trauma has been processed there is room to be thankful.
Recently the news outlets were tracking a story about a man in Tennessee named Adam Mayes, who kidnapped his friend Jo Ann Bain and her three daughters, killed her and her oldest girl, Adrienne, and then held the two others – Alexandria, 12 and Kyliyah, 8 – for a couple of weeks before police found and confronted him and he shot himself in the head.
During the weeks the Bain girls were missing, I found myself stopping what I was doing spontaneously throughout the day to practice a basic version of tonglen meditation. I wanted to breathe in Alexandria’s and Kyliyah’s suffering and exhale wholeness. I wanted to take in their fear and parent them through a situation in which the acting adult was deranged. Whatever grade their suffering, I wanted them to feel me and countless others breathing with them, in the midst of all that broken trust.