Book Review: Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories

As a cradle Byzantine Catholic I am well acquainted with the word “mercy.” I once counted the number of times priest and people intoned the words mercy, merciful or mercies in the Divine Liturgy. It’s fifty-four: 54 times in the course of an hour in which we beseech God’s mercy on ourselves and others. Fifty-four uses of the word mercy, not counting the particular propers, verses, and other special prayers of the day. In my lifetime, worshiping in the Liturgy alone, I’ve asked for God’s mercy hundreds of thousands of times – and, God willing, I’ll continue to seek His mercy for hundreds of thousands more. Despite all of this familiarity with mercy from my spiritual tradition, it took Pope Francis’ proclamation of a Jubilee of Mercy to get my attention and prod me to deep contemplation of not just the word mercy, but what it means for my relationship with God and others, and its vital role in my spiritual and emotional well-being. My journey into the heart of mercy has only just begun, and I now understand it’s meant to be a lifelong work. This summer I found a companion for this journey, one that opened me to new avenues of accessing and understanding not only God’s limitless font of mercy, but His enduring and immeasurable love for me.

“I wrote this book to share the good news that Jesus Christ heals our memories.” The opening line of Dawn Eden’s latest book, Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself From Painful Memories, sets the stage for a spiritual journey written in the simple and effective language of a daughter of God inviting her readers to join in the search for His mercy. What we learn from reading is that the search isn’t really ours at all; rather, God looks for us, invites us, and waits for us to enter into the protection of His merciful love. Despite the emphasis on mercy in the Divine Liturgy, I needed to remember (or perhaps truly learn) that God’s mercy is not a concept, or a “thing” to be acquired, but God’s offering of Himself to me. Remembering God’s Mercy is that reminder – and much more.

I first encountered Dawn Eden when I read The Thrill of the Chaste.  Though I’m a “cradle Catholic,” I was in my post-metanoia phase, having undergone a serious re-conversion a few years earlier. At the time Dawn was a fairly new Catholic herself, and I was drawn to her zeal for Christ, and her poetic yet eminently readable style and good humor. I followed her exploits via her blog, and eventually we met, collaborated, and became friends. Her journey to finding the Faith, finding her vocation, and finding healing through God’s mercy is something I could relate to – especially in acknowledging that it’s not a journey with an end (not in this life, anyway) but a pilgrimage with ever-new and wonderful beginnings.

In some ways Remembering God’s Mercy picks up where Dawn’s second book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints ends. In that book she gods-mercy-edenreveals her painful memories of sexual abuse and its fall out: from a loss of belief in God to the questionable lifestyle choices that exacerbated her pain instead of alleviating it. My Peace is her story of conversion and healing, told through the example of saints who experienced trauma and abuse, lived through it and became, well…saints! The book is a personal story of hope, but also a primer on the Church’s teaching on the communion of Saints. Sure, they’re in heaven now – but they know all too well our struggles here in the trenches because they struggled too, and they’ve become our companions, intercessors and advocates.

In Remembering God’s Mercy, Dawn turns to Pope Francis’ pastoral sensitivity and emphasis on God’s mercy for inspiration – and the continuation of her pilgrimage of healing. For me, personally, the Pope’s call to embrace God’s mercy has been a profound learning experience. Perhaps my own tendency toward judgment and mercilessness toward others is due (not unlike the man in the parable) to my lack of appreciating the great mercy that has been freely given to me – to each of us. Acknowledging this weakness and learning from it is a big step toward seeking and accepting God’s mercy toward us, and being merciful to others in turn. Using the words of Pope Francis, as well as the particular example of SS. Ignatius Loyola and Peter Faber, Dawn invites readers to bring their personal experience, doubts, and pain to the well of God’s mercy and jump in. It isn’t easy – as Dawn’s story testifies – but it’s a risk we don’t take on our own. Grace is the life preserver that weak and frightened spiritual swimmers (like me) need in order to dive into the ocean of His mercy. “Grace,” says Dawn, quoting Francis, “enables us ‘to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.’”

Obviously for Dawn healing memory has a particular meaning relevant to her past experience of sexual abuse. But don’t let that deter you from reading the book. I admit to having been a little wary myself at the start, wondering if I’d be able to relate to an experience of memory (and mercy) so different from my own. It didn’t take long to realize that this isn’t a book exclusively – or primarily – for sexual abuse survivors. As I read I became aware that my own memory, while not filled with similar traumatic events, is also wounded and in need of healing. I can recall criticisms received when I was a child, embarrassing events from more than 30 years ago, and mistakes ranging from little boo-boos to producing life-altering consequences. Many of these memories are tightly bound and held in my consciousness, popping out in times of anxiety, change, and spiritual unease. I hadn’t realized how spiritually damaging such memories are – not to mention the toll they take on my self-esteem. Nor had I ever considered that God, in His infinite love for me, desired to heal these memories by an outpouring of His mercy. Worse yet, I never thought to ask. This revelation alone made reading the book provided unexpected comfort and hope.

Remembering God’s Mercy is a mini-retreat, an invitation to deep contemplation as well as an instruction on mercy through Scripture and the example of the saints. My favorite parts of the book are those where Dawn asks questions for personal reflection, and when she invites the reader to pray with her. (Her reflection on the Seven Sorrows in chapter 4 particularly touched me, and I will surely use it for further contemplation.) I was also moved by her recollection of being introduced to the Jesus Prayer by her friend and fellow convert Jeffry Hendrix, who later succumbed to kidney cancer. This simple yet powerful prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner – comes easily to my lips as an Eastern Catholic; perhaps too easily. Dawn recounts her discomfort with the prayer, believing it to be more a recitation of her wretchedness than a form of praise and supplication. It seems that trying to say the prayer was a fruitless effort. Only when faced with desperation (Dawn recounts an incident of where a painful memory from her past overtook her, causing great anxiety) did the words of the Jesus Prayer spontaneously arise from deep inside her:

“I said it again. And again. And, as I did, something happened…. The prayer was not leading me to self-pity. It was opening my heart to the purifying love of God.”

This is the beauty of God’s mercy in action, and the lesson we must learn in order to be embraced by it: to simply let go and be loved. Of course, God’s mercy comes with the charge to be formed by it, to be changed. But I must first know that God’s mercy is available to me, that He wants to give it to me, and that I am worthy of receiving it. It doesn’t matter if that knowledge comes as a result of the desperation Dawn describes, or if we can only weakly or even skeptically cry out to Him. God is there in our desperation and weakness and skepticism. As Pope Francis says, God “waits for us to concede him only the smallest glimmer of space so he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us.”

Remembering God’s Mercy is a book one doesn’t simply read; it is to be contemplated. Dawn generously invites us into her heart and her faith, but the book isn’t a memoir; nor is it a “how-to” on surviving trauma. It is a call to personal reflection and an invitation to prayer. It is a book for everyone because it speaks to that longing in our hearts to be known by God, loved by Him, and held in His heart. Most importantly, the book is Dawn’s (and, if we join her, the reader’s) hymn of praise to the God who will never forget us, “for his mercy endures forever”!

*Final note – In her previous life, Dawn Eden was a rock and roll journalist, and music remains an important part of her life. A song she wrote for The Anderson Council lit up the airwaves on XM Radio this summer, and it’s worth a listen!

Ann Koshute teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

The Jesus Effect

pope-francis-vaticanMuch has been made of the so-called Francis Effect in the public relations game the secular media plays with the Church. At first, it seemed a boon to the Church, though the jury is still out as to its lasting impact. But even Pope Francis himself would agree that it is not the Francis Effect that we want in our lives. It is a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We want the Jesus Effect.

The name Jesus means “God saves”. We hear these phrases often – “Jesus saves” or “You must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” And these things are true. Jesus does save us from the power of sin, and he is very, very personal. He knows each one of us intimately, and longs for us to know him just as well.

In coming to know Jesus, we come to know our true selves. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We know this God has revealed himself to be nothing other than LOVE itself. God is love – we read it in John’s Gospel. We are made in the image and likeness of LOVE. When you look in the mirror, do you see LOVE looking back at you?

We all try to be loving people. And we know from experience that when we love, we are happier. If we are made in the image of LOVE, then, when we love, we are being our true selves. This is why the more we get to know Jesus, the more we come to know our true selves. We are made to love. We are made to love and to be loved. We are always loved by God – this is what enables us to know how to love others (and to actually do it!). The power of this love is far more powerful than the power of sin. Both powers are more powerful than we are. We easily become “slaves to sin” because, without the power to overcome it, we can only give in to it. But with the power of love – AH. We are no longer slaves – we are free to love, free to be our true selves. You can see why it is so important to be in relationship with Jesus always, to seek him out, and to value every encounter with him.

I struggle to find words that adequately describe the power of this love experienced in an encounter with Jesus. Powerful, yes. Safe and secure. Energizing. Liberating. I think depending on where we are in our lives and what challenges we are facing, this love will have a different effect on us. It is interesting to look at some examples from the Scriptures of people who encountered Christ, and ponder the Jesus Effect in their lives.

John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45/ Matthew 3:13-17)

visitation-1John the Baptist first encounters Jesus while both are still in their mothers’ wombs! When Mary arrives for her visit to Elizabeth, John leaps in her womb – he leaps for joy. He recognizes the presence of Jesus, and is happy – so happy he can’t control himself. He wants to come out and play with Jesus. The joy present in that moment is immense.

Can you think of a moment when you encountered Jesus and simply experienced pure and utter joy?

This same boy who recognized Jesus from his first encounter becomes the one who facilitates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world. John was baptizing people as they acknowledged their sins, but he was always fully aware that he was merely preparing people for their encounter with Jesus – calling them to repentance so that when the One who could forgive sin and conquer it –really take its power away – arrived, they would be ready to hand over their sins and be purified with love. John knows that Jesus does not need to be baptized for the sake of forgiving his sins – Jesus doesn’t have any! But Jesus tells him to do it anyway. The humility of John to do as he is told by Jesus, even without understanding, is rewarded with the voice of God affirming Jesus’ identity. His encounter with Jesus resulted in a trust in his way.

Can you think of a moment when you did something you felt God was calling you to do, even though it didn’t make any sense to you?

In our baptism, we die and rise with Christ – united to his Paschal Mystery. Our original sin is washed away – our lives controlled by sin dies, and a new life – freed by love – rises. Our dying and rising is united to Jesus’ death and resurrection – our lives become witnesses to the power of love over sin. Baptism is first a personal union with God – but in becoming personally united to God, we become joined to all the others who are united to God, and we love who are not yet united to God as God loves them. We desire that they, too, will come to know the love of God that we know. We become a community; we become church.

Now, just because we are baptized does not mean we are all loving and never sin. We know that’s not true! But God’s love for us is so great that he gives us many opportunities to become reunited to him. The most powerful opportunities are those we are given by participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism brings us into the loving embrace of our God – the rest of the sacraments sustain us in that love. They are genuine encounters with Christ, and they have a Jesus Effect on us.

The Jesus Effect is not always one of joy. In Luke’s gospel, we meet someone who encounters Jesus and, instead of leaping for joy, breaks down in tears.

The Pardon of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50) is one of my favorite Scripture passages. Imagine what it must have been like to meet Jesus while he walked the earth. This woman’s response to meeting Jesus was one of utter humility and repentance. The two go hand in hand. You can’t really be repentant without being humble first. Humility enables us to acknowledge that we are not perfect. Humility is the greatest form of honesty, I think. We acknowledge who we are in front of God – not in front of anyone else, not compared to anyone else. It is just our true self – and how well we are being that (or not). Her response to Jesus was so beautiful because in it, she is saddened by her own sinfulness, while being completely overwhelmed by the forgiveness offered to her. Her focus is completely on Jesus. She is not distracted by the others present who speak ill of her. The power of the love of Jesus is so strong that it overshadows their sneers. Imagine that!

Can you think of a moment when you encountered the love of God so strongly that it silenced all the negative voices around you, at least in your ears? Now – can you think of a moment when you were that love of God to another?

The sacrament of reconciliation is an intense moment of this kind of love, and the season of Lent of a perfect time to encounter Jesus in this way. We can bring anything to confession, and Jesus will give us graces to overcome these temptations. He judges us only to save us – he judges what it is in our lives that is keeping us apart from him – and he tells us to stop doing these things – AND he gives us the grace to do so. He doesn’t leave us hanging. He wants to be intimately united to us. He gives us all we need to do it. This is the Jesus Effect – and it is everlasting.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.