This continues The Healing Voices Series on Alice Miller: Icon & Ideas
The idea of the “enlightened listener” is a concept Alice Miller added to the practice of psychoanalysis and psychology. With tectonic impact. It’s a concept that requires more than academic expertise and professional training. It demands a whole person shows up, ready to listen with their own suffering.
Miller’s concept of the “enlightened listener” was born of her own suffering both in historic terms as a Jew under the National Socialist regime. She drew on that suffering for empathy to offer her patients and, in the process, transformed Western psychology. The impact is not hard to understand when considered for the semblance of the “enlightened listener” to the fuller Christian witness with its eternal impact and implications.
Jesus is so deeply personal, knowing, and effective in His encounters. People’s agony, even their agony of sin, is laid bare for one reason, not for shame but for reunion. The hearing of the hidden heart leads to a healing of the person that leads to a deepening of the relationship with Jesus and Him Who is Revealed by His Son. It has proven to be an irresistible proposition over and over and over again.
This encounter is embodied by my first Christian witness–a Franciscan friar whom I describe in my chronicle of the people who helped me return to my faith, Restoring Sanctuary (2009). I had attempted to confess the shame and horror as my own evil, but he was able to change the dialogue into a witness to the evil done to me. It was the first time anyone had ever been able to assert such a truth on my behalf. It was a turning point in healing. Make no mistake. He listened and responded unlike a therapist would have responded, but it was his Christian witness where I found a faith that made it impossible for me not to return home. As I have grown older, I can see better how he showed signs of his own life of suffering. It had to be on that which had had drawn to save my soul.
For well over a decade, now, in the United States Catholic Church there has been evolving a survivor ministry of Catholics whose work is a lived vigil, waiting for survivors of clergy abuse to venture forward to speak. Some make reports of abuse, many others seek someone who understands the trauma of abuse and whose ministry is to be an enlightened Christian witness. This will be for many, many victims and their family members the first conversation with anyone in the Church after decades of private grief. In the more enlightened dioceses, this person becomes an anchor for victims and their family members to the degree they desire and can explore a new relationship with the Church, the sacraments, and a local parish.
The impact of these survivor ministers as “enlightened listeners” cannot be overstated. They are not defined by a particular degree but rather by a personal presence and ability to hear in ways only those deeply connected to their own grief and pain can do. They are, or become, another level of unflinching Christian witness.
Everyone experiences pain and grief in life. Alice Miller came to believe that every person experiences trauma in their formative years of youth. She may have been speaking of a particular era only, or of the human condition; scholars debate this. Meanwhile, what she herself was and lived is reflected in survivor ministers. They have had to face their own pain in working very close to the darkness and evil that harmed the Church in order to offer solace and witness, justice and homecoming to thousands of victims of abuse within the Church.
These survivor ministers are proof that pain is best healed by those familiar with the pain, and that trauma-informed ministries require fluency in pain in order to hear pain and receive its story without imposing any need to minimize or fix it. We are called to witness not play God. No one knows this better than anyone involved with victims of clergy abuse seeking to find healing in the Church
As many survivor ministers know, we survivors are greatly inspired by them. Consider former Indiana poet laureate and abuse survivor Norbert Kraft’s story of how much his survivor minister helped him write a book about his faith journey through healing. There have been many such articles in this magazine, still in our article ready to be read and enjoyed.
Difficult as it may be, we who have been wounded by abuse are called to heal others. That may be in our home circle, or at work or school, or in parishes. We have the wounds which, in healing, can make us “enlightened listeners,” too, as we have found in survivor ministries waiting for us. Like them, we just need to make the commitment to continue in a sincere and self-aware healing of ourselves–as individuals, families, and as a Church.