In My Father’s House
Published January 2010, Ligourian Magazine
(Re-titled by Magazine as "Forgiving the Unforgivable"
In my father’s house we had many large old rooms and my parents liked to say that they decorated those rooms with children, eleven of us. As if that wasn’t enough of a crowd, many others lived with us over the years, some were strangers, but most were friends who found themselves temporarily homeless. Our doors were never locked, the house was open and keys were left in the ignition. Anyone could use the cars—if they could get them running!
Dad ran a grocery store in town and over the years gave cases and bushels of food to our nuns and to our Catholic school lunchroom. I remember riding with him to deliver those baskets of food and of how proud I was of his generosity. He was a good man, and better yet, he was silly and playful and full of humor. He and Mother had still been children themselves when they wed, and in many ways, Dad remained child-like through old age.
We raised horses and were awaken in the middle of many nights as a mare was ready to deliver. Throwing parkas and boots over pajamas and bare feet, we would race out to the barn and huddle together around a stall, steam rising from new life, Mother and Dad sipping coffee out of chipped mugs with broken handles, brothers and sisters holding each other for warmth and excitement, seriously debating what to name each new foal.
On summer nights, we rarely slept indoors, nor did Dad. He threw blankets on the grass, counted the falling stars and watched the dark sky twinkle. Dad called the sky the ceiling of God’s Cathedral. We fell asleep listening to him talk with wonder about those stars, naming them all sorts of silly names (names that we thought were the real until we got to high school). He told us stories of angels and saints, told us all about heaven—painting it in great detail (it looked much like our farm)—and described with relish all that we would do together when we got there (heaven, it turns out, provides softball, horses and dogs—no cats due to our allergies—as well as fabulous music and comedy at any time of day). He filled us with wonder at the universe and our place in it, with wonder about the presence of God in everything around us, and with a hunger to know God.
Our home was filled with plants and animals of every kind, even a goat who taught himself to open our kitchen door and kept eating Mother’s brooms. It was a house filled with laughter and prayer and every kind of free entertainment children could dream up.
What a life it was! We were the church. We were the family of God.
Then into God’s family crept sin.
Job loss, financial strain, illness and fourteen pregnancies, never-ending worries, home foreclosure—all of it wore us down, down. Then into God’s family crept alcohol—first as a soother, then a numbing agent, until it became a monster and we all lived in wide-reaching denial. Finally, into God’s family came sexual abuse at the hands of the one man who was leading us to God.
Is not the Family of God immune to evil?
So many today are asking: How is it possible that a man so connected to God, so strong in faith, in love with the church and awed by creation—how is it possible that such a man can commit despicable acts? To that I answer—it is quite easily possible, and how very silly, how truly ridiculous for us to think that this would never happen in the Family of God. It has always happened and it will happen again. A family born of the spirit, a church born of the spirit, but living flesh and blood lives, will always be subject to every human failing and weakness.
So many are asking if it is possible for a man, or woman, to embody both good and evil? Or, does the degree of his sin negate all the good he has done with his life? And to that I answer, only we have the power to negate one another’s accomplishments, to dismiss another’s faith, to disregard what lies deep within the heart of the greatest sinner. Only we do that. The plants do not, the animals do not and God does not. God judges alone, without our assistance. God sees into the corners of hearts, places we can never go. And sinners can rest in the corners of God’s heart, in one of the many dwelling places created there by Jesus, places for each of us to rest.
I am not excusing the behavior. However, I am here to tell you, and as a victim of sexual abuse I have the right to say this, that there are, in most instances, far greater sins. Greed. War. Torture. Deforestation of the planet. Gluttonous consumerism. Reckless mining of the earth. Hunger. Genocide. Homelessness. Sins that effect whole populations and impact the earth for future generations. These—the darkest acts committed by humans against one another and nature—are greater than all the addictions and dysfunctions that infiltrate our families and our church. Yet, somehow it is so much easier for us to feast our eyes upon the sins of the flesh, the sins grown out of loneliness, or the myriad of desperate acts that sprout from the imperfect formation of humans. It is much more enjoyable to stroke and appease ourselves with claims of own innocence and so-called healthy sexuality.
Do we dare question the validity of another man’s hunger for God based on the “publicness” of his sin? All have sinned, all have failed. We have simply not all had our failings splashed on the front page of every newspaper in this country. Most abusers are not monsters. Contrary to what the world’s media would have us believe, most abusers are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. They too are sheep.
We must forgive. Otherwise we compound the sin of our brother, taking that sin onto ourselves when we ostracize him from the family. Oh, how the devil dances as the sins grows with our unwillingness to forgive. Wrongdoing should not expel us from the family, but should catapult us to the center for support, accountability, restitution, mercy, forgiveness and most of all love.
Forgiveness does not mean we should excuse or deny, we should not move the broken ones to new families or new parishes, but we must—for our own sake as well—embrace as members of the same body even those parts that have caused harm.
If we do not do so, we are no longer one body. We are only amputees.
How can we follow now?
Again, so many today are asking: How will we ever recover?
My own family struggled for over twenty years, praying, running to the church, leaving the church, coming back to the church, blaming, weeping, all the things that happen in families and happen in the church when this sin enters in. And we asked over and over, “How can we ever again be made whole?” We were like Thomas when Jesus promised he was going to prepare a place for him and Thomas answered, “How can I follow, when I do not know where you are going?” We too, not entirely sure what was happening or why, wondered how had things come to this, questioned where the Lord was going and how would we follow when we didn’t have a clue where to begin anymore?
The single most important scripture for me during that time of breaking through denial was from the Gospel of John: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” There was, and is still, no other way. There is no alternative. As a family, and as a church, the only way to find our way back to Jesus is in the truth because He is Truth. When Jesus says, ‘you will be where I am’, he could have equally said, ‘and I will be where you are’. For that is the gift he gave my family. He met us where we were. And then, he held us there while we wept.
So we told the truth. Some spoke it aloud before the others were ready to hear and embrace it. That caused anger and fear and feelings of betrayal on both sides. But the truth, as it has a habit of doing, snowballed. Soon the fruit of truth—faces awash with the tears of freedom, peace and joy—appeared in my family. Liberation became a magnet and soon others wanted to speak the truth and we learned how to do that in love. First to one another, child to mother and mother to child, father to daughter, sister to brother. No excuses, no denials. Just the stark-raving, gut-wrenching, naked and sober truth. Drowning in a sea of tears became for us a second Baptism and in the center of all that activity was the Crucifixion. We told the truth over and over and each time it got easier, each time we grew wiser and each time we more closely glimpsed the Resurrection. The longer we lived in and walked in the truth, the richer our lives grew in ways far beyond our greatest hopes. Walking in the truth empowered us with the courage to re-define who we would be now, as the Family of God, the family who had failed and was then redeemed and healed.
The Greedy Truth
During that time of healing, we found Jesus to be a selfish lover. We found the truth to be greedy and not easily satisfied. The truth was not satisfied that we deal only with abuse, but soon we were looking at other dynamics, our traditions, our habits, our beliefs. The women in my family grew strong, assertive. And the men learned that the women were equally capable and gifted. Traditional male and female roles could be pushed aside, all things were possible. Other prejudices revealed themselves when held up to the light of truth and we began to change our thinking. We continue to work today to change our thought processes and ideas, to explore how we have used our views as excuses to create exclusions. And though we continue to disagree on many topics and we grow at different rates and in different directions, we walk on, with intention, as a family. We can still gather under the twinkling stars, the ceiling of God’s Cathedral, and listen to Dad describe what heaven looks like. It still looks very much like our old farm.
Riding on Hope into the Future
Today this family of God, our beloved and battered church, sits on the brink of what could be an amazing journey filled with hope and possibility. We, who warm the pews, pray that the church uses the clarity of this moment in time, the truth of its own frailty and humanity, as an opportunity for true love and humility, shared wisdom and authority. We continue to honor the ordained who lead us in light, and in many instances speak for us. We pray that the ordained give voice to our beliefs, our concerns, and our needs. We honor the laity who teach and even preach to us from the street, from the kitchen table, and from the marketplace, reminding us that everyday life is holy.
This great sin that fell upon us has humbled us immeasurably and what we learn from it could make us very strong. We should radiate the discovery of what it feels like to realize that we can love the unlovable, that we seek to forgive the unforgivable, that we have had that ability planted within all along—which means that we too will always be loved and forgiven. Therein lies our all of our futures, intrinsically and miraculously linked.