Making Peace With a Painful Past

by Renee Zitzloff

Recently I set out on a journey to the past. I drove to Colorado Springs, Colorado to see my spiritual father and visit the town I had lived in for a time as a teenager, which I had left twenty-two years ago. In those days I did not know one might have a spiritual father or that the Orthodox Church even existed.

For most of my childhood, my maternal grandparents lived in a house in Colorado Springs. My mother often took us children there for summer visits with her. Their house was one of the few things in our lives that stayed put. My family seemed to move about like a traveling circus, which we resembled in more ways than one. By the time I graduated from high school, I had changed schools thirteen times.

During my first year in high school, we were living in Bethel, Alaska. That was the year my parents divorced. My Mom and us kids — there were six of us — went to live in the basement of my grandparents’ house, a space better suited to hobbits than full-scale people. By then I had reached my full height, not quite five feet, five inches — one more inch and I would have been scraping the ceiling. Mother partitioned the basement with long curtains to make tiny bedrooms. I began attending the local high school, walking a little more than a mile to classes every day — and yes it was uphill both ways!

Back again 22 years later, walking through the halls of the same high school, I recalled vividly the sense of freedom I felt when I was a student in those classrooms. The choir room was exactly the same as I remembered it — even the same wooden chairs were still in place. I remembered playing my flute in the marching band directed by our volatile Italian director, and the Italian trumpet player who had a crush on me. He used to embarrass me by kissing his closed thumb and fingers loudly and calling me his “Mozzarella cheese” (better than Parmesan?). I stood once again on the stage where short, bald headed Mr. Zinger vigorously led us in performing our spring and Christmas choir concerts. I remembered trying out for the dance team, which made me a “Terrorette” (the name of the football team called the “Terrors”). I also remembered the good friends I made, many of whom lived in my neighborhood, and how we used to gather at Jeff MaClanahan’s house to shoot baskets, flirt and gossip.

As these memories came back, I remembered the sense of liberation I had felt moving to Colorado Springs from Alaska, the wonderful sense of a new beginning. I imagined it was possible to leave the past behind. My parent’s divorce was as deeply wounding as a slash of a knife, the final rending of their painful marriage. Even when divorce seems to be the only option, it cannot bring healing. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Our family was healed by divorce?” Yet in our case, it did give my mother and us children much needed physical space and distance from my father who had sexually abused me and physically abused my mother. In fact, that year I thought I was free forever from my father. I was deeply happy.

What I did not see nor understand as a young girl is that the patterns and people in my life were not so easily changed or disposed of by moving from one location to another. In his book, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Fr. John Chryssavagis quotes a victim of abuse as saying, “Please do not tell me it’s all in the past, as some have told me. Some “helpers” listen, think they understand how I feel, then put me straight, give me a sermon, tell me to have more faith and try harder, or even, thoughtlessly ask me if I am really Christian. They apply their solution, but I am left reeling under another blow.” Much as we may want to forget the past and move on, often it’s not so simple. The consequences of what happened in the past, good or bad endure to the present.

In my early thirties, I was able to face the depression I had felt since childhood. Despite the wounding going on in our home during those years, we went to church every Sunday. I thank God that I learned there that Jesus loved me, the message I believe got me through my childhood. I was also taught that doing right brings reward, doing wrong brings punishment. Hence, I believed the sexual abuse was a punishment I deserved, even though I could not grasp what I was being punished for. This is often typical of victims of abuse. Pairing this with the Calvinist theology that we are born evil, I believed into my early thirties that I was intrinsically evil. This was a recipe for self-rejection and I played this out by trying to destroy myself in different ways during my teen years. Abuse or abandonment at an early age opens the door for despair to enter a child’s heart. The younger the age of the child when this happens, the harder it is for it to be uprooted, transformed and replaced with hope and joy.

Though I believe that Christ in me was working for my healing since the time of the abuse, it was the sacrament of confession in the Orthodox Church that was the catalyst for me to move forward. The first priest I confessed to told me that something had been imposed on me and that I should not believe that I was evil. The freedom I felt after that confession was tangible. As Fr. Chryssavagis says in his book, “In order to receive the healing grace of God, one needs to open up to at least one other person.” Before becoming Orthodox I had never before been completely open with another person about all my sins. I had confessed them to Christ, but often I did not admit them to anyone else.

In a subsequent confession I exposed an extremely painful incident in my past and the priest invited me to come and talk to him more about it, thus beginning a counseling relationship that became the impetus for me to face my past in a deeper way. Later he helped me find professional help. Though the professional guidance was helpful at times, I feel the spiritual support and direction I received through the Church is responsible for my healing thus far. Psychology and psychotherapy are effective only to the extent that the Holy Spirit can work through them. Healing comes through Christ, and Christ alone.

In my Orthodox journey I have learned that there are essentially two things that separate us from God: our sins and our wounds. We are all wounded in some way, often in many ways. Much of this can happen in childhood, but also in adulthood. As we submit ourselves to the sacraments and disciplines of the Orthodox Church, which are all tools for healing, our sins and wounds are illuminated by the light of Christ. Bringing these things that are festering in darkness into the light is the beginning of healing. We all have the innate desire to live fully in the present moment and to experience the wholeness we are created for. To achieve this it is often necessary to face the truth of our pasts, accept it and open our hearts to Christ for healing. He asks us for our whole lives, not just the good parts. This is hard, and takes humility and courage because we must accept what we could not bear as children: we are not protected from all evil and pain. We are vulnerable.

In making peace with the past as adults, we accept the powerlessness of childhood, and simultaneously accept the power of adulthood. Children do not have the ability or comprehension to make sense of much what they encounter in life. As adults, we are not powerless children. The events of the past need not hinder us anymore. We can take control. We can look back at the past and take the blame off ourselves, and place it where it belongs. This is part of facing the truth. We had few choices We were too small and dependent to protect ourselves. Having realized that the adults around us failed us, we can put away our shame and guilt. We were not responsible. Our lives could have been different.

What happens at this point, however, is crucial. Will we forgive those who failed us, or will we hold onto the pain and allow the festering to continue and to worsen? Forgiving an abusive parent is as hard, especially when the parent has never sought forgiveness. In such situations, forgiveness is rarely a one-time event, over and done with, but an ongoing process. Forgiveness in such cases is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting may be impossible, but forgiving is achievable. Often confrontation comes before forgiveness. Those who hurt us should be held accountable for their actions as far as it is possible, but the goal must always be forgiveness and reconciliation if possible. This is necessary for healing in this world and finally for our salvation.

These principles do not just have to do with the wounds of childhood. Many of us are deeply wounded as adults. The older we are, the more past we have accrued. With the grace of God and the help of others we can face our sins and our hurts and make changes that are necessary.

To make peace with the past is to go inside ourselves where, as Christ tells us the kingdom of God exists. We are told to bring that kingdom into the world we live in, here and now, just as Christ did in his incarnation. To be active in Christ’s redemptive work in this world, we must start with ourselves, achieving synergy with Christ. If we do not love ourselves, if we have no compassion for our own sufferings, if we have no compassion for the fact that we are under the domination of sin, we will be less likely to have compassion and empathy for others. Discovering the “I Am” of myself isn’t easy, yet Christ wants to reveal this to us. Once we accept who we are, we are ready to begin to listen to who others are. And the healing continues.

Renee Zitzloff is a free-lance writer and educator as well as mother of six. She is an ardent member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and belongs to St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, on whose staff she worked for several years. A frequent contributor to In Communion, her earlier articles are archived on our web site — just go to www.incommunion.org and type “Zitzloff” in the search field. Wood engraving by Lucien Pissarro.