The Spirituality of Recovery – From Survivor to Thriver
University of Rochester
April 3, 2013
At a conference held on April 3 at the University of Rochester, I was asked to speak about the Spirituality of Recovery. I offer here a condensed version of my presentation at that conference. Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious issue confronting all of us who work in higher education today. I offer here some reflections on the spiritual consequences of sexual assault and the spiritual issues that need to be addressed within college communities as they deal with incidents of sexual assault. This is a hard topic for all religious traditions to confront, and yet there is much spiritual and religious wisdom that can be brought to the issues arising out of sexual assault that can promote healing and renewal both for victims and for their assailants.
Fundamentally I believe that there is a deep connection between spirituality and sexuality, which means that sexual assault is more than an assault on the body and emotions, it is also an assault on the soul. Spiritual practices and spiritual and religious mentors and counselors can offer much wisdom to students who have been victims of sexual assault and can also offer much needed spiritual care to those who have perpetrated the assaults.
Sexual Assault is not About Sex
First let me make it clear that sexual assault is not about sex. When someone is the victim of a sexual assault, the act that takes place between the people involved is not about sex, it is not about intimacy and connection and love and trust, it is about violence and power and intimidation. The sex organs of the human body are merely the tools used to inflict violence and pain and suffering on the victim. The assault is not about sex, but in order for the victim to heal, spiritual and/or religious rituals or practices may be needed to bring the victim back to wholeness because healthy sexuality is intertwined with spirituality. And for complete healing to happen in the community, to the extent possible the perpetrator needs to be held accountable and to have spiritual resources available to him to bring him to a place where he can reclaim his dignity and his wholeness and make restitution for the harm he has caused to the community.
Sexuality and Spirituality
I approach this topic with a strong conviction that human sexuality and spirituality are intricately connected components of human experience. In the best of circumstances, sexuality and spirituality work together in the life of a human being and offer windows onto the transcendent divine in ways that bring joy and fulfillment to human life.
George Feuerstein, in his book Sacred Sexuality traces the connection between human sexual expression and spirituality from ancient indigenous religions of the Goddess through the major world religions that we know today From our earliest records of human religious experiences, it is clear that sexual energy and spiritual experience have been long intertwined. Feuerstein writes:
Sex- or to be more precise, sexual love- can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality. That window or opening can manifest all of a sudden in the solid walls of our conventional existence. At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all our sensations, experiences and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-one-ness. (39) …..
This truth has been obscured by our inherited dualistic philosophies, but it is a truth that is fundamental to the sacred traditions inspired by mystics and sages before they were reworked by theologians and intellectuals. Prior to the rise of dualism, the sacred and profane were not experienced as radical opposites, nor was sexuality excluded from spiritual life. On the contrary, the further back we go in human history the more we encounter a life philosophy that was distinctly affirmative of both sex and God or Goddess. (41)
It is no accident that through the ages, people who have spent long hours in prayer and meditation and who have nurtured a lively and dynamic relationship with the divine have experienced that relationship in ways they can only describe as erotic. The good news in this literature is that the experience of transcendence, boundarylessness, ecstasy and joy that the mystics describe is also available to us ordinary people in the context of our healthy, loving sexual relationships.
If one understands the deep connection between human sexuality and spirituality, it becomes clearer how and why a sexual assault is also a spiritual assault. Sex is sacred and when the parts of our bodies that engage in sex are violated, spiritual damage is done to the soul. A sexual assault is the equivalent of the desecration of a holy site, and just as churches, mosques and temples that have been desecrated often require special rituals and prayers to re-consecrate the space for its holy purpose, people who have been so violated by a sexual assault need spiritual rituals and support to “reconsecrate” their sexual lives in a healthy and positive way.
Spiritual Consequences of Sexual Assault
The primary spiritual consequences of sexual assault are feelings of guilt, shame, anger or rage, depression, and a struggle to deal with the religious imperative to forgive when forgiveness seems elusive or downright impossible.
Much has been written in the past several decades about the phenomenon of guilt among survivors of rape. In part these guilty feelings arise from our culture’s propensity to “blame the victim” by asserting that she somehow “asked for it” either by the way she was dressed, or the way she behaved towards the perpetrator, or by getting drunk or high on drugs so that she was incapable of resisting the attack and also incapable of consenting to the sexual activity.
Shame is another common feeling among those who have been victims of sexual assault. Shame can be even more debilitating than guilt since shame tends to be rooted in feelings about the person’s very selfhood and is not usually specifically related to just one act of omission or commission. Thus, a person who feels shame as a result of a sexual assault feels worthless as a person, or somehow sullied or dirtied or inadequate. These feelings can obviously have far reaching consequences for the person’s continued growth and development both psychologically and spiritually. Appropriate spiritual care is imperative to help victims transform their feelings of shame into feelings of self worth and empowerment.
A very important part of healing from a trauma such as sexual assault is forgiveness. The victim at some point must be able to forgive the perpetrator in order to move on with his or her own life. There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes forgiveness and how and when someone should engage in it. Well-trained religious leaders can help victims to work through their feelings and work towards genuine forgiveness in ways that can empower the victim to move on in a healthy way but without rushing the forgiveness process.
Spiritual Care of Perpetrators
The perpetrators of sexual assault also need spiritual care, in addition to psychological and psychiatric care. The act of sexual assault can create feelings of guilt and shame in the perpetrator. In our desire to see justice done, we must also remember that the perpetrator needs spiritual counsel and help to deal with his guilt and shame and to help him to do whatever acts of repentance, restitution and making amends might be appropriate under the circumstances. The spiritual task is to walk with the perpetrator as he experiences the suffering that inevitably comes from having caused the kind of harm he has caused and from the natural consequences, legal and otherwise, of that harm.
In some cases, restorative justice practices might be appropriate and helpful. However, not all offenders will be suitable candidates for such practices. In cases where a perpetrator is repentant and remorseful, is capable of empathy and willing to subject himself to the restorative justice process, a restorative approach can heal both the victim and the perpetrator and strengthen the community at the same time. A restorative approach focuses on healing broken relationships and restoring a sense of community, something very important in a university setting. We are fortunate to have resources at the University of Rochester through our Gandhi Institute that can offer a restorative justice approach when circumstances suggest it is appropriate to do so.
So, for this campus community I would urge that spiritual and religious interventions be considered when dealing with students who have suffered from sexual assault. The Interfaith Chapel is available to work with such students and to refer them to appropriate religious mentors as needed. As numerous studies have shown, religious and/or spiritual intervention can have remarkably positive effects on a victim’s recovery, but equally, the wrong kind of spiritual counsel can simply compound the problems and increase the suffering so care must be taken to be sure the person is referred to a religious counselor who is trained to deal with victims of sexual assault and abuse.
The Interfaith Chapel is similarly ready to be a spiritual and religious resource for those working with perpetrators of sexual assault, to help them to accept responsibility for what they have done and to transform their lives in positive ways, restoring them to community and helping them to find ways of healing from the harm they have caused to others and to themselves.
Healthy university communities must take sexual assault seriously and ensure that all resources are brought to bear when a sexual assault takes place. The community’s health is at stake, not just the health and well being of the assailant and the victim. We are all in this together and together we must work to make our campus safe for all of our students all of the time.