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Grace EtterbeekApril 05, 2024
Photo via iStock

“You must do what God demands of you. You must wait and pray.”

These were the words of the priest speaking to my women’s group about the sacrifices of motherhood and marriage. He was expounding on the virtues of some of the female Catholic saints who had lived in troubled marriages, all of whom had endured years of suffering and abuse: St. Rita and St. Monica, who both endured physical and verbal abuse; Blessed Elizabeth Canori-Mora, whose husband left her and her children in poverty; and lastly, St. Godelieve, who was locked in a cage by her husband before he arranged her murder. 

Father paused. I waited for the disclaimer that must be coming. Certainly, he was about to explain that the church should never have tolerated this type of abuse and that the present-day church would advise these women to leave these situations and find safety.

But the disclaimer never came. There was only silence. My stomach churned. I looked around at the other women in the room. Most sat silently. Some stared at the floor.

My takeaway from the priest’s message? God wants you to stay in the abuse. 

The women saints that Father spoke of that morning were well known to me. Their pages in my prayer book were well worn. Some Sundays, I was the last one to leave the church after Mass; whispering the prayers, sometimes audibly; furrowing my eyebrows and clenching my teeth as if I could push the prayers into heaven with physical effort. Maybe I was just bracing myself for the answer I knew I was receiving but didn’t want to accept. I was beginning to realize that there was not going to be a miraculous moment where my husband would become a gentle and loving man. The most likely outcome was that he would continue to fracture our family and that our children would see the Catholic faith as a way to manipulate and control another person.

Waiting and praying wasn’t working. I needed to take action. But this, too, was terrifying.

Over the years of my marriage, the manipulation, gaslighting and abuse started slowly and increased in imperceptibly small increments. My husband used all of the classic techniques of an abuser while twisting our Catholic faith to support his actions. When he slapped one of our children so hard that it left a mark, he called it discipline: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” When he isolated me from supportive family and friends, he explained that he was protecting me from “silly, misguided humanists” who would try to steal my faith. When I confronted him about the abusive language he used toward our children, he convinced me that it was my fault for provoking his anger and that it was his God-ordained duty to make sure that our children learned obedience.

And always, always, always, he would remind me that at any moment he could cross the line to physical abuse. He convinced me that it was my job to make sure that he never did. On Sunday mornings, the priest’s instructions to “be like St. Monica and respond to his angry words with gentle replies” sharpened the claws of the abusive cycle. Through this priest, I felt the church’s instructions to me were clear. Pray better. Be a better mother. Make better dinners. If you do all of these things, God will change him. And of course, wait and pray.

So, I St. Monica’d my way through my children’s elementary years, and I St. Rita’d my way through their middle school years. And through all those years, my children watched the abuse. They watched the manipulation. They were degraded, controlled and diminished on a daily basis, while I stood by and did nothing to stop it. On one occasion, my son called me a coward. He was right.

As my children grew into adults, they wanted little or nothing to do with the church. Who could blame them?

One evening, my husband slapped our daughter for having a differing opinion on a local political issue. I demanded that we seek therapy, which he refused. The next day, I confided the situation to a friend who had been open about some of her marriage problems. She referred me to her therapist, who began meeting with me individually and in a group setting.

Eventually, I found a secular support group. Sometimes I went consistently, sometimes not. I learned to accept where I was and how I got there. And slowly, with stops and starts, little by little, I got stronger. I saw more clearly. At one point, someone in the group suggested that leaving could be the most tender and caring thing that I could do, not only for myself, but also for him. The people I spoke to within the church had led me to believe that staying and enduring was the only way to love someone. With the help of the strong, beautiful women in my support group, I was able to see myself as a person who God wanted to move to safety so that I could grow in God’s likeness. I began to see myself as a flawed and messy person whom God loved unconditionally.

Still, I stayed married believing that meant I was being faithful to the church. I waited and prayed, but the abuse escalated. My husband’s behavior toward our adult children had become so erratic that they had little interest in being around us. When our youngest daughter made a change in her college plans, he became so upset that he threw her out of the house and refused to speak to her. In that moment, I realized that I would ultimately have to choose between staying married to him and having a relationship with my children. After more than two decades, I found the courage to leave.

I wish I could tell you that once I left and the true nature of my marriage was publicly revealed, my parish embraced me and walked alongside me in my recovery. Sadly, that has not been the case. My husband, who was lukewarm at best in his engagement with our parish, has turned to them for support, and they have fully embraced him. I am told he attends Mass several times a week now and regularly receives counseling from our priest.

In the end, did the waiting and praying work in the way that was promised? No. My husband was not sanctified by my suffering. He was sanctified by my leaving. And, hypothetically, if some of my prayers and suffering had sanctified him, at what cost? The damage that was done to my children simply cannot be understated. And while I was waiting and praying for him to change, what other good was left undone? I believe that God’s timing is perfect. Did members of our church encourage me to ignore God’s timing in favor of their own?

Spousal abuse of any kind is a grave sin, and the church does not want anyone to become a victim of a sinful situation. The church’s respect for marriage should never supersede its respect for the lives and safety of the people who enter into that sacrament. It’s time for the church to do more to speak up for abused women. 

Now what? For the first time in my life, I am exploring my faith in a fresh way. Very rarely do any of us have the privilege of truly examining our beliefs without the fear of disappointing someone with our conclusions. My circumstances have given me this extraordinary opportunity. At times, I am almost giddy about the privilege that I have been granted, but it is also a weighty obligation. I will not squander this opportunity, nor will I rush it. I am peacefully moving forward knowing that I am safely held.

And my children? Similarly, they are slowly and thoughtfully exploring what they believe. I am at peace with their journey and I hope that they find their way back to the church, not as critics or complainers about their experiences, but as voices for those who may be caught in the same confusion that they knew; as agents for change that will help create a church that is a shelter for the weak and a refuge for the vulnerable; a church that will be the still waters for families in turmoil.

While I walk alongside them on their journey, I will wait and pray.

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