Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Looking Over Your Shoulder

Looking Over My Shoulder

Sometimes life can have some pretty surprising outcomes. If anyone told me as a kid I would one day be a national Catholic speaker, I would have laughed out loud. I was a most unlikely candidate for such a job but, as we often discover, with God all things are possible. I’m sure my unusual turn of events has much to do with someone special God sent me to personally to look over my shoulder.

I was raised by my mother, who was a product of the hippie generation. Her parents had immigrated to America from Germany shortly after World War II. My grandfather was a member of the Nazi party in his youth, while my grandmother was baptized Catholic but was raised by a cruel Aunt who taught her nothing of her faith. Although my mother was baptized into the Catholic Church, she really knew nothing of her faith.

As a small child, I was given a statue that I was told was a family heirloom. It came from my maternal great-grandmother. I wasn’t told much about the statue and therefore had no idea who it was. Since I, like my mother, knew nothing of the Catholic faith I was baptized into, I just assumed the statue was Mary. After all, she wore a veil and a long dress and held a cross and flowers in her hand. At that time in my life, I thought all female statues were Mary.

I never knew quite why, but I always loved that statue. I remember from my earliest years that although sexual, physical and emotional abuse tainted my childhood, it seemed as if this young girl with the pretty smile was watching over me from my dresser. Somehow, things would be okay.

Wherever I lived, I took the statue with me. Even though I did not know or practice my Catholic faith, the sculptured lady seemed to bring me comfort. She was my friend. In college, as a pregnant freshman, she was one of the few friends I had.

I did not discover that my statue friend was St. Therese of Lisieux until a special woman, a devoted Catholic, entered my life. She would play a critical role in bringing me back to the faith. When this woman told me she liked my St. Therese statue, I asked, “What St. Therese statue?” She pointed to my statue. I said, “Oh, you mean Mary?” The woman laughed and lovingly said, “No, sweetie, that’s St. Therese of Lisieux.” She proceeded to tell me the story of this Saint and the miracle of the roses. I was stunned and a little embarrassed. I felt a twinge of strangeness for the first time toward my beloved statue; yet at the same time, I was intrigued to know more about her.

At this time in my life, I was searching for meaning through things like crystals, tarot cards and palm reading. They did not seem to offer, however, what I was seeking internally. My husband’s best friend from high school happened to be the son of the woman who correctly identified St. Therese for me. This young man introduced his girlfriend to us and I adored her from the moment I met her. I was immediately drawn to a beautiful necklace she was wearing. She told me it was called a miraculous medal, and told me the story behind it. I found it fascinating, and was delighted when soon after she presented me with a miraculous medal of my own.

As fate had it, my husband and I moved the next month to the town in which the woman and her son lived. One day, while visiting them in their home, they gave me a book about the apparitions of Fatima. I was so moved by the young visionaries’ willingness to suffer and the important message of prayer that it prompted me to begin asking questions about the Church. The mother and son taught me to pray the Rosary and I began to pray it devoutly. I was not going to church regularly or even really practicing the faith yet, but something was definitely happening and it continued to escalate from there.

In time, I came to fully embrace my Catholic faith. I discovered the divine mercy of God waiting for me and for all who want to start again. I also discovered the rich treasure of spiritual resources offered by the Church, including sacraments and the saints. These, unlike crystals and tarot cards, held real, significant and lasting meaning for me.

St. Therese of Lisieux was the first of many saints I have come to love and adore. I enjoy her insight and her piety and her simple message of love. I also have a fond love of roses and when I smell them on the summer breeze, I think of her still. I believe she was instrumental in giving me the courage to follow God’s call to share my life experiences and bring a message of hope to teens.

Through the grace of God, I have founded an organization called, “Pure Freedom.” I travel extensively, presenting my personal testimony to teenagers from coast to coast. In my talks, I share actual experiences and their consequences, to stress to teens the importance of purity in today’s society. I expose destructive forces at work all around them, through media, Hollywood, music and advertising. My goal is to help teens become happier and healthier by learning to see the beauty in relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ – meaningful and satisfying friendships without sex.

The result has been very positive. My live talks and my tapes have apparently helped thousands of teens to take control of their lives physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. God has allowed me to bring his love and mercy to his precious children, to let them know they have someone looking over their shoulders, too.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Lifetime of God Moments

When I tell people about my past, I often hear “How did you turn out so well?”
My mother was a German immigrant whose parents fled to the United States to escape the Nazi Regime. Her paternal grandfather was heavily tied to the Nazi Party, but her father would have nothing of it. My mother was taught simple prayers by her mother and occasionally attended Mass on Christmas and Easter.
My father was raised with no faith to speak of, though I heard that my paternal grandmother was raised Catholic. When my father was drafted in the Vietnam War, my parents, who were dating, decided to elope. Neither of their families supported the marriage. I was born just after my father returned from the war.
My mother had me baptized (against my father’s wishes) at a beautiful cathedral in San Jose, California. My godfather was a drug dealer, and my godmother was the woman who talked my mom into leaving my father.
My parents separated when I was just three months old. After their divorce I stayed with my mom. We moved in and out of people’s homes, many of whom used drugs on a regular basis and several of whom abused me. My earliest memory is the sexual abuse that began when I was only three.
We moved around a lot. We lived in California, Nevada, and even Germany before we finally moved to Wisconsin to live with my new stepfather. He started the verbal and physical abuse right away. The sexual abuse started later, when I was in the fourth grade.
As I was growing up, we only went to church on Christmas Eve for midnight Mass and sometimes on Easter.
I began to hate my home life so much I would pretend to miss the bus at the end of the school day just to avoid going home. When the opportunity presented itself to provide a viable excuse to stay after school, I jumped on it.
Light Penetrates My Darkness
One day I overheard one of the band students talking about “CCD.” This was religious education for the public-school kids who did not attend the local Catholic school. Every Wednesday after school they walked to the Catholic school for religion classes. I went home determined to convince my mother to sign me up. Now I had no interest in religion or in God or learning my faith; I just wanted an excuse to stay away from my stepfather and the home life which I dreaded. (I also enjoyed stopping at the dime store to buy candy, which was on the way to the church.)
Because I had never made my first Communion or received the sacrament of penance, I had to join the first-grade students even though I was a fourth grader. Though I don’t recall any wounded pride at being the oldest student, I do remember not fitting into the desks.
In CCD I encountered a nun for the first time. I asked her “How long is forever in heaven?” And she said, “Take the longest and largest shoreline you have ever seen. Now imagine you can count every grain of sand. Take that number and multiply it by the biggest number you can think of. Forever in heaven is longer than that.”
That was my first “God moment”: a moment in life when we realize that there is something that exists that is far more profound than we are. We all have them, though some of us choose to call them luck or coincidence. I call them God-moments because they are the moments in my life that define who I am. It is moments like these in my past that I reflect upon and realize that God was not just present but always reaching out to me.
I believe that after my first confession, I received a powerful gift of faith. I told all my secrets to the priest. I told him all of the things I had done and all of the horrible things that had been done to me. When I finished, he consoled me and gave me absolution. When I walked out of that church and opened the doors to go outside, I almost fell over from the awesomeness of the sunlight and the colors on the trees.
It was as if the colors danced on the leaves instead of just being colors. The light felt like it was penetrating my very core. The only way I can describe the magnificence of my experience is to compare it to suddenly being able to see without glasses. You see the same thing, but with a clarity and the vividness that you previously took for granted. I did not take what I saw for granted that day. To me, a miracle had occurred—my second God-moment.
What I did not realize is that my pupils had dilated because I had been in a dark place. When I stepped outside, the dilated pupil allowed the light to flood in. It was as if a shroud of darkness was lifted from my eyes as well as my soul. I was certain that something amazing had just happened. I felt renewed.
Even so, over the next several years the ongoing physical, sexual and emotional abuse reached a crescendo. Finally, I told the right people about the abuse, which resulted in my stepfather’s arrest and sentencing. I was temporarily placed in a foster home. My father, who lived in California, came to Wisconsin immediately, which was a pretty profound statement to me. He packed up my things and took me to California.
We had never spent any significant amount of time together, however, so it was a difficult transition.
Desperate for Love
I learned to be a social chameleon, a survival skill I picked up from moving around my whole life. Enrolled in the local school, I started to establish myself. I dyed my hair blonde, wore all the latest styles, got contacts, made the varsity cheerleading squad, and dated a star football and baseball player from a famous family.
He began to pressure me to become physically intimate. I went to a school counselor, who told me, “You will know when you are ready, but let’s get you on the pill, in case you decide you are!” I was not told that I was a person of value and that I had more to offer someone than pleasure. Desperate for love, I allowed myself to be used as an object in an attempt to find it.
I became pregnant within two weeks of graduation. My boyfriend and I tried to make it work. We married and then divorced. I stopped going to church. I fell into a life of sin and even questioned the existence of God. I lived this way for the next couple of years.
The next God-moment happened the day of my boyfriend’s (later my husband’s) college graduation. His best friend from high school, a devout Catholic, came for the ceremony with his girlfriend, also a devout Catholic. We hit it off right away. I noticed a medal around her neck, and she explained to me the Miraculous Medal. I was immediately interested in the details. (At that time I was wearing an art sculpture of a fertility goddess because I loved the story attached to it, which I would tell to anyone who asked.)
Several weeks later I received a package in the mail. It included two blessed Miraculous Medals. I began to wear one regularly, and I soon found myself talking to God for the first time in years. I felt him embracing me and knew he was right there. This was a huge God-moment because I was not afraid of God but drawn to him.
Moments of Grace
The next few years were like a carnival ride as I began to change interiorly. I hungered for more knowledge about the Blessed Mother and my Catholic faith. I read the Fatima story and was struck by the devotion of these simple children. I saw my faith as something beautiful. I also began to feel ashamed of my own selfishness and weakness of faith. To rectify this I began reading books by the dozen. I attended lectures on the faith. I started praying the Rosary regularly. I went back to confession for the first time in years and let all the horrible sin spill out. I felt so free and refreshed having experienced a renewed gift from my childhood. This was just another God-moment in a line of many more over the next 10 years.
I have often thought how God and our faith are much like a mechanic and his toolbox. In the sacraments, we have tangible means to experience Christ. The sacraments are the tools to experience God not just on a spiritual level, but also through the five senses of the human body. He realized we would need the outward signs as well as the interior grace that the sacraments provide.
Many things led to my re-conversion. Our Blessed Mother had a major part in it. I had never known a healthy male relationship; God sent his Mother to me to ensure that the way to him would not be lost. He took me as I was, realizing my faults and my weaknesses, using his tools to make me right.
I have been married for 13 years. My husband came into the Church in 1997, and our marriage was blessed that same year. We have seven children.
Christina King is a speaker for Catholic Answers. She talks to teens about modesty, dating, chastity, and abstinence, as well as to parents about their role as the primary educators of their children. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point with a degree in Psychology and Counseling with graduate studies in Family Counseling.

True Worth

After attending Theology of the Body Institute in which Dr. Janet Smith taught the Love and Responsibility course, I realized that my own past of physical, emotional and sexual abuse had tainted and distorted my understanding of self-worth as well as my ability to show and receive love. For this conversation I speak of love in the sense of the platonic sense. Love of neighbor as a subject created by God not an object.

That day we were discussing how male and female He created them and in our unique creation we compliment on another. We continued to speak of how men find the feminine attractive and women find the masculine attractive and that this attraction is not sinful but is ordered for we were created for love. For love to exist, there needs to be a lover, a beloved and the fire of the love between them. Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, then when we are attracted to the opposite sex, we are in fact attracted to love and attracted to God. We dissected attracted and it was said that attraction and lust are not the same. I had believed this to be true. I had felt that once attracted, that pull, that sensation of delight was sinful and must be stopped at it's first inception or it could lead to a greater sin.

I raised my hand and asked the question, I have found that I find men very attractive. What I mean to say is, when I look upon men, no matter who they are or what they look like I find myself attracted to some part of them that comes from their masculinity. It may be there broad shoulders or the fact that they are so tall. It might be a timber to their voice, but whatever the thing is, I feel a warm sensation of butterflies in my stomach that feels it will float into my throat. It is almost a feeling like a sigh. I have always believed that this was very wrong of me. That I must have some inordinate desire that stemmed from a childhood of abuse. I have believed that this "delight" in the opposite sex, has most likely been some kind of emotional dysfunction that I must try and "fix" or overcome lest I fall into sin.

I shared how I had learned to close myself off, that I had trained myself to avoid eye contact with men that I did not know. If they looked at me, I certainly did not smile at them for that would be opening myself up and would make me vulnerable. I also believed that it would be leading them to sin because I would be then sending a message of interest and that would be wrong since I am married.

Imagine my surprise when I was met with an overwhelming response that my delight was not sinful but rather it was the essence of Pope John Paul's message. That stamped into our bodies is God revealing the mystery of love and he desperately wants us to understand this!

I mention this because it seems to me so many of us are hurting from past abuse and we do not realize that we need smiles and eye contact and yes, even touch. Christopher West mentioned the Manichean demon and heresy. He talked about how it is not sinful for a man to look at a beautiful attractive woman and see her, smile at her and say to himself "That is a very attractive, beautiful and feminine woman". In fact, he mentioned that it affirms a man in his own masculinity to see his feminine counterpart and delight in her being created as feminine. I am not talking about lust, I am talking about recognizing that woman is a site to behold and her creation as woman is a delight!

I had NEVER thought about this concept. Suddenly, I realized that the very need to be loved that I have been carrying around with me was starving me emotionally. I had bought in to a lie that my body was something that would lead men to sin and could not be trusted. I believed that if I even smiled at a man I would be inviting him into an occasion of lust. I had even begun to fear confession. I worried that if a priest heard me speak about anything to do with sexuality, that I would be scandalizing him for surely he would have lustful thoughts about me. My twisted understanding of the body had begun to distort my image of masculinity. I had begun to believe that all men were easily tempted and would be led to feelings of lust with even the slightest of provocations.

I do not say this to sound as if my looks would tempt any man but rather to point out a flaw within myself. For one, past abuses that I had encountered had trained me to keep people at arms length, for my own safety and for theirs. Two, the "ubber" Catholic groups I had encountered had presented the same theme. I was told by a priest that I was to pretty to wear jeans and that I should under no circumstances wear shorts. In fact, he had told me that to be truly modest I must only wear dresses and to make sure they were long. I must say that this directive led me to believe that my body was an obstacle to my own holiness as well as others.

The turning point in this deep seeded belief came during the before mentioned seminar at the Theology of The Body Institute. There was a man and wife at the Seminar. His name was Charlie. They had been married for over 40 years. At one point he stood up and said to the group how beautiful I was and how it gave him joy to see me every day and that he took delight in seeing how beautifully feminine I was.

I began to cry. Why? Well, first of all it goes back to Dr. Conrad Baars' theory that to receive affirmation, it must be from someone that you believe is authentic as well as a from someone in authority. If he had been a handsome young man, I would have made sure to sit on the other side of the room from them on. I would have avoided eye contact as well as conversation except for brief polite greetings. I would never have allowed myself to be alone with him, not even in eucharistic adoration for that would have been to distracting to me. But, because he was sitting next to his wife when he said it and at least 30 years my senior, I believed him. I believed him so completely that tears streamed down my face and I could not stop them. I believe that one moment of understanding has opened a floodgate of healing in my life.

After that night I decided that whenever I saw someone look at me and make eye contact, I would hold that gaze for a moment and smile with all the love in my heart that I could. I would think the words; "God loves you". When I left the Institute and arrived at a Philadelphia airport I was on a mission. I decided that if I saw a man look at me, I would smile with love. One after another I made eye contact and smiled when I felt someone's eyes on me. I can not describe the joy in my heart that I experienced with the events that followed. I remember one man even tipped his hat. I did not see lust, I did not see invitation, I saw warmth and an almost thankfulness behind their eyes.

I came to realize that we all desire to be loved and accepted. It is in our daily activities that we can give and receive love. We can do that by looking upon one another and delighting in their creation and saying you are beauty to my eyes! I delight in your creation!

We need to overcome the heresy that the body is an impediment to holiness. It is this heresy that I believe to have been my own obstacle in believing in and accepting the key concepts and truths taught in Theology of The Body. The enemy has used this heresy to prevent many from entering into the beautiful message message given to us by Pope John Paul II. Consequently, it has prevented me from entering into true healing that can ONLY come from affirmation. My distorted beliefs had convinced me to close myself off from affirmation, the distorted belief of the body.

It is one thing to know about Theology of The Body and it is quite another to be able to experience it. I have know and talked about TOB for a number of years. However, it is only recently, that I have begun to experience it first hand. I ask for prayers as I embark on a mission to uncover this lie from the enemy. I pray my new talk will open the eyes of many who have heard but have not been able to believe.