“So, how do you feel?” Gina asked as I walked back to the small Chapel. I had just finished sharing my witness story on the ladies retreat for our parish. “Empowered” I proclaimed with the biggest smile on my face and in my heart.
Writing the testimony on how Scripture impacts my life was the easy part because God scribed it months earlier. Every time I tried to influence the story, it didn’t flow right – yet when I prayed “Lord, you know who will be on this weekend, and you know what each person needs to hear – please guide my pen and write what you want shared” the vignettes of my story unfolded effortlessly.
In February, thinking my story was complete, off it went by email to my pastor, Father Jack, who responded:
“Oh my God!!! This is a powerful witness. I am stunned at what you have been through. DO NOT CHANGE A WORD OF THIS … unless you want to. But I think you can speak to the power of God through very real and difficult times. You are living proof of the paschal mystery. I commend your words and courage to speak so clearly about your life. This is just a beautiful witness.”
Father’s email made me cry: not sure if from validation or humility. Either way, I felt unworthy of his words “You are living proof of the paschal mystery”. Mine is a story on a piece of paper – yet it is also chronicles true events of my life … the events that have shaped me into the person I am today. Throughout my 40 minute speech, I interjected various Scripture passages as connect points with my life experiences.
Yet, in the weeks leading up to the retreat, the words of my story percolated within. Every few days I questioned, “Are my transitions smooth?” and “Will the retreatants grasp what I’m saying without me going too far into detail?”
At 2:30 AM on March 10, 2006, I abruptly woke up as if responding to someone calling my name aloud: “Judy”. The story weighed heavy on my mind: “Am I being too personal?” I grabbed my journal to seek guidance from God, and was literally stunned to see the words flow from my pen. “You have not given the full story.” Doubt and fear screamed through me as I sat in the still of night, then with fearful trepidation, I wrote “But I don’t want to share those intimate and embarrassing details God!” I was adamant.
The paper became the breeding ground for a wrestling match between me and God. With each passing minute I grew more tired to fight the truth from being revealed. After two hours of debating the subject in my journal, I acquiesced. Giving in to God’s demand would require an ocean of courage: I doubted my ability to speak certain truths aloud, yet did not question God’s voice of truth.
After making the necessary edits, I asked my husband Dave to read what had kept me up over night. I wanted to ensure that how the truth unfolded was done with great sensitivity: for my own sake to not relive the ugly abuses. Yet there was also a need to be mindful that a room full of women would hear these words – some of whom may relate to the words spoken with their own first-hand experiences. The last thing I wanted was to make any of them feel uncomfortable with the dirty laundry of my past. After an encouraging and supportive hug, Dave said “That must have been very difficult to write.”
The next evening, I took my writing to share with a long-time friend Kathy. Explaining the wrestling match with God, who won, as usual, I asked her to read the few new paragraphs. As she read those carefully selected words it felt like an eternity of time was passing by. Then her strong hugs of reassurance lifted my spirits as she validated my additional wording was expressed eloquently and with compassion. “By sharing the tree house incident, perhaps it will lose some control over me” I whispered into Kathy’s ear. She looked me straight in the eyes, and with great conviction said “It already has.”
The weeks between sharing my narrative with the facilitation team and the actual retreat were peace-filled, and had minimal sleep disruptions: a gift in itself. Then two days before the retreat, as our team revisited the weekend’s logistics, a warm, burning, and uncomfortable sensation settled within me as we approached my name on the agenda. The hours before that final meeting and the weekend were very hectic – there was no time in life to allow fear or reservations to permeate the core of my soul or state of mind.
The retreat began on a lovely spring morning: Saturday, April 8, 2006. I was okay for the first day because my faith sharing story didn’t appear on the agenda until the next day, which was Palm Sunday. The program is structured: there is no time for worrying or fretting about “tomorrow” because today kept us quite busy and focused.
Later on Saturday night, I felt an urging to speak with my pastor: I had never shared the “scary” tree house part of my life story with a priest, yet felt a strong calling. “Now is the time” was an inner message that I attribute to the Holy Spirit whom I felt was at work within me. Perhaps it stemmed from revealing the truth aloud that eased my mind but gratefully, I went to sleep rather quickly – as if a boulder had been removed from my shoulders.
It would have been a delightful night’s sleep, however once again God woke me only this time it wasn’t for wrestling. No anxieties or concerns were rattling me so I began praying for everyone and everything: for the retreatants, the other speakers, my family members, even for the courage to share my story.
Five and one half hours later, the time was nearing for me to speak, and my old companion “anxiety” was creeping back in. I went into the parish center’s Chapel, got on my knees, and started praying for the ability to do what God was asking of me – to share the truth. Gethsemane came to mind and I repeated the words of Jesus: “Father, please allow this cup to pass over me but let your will, not mine, be done.” I knew I had to go through this experience – there was no other respectable choice for me.
Tears were streaming down my face and my glasses became speckled from the salty moisture. I grabbed my guitar and played the Our Father countless times. It is not one of the traditional tunes; this specific version touches me more reverently than the others. Sister Pam, our Spiritual Director for the weekend, came into the Chapel to pray with me. At that point, I was ready – not afraid – yet I needed to wait patiently for the appointed time for me to approach the podium.
The distance between the Chapel and the witness stand is very short yet the journey felt like a long walk. As I was moving forward, listening to the prayer being sung by those around me, something very different happened. Rather than looking down, rather recompense, I held my head up high; a peaceful smile was on my face, and I looked at the retreatant’s eyes while processing forward. Calmness washed over me.
Immediately into my faith sharing, I stated with a strong, confident, determined, and no longer ashamed voice as to why Luke 6:27-28 “Pray for those who hurt, abuse, and mistreat you” has been such as difficult challenge for me. To this group of women, I revealed something that had been kept hidden from my family and friends, which was:
“Yet God was there – holding me in the tree house as I was being raped by a group of them. God was cradling my head back so I could see the beautiful blue sky, the vibrant green leaves, and I could hear the birds sing. He was there, amidst all that evil; God was there helping me survive!”
The most difficult moment was no longer because God’s grace enabled me to share the truth with sensitivity. Upon concluding my testimony, I began walking back toward the Chapel. Each of my formation team sisters greeted me with hugs and affirming words. Just as I got into the Chapel, the song “On My Knees” sung my Jaci Velasquez, was playing for the retreatants to listen to as they reflected on the intimate details I had just shared. The beautiful and consoling lyrics made me tear up, especially when hearing:
Cause I've learned in laughter or in pain how to survive:
I get on my knees. I get on my knees.
There I am before the love that changes me.
See, I don't know how but there's power when I'm on my knees.
Once inside the Chapel, I immediately went to the altar for prayers of thanksgiving, and once again, got back on my knees; this time I placed my hands on the marble altar. Tears of gratitude were streaming down my face. I had laid my story before Jesus who gave me the strength to share from the depths of my soul on how Scripture touches my life as related through true faith stories. My sacrifice was accepted, my burden was lifted, and my heavy heart was transformed: I felt light as a feather.
During a break, I went outside to enjoy the warm spring day. I saw Father Jack across the parking lot. With my face beaming as brightly as the sun was shining, I gestured with an enthusiastic thumb’s up, and shouted “I did it, and I feel empowered!”
The morning after the retreat, although quite fatigued, I got up for my quiet time with God for prayer and journaling. I reflected on the many Calvary’s in my life and realized that sharing my Scripture witness felt like a personal resurrection – and I thought “With this being Holy Week – how perfect!” God is awesome. He carried me through the events that happened 35 years earlier – and continues to carry me in the palm of his hand which is quite evident as he enabled me to speak the truth.