Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories. By Dawn Eden, Ave Maria Press, 2016.
(Full disclosure warning: Dawn Eden is a friend of mine. I am still reviewing this book with as much objectivity as I would have if she had once run over my foot with a tank.)
Mercy is a topic that is increasingly discussed in theological circles, particularly with Pope Francis declaring this to be the “Year of Mercy.” Mercy is sometimes viewed as a means of allowing the guilty to escape punishment, but this is a very narrow view of mercy. Mercy is also the ability for the innocent yet suffering to escape the tribulations that constantly haunt them.
Dawn Eden returns to a familiar theme with her new book. Popular culture is filled with examples of religion as having a negative or crippling effect on people, with piety leading to guilt, neuroses, and all sorts of hang-ups. Perhaps some people are affected in that way, but as Eden illustrates, for many people religion has a healing effect on people, providing them with redemption, peace, and joy after a world obsessed with worldly success, sex, and ephemeral pleasures has left them broken.
This is Eden’s fourth book, if her revised Catholic version of her first book The Thrill of the Chaste is counted as her third book. Her second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints was reviewed on this website in June, 2012.
Eden’s work is marked by a particularly open and frank manner. Eden’s books are filled with personal revelations that reveal her past, problems, and heartbreaks. The Thrill of the Chaste tells a series of vignettes regarding her private life, and how the current culture of “sex is fun and harmless and shouldn’t have any consequences whatsoever” leaves people empty on multiple levels. My Peace I Give You describes the sexual abuse Eden suffered as a child, and illustrates how the Catholic Church and God’s mercy healed wounds that she thought might never be healed. Remembering God’s Mercy continues Eden’s autobiographical saga of her personal spiritual journey towards a level of happiness that she would never have dreamed possible just several years earlier.
In the opening to Remembering God’s Mercy, Eden writes:
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to “have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16)? To be able to look back at your entire life, both the joys and the sufferings, and to see only the love of God? That was my thought when I wrote My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. In that book, I sought to help my fellow victims of childhood sexual abuse heal their memories through the lives of saints who, having suffered trauma, found healing in Christ.
The response to My Peace I Give You was unlike anything I have experienced as a writer. Every author wants her book to be appreciated by its intended audience, and mine certainly, was; readers who were survivors of abuse told me it helped them where other books had not. What was unusual was that, again and again, even as readers thanked me for My Peace I Give You, they asked me to give them something more. They wanted me to write a new book– one that would present the same healing spirituality, but in a way that they could share it with loved ones who had not suffered abuse.”
Indeed, when one has been hurt so deeply and so painfully, it can be impossible to convey that type of anguish to someone who has not suffered in that manner. In college and graduate school, I have warned friends from California and other warm climates about how cold the Wisconsin winters can be, and without exception, they have responded with an airy dismissal and a firm assertion that they can handle whatever chills come their way. Then December and January come, and the blithe confidence gives way to chattering teeth and constant shivering. People can imagine the feeling of great heat, but for someone who has never before experienced bitter cold and powerful winds. It is similar with great anguish– people can imagine depression, hopelessness, and despair; but living through them is a totally different matter.
While all of Eden’s books are heavily autobiographical, her work is not all about her. Eden’s books draw on Church teachings, history, the lives of major religious figures, and the experiences of friends and colleagues. Remembering God’s Mercy refers frequently to the teachings of St. Ignatius and Pope Francis. Both men describe how prayer, religious exercises, and a deep exploration of the Church can heal the mind and soul.
“As I continued to research the wisdom of Pope Francis on healing of memories, and the Jesuit roots from which it sprang, something happened to me that was completely unexpected.
I was expecting inspiration. I was not expecting grace.
But grace is what I experienced. This book that you are now reading, although it began as an effort to answer my readers’ desire, ended up answering my own desire for greater intimacy with Christ. Pope Francis and the Jesuits who inspired him took me on a journey that has brought me to a deeper understanding of the mercy of God– the mercy that both forgives and heals.
My hope and prayer is that, as you read this book, you too will find that healing grace– the grace that, as Francis says, enables us “to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.”
In Eden’s first chapter, she describes a life-threating illness that the future Pope Francis endured when he was young, as pneumonia brought him close to the brink of death, leading to surgery to remove a portion of his lung. While in the hospital, people offered the ailing man simple platitudes and expressions of optimism. Words that seek to minimize the pain or to dismiss it as a brief blip in a long upcoming future of happiness fall hollow when one is trying desperately to survive and conquer the problems that are crushing them. The pontiff-to-be was helped only one nun’s comment to an ailing man: “You are imitating Christ.”
We see pain as an evil to be avoided, an unpleasantness that taints and discolors life. What our culture rarely addresses is the fact that pain– or rather the endurance and possible conquering of pain– God’s love and guidance in making us better gives pain a purpose, and even the most hurtful memories can illustrate the love of God when viewed in the proper perspective.
Eden writes about how prayer can center the mind, saying:
““Imagine Christ our Lord present before you on the Cross.”
Those words from the first meditation in the Spiritual Exercises mark the first of many times in that regimen of prayer that Ignatius invites retreatants to picture themselves face-to-face with Jesus. One could even say that the entire program of the exercises is designed to enable participants to encounter Christ directly, in the present moment. Why then does Francis, in discussing the “encounter with the merciful Christ crucified,” speak of that meditation as though it were a matter of calling to mind something that is past? Why does he call it a “prayer full of memory?”
The answer, I believe, has to do with another point Francis makes in Spadaro’s interview: “God is first; God is always first and makes the first move.””
Eden has a rare gift– the ability to explain complex theological matters and powerful emotions, and present them mixed with her personal experiences, describing them as if she was having a confidential conversation with a trusted friend, rather than as a book that anybody can read. Eden’s work is not preachy, but is filled with genuine warmth, and reflective happiness mixed with residual sadness. Eden’s books can help people because they come from a place of love, and Remembering God’s Mercy can provide comfort to those in need because it has the voice of someone who once was in great need for comfort.