Packing up my things for yet another move, I came across an old diary from my childhood. It had two entries: in the first, January 1, 1985, I resolved to write daily, a fresh start to a new year full of promise. The second, dated much later, noted that the first resolution was short-lived, but I was going to try again effective immediately. The rest of the diary was empty.
My prayer journals, begun in college and early adulthood, were not that different. They had a few more entries, but in general were filled only with good intentions, their pages primarily blank. When I did write, the entries were mostly letters to God, filled with angst and longing, trying out new resolutions and then repenting for having failed.
“Have you ever thought about letting God answer you?” asked a friend one night. I was stunned.
“What do you mean?” I wondered. God didn’t talk to me. That was for saints and other people; I didn’t hear God’s voice, and certainly didn’t expect him to “answer” me in my journals.
I remember that conversation well, and I know the date because it sits atop the first entry in a new journal. The second I dated the very next day, and details an adventure I never expected.
As I prayed in this new way, inviting God to speak to me, I found myself walking along the beach next to Jesus. I can still picture it, though our conversation was shy and awkward at first. “What do you want to show me?” I asked Him.
And my mind went back to a night I had wished to forget. I was young—probably five or six years old—packed in a car with several older children. We had been that night to see a special outdoor summer movie, a showing of the cartoon the Jungle Book.
I had not seen many full-screen movies—this may even have been my first. A sensitive child, I was transported into the story, imagining myself as little Mowgli, cute and adorable, befriended by Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the panther, who protected him from the Shere Khan, the tiger, and the evil cunning serpent Kaa. While Shere Khan was the greater villain in Kipling’s story, I was more deeply afraid of Kaa—the ugly evil serpent whose hissing twisted terror into my mind and heart. Kaa would fill my nightmares for years to come, giving form to everything I feared and hated.
After the movie, as we were driving back, some of the older children started a game imagining each of as characters in the story. I don’t remember who was who, but that I was disappointed when a cuter younger girl was chosen to be Mowgli. But then someone asked, “Who should Grace be?” and whether mischief or malice or just misfortune, they seized on my greatest fear:
“Grace is Kaa! Grace is Kaa!”
Seeing my fear and dismay at their choice, they pounced with glee and began to torment me, inventing and explaining all the reasons that I was Kaa. “You aren’t cute and adorable—you are skinny and ugly! You are bad! Everyone hates you!” I felt as though I were being stabbed repeatedly, with a knife that broke the skin and sent blood coming out. With each word the cutting intensified, and seemed to echo every hateful thing anyone had ever said to or about me: “You are ugly! You are bad! Nobody could ever love you!”
As I relived this memory in stark detail, I started sobbing, hemmed in by hateful voices, feeling again the pain and the stabbing, as blood gushed out of each stab wound. I cried out in anguish, “Make them stop Jesus! Why are you letting this happen to me? Why aren’t you stopping them? Make them stop, Jesus!”
And just then I heard Him speak. “Grace, the knife is in your hands…”
And I looked down and saw I was holding the knife, the knife that was cutting me so badly. And I realized suddenly that the power of the scene was not in the past, but in the present. Because those words had been spoken one time long ago by people who had long forgotten them—had perhaps never really truly meant them. But I had embraced them, believed them, and was repeating them to myself ever since. I had taken every subsequent hurt and criticism as further evidence that they were true. These lies had power because I had myself given voice to them. I held the knife.
* * *
On a recent healing retreat, we were taught about such wounds as entry points for the Opposition Voice. We are all hurt—in big or little ways—and into that hurt the Opposition speaks lies. Lies about our goodness, lies about the goodness of God. Lies about His love for us, or our worthiness to receive it. What matters is less the words that are spoken, or the events that happen to us, but how we receive them and what we then believe.
Healing comes when we recognize and name these lies, the spirts of opposition, and renounce them. “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the spirit of shame…of unworthiness….of fear…of hatred…” “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the lie that God does not care about me…the lie that I am ugly…the lie that I am bad/unworthy/unlovable…”
I have found, both in my own experience and in praying with others, that it is very important to say these renunciations out loud. Sometimes our difficulty in giving voice to them is a sign of their importance, which has often been unconsciously buried. Many times simply saying the words of renunciation brings a new tangible experience of freedom.
In a comparable way the Church has insisted on the sacrament of Confession, and the speaking aloud of our sins. Bringing them into the open, into the light, by speaking them out, is the beginning of healing. The Opposition thrives in secrecy and darkness in which shame in particular can fester and grow. Jesus came to bring light.
In today’s first reading the Israelites are struggling with the conditions in the desert. They begin to complain against God, wishing they had never left Egypt. This is evidence that they have embraced the deadly lie of the Opposition Voice: “God is not good. God doesn’t care about you…” These deadly lies block their ability to receive God’s love and gifts. And so visible deadly serpents come into the camp and sting them, to be a sign of what is happening spiritually.
God gives the Israelites an antidote to the serpent’s venom: Moses mounts a bronze serpent on a staff, and whoever looks at it is saved. They look and see their sin, the image of the lie they have embraced. The recognition of the lie, of the sin, is the first stage of salvation. But it is not the end.
Jesus Himself will be lifted up, to show us graphically what sin does. But more than that—to show us what Love does. That Love is stronger. That God is good, that He loves us—so much so that He would die for us.
As important as it is to renounce evil, we must also claim truth. “In the name of Jesus, I claim that truth that I am chosen by God…that I am loved by God…that I am beautiful… that God died for love of me.”
In Confession, we are absolved when after speaking our sins, the priest, in persona Christi speaks God’s words over us:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.”
And in so doing, the priest makes the sign of the cross—that we might look up and place ourselves in the hands stretched out to welcome us home.