By Rev. Kenneth W. Schmidt, MA, LPC, NCC
One of the difficulties some survivors of childhood trauma encounter is difficulty in their relationship with God. They have very mixed and perhaps confusing feelings about God.
On the one hand, they were told as children that God loves, them, cares for them, watches over them, but that was not their experience. Instead, they felt unprotected and abandoned by God who failed to keep them safe from their perpetrator. Even now they may still feel abandoned or lost from God as they continue to deal with the painful outcomes of their abuse or neglect.
One issue that lasts is a difficulty with prayer. They may be trying to contain their emotions, and so they don’t want to pray at all, worried that they may lose control of their feelings. Or, they may think that they cannot express their true feelings to God, believing that God will respond to their anger, for example, the way other adults responded. It is not easy to overcome these beliefs, and often having a new positive experience is the only way that a new belief can emerge.
Some people find praying difficult because the Mass or the prayers they learned don’t seem to touch their childhood experience or what they’re dealing with now as adults. They don’t know how to put into words what they are thinking and feeling.
Special books may help, such as Survivor Prayers: Talking with God about Childhood Sexual Abuse, by Catherine Foote (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1994). Or stepping away from more traditional vocabulary and images may help survivors discover God’s love for them by using new images, such as Love Poems from God, trans. Daniel Ladinsky (New York: Penguin Compass, 2002). Reading the Gospels with the perspective of childhood may help survivors enter into prayerful meditation, as I attempt in my own small book, You Have Set Us Free (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016).
Some survivors may try to write their own prayers – writing may help to stay focused more easily than mental payer. Another possibility is to start with a prayer or a psalm and then re-write it to make it personal. Here’s a sample based on Psalm 6:
Don’t scold me, God,
or punish me in your anger.
I didn’t do anything wrong!
Show me mercy, because I’m exhausted.
Heal me, for my body is worn out,
and my mind is filled with pain.
How long, God, before you act?
Turn to me; save me!
Rescue me from this hellish life.
For if I’m dead, I cannot pray,
and I certainly can’t praise you
while I’m in this living hell.
I’m tired of complaining about my life;
my bed is wet from my sobbing.
My eyes are red from my crying
and swollen from all my tears.
Get away from me, you awful memories!
You have heard me.
You have seen my weeping
and paid heed to my cries.
My crazy thoughts and unhealthy desires
will be cast aside by your divine power.
The only way to learn to pray or return to prayer is to start. God is not keeping a record nor is God giving us grades. Just do it.
Finally, most of us heard that prayer is “talking to God.” But just like any good conversation, it also helps if we take some time to be quiet and listen, too.