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If Only I Hadn’t _________

Real and Raw

Welcome to this installment in the series REAL AND RAW – SOUL-STIRRING STORIES, a series focused on taking a candid look at the Faith and life’s struggles as we journey to heaven. Being Catholic doesn’t mean you won’t suffer–in fact, Jesus promises we’re likely to suffer even more for being His disciple. But Catholics often feel self-conscious about admitting to doubt, confusion, sorrow, or anger in their relationship with God. We want the world to be attracted to our beautiful faith, so we minimize the darkness and emphasize the light in our lives, usually at the expense of authenticity. Yet there’s value in sharing our journey in all its shades–in admitting there are gray and black days, too. We offer these stories to let our suffering readers know they’re not alone–we’re in the trenches with you and so is God, who loves us and has a divine purpose for pain, even if it’s hard to see or accept in the moment. Most importantly, we hope these stories give hope to readers…hope that there is help and that they will survive. And one day, they will make it out of the darkness and be stronger for it.


“If only I hadn’t _____.”  

How many of us have said that – days, months, years, decades, after?  Remorse, guilt, shame, self-blame… we push the memory into the darkest recesses of our sub-consciousness, but the effects are still there, silently affecting our self-worth, our relationships, and our faith.  There is another path however. One of God’s unending mercy that heals and transforms us from deep within. It’s a path of self-forgiveness, beauty, and peace. I know it’s there because I was blessed to find it.  I pray you find it, too.

It could have been a chapter in a book from The Series of Unfortunate Events. The week started with a difficult surgery first thing Monday morning. Dreading the ordeal, I attacked the situation with full resolve to offer my pain and discomfort for others in the same situation or worse. I was dead set on saving the world from my bed, until I discovered mid-week this tough girl ain’t so tough sometimes – neither the flesh nor the spirit were up to offering anything for anyone or anything. God was putting me through Acceptance 101, and I was getting the lesson loud and clear. Or so I thought. Thursday I woke up barely able to move from some type of lower back muscle strain. Ok God, I guess class is still in session. Hoping that was the end, I tried to quash the old adage “things happen in threes.” But the Unfortunate Events chapter continued to unravel its newest plot twist on Saturday morning. My greatest lesson was about to begin.

The Gospel of John, Chapter 8 – the infamous story of the woman caught in adultery by the Scribes and Pharisees. As the narrative progresses, you can sense her shame and fear at being discovered. They bring her to Jesus (without the man, as was the law), make her stand in the middle of the crowd, condemn her, and state that under Moses the punishment is stoning. Jesus, after bending down to write something on the ground, responds, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” As she stands there, I can imagine her, head bowed, waiting with held breath for the first strike. I’ve thought about her often, because for the past 35 years, I have been that woman.

No, I wasn’t caught in adultery, brought before a crowd of Jesus’s followers and made to stand there silently waiting for the first stone to hit me. I was young, alone and afraid, sitting in an examining room as a doctor pronounced his sentence with a single nurse as his witness. Shame, guilt, humiliation, self-condemnation, remorse – those were the stones strewn about the room and I felt their sting just as if they had been picked and thrown. The doctor and nurse’s words droned on as I listened in stunned disbelief and silently cursed the boyfriend who had failed to disclose he was a STD carrier. Should he not have been present to be condemned as well?

In the woman’s case, the whole town probably knew her guilt. Even if she was spared, her life was an open book that prevented her from escaping repeated condemnation. In my case, no one knew the guilt I carried. Self-condemnation was tucked deeply within the pages of a closed book I refused to open. Surely her relationships must have suffered the effects of her public sentence; my relationships suffered the silence of a truth I couldn’t bear to voice. Her actions, revealed before many – did she have the courage to seek to be forgiven and accepted? My actions, hidden from all – would I ever have the courage to seek forgiveness and acceptance?

How blessed she was to hear the words of our Lord Himself, “Neither do I condemn you.” How many years had I longed to hear those words, and yet, even if I had heard them, I doubt I would have believed them. I had been tricked by the lies the enemy settles deep into our hearts – you are unworthy, tainted, ugly. Already having made life decisions I knew I could never reconcile with my faith, this only served to push me even further away from the One who would have said those words to me had I but been willing to approach Him. But, as is so often the case, we run from Him like Adam and Eve in the garden, refusing to believe that our Creator could be anything but the Just Judge who sits upon His throne dispensing damnation sentences upon His fallen creatures. She and I had both become victims to our own disordered desires in seeking love, self-worth, attention, etc., within the confining limits of our weakened nature. Did she believe His words that day? Did she heed His words ” Go, [and] from now on do not sin anymore?”

Over the years, every time I have had to open that book to disclose my guilt (which was only done under extenuating circumstances such as when I had to face telling the man I knew I would marry or when I had to fill out medical paperwork), I was transported right back to that examining room full of its stones waiting to be thrown. And once again, the lies would be resurrected and the wounds would become deeper. Coming back to my faith as an adult, steeped in its stoic “do’s and don’ts”, shoved that closed book further and further back on the bookshelf lest it jeopardized the image of my life as a Catholic Christian woman neatly practicing her faith in a growing family.

God knocks and waits

Never One to force Himself upon us, He thirsts for us as ardently as the day He thirst upon the cross. A God of unending creativity, His knocking comes in as many ways as you can envision. Two summers ago, a book found its way into my hands, The Second Greatest Story Ever Told by Fr. Gaitley.  It is the story of our fall and God’s unending, almost pleading attempts to bring us back to Him. It challenged everything I had catalogued within my notional knowledge of God. Here was a God who wasn’t glaring down from His Judgment seat, but a God who burned with one desire – that we place our total trust in Him and His Divine Mercy. I had heard the knock…hesitantly, I cracked open the door.

Fr. Gaitley’s book launched me on an almost insatiable quest to know everything I could about Divine Mercy. The Diary of St. Faustina, The Second Greatest Story Ever Told DVD series, St. Therese of Lisieux’s Little Way, and the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, whose entire pontificate embodied the Divine Mercy message. I couldn’t learn enough fast enough and I felt as if my spiritual life had taken flight. I immersed myself in promoting the message however I could. I begged for the grace to live a life of mercy for others and the words, “Jesus, I trust in You” became my mantra. All the while, that closed book remained securely tucked away on the bookshelf.

Like a child who timidly stands at the water’s edge and dips a toe in to check whether it’s “acceptable” to take the plunge, the occasion to “test the water” arose unexpectedly one day in a conversation with a friend. Did I dare to believe the book could be opened without condemnation? I stepped ankle-deep into the waters of that friendship, dusted off the cover of that stowed away book, and cracking it open relayed my story, ending with “So, there it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly.” I waited. The same old stones lay about me. The same lies screamed back at me. Although I had placed the past before the Lord in confession on more than one occasion and knew I had been forgiven, the wounds were just as fresh as that day long ago. My friend’s response was soaked in the waters of mercy, “okay….first….nothing about you is ugly.” The book now lay wide open.

In the days that followed, God worked on my heart like a surgeon trying to repair years of diseased tissue. At the grocery, I spontaneously bought myself flowers and for days they were a visual reminder of the beauty I was beginning to rediscover in myself. As part of a project with a women’s mentoring group, I worked on a collage that was to reflect how I wanted to see myself by the end of the session. The timing of the project was uncanny. The pictures I chose reflected images of my faith and nature, places and things that spoke to my heart or reminded me of someone God had spoken through. My mentor nailed it on the head when she remarked that she felt the collage spoke of the Beauty and Truth I was searching for.  

I flipped through the pages of that open book, searching for the beauty I knew had to be there.  Within the words of those pages, God revealed many truths about myself and my life. I saw a faith that had grown with His grace, forgiveness, and redemption. I worked through a myriad of emotions and felt I had finally come to terms with the past. I closed the book.  There was a peace and a freedom I hadn’t felt before. Was this what it was like to be healed? Is this what the recipients of His healing hands had felt?

A series of Unfortunate Events

Saturday dawned early as the discomfort of surgery and my aching back roused me from my sleep. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. It was then I realized the truth and I was propelled instantly back to that examining room. The stress of the surgery had triggered a relapse. The book was flung open before me, it’s pages screaming my guilt. The stones of condemnation piled up around me, just waiting to be picked up and thrown. Where was the beauty I had seen just weeks ago? Where was the forgiveness? I struggled to keep my emotions together and did the only thing I could think of. I stared long and hard at the image of Divine Mercy. What was I missing? What was I not seeing?

Almost instantly, He revealed it. Not In His face, which looks out on us in love. Not in the rays of blood and water radiating from His Sacred Heart, which wash away our guilt. Not even in His raised hand, which gestures a sign of peace. It was somewhat hidden, found in the almost indiscernible differing colors of blues and greens surrounding His Sacred image, which St. Faustina said represent the colors of the ocean – not just any ocean, but the unending depths of His Ocean of Mercy. There I found the final question that begged for an answer. Could I forgive myself? Could I be merciful to that girl of long ago? I slowly picked up a stone, feeling it’s weight in my hand. I tossed it and watched as it landed in those waters and disappeared into the depths. One by one, I held them and then threw them into the water, captivated by the ripples that traveled in every direction. Finally, I picked up the book, closed its cover and heaved it as far as I could. It entered the water with a resounding splash and sent ripples far beyond the edges of the image. The tears flowed down my face. The battle was finally won. All those years and in the end, all He had wanted me to do was to finally let it go – deep down into that Ocean of His unending Mercy, its ripples going out far and wide as a testimony to the rest of the world proclaiming “Jesus, I trust in You.”

If Only I Hadn

For more information about Divine Mercy, click here or here.


REFLECT

Let’s dig deeper. Did this story resonate with you? If so, please continue on below and consider starting a journal to jot down your answers. PRINT several copies of these questions to start your own journal based on different posts. 

  1. What was my spiritual life like before this experience?
  2. How did the experience negatively impact my relationship with God?
  3. How did the experience negatively impact my relationships with my spouse, my children, my coworkers, my relatives, my friends?
  4. Was there anything that helped to alleviate the suffering I was going through? (e.g., counsel from others, professional help, medication/supplements, devotions, lifestyle changes)
  5. How did this experience positively impact my relationships, either during or afterward?
  6. How did this experience positively impact my spiritual life, either during or afterward?
  7. If I could go back and change how I responded to this experience, what would I do differently?
  8. What would I say to someone else in this situation to give her hope?

RESOURCES & SPIRITUAL HEALING

DBSA {Depression, Bipolar Support Alliance}

NAMI {National Alliance of Mental Illness}

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE

MTHFR {genetic mutation associated with depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia}

A FRIEND ASKS – FREE APP (Jason Foundation) – helps provide information, tools, and resources to help a friend (or yourself) who may be in danger of committing suicide.

IfOnlyIHadn

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