How do I deal with pain from the past?
Dear Father John, “The truth is that we cannot remain prisoners of the past; people need a sort of ‘healing of the memories’ so that past evils will not come back again.” My question arises from this quote. HOW, HOW do I make it so that the past evils not come back, when the Hurt is there. The Mistrust is there?
This question is relevant for all of us, because all of have wounds from the past, whether wounds caused by our own sins, or by others whose sins affect us. Often, a vague understanding of how the healing process happens can cause frustration, and that can distract us from following God’s lead on a day-to-day basis, seriously hindering our spiritual growth.
Standing on the Right Foundation
In the case alluded to by this question, the origin of the past wound seems to with someone else. The questioner has been hurt and, it seems, betrayed. That reality is inhibiting them from hoping that the future can ever be truly joyful, healthy, and fruitful. The pain and the fallout from the past betrayal has created an impenetrably black horizon, or so it seems.
The same experience can result from one’s own sins and betrayals. Having fallen over and over again, having sinned grievously in relation to a crucial relationship or responsibility, or having culpably missed a God-given opportunity – these failures can sap hope and vitality as much when we commit them as when we suffer them.
In either case, God wants to pierce the dark horizon with his unconquerable light. And he not only wants to, he can. God is both all-good, and all-powerful: “And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it” (John 1:5). We must consciously return to that conviction of our faith when we run up against this painful situation. In prayer, we should express our faith in God’s goodness and omnipotence, and we should also express the depths of our sorrow and pain. Look, for example, at Psalm 32 (for situations in which we are the ones who have failed), or Psalm 22 (for situations in which we are suffering because of the sins of others). This is the foundation of supernatural hope: We know, by the sure knowledge of faith, that the hurt and mistrust we experience now is, in God’s plan, only a short part of the story, not the end of the story.
Having taken our stand on that foundation, God will usually roll back the darkness in one of two ways.
Two Paths to Heal Past Wounds
First, he can dissipate the darkness directly and quickly. This happens. Sometimes he grants an extraordinary grace in which the battered heart is renewed almost as soon as it has been wounded. A memorable example of this was seen in John Paul II’s visit to the prison cell of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in 1983, almost as soon as he was released from the hospital. Later, the Pope also greeted and embraced the assassin’s mother. The common and oppressive – and in this case even justifiable – darkness of anger and vengeance never even had a chance to take root in the pontiff’s heart. Certainly, John Paul II’s long life of prayer and penance had created a spiritual maturity that allowed God’s grace to act quickly and decisively. But even for less mature Christians, God in his wisdom sometimes grants quick release from darkness and hurt.
Second, and more frequently, God performs the healing gradually, and he allows us to be active participants in the process. In this case, the spiritual wound, like a serious physical injury, requires time and treatment. The treatment takes the form of grace obtained through prayer and the sacraments. We not only need to ask for God’s healing in prayer, but we need to learn to reflect deeply and meditatively on the example of Christ – this is commonly called mental prayer. At the same time, we need to approach the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist frequently and with supernatural confidence.
When God chooses to follow this second path, we usually face a couple temptations. In the first place, we become impatient. We just want the healing process to be over already! And secondly, we can begin to rebel against God by refusing the treatment, through giving up on prayer and distancing ourselves from the sacraments. But if God chooses to lead us along the path of time and treatment, he has his reasons. He will use that path to heal other wounds too, wounds we don’t even know we have. He will use it to help us grow in virtues that we don’t even know we need. Throughout this long and painful journey, in other words, God is coaching us in hidden ways, helping us fulfill the dream for our lives that he has always had, even since before he formed us in the womb. Along the way, it’s helpful to keep St Peter’s dictum in view: “But one thing, beloved, you must keep in mind, that with the Lord a day counts as a thousand years, and a thousand years count as a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
A Couple Practical Tactics
I can’t finish without mentioning two very practical tactics we can use to cooperate with God’s time and treatment: forgiving and giving. Forgiveness takes place in the core of our being, in our will. If someone has wounded us, we forgive them by praying that God absolve them from their sin and lead them to heaven. If you wish someone would go to hell, you have not forgiven them. This spiritual forgiveness can coexist with a lot of emotional pain, resentment, and anger. Those emotions reside in a more superficial part of the soul, and they will gradually diminish, especially if you begin to pray for the person who has offended you. On the other hand, if it is one’s own sins that are causing the darkness, this “forgiving” step takes the form of accepting God’s forgiveness. This acceptance takes place at that core of our being, and can also coexist with tricky emotions. But in our hearts, we know that God’s mercy is infinite, and infinitely capable of forgiving our sins: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
Giving is the second tactic. It involves focusing our energy on living the here-and-now as God would have us, in spite of the pain, darkness, and interior storms. Each moment, we know pretty well what God’s will is for us: being faithful to the normal, everyday responsibilities of our lives, whether it’s washing dishes or preparing for a board meeting. By giving ourselves to these duties with a spirit of faith, and doing so because God wants us to and as God would like us to, we invest less energy in the past, the source of the darkness. It’s like moving forward under a cloudy sky knowing that the sun is still shining above the clouds. In other words, we can still make a decent effort to do all the good we can do here-and-now, even if the here-and-now happens to look a bit like a shipwreck. And doing good is the best way to outsmart evil: “Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good“ (Romans 12:21).
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD
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