Six years ago I boarded a plane to Italy and left my family, friends and boyfriend of three years for what I imagined would be an amazing study-abroad experience. For months it was just that. I enjoyed traveling around Europe, immersing myself in Italian city-life, culture and cuisine. As my study abroad experience came to an end, my American cohort was invited by a friend of a friend to join him at his family hotel for the weekend. I felt grateful for one more adventure and for the experience of living abroad, knowing it had changed me. I did not yet know that the weekend at the hotel would change me too.
When we arrived, we were welcomed by the young man who had invited us. Later that night he raped me. Afterward, I was left stunned and was filled with a fear I did not know I was capable of feeling. I limped through the rest of the weekend in pained silence. When I finally returned to my apartment I immediately called my parents. I was frantic, and the magnitude of the trauma began to settle in.
As I dialed their phone number, I had no doubt that my parents’ reaction would be one of rage and fear and that they would be determined to get me home as soon as possible so they could take care of me. All my life, through any small catastrophe, they had been there to pick me up and hold and love me. Yet when I told them what had happened I was met with silence. In disbelief I called my then-boyfriend and then my two best girlfriends. Each met my call with a similarly apathetic tone.
Once I returned to the United States, my boyfriend wanted nothing to do with me. My girlfriends pretended nothing had happened. I don’t know whether or not their reactions were due to shock, fear or uncertainty about what to say. I have not asked. I just know that people who had loved me and who I expected to be there for me had left me to deal with this deep pain alone. I retreated inward into darkness.
When the rape first happened, I felt I was a victim of violence. Over time this morphed into something that I slowly and quietly came to believe I had somehow deserved. The rape, along with the lack of support from family and friends, made me feel indescribable shame. I became disconnected from the world—from my parents, my friends and from God. I went through my final year of college like an empty shell. I had no one who could meet me where I was. I felt I had no place where this new me would be accepted and loved. I was afraid to open up to others for fear of being judged. I tried praying and turning to God, but it seemed like a waste of time. I felt God had left me just like everyone else—that he had let this happen to me.
My shame started to silently but effectively kill everything beautiful and bright in my world. I poured all my anger and loneliness into my schoolwork. I earned a 4.0 G.P.A. during my senior year, and I started a new job on Wall Street soon after. But even amid the excitement of New York City, I felt lifeless. I felt this way for two more years, and continued to long for joy and peace in my life.
Then a friend introduced me to the concept of spiritual direction. Something about this approach to my spirituality felt right, and fortunately I had the grace to seek out a woman who was able to meet with me. Prior to my first session, I felt very nervous and unsure of how I would be received. I would not have blamed anyone for not wanting to step inside my world. Instead, my spiritual director poured love and kindness into the darkness and my light started to shine. I felt safe sharing with her. Instead of apathy or disgust, I was met with love, compassion and care. I was finally able to cry over what had happened to me.
An Open Heart
In those sessions, which were spread over several years, I realized I was deeply angry at God and felt abandoned by him—but even worse, I felt I somehow deserved his abandonment. My spiritual director invited me to share my pain with Jesus in prayer. In my prayer I was able to ask questions: How could this have happened to me? God, do you really love me? Do I deserve your love? Am I good enough for you? I wanted to hear God tell me: I do love you. I made you in my image and you are beautiful just the way you are. I never left you. I was with you the night you were raped, the morning you called your parents. I held your hand on your long painful walks to the clinic to see if you had contracted H.I.V. I stroked your hair and whispered in your ear: I loved you when you felt misunderstood and abandoned. The courage to tell your spiritual director after years of silence came from me. I never wanted this to happen to you. I know and understand your pain and I only want you to be healed.
How could this have happened to me? God, do you really love me? Do I deserve your love? Am I good enough for you?
During my time in spiritual direction and through prayer, the way I saw Jesus and my relationship with him started to change. He became more relatable. My feelings of shame, abandonment, betrayal and loneliness were feelings I knew Jesus had experienced as well. I prayed with Scripture from Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Scenes from the Garden of Gethsemane resonated in my heart. In the garden Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” We know that, instead of keeping awake, his friends fell asleep.
In my prayer, I imagined Jesus walking back from his prayer only to find his friends had fallen asleep. I imagined him feeling betrayed. These were men he loved and who loved him. Yet these friends—friends Jesus called upon in a time of true need—let him down. In my prayer, I felt compassion, love and understanding for Jesus and his suffering. At the same time, I was able to feel his compassion for me. I no longer felt alone. Jesus knew my suffering. Jesus had lived through it himself.
Despite the fact that I was starting to realize Jesus could understand my suffering, I was still unwilling to accept Jesus could love me for what had happened to me. Relationships, in general, were still difficult. I did not trust anyone other than my spiritual director with my story. I believed that others would look at me differently once I told them about my rape. I preferred to carry my heavy and painful cross alone. It was exhausting.
Despite the fact that I was starting to realize Jesus could understand my suffering, I was still unwilling to accept Jesus could love me for what had happened to me.
This way of living changed about three years ago when I began dating a man who was compassionate and kind. After several months, I realized I was falling in love with him. Yet I still carried the weight of my story with me, and I feared he would leave me if he knew. Eventually, I decided it was better to tell him. If he did not accept me, I wanted to know as soon as possible, so that I could end the relationship before the pain of rejection was too much to bear. I braced myself for a reaction similar to those I had experienced before: silence or apathy. Instead, he wept.
He cried for me and for the pain I had been holding in my heart the last four years. He said he wished he could take away all my pain. His tears became all those tears that no one cried for me before; the tears I barely allowed myself to cry. The cross I had been carrying for so long was no longer being carried by me alone.
Like John, the beloved disciple who stays at the foot of Jesus’ cross, this man stayed by my side. Finally, I had another person to be with me in my pain. John loves Jesus to the end. John shows up. His love for Jesus is unconditional. This man was my John. I married him.
Only after I had the grace to receive my husband’s unconditional love for me did I realize what I had been missing, what I desired most: I wanted to come home to the love of Jesus. This desire has always lived inside me, but it was so hard for me to find it. I had always felt that my darkness was too much for God. I now know this is not true. With help I have found a place of surrender and trust. And yet my journey of healing is not over. I continue to pray and to share my story and to grow in my relationship with God. I have a new willingness to let God be God and heal, restore and renew me. I know that Jesus has always loved me. Even in my darkest moments, all I have ever desired or needed has been with me all along.