Needed: Clergy Speaking Wolf

This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas

Bishops are committed to meeting with survivors of abuse by clergy in accordance with The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a document ratified by all the bishops of the United States in 2002 in Dallas, Texas.

The Charter‘s many provisions for child protection have been implemented well. The success is measured in expanse of rollout and impact which include huge volumes of trained employees and volunteers as well as minors. The Charter‘s first provision, having to do with caring for survivors, is a different matter. That pastoral work cannot be measured in numbers trained or dollars spent. It happens privately, one encounter at a time, person to person, and heart to heart. Both people in that dialogue must be changed for the healing to take root. Its impact may not be felt for months or years–or may fail without anyone really knowing.

Ideas to help a bishop’s encounter with a survivor succeed exist. The Healing Voices is releasing a series of articles on the “enlightened listener” this fall. That is a concept first described by Dr. Alice Miller in the 1980s that ultimately gave way to trauma-informed health care. Understanding the “enlightened listener” can enrich pastoral care, providing a fresh way to see our role as servants in a suffering and traumatized world.

Caution: the “enlightened listener” role can lack the dimension possible in spiritual care which is aware of full personhood. That’s because not all people and methods see the person in relationship to Christ. So, it is crucial to start early in any reflection on “enlightened listening” with a clear distinction to be made between wonderful therapeutic listening and that which the Charter offers bishops and others the opportunity to provide. This distinction is as important for survivors’ expectations as it is for care-giving by pastors at any level of the Church.

A Difficult Encounter

It’s hard to listen to survivors. I know. I do it all the time. I am a survivor myself, and have watched others grapple with how incomprehensible my story has felt as I spoke. I am not a therapist. As I speak with survivors, I urge each one to benefit from a relationship with a therapist. I draw a bright line of distinction between the professional’s training and what I offer as a listener ready to affirm a fellow survivor.

Listening is an honor and a holy moment for all involved. It is also a juncture fraught with potential to inflict wounds all over again on them–and on myself. Understanding my role as distinct from therapist is important for us both for that very reason. It’s a good practice ground for naming and respecting mutual boundaries. It’s a regular challenge to be able to tolerate two sides with views and feelings about trauma. This is a strong contrast to the one-way sharing in therapy which, when it becomes a norm for someone, can damage relationships outside the therapist’s office.

As a peer, I don’t have the dispassion of mental health care professionals, which is suited therapeutic interventions to varying degrees (depending on schools of thought and methodologies which we discuss elsewhere, including in the Alice Miller series). What matters is that I am a peer whose lived experience provides what therapists cannot, and I am free to share value judgments I have made in my recovery that might inform choices a fellow survivor is in the processing of making.

Peer Support

Peer support is considered one of the crucial elements in successful trauma care. I become one of a number of different “enlightened listeners,” with a role free to share my recovery from abuse and its aftermath. You learn early a distinction coming to this dialogue ready to listen versus needing to be heard. There is mutuality but not equivalence.

Also, as an “enlightened listener” I am solidly grounded in the here-and-now of my present and my faith. If I offer insights drawing on my past experience at all, the memory is measured as a thimble of Light which I have managed to bring back from the darkness of all those years. I am not asking to be heard but to be helpful, not because of a misplaced selfless martyrdom but because of a readiness in my own recovery path.

This is what being an “enlightened listener” is for me. And, here is what an “enlightened listener,” in practice, is not. It is not when I am speaking to groups. That is when I share from the deep well of that unjust and formative childhood suffering in a different way. That is when I pull up and offer a cup of the memories of which nightmares are made at night. I tap the dark to testify to Light. That is different than the waiting inherent in listening to suffering. It is the Resurrection part of the story, after a very long and sometimes seemingly purposeless and futile via dolorosa, which walk in its details needs witnesses to make the reality of new life just that, real and astounding.

A Feral Grief

I cannot speak to other survivors’ experience, but it is a feral grief within me. Wild and insistent, it breaks through the boundary lines I cultivate around my well life. Integrated though it may be, its waves when triggered crash the sea wall, no longer part of a beautiful and powerful force, now destructive, fierce, unjust, unthinking.

We laugh to see a kitten imagine the lion within, but so it can be for the abandoned kits in the urban alley homeless and orphan. People who seek to offer kindness to the feral pain when it breaks its sea wall often find the best success not standing on the shore or taking combat to the cyclone. It’s more like singing while conjuring warm fragrances in rattling pots on a stove, finishing a patient daily routine by leaving a saucer of cream on the open window sill. There will be a day you return to find the saucer empty, and a later day you may find the feral kitten perched outside the pane. It’s important to understand victims have learned to survive on crumbs and vigilance. It can take a long time to find our way back to imagining, much less trusting, the feel of abundant life.

Gubbio the Wolf

The Little Flowers of St. Francis (free 1906 copy here) is a 13th century anonymous text that retells stories from the life of St. Francis. One story retells how St. Francis tamed a wolf terrorizing the citizens of Gubbio (Italy). The wolf had been devouring livestock but, worse, had acquired a taste for townspeople. The town was suffering in fear for their lives. No one dared go through the town gate into the area which the wolf prowled. St. Francis announced he would pass through the gate to speak with brother wolf. To free the people of fear, he engaged the danger directly and saw, deeper than the beast as seen by the town, hunger.

St. Francis would have recognized hunger. He welcomed hunger as a mendicant shuffling around the environs of Italy rebuilding the Church. He mistook the call to rebuild the Church for a smaller dimension that God intended. He would be mindful now of the many dimensions of hunger. When he promised the wolf daily bread freely given, he would have known more was involved that what human hands could provide.

As an “enlightened listener” St. Francis heard the full dimension of need. The practice of enlightened listening in therapy proved a historic watershed in Western mental health care. Its influence on the spiritual direction, the pastoral caregiver, and the bishop is more limited. Our faith has already understood the dimensions of the human person that exceed what psychology can grasp, but the method of listening with one’s personal enlightenment and experience is very worthwhile for today’s challenge–especially that laid down by Article 1 in the Charter.

Speaking Grief

Albert Einstein wrote that no problem can be solved by the same thinking that created it. It’s no easy thing to set aside trusted paradigms. Spirit Fire works primarily in setting that challenge before people as a way to invite a family’s healing–that is, the healing of the Church family. Jurisprudence has proven limited in its ability to fix harm from abuse. So has therapy. And so has institutional reform itself. This isn’t an argument for abandoning these paradigms, but it is a suggestion of far greater dimensions at work.

The Bread of Life which St. Francis offered didn’t just feed the people and the wolf, it changed their relationship. The Eucharist cures the worst pain and reaches the least articulated need in ourselves. It also heals the wounds of abuse that rupture so many relationships.

The work of trauma grapples daily with a grieving process over the death of childhood, family safety, all the precious things perverted by an abuser, and all the potential things destroyed by abuse. The “enlightened listener” in good therapy is a critical companion for this process, but they are not the only piece required in that patchwork of support every survivor needs.

Speaking grief involves listening to what may not be comprehensible, remembering it is likely overwhelming and confusing even to the speaker. Speaking grief requires “enlightened listeners” and benefits from those who are awake in as faith dimension of suffering, lost, injustice, evil, and… our Savior. Speaking grief isn’t preaching, it’s knowing. So, it can feel odd to those who are asked to teach and preach. What it involves is a deep understanding how listening is sufficient for changing pain to hope.

Much comfort is associated with words, which is why people recoil from death and other grief because they “don’t know what to say.” There are no words that can undo abuse. Words fail to make sense of many mysteries in life, especially those related to our fallen nature as humans. Maybe that’s why speaking grief as a gift found most among ministers in hospice or in first response teams. They have learned how to connect without magic words at times when we feel grief too deep for words anyway.

Closing Thought

The pastor is no substitute for the therapist. Most bishops hasten to support counseling for survivors of clergy abuse in varying degrees. What is less understood is that a therapist is no substitute for the pastor. The best “enlightened listener” is not a substitute for pastoral care, or for a bishop.

The Charter‘s Article I stands for an important option. Each survivor can reach out to explore making some kind of separate peace with a dimension of the wound of clergy abuse no other can address. This is true for survivors of abuse whose perpetrator was not clergy, too.

Without any reduction in regard for all the other paradigms brought to bear in grappling with the evil of abuse in the Church, I believe the greatest hope is found exactly where the dialogue between the Church and survivors prepares both for far greater service in a wounded and traumatized, suffering world.

SOURCES: Franciscan Monastery of New York. Francis Rebuild My Church. St. Francis New York Newsletter (June 27, 2018). Accessed 8/29/2020; Wikipedia contributors. (August 30,2020). Francis of Assisi. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 8/30/2020; Wikipedia contributors. (July 5, 2020). Wolf of Gubbio. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 8/30/2020

ARTWORK: By Sister Kay Francis Berger, OSF. Printed in Baran-Unland, Denise. An Extraordinary Life: A Sampling of Sister Kay Francis Berger’s Artwork. The Herald-News/SMI Network. August 18, 2017.  Accessed 8/29/2020. Reprinted under creative commons.

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