Elizabeth A. Hawksworth is a published poet and historical fiction writer as well as a prominent blogger on topics of feminism, body positivity, fatphobia, writing, nannying, social justice, and spirituality. She is bold in writing about issues of ultimate concern when remaining silent and unnoticed would be, in the moment, easier. Here is part of her story.
A few hours north of Sarnia, Ontario, there is a quiet place nestled in a forest. Built with rustic logs, smelling like pine pitch, and surrounded by acres of misty trees, this small building stands, institutional and peaceful; utilitarian and somehow unique. In its natural surroundings, staring at a painting of the Baby Jesus, I found God.
Prayer, for me, has been a way to get through everyday life. I pray for health. I pray to be a better person. I pray for my family, my friends. I pray for things I want, things I don’t deserve, things I’m desperate about, things I can’t deal with. It’s not a fancy prayer. It’s often a mantra, repeated over and over, sometimes under my breath, sometimes out loud, sometimes mouthed in public places, and sometimes earnestly in the dark. And I pray every night, without fail, before I can close my eyes and sleep. I have to touch base. I have to let Him know. I need You. Please help me.
In that church retreat, hidden in the woods, I learned how to pray for more than just myself. I unlocked the talent I had all along – the talent of being able to use my words to change the world for the better. And I never felt closer to God, or more powerful with Him through me than I did then – creating creeds, weaving poetry, sharing with everyone my own personal faith, placing my feet on the path to social justice. If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I didn’t think I would ever be able to part from my relationship with God.
How things change.
I was badly wounded by the Church when I was a teenager. Shy, uncertain, and angry, I was struggling with my own sexuality and my sense of being. Holding hands with God, or so I thought, I faced the people who, also holding hands with God, told me that I didn’t belong. That I would burn in hell. That I was a sinner, a deliberate sinner, one who was so full of pride and bravado and hubris and lies, that I would never be welcome unless I changed who I was at the core. I had grown up solid in my belief that God makes us in His perfect image, and never makes mistakes. Now, I wasn’t sure if I was wrong, or if they were, but my hurt overwhelmed my faith.
I went back at 18, denying who I was. I joined a church of beauty and majesty, of tradition as old as time, and restrictions worse than any other church I’d ever been to. Was it punishment for the supposed sin of who I thought I was? To this day, I can’t answer that. All I know is that everywhere I turned, I found leaders, church members, even the Bible itself, it seemed, telling me that the person I am would never be good enough for God.
So I left. And I tried to forget.
I’m a rational person, most of the time. I also hold grudges, long after I should. And the hurt faded into twinges and then roared back to life in explosive, fiery anger. I wanted to hurt the Church the way it had hurt me. I wanted to hurt God. I wanted to burn in hell the way they said, just so that I could be myself without pretense, so I could live in sin without consequence and guilt.
And inside, I cried out for the God I knew in that quiet forest retreat. I begged Him to help me. I pushed Him away with both hands while simultaneously crying for Him in the night. And to His credit, He hasn’t let me go, though most days, I continue to angrily push and push and push, as hard as I can. He has forgiven me and continues to forgive me, despite all of my anger and moral failings, despite my hurt and my pride. He has quietly proven over and over that He thinks I am good enough for Him.
Knowing this, I suspect that one day, I will heal completely from my scars and from my open, bleeding wounds, the way that even the biggest wounds do heal. The scars will always hurt a little, but they won’t always be open and raw, ready to bleed again at another article about Christians saying “God hates fags”, or someone telling me that you can’t be Christian and gay.
But here’s the thing about healing. When you forgive someone, you don’t do it for them – not really. They benefit from it. They may think that you are doing them a favour. And maybe, part of healing is to acknowledge that you acted wrongly, too, even if at the time, you don’t think you did. Maybe part of it is to be like God, and not push away your fellow human, even if that fellow human has done cutting, horrible things to your psyche and to your sense of self.
The thing about healing is that forgiveness is mostly for you. It’s to reach out with your own humanity and be the bigger person. It doesn’t mean you forget, and it doesn’t mean that you have to draw that person back into your heart. What it does mean is that where the rushing, raging rivers have broken the bridge of faith, forgiveness helps to place new planks, to tie the knots back into the ropes. Where the bridge has rotted in places, forgiveness places brand new materials to make your bridge stronger than ever before. Where the bridge is shaky, forgiveness helps to steady it so that when you walk across it and try to meet God on the other side, it’s not so hard and scary to cross it.
Because when it comes to healing, it might take awhile. It might take a long time to rebuild your bridge. And I’m not saying that someone isn’t going to come along and say cutting things that will throw it into disrepair. I’ve rebuilt my bridge many times now . . . and I’ve begged God to help me find the strength to do it again.
Your bridge isn’t just to God. Your bridge is to your fellow humans, as well. The ones that put up walls to keep others out – your bridge goes to their door and invites them to come and meet you in the middle. The ones that tell you you’re not welcome – your bridge goes to them and tells them that they are welcome to come and belong with you. And the ones that meet you with hatred – your bridge shows them that the easier path is love.
Because maybe the place you’re all trying to reach is that little church retreat in the woods, with the whispering leaves and the distant rush of the many creeks. Maybe the path you all want to walk is the shady wide dirt path with the dappled sunlight through the trees, that wide and welcoming path that has benches to rest on and clear pools to drink from. Maybe the paths we choose are inevitably the harder ones because the stony paths teach you what smooth footing feels like, and we have to learn, in order to grow.
Maybe the pain and the blood are something we all experience, even when we’re the ones wielding the swords that hurt. And maybe when it comes to healing, you find it in the silence and the dark, the pleas and the desperation, the fact that when you couldn’t walk anymore, He carried you – and carries you still.
Maybe when it comes to healing, it becomes the easier path to take – broken bridge, and all.
Recently I met someone who suffers from extreme nausea. He can't eat. He's afraid he's going to die. He mentioned fear of going to hell because of his past choices. I asked him in a quiet voice, "Do you believe you're going to go to hell?" He paused for a long moment, then answered, "My hesitation tells you a lot, doesn't it?" My heart wanted to burst in that moment. How could I, who have sinned so greatly and hurt so many, offer my hope to him? I wrote down for him the lyrics of a slow, gentle hymn I learned years ago, the words to which were written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Goodness is stronger than evil Love is stronger than hate Light is stronger than darkness Life is stronger than death Victory is ours, victory is ours Through Him who loves us Today I went flipping through the psalms and found one in particular that might have resonated with him.
Psalm 143 Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness; answer me in your righteousness. Do not enter into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.
I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.
Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.
For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble. In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant. As a Benedictine Canon, my daily prayer etches the psalms on my heart. A few of the psalms I remember most easily are those I memorized long ago in song. Psalm 51, Psalm 130, Psalm 63, Psalm 23, and Psalm 91 spring to mind most easily when my heart is heavy. What words do I repeat to myself about God when I am most low? How might I find fresh, life-giving, mercy-imparting words?
It feels like a blur. Didn't my family just arrive in the desert yesterday? Didn't we just experience the St. Brigid Thursday night community for the first time? Didn't each of my tiny daughters receive their first communion a moment ago from the hands of those gathered in Heidi Chapel? St. Brigid, the small gathering of young adults and families from ASU Episcopal Campus Ministry and St. Augustine's Church, passed away last night. We built an altar of stones as a sacred tribute, and my not-quite-one-year-old splashed the bowl of water that bore the stones with which we built it. I have watched my daughters engage the sacramental life in this community. My baby, who was barely four months old when we first visited, took her first steps in front of the St. Brigid community last night, blazing a sacred trail around the room and climbing into the lap of our priest during the eucharistic prayer as unabashed concelebrant. Both of my daughters have inspired the breaking open of the word. Both of my daughters have broken the bread. Both of my daughters have shared gestures, looks, and wise words to give a roomful of adults pause. Both of my daughters have done what the older children did before them. Her precise words escape me, but my toddler said last night, during the breaking of bread, "Ooh, bread! It's so good!" And later, as she ate, she said, "Oh, my God!" And I said, "Oh, your God." I don't know what their liturgical formation will look like anymore beyond Sunday Mass, but I know that my daughters have walked and danced with the wild Spirit over these last eight months, and they have been met with wings of welcome and delight. Their lives will never be the same. And neither will mine. But the past isn't the end of the story--it marks the beginning of a new story. What will come next? How will I, their mother and on-hand liturgist, continue what the Spirit has inspired? Where does the story turn next?