Ever since I can remember, there was always something about Mary that drew me in. I would never share this with any non-Catholic but the truth is I’ve only recently felt drawn to God the Father and Jesus. The Holy Spirit, despite being somewhat nebulous and undefinable, was the only person of the Trinity that I managed to look to; but even then, only occasionally. Perhaps my lack of resistance to the Holy Spirit was because the Spirit is hard to “pin down.”
It has only been in recent years that I have discovered why Mary was my lifeline and why God and Jesus seemed so distant and unapproachable. And before I go any further, I am keenly aware that it was me, not them, who created that distance.
A few weeks before I turned four years old, I experienced sexual abuse by an adult neighbor. It lasted for a period of a few weeks but, in an instant, it changed the trajectory of my life forever. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, fully submerged in multiple addictions, that I began to have PTSD symptoms of flashbacks, dreams, crying jags, depression, and anxiety that led me to therapy to deal with the issue of childhood sexual abuse.
The initial years of therapeutic healing were hampered by my continued addiction bouts that I fled to when the pain of trauma and its memories proved too much. Compulsive sexual behavior that had begun at age 12 became a clandestine ritual of anonymous sexual acting out as an adult, and alcoholism that had its roots in my teens became a full-blown addiction around my mid-twenties. On the outside, I managed to continue with career, family, and the normal demands of life, but on the inside I was so wounded and broken I could barely hang on. I was living a fractured, compartmentalized double life.
During this period, I went to Mass, confession, and prayed fairly regularly, but I didn’t feel “connected” to God or spirituality very much. I also noticed times when I had an aversion to things that were religious or “Catholic,” and would even look away if I was driving somewhere and saw a cross on a church steeple. There was some attachment of pain to things “of God” that had been established deep within me, and any reminder of God would make me wince.
The exception to this aversion was the Blessed Mother. A statue of Mary in my purview evoked a warmth and attraction that I cannot quite articulate clearly. It was a feeling that whispered, She understands. She thinks I’m OK. She wants to comfort me. From a very young age, I was drawn to the beautiful Lady who exuded goodness and offered shelter and protection. I knew She had suffered and somehow endured. I ached for the respite of being embraced and shielded without having to offer anything back. And Mary always came through.
It’s hard to come to terms with anger and resentment towards God and Jesus. It feels like blasphemy, although, in actuality, it is not. As I grew up and learned about God and Jesus, I carried the misappropriated shame and guilt of what had happened to me, and I believed it was my fault and my sin. This was not a conscious choice or decision; it simply was. By the time I was five or six years old, I knew I had done something very bad and that it was too vile to be forgiven.
Moreover, I was bad and couldn’t be forgiven. I remember looking at my Bible picture book that had an illustration of Jesus surrounded by children laughing and playing. I wanted to join them but I knew I never could because they were nice and good—and I was not. As I grew up, this misguided perception and fear of God the Father and punishment, coupled with the inability to see Jesus as the mediator of forgiveness, led to a deep, unconscious resentment. Eventually that resentment manifested in anger and defiance.
Mary was different. She was comfort. She didn’t require any explanation, and she did not have the capacity nor interest in providing forgiveness. I went to her to weep and to rest. Sometimes I told her of my deep sadness and confusion, and other times I just cried for what felt like an eternity. And when I was exhausted from it all, I rested on her shoulder. She soothed my suffering, sometimes silently and sometimes with soft whispers that seemed to caress my heart. I have yet to complete the grieving and recovery from the deep ache and feeling of abandonment that came at the age of four. I am not sure if a lifetime is long enough to completely heal, and at 60 I am running out of time. But in Mary’s company, time stands still and there is no limit to the depth of her respite.
I never imagined myself as the lost sheep who Jesus left the entire flock to rescue because I always believed that I was unworthy of saving. I thought that I would have to be admonished, at the very least, in order to be picked up and brought home. I thought everything was transactional and had a price. And the price for me was telling what “I” had done—and what I had done was just too shameful to voice. I am sure that Jesus pursued me many times throughout my life but His approach elicited a desire to hide and disappear. A wounded animal never welcomes the rescuer, because it hurts to be picked up and taken to safety and refuge when broken. There are only two options: cower and hide, or lash out and repel. And I did both.
Mary didn’t come looking for me. She was always in my midst, and I sought her. I brought my wounded, broken self to her and she embraced me. It seems that for most of my life, all I could do was seek and remain in her refuge. I wasn’t ready to move beyond her embrace because that might bring more pain. It has only been in recent years that I have trusted that I am ready to consider risking more. I know that Mary’s sole purpose is to bring me to Jesus, and her patience with me has been infinite and only that which a mother can offer. I have never felt coerced, nor even gently prodded to do anything except remain in her company until I am ready. She is the model of unconditional love that I have always so desperately sought.
Two years ago, I made a decision to return to the Church and to seek God the Father and God the Son. I believe it was the Holy Spirit, the Spouse of Mary, who opened my mind and heart to the possibility of returning, despite the fact that nothing much had changed in my disposition. I had stopped attending Mass and the sacraments regularly for many years and had an approach-avoidance, on-and-off relationship with God and Jesus.
Pope Francis’ words allowed me to consider that coming home was possible and that Jesus’ church was a field hospital and sanctuary for the wounded and broken, rather than a destination and prize for those who had already been cured. Mary accompanied me on my journey back and somehow it didn’t cause any further pain after all. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of my rescue has been the realization that the Blessed Mother hasn’t “dropped me off” at the doors of the Church and left me to sort things out by myself. She is with me at every Mass, confession, and all of the ministries of the Church that serve to strengthen and heal me. I am never alone, and she will never abandon me.
My commitment to remaining within the Church is non-negotiable and built on three simple, self-imposed requirements: go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day; go to confession every month and tell the truth, and pray every day. God the Father has provided an abundance of gifts since my return to the Church. There is a Scripture study group for me to deepen my understanding of His nature and to learn alongside other Catholic men who are seeking Him. There is the Catholic In Recovery group to address my addictions, compulsions, and unhealthy attachments. There is a spiritual director who walks beside me as I face the challenges of seeking a life of doing God’s will rather than my own.
And Mary is still always with me, her Rosary my daily refuge and respite. Although I am still broken and wounded, it doesn’t seem to hurt as much anymore. I am beginning to understand there is meaning and purpose to pain, and I am more aware that everyone around me is hurting—many suffering a great deal more than I am. It’s good to be home. Thank you, Blessed Mother!
Mark L. is a recovering alcoholic and sex and love addict. He lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and started a CIR General Recovery meeting at St. Joseph Parish in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. He has a particular devotion to St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, martyr and opioid addict.