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Retreats open a pathway from grief to grace for abuse survivors

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People report breakthroughs in their personal and spiritual lives after a Grief to Grace retreat. Photo: Unsplash

Sitting on the cold steel bench at the train station in Philadelphia, Jose* tried to work up the courage to finish his journey to a retreat centre halfway across the world from home.

He gripped the handle of his suitcase and reminded himself of the decades of anger, confusion and shame he wanted to leave in the past, and the “violent storm” deep in his soul that he wanted to bring to God.

More than an hour later he finally made it through the centre’s front doors where all his worries melted away.

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“I will never forget how welcoming and caring the people were,” Jose said. “From when I first stepped in, I immediately felt God’s loving presence.”

Jose is one of three Australians who sought spiritual and psychological healing at a faith-based retreat program last year called Grief to Grace, which offers spiritual and psychological healing for people who have experienced physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual abuse and trauma within church, family, workplace or other contexts.

The program was run three times in Australia between 2017 and 2019, in Hobart and Perth before COVID effectively shut it down.

Funds donated by the Micah Foundation, a local charity, in 2018 enabled the retreat in Perth but with no permanent base to run them the rest of the money will now help around 30 people travel to retreat sites overseas.

After a screening process to determine whether the five-day program was the right fit for him, Jose booked his plane ticket to Philadelphia in the US with the hope of being “totally healed of all the anger and pain and shame in my heart.”

Another retreatant, Katrina*, said that nothing had worked to help her overcome her trauma from a lifetime of abuse or to feel close to God as she wanted until she travelled to access the program, not without some trepidation, held in London.

Growing up with domestic violence and sexual abuse, she said her earliest memories were tinged with fear and horror and despite now having a loving family of her own she lacked a sense of identity.

“It was stolen from me. I was a mere shadow of my existence,” she said.

“Because I was suffering, my family was suffering. I became determined to heal for my husband and my children, as well as for myself.”

She said her retreat team was “nothing but caring, patient, loving and understanding”.

Fr Dominic Allain, Grief to Grace international pastoral director. Photo: supplied

“I often would dissociate and there was always someone there who would help me ground myself.

“Jesus was always present and it was evident to me that the Holy Spirit was working through the team leaders God had called to serve and care for us.”

The lay-led residential program was launched in 2005 by American psychologist Theresa Burke, Catholic founder of Rachel’s Vineyard, which is a program for sufferers of post-abortion trauma and grief.

It uses a small-group format supported by a team of mental health professionals, a spiritual director and trained volunteers and blends Burke’s Living Scripture model, based on Ignatian-style meditation, with evidence-based psychological approaches to the treatment of trauma.

Grief to Grace’s International Pastor Director Fr Dominic Allain runs around six retreats in London each year attended by men and women, laity, clergy and religious, aged from their 20s to 80s.

He said there’s growing demand worldwide, mostly promoted through word of mouth.

He thinks that’s because abuse is no longer the taboo subject it once was, and trauma itself is becoming better known and understood—also because the program’s effectiveness is hard to ignore.

“We have one person on our team who says he comes to see the miracles, and that’s kind of true,” Fr Allain said.

Asked to pick one, he recalls a woman with schizophrenia who arrived with the lack of apparent emotion typical of someone taking medication for the condition.

“She left completely transformed, and partly because it was the first time anyone had ever believed her story,” he said.

“There are so many stories like hers, there’s an incredible physical transformation that takes place, they look 10 years younger because of all the stress that’s been taken away. You see this kind of radiance when they leave the retreat centre.

“Most of us are survivors ourselves and our ministry is one of accompaniment, we’re not therapists with patients. We don’t see people through a lens of a diagnosis and I think that’s really important.

“But it’s a very powerful intervention, very intense, and you can expect to get out what you put into it. Some people we support afterwards quite intensively and for others it’s the intervention that means they just get on with it.

“It is not faith healing, a pray and it will go away sort of thing, and it’s not psychology, it’s a beautiful integration of those two things. Yes, we believe in the power of prayer and we believe the real therapist is Jesus working through the Holy Spirit.

“So it’s very Catholic in a sense that it involves both faith and reason—we are using this human science to clear the space for the Holy Spirit to work.”

He recommends Australian retreatants factor in some quiet days before and after the retreat, and that it’s not the kind of experience that can be neatly packaged into a holiday.

Dr Philippa Martyr attended a retreat before helping to lead the Perth one and she nurtures a hope a more sustainable Australian home with a local team in a larger city might be developed in the future.

She said the program is especially helpful for people who whose abuse that took place within a church or spiritual setting.

That includes circumstances such as bullying or unfair dismissal in diocesan employment, marriage counselling that sent abused spouses back into danger, abusive spouses who exploited the church’s teachings, abuse by clergy, spiritual directors or superiors, and people who have left Catholic environments which were cult-like.

“You meet so many other people who were told the same lies about themselves,” she said.

“The church is a communion of people as the body of Christ and abuse in a church setting or by church personnel shatters that communion.

“Grief to Grace can bring that restorative communion to people who might feel very uncomfortable in an actual church setting.”

Back home, Jose told his wife more about the physical, emotional and sexual abuse he had endured as a child at the hands of an uncle, and says the relationship between them and with their Catholic faith has deepened.

Incredibly, he now sees the abuse he endured as a grace.

“I have never been as close to God in my life as I am now, and I don’t really have words to describe how much Grief to Grace has impacted me,” he said.

“The experience completely changed the way I view things.

“I have an extra bounce in my step and an extra feeling of warmth within, time to actually see and smell the roses, and more space now in my heart for Christ, my family and others.

“This is not to say I am completely healed. Far from it.

“But I now have hope. I know the Lord is at still work. Even if my initial prayer was for complete healing, I have come to realise that the real goal is a continuous relationship with Christ.”

Katrina also believes the harm she endured has been her path to Christ.

“I believe Jesus allowed it to happen for my salvation. He is turning my suffering into something good and will use it to help heal others who are suffering.”

*names changed as requested for retreatants’ privacy

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