Monday, November 28, 2011

Walking the Labyrinth for Healing the Wounds of Abuse

This year, as she has every year for many years, Elizabeth Goeke is leading an icon Advent Labyrinth Walk, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral here in Portland, Oregon.

Elizabeth might have led an Icon Advent Labyrinth Walk in Benedictine Monastery as she once was a young Benedictine Nun. But fate intervened. A priest tried to rape her on a Christmas Eve in the mid 1960s. She fought the priest off but ended up bloodied and shaken. She pulled herself together and played the church organ for Christmas Eve Mass, but inside she struggled with what had happened to her. Her confessor ordered her to remain silent or face ex communication. When she could no longer remain silent, he told her she had lost her vocation and could only speak of the attempted rape in confession. So she returned to her parent’s home and sought advice on what to do during confession with the priest in her parent’s parish. The priest accused her of lying and threw her out of the Church. She left the Catholic Church and Christianity for the next 35 years or so until coming forward as a survivor of clergy abuse inspired to seek spiritual answers for what had happened. Unfortunately her former Benedictine sisters and her Catholic family did not understand her spiritual pain. She found the support she lacked in the Catholic Church at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.  Since 2002, Elizabeth has spent many years studying Christian theology through a variety of sources and has much experience leading retreats.

Labyrinths, although not a usual form of worship in early Christianity, were incorporated into the floors of many medieval Cathedral. Their precise origin appears to have been in ancient Greece and Mycenae. The famous palace of Knossos that housed the Minotaur of Greek Mythology included a labyrinth. Scant documentation exists that explains their use in the Medieval cathedrals although some books indicate that pilgrims used them as a sort of substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Labyrinths are different from mazes in that mazes follow random paths that often lead to dead ends. Labyrinths follows paths that take you closer to and away from a center circle but eventually lead you to the center and out again.

Elizabeth belongs to the Labyrinth Guild at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and helps to organize monthly Labyrinth Walks. They are held in, Kempton Hall, a church building on the opposite side of the courtyard to the cathedral. The labyrinth consists inlaid wood on a larger wood floor. The Labyrinth Guild keeps the room illuminated with candles, plays soft music, and provides a bell at the entrance to the labyrinth along with stones with one word spiritual thoughts such as “joy” or “gratitude”. This bell and these stones are supposed to enhance our spiritual experience. My children and I first went on one of these walks in November 2007. My then 11 year old son, Colin, was entranced. He walks the labyrinth faster than I wish he would and then he sat in the center for a long time.

Colin is very Franciscan in his life style. He cares not for material possessions nor whether his clothes are old and torn. He likes good food the way St. Francis did, and he loves hiking and being in nature and finds that he feels uplifted and most connected to God when he is hiking on a mountain side. After this first labyrinth walk, he remarked that he felt the same uplift walking the labyrinth as he did hiking in nature.

But the Advent walk is not the same as the usual Labyrinth Walk. It begins with a procession of icons relevant to the season of Advent, usually including icons of Mary Mother of Jesus, Madonna and child, St. Joseph, St. Francis who prayed the Rosary with devotion, and St. Michael the Archangel among others. Advent, to remind everyone, is the season during which we prepare for the birth of Jesus.

This year a few survivors who are a part of Compassionate Gathering plan to attend the Labyrinth Walk. Since Labyrinths have an uncertain Christian origin I decided to explore the spiritual significance of various saints likely to be a part of the Icon Walk.

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I start with Mary because she is the mother of God. For me the most inspiring images of her are her holding either the infant Jesus or the crucified Christ.

Mary is much revered in Catholicism and Greek and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Protestants are less interested in Mary. I looked up the spirituality of Mary on Google to see how I could relate Mary to surviving and healing from the wounds of abuse and found the Catholic doctrines of Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. Immaculate Conception of Mary refers to the doctrine that Mary’s mother, Anne, was a virgin when Mary was born. Assumption refers to the doctrine that Mary was assumed into heaven when she died and presumably did not have to go through purgatory because she was already so advanced spiritually. Quite honestly, I do not find these doctrines inspiring because they are like arguing, as theologians did during Medieval times, how many angels can dance of the head of a pin.

I find more inspiration in the life of the human Mary.

When my son was 5 years old when we were baptized Catholic.  He was devoted to Mary. My son really loves me, his mother. Mary was Jesus’s mother. Therefore Mary must be somebody really special.

My second source of inspiration I found in the a very Catholic tradition -- the mysteries of the Rosary as well as the gospel stories behind those mysteries.

The Annunciation of the impending birth of the son of God by the angel Gabriel. Basically Gabriel tells her that she has a really big job -- she is about to become the mother of God in human form.  I tell my children that motherhood is the hardest job you will ever love.

The Visitation of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist to Mary. Elizabeth, Mary’s pregnant cousin comes to visit. Mary is pregnant, too but she worries more about Elizabeth than herself.

The Nativity or birth of Jesus in a manger. I have given birth to two children. I have never experienced such pain in my life. My whole essence was immersed in pain, and I had an epidural nerve block to lessen that pain, a doula, a devoted physician husband, an obstetrician and an obstetrical nurse to help me. Imagine riding all day on a donkey and having no shelter except the animal shed and a husband who is not a physician to help you through it. Mary qualifies for sainthood on that basis alone.

The Wedding at Cana where Mary tells Jesus to turn water into wine. He’s reluctant as His time has not yet come, but He obeys his mother.

As a mother of two teenagers, I really appreciate the part about Jesus obeying his mother.

The Crucifixion where Mary stays by Jesus along with John and a few other women. Meanwhile all these male Apostles have abandoned him.

It is easy to find inspiration in the life of Mary if you are a survivor of abuse. Mary is a very compassionate and giving person, but most of all she stands by her son when others deny Him. Her son is abused, disbelieved and abandoned by his friends but she never stops believing in him. She pushes him to come forward and show the world who he really is. What a story. If only all parents were like Mary.

I also find the image of Madonna and child inspiring. Babies fill our lives with much joy and much work.  They also deprive us of sleep. Until I became a mother of small children, I did not know how much I had to give. I remember taking an all day train ride from California when my second child was 8 months old. After arriving home I unpacked everything and made dinner and got the children ready for bed. I was dead tired, but they wanted me to read them a story. I tried to beg off, but my three year old and my 8 month old were not understanding. I thought I was ready to drop but found just enough energy to cuddle two children and read to them for half an hour. The image of Madonna and Child conveys unconditional love. We all need to be cuddled.  We all need to be cared for. We all need to be loved unconditionally. Survivors who have not been able to count on unconditional love, need it all the more so.

St. Joseph. St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers as well as the patron saint of unwed mothers. Mary gets pregnant while they are engaged, and he’s supposed to believe that she was wasn’t cheating on him and believe he does, as well as protect this child that is supposedly not his. He takes wife and child to Egypt to keep his son from begin killed. I work with a survivor who was abused by her father. Without asking, I am sure she wishes that he took some parental inspiration from St. Joseph. Just as we need loving mothers to care for us, we need loving fathers who would go as far away as Egypt in order to protect us from harm.

St. Francis of Assisi was included in the Icon Walk last year. I love this guy. He talked to birds and found God in the mountains. I used to be a wildlife biologist. Here I am at age 20 holding some baby Red-tail Hawks I helped to band.

Look at my face. As a child sex abuse survivor I struggled with depression all my life, but not when I was holding baby birds on a desert mountain. I felt not depression at that moment, but ecstatic joy. St. Francis was my patron saint even when I was an agnostic who was not especially interested in looking for God.

But St. Francis did more than speak to wolves and birds, he hung out with lepers, treated women as equals and saw the goodness of God in Muslims. Clergy abuse survivors are the lepers of the Catholic Church. I am sure that St. Francis would have sat and listened compassionately to any survivor who came his way. He would have embraced survivors in public and not cared one whit about what anyone one else thought.

St. Michael the Archangel. My first awareness of St. Michael -- Mount St. Michel. This rocky mountain is home to the monastery of St. Michel as well as an island off the coast of France -- at high tide at least.

St. Michael is one of the Archangels mentioned in the Bible and is supposedly one of the angels who visited St. Joan of Arc repeatedly. St. Michael is considered the protector and is often pictured with a sword.

We all need protectors bearing swords at times, especially when someone is abusing us.

Rumor has it that St. Michael is the most talkative of the angels, the one most likely to reveal his presence when we ask for his help.

I can’t cite any scientific studies to back this up, but I do know people who feel they have experienced his presence through prayer.

Well, anyway, come. Talk to Elizabeth. She is a clinical counselor as well as a clergy abuse survivor. Walk the labyrinth at your own pace. Enjoy. Hopefully if you want to connect to other survivors, Elizabeth will know who they are. I hope to come too, but I will be late as I have other obligations.

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral is located at 147 Northwest 19th Avenue  Portland, OR 97209-1901. The Procession of the Icons takes place in Kempton Hall at 6 PM. Contact Elizabeth Goeke at

See this Labyrinth at the Chartres Medieval Cathedral in France.

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