When Mass is the Trigger

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February 11, 2018 by lucieromarin

Traumatised persons are removed from triggering people, places or situations, in the interests of recovery. This is known. It may take ten years to heal from the effects of abuse, but it will take twenty if you’re trying to heal while living with the abuser’s family, looking at his photographs, hearing stories about him at the dinner table, and working and socialising in a culture steeped in his values.

What then, does the Catholic do, for whom Sunday Mass is obligatory under pain of mortal sin, but for whom Mass-attendance is also the trigger, because her abuser was a priest?

I find no answer to this question anywhere. I have read statements in which we are urged to pray that victims of clergy malpractice do not lose their faith; I have not heard a single practical suggestion about how to protect those victims from re-traumatisation during their participation in those rites which bring the abuser to mind. This has nothing to do with what the Mass is known by the survivor to be. Trauma responses are triggered by gestures, actions, sounds, colours, or scents that recall those experienced during the traumatic event. So, let it be known, even if it’s only in this dusty, half-lit corner of the internet, that, for a Catholic betrayed by a priest, every priest is a reminder of that betrayal. Every reminder of that betrayal is a reminder of the cover-up of that betrayal. Every reminder of that cover-up, which was followed immediately by the expectation of continued loyalty under pain of damnation, blows your mind. You can stay home from Mass if you have a chesty cough. You can’t stay home from Mass if a priest destroyed your life, the Church covered up for him, and now you want to die. I don’t doubt that there is a good reason for this. I do doubt the value of never creating a pastoral plan around it in support of the person living through it.

I asked one survivor of domestic violence about her strategy for Mass. Her strategy was dissociation –  the mind’s removal from the physical particulars of the moment and the pretence that those physical particulars don’t touch the ‘real’ world in that mind. This is, in fact, the same strategy used by victims of sexual abuse during abuse. It is difficult to feel that leaving traumatised Catholics to use psychologically-fragmenting sexual-abuse-survival techniques to fulfil the Sunday obligation constitutes an adequate pastoral plan.

I have tried everything to retain that fidelity to Sunday Mass, to dodge the triggers, or to see past the memories that rise before my inner eye every time I look at the sanctuary. I have tried changing myself: I’ve dressed up, dressed down, dyed my hair, cut my hair, exhorted myself with prayer and holy reading, distracted myself with sci-fi entertainment the night before. I have drugged my Saturday-night sleep and plied myself with comfort food en route on Sunday morning. I have tried mixing with new people after Mass. I’ve tried getting home as soon as possible after Mass, shutting the door on the world, and wrapping myself in silence. I’ve done trauma work in counselling, expressed myself in watercolours, and offered everything up for the conversion of souls. I have also tried changing the place; I’ve travelled to parishes all over the city, looking for the worship that would do something other than remind me. One winter’s night, I waited forty minutes in the rain and cold at a deserted Rosebery bus stop, tears pouring down my face, aching to know why the priest who’d just said Mass hadn’t fallen while my hero had, aching to know why that hero was punishing me for a crime I could not name, and wondering why no one in the Church knew that someone was standing in the middle of nowhere crying in the rain because of Her fallen son.

That was in 2014. By 2017, my Church did know, and I had it from the mouth of one of Her highest representatives that it was of little interest. By this time, my experience of Sunday Mass was withered, unrecognisable, bent all out of shape and hardened with a bitter crust.

Well, I’ve tried one other thing. I’ve visited the Eastern rites. Some weeks ago, I worshipped at Maronite liturgy for the first time in many years. (I worked in a Maronite school over ten years ago and was introduced to the liturgy then.) When I got home, I made my prayer of thanksgiving, and cried again, this time for happiness. It had worked. It was trigger-free. I’d been able to pray. I had been to a Mass in a rite that looked and sounded nothing like my spiritual director’s rites – old or new – but which was familiar enough to me to help me feel like something other than a bewildered refugee of the Latin West. The prayers were not my usual Sunday prayers, but they were ancient and beautiful, so that my thirst for the ancient and beautiful could still be slaked. There was no agenda. No one there was building an empire, looking for recruits, demanding my obedience, or fastening rules upon me, but there was space for God, for the movements of the heart and soul in prayer. And so, I got home, and said “I went to Mass! I went to Mass!” and burst into tears.

All of which is a preamble to this new step in recovery: I’m going Maronite for Lent. I’m going to set aside my know-it-all Latin commitment to empire and be the baby of the place. I will receive from my Maronite friends whatever they wish to share and look with new vision at a religion that, as it turns out, I haven’t learned the whole of. And as I prepare for Ash Monday (yes, you read that correctly), I can’t help thinking this: I was introduced to the Maronite rite a good ten years before I needed a break from the Latin West. And, when I needed that refuge, I discovered that the flat into which I moved in 2014 was only a short walk from a Maronite convent hitherto completely unnoticed by me.

Do not ask me why God preferred to embed an exit plan in my life than to protect me from prison in the first place. I do not know. Right now, I do not care. Digging your way out of Alcatraz is the wrong time and place for a philosophical debate. There will be plenty of time for your motivational speaking tour enriched by hard-won jail truths once you’re out.

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