God comes to me

  • November 3, 2010
How do we cope with the pain of betrayal, especially when it comes from within, from family?

Consider Jess, whose mother Kristen gave birth to her as a teenager. Kristen wanted an abortion but couldn’t get one; she’d slipped into a drug addiction that would last 20 years. She kept the child and raised her, with some help from her family and occasional help from the various men in her life, mostly fellow addicts. By the time she was 12, Jess had learned much about, shall we say, adult entertainment. She’s spent much of the rest of her life trying to distance herself from her upbringing, discover a healthy sexuality and find how to be in real relationships. Her anger against her mother is unabated; for her, betrayal and hurt came not from outside, but from within, from the one who should offer protection and comfort, support and nourishment. One of her biggest challenges is to learn to trust. By now, Jess knows how to cope, but she also needs to be healed.

Such stories aren’t new. Many Old Testament stories about evil and sin focus on intimate betrayal: Cain; the 11 brothers of Joseph; Delilah; and more. In the New Testament, betrayal comes not among blood siblings but within the new family of Christ Himself. The most spectacular betrayal is by Judas, but nearly all Jesus’ disciples betray Him by abandonment or complete denial as with Peter. The sting that Jess carries is unique to her, but connects her with human history and its undercurrent of betrayal.

On Oct. 17, the six people canonized in Rome included Australian Mary MacKillop. For me, one of the ways Mary is an exemplar of holiness is her response to betrayal. Some years ago, on a visit to Sydney, I had a chance encounter with Mary, founder of the Josephite community. One of the Sisters there gave me a tour of the motherhouse including a museum which depicted Mary’s life story and the founding of the community. I saw Mary’s courage, her understanding of poverty and the love her community bears for her. And I saw how she allowed transformation to come through an experience of betrayal. Its teaching has helped me understand how there can be an antidote to experiences such as Jess’s.

Four years after she established the Josephite community to accompany and serve the poor, Mary was excommunicated by her bishop. The bishop’s announcement was followed by the closing of the community’s schools and the homelessness of 47 nuns. The explanation was that Bishop Sheil disapproved of her community’s ways, though other possible reasons have been put forward.  

In any case, Mary suffered from attack by the Church, her home. Have you ever been in such a place, where those you trusted, and love itself, seemed to turn against you? Perhaps you thought you were following God’s word, with faith as your guide, and suddenly you were assaulted and felled, as though you yourself were the evil one. In such a place, Mary found herself. Not alone:  here she was met by the One from whom, after His betrayal, was wrenched the cry of the heart, the fundamental cry of humanity, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

In the museum, I read a letter written during Mary’s excommunication, in which she expresses gratitude for those who gave her refuge. The refuge was the housing friends offered herself and her sisters. A local Jesuit community continued to give her the sacraments. This was the real refuge. Though canonically outside the Church, she continued to taste communion, in flesh and in spirit. Communion with Christ Himself. Communion with the life of the Church, through those who held her in it despite the risk.

With such help from her community, Mary was able not only to cope with betrayal, but also to pass through it to the other side of this bitter death, to healing and new life. Five months afterwards, as he was dying, the bishop apologized to her and lifted the excommunication.

My encounter with Mary sustains me in moments when I don’t know whom to trust, including myself, including my faith in God. It reminds me that when I can’t get to Him, God comes to me. And that there’s a power strong enough to heal and transform betrayal itself, bringing a new and more abundant life.