Prayer for Survivors

The first time in my adult life that I knew I would be okay came in church when I was nineteen years old. Haunted not only by the memories of abuse, but also the false assertions of several authority figures that “abused children grow up to abuse,” I was paralyzed emotionally. Though I had never had a desire to abuse children, I was terrified of the day that I would snap and turn into the monster they had predicted I would be.

I avoided non-related children assiduously, just in case. It didn’t matter that I’d never hurt a child nor wanted to do so. It didn’t matter that I was great with children and idolized by my baby siblings (who I fought hard to protect from the pedophile uncle who had abused me). The voices of a few misguided and very misinformed church leaders weighed heavily in my mind. I was doomed to turn into a monster; it was just a matter of time.

Except that they were wrong. In college, I joined a new church community that emphasized grace and healing. It was in a pew of that church that my epiphany came. We stood for a hymn, and a little girl, around the age I was when I was first abused, turned in the pew in front of me to smile and wave at me when we began to sing. My hands shook with terror as I worried that I would turn into an abuser and hurt her. But something in the hymn – one of the old ones about love and redemption – broke through the fear and got my attention. I suddenly came to myself.

My hands were not monster hands. These hands that held the hymnal and waved to the child in front of me were made for prayer. Cleansing tears rushed up to heal me, and the voice track in my head switched over. No longer, “You’ll abuse like you were abused.” Suddenly, “Your hands are made for prayer. Your body is made for prayer. Your voice and mouth and person are made for prayer.”

Over the following weeks, the new conviction took root. Grace, glory, goodness, prayer – these were the gifts I could receive and give to the world. None of the horrors of the abuse I suffered could keep them from me.

Since then, I have faced many challenges trying to live out that first good re-imagining of my body’s purpose. It has not always been easy to pray, especially when traumas resurface. It’s not easy to break the paralysis of fear. But the past two decades have taught me a lot about how to reconnect with the divine and reclaim the sacred space of my person. In the remainder of this article, I will share with you some of the strategies that have helped me pray through the challenges that come with being a survivor. Also, check out the Prayer for Survivors Pinterest Board I made to accompany this article for images and quick links to some of the resources mentioned below.

Prayers That Make a Prior Claim
Since childhood abuse affects many of our earliest memories, it’s helpful to pray in a way that affirms a prior and higher claim on our persons and purposes. These prayers provide a safe place for us to meet the divine and to assert our bodily sanctity. Use them any time. They are especially helpful as part of a daily routine, for instance, saying them while you get ready for the day, or while having a morning cup of tea or coffee.

  • God, thank you for making me and calling me for a good purpose.
  • Let my body be a place of grace, as you created me in your graciousness.
  • Before I even learned to walk, the divine set good paths at my feet. Let me walk in them.
  • Thank you for making me in your image.
  • Thank you for bringing me into the world with light in my eyes. Rekindle that light, and make me feel your peace and joy, safe in your light.
  • Say aloud Psalm 139:
    • LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
      you know my sitting down and my rising up;
      you discern my thoughts from afar.
      2 You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
      and are acquainted with all my ways.
      3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
      but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
      4 You press upon me behind and before *
      and lay your hand upon me.
      5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
      it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
      6 Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
      where can I flee from your presence?
      7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
      if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
      8 If I take the wings of the morning *
      and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
      9 Even there your hand will lead me *
      and your right hand hold me fast.

      10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
      and the light around me turn to night,”
      11 Darkness is not dark to you;
      the night is as bright as the day; *
      darkness and light to you are both alike.
      12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
      you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
      13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
      your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
      14 My body was not hidden from you, *
      while I was being made in secret
      and woven in the depths of the earth.
      15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
      all of them were written in your book; *
      they were fashioned day by day,
      when as yet there was none of them.

Prayers for When You’re Triggered
These prayers are broken into two sections: prayers for protection and re-establishing boundaries, and prayers that help to overcome dissociation from your body.

  • Reconnecting Prayers: If your tendency is to dissociate when you’re triggered, prayers that reconnect you in safe physical space can help.
    • Writing: If you are able, writing can help you reconnect to your body and your sense of the divine. While you are experiencing the anxiety and panic of triggered memories, it’s best to keep the writing simple and direct.
      • Try writing a free association prayer of thanks, listing any and every good thing you can think of right then.
      • Try writing words on paper that represent how you’d like to feel or what you feel you need (safety, peace, healing).
      • If you are able, write about the event you are re-experiencing, starting each sentence with, “God is with me to heal me now as I remember …” Being able to tell a story about your trauma helps to heal your memories. Telling the story as prayer helps to sanctify those memories, so that you can draw on your faith resources more easily as you recover.
    • Tactile prayers
      • Try praying simple prayers, such as, “Lord, have mercy,” or “God is with me,” while touching a prayer rope, a cross that fits in your hand, or some other meaningful healing or sacred object.
      • There are many online resources for how to use Orthodox or Catholic prayer ropes and rosaries, as well as instructions for using other forms of prayer beads.
      • Most simply, these prayer aids rely on repetition of simple prayer phrases along with the movement of beads or knots through the fingers.
      • If you do not have a particular faith tradition but wish to use this prayer form, try holding a bead necklace in one hand, grasping a bead with each repetition, moving along the entire circle. You can use any sincere, healing phrase, such as “I am glad to be alive,” or “I am sacred,” or “Keep me in the light.”
    • Walking Prayers
      • To reconnect with your person, movement often helps. You might walk around the room or go outside while reciting a well-known prayer, or you might walk to the rhythm of a song you sing or listen to. It’s important that you feel safe in the space where you walk. If going outside makes the trigger experience scarier, stay inside. I have pinned a few walking prayer songs to the Prayer for Survivors Pinterest Board.
      • Shaker movements. Shakers were members an American religious group whose prime was in the 18th and 19th Centuries. They often prayed with songs that were danced with simple movements, such as walking in circles. A helpful Shaker practice is to hold your hands out to your sides, palms up, to represent receiving goodness and grace, then face the palms down to represent putting away evil, sin, and shame. When used while walking, these movements help to reconnect your body to the sacred and give you an outlet for the need to move.
    • Making music. Singing or playing a simple tune that soothes you can be a type of prayer. There are many soothing chants to sing, for instance, in the Taize chant tradition. Try learning one or two of these to reconnect you with the present when your flight or fight has been triggered. See the Prayer for Survivors Pinterest Board for examples of simple chants. Favorite hymns or affirming songs may also be helpful, even if you do not know all the words. Expressing your desire to reconnect with yourself and the divine is more important than perfection.
    • Action Prayers: Especially when words fail us, actions speak louder than words.
      • Try waving a silk scarf through the air or letting the wind lift it. This practice is an expression of inviting the Spirit to refresh and uplift you.
      • Let water run between your fingers. If you are Christian, remember that your baptism asserted a prior claim for your body as holy, good, and worthy of respect. If baptism isn’t meaningful to you, let the water remind you of the life that is in you that has not been broken by the traumas you have survived.
      • Try making the sign of the cross over yourself if it is meaningful to you, as a way to reclaim your moment from the fears that have overcome you temporarily. (Forehead, belly button, shoulder, shoulder)
  • Prayers for protection & re-establishing boundaries:
    • Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of your wing. –From the hymn, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.” [links to music and lyrics]
    • Hedge me in behind and before and cover me with your protection.
    • Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love  of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. –From the Book of Common Prayer, page 123
    • Say aloud or read to yourself Psalm 121
      • I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
        from where is my help to come?
        2 My help comes from the LORD, *
        the maker of heaven and earth.
        3 He will not let your foot be moved *
        and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
        4 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
        shall neither slumber nor sleep;
        5 The LORD himself watches over you; *
        the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
        6 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
        nor the moon by night.
        7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
        it is he who shall keep you safe.
        8 The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
        from this time forth for evermore.

Prayers That Make Safe Spaces

  • Shrines: Set aside a small place in your home or room, such as a shelf or dresser top, where you can lay down your sorrows and gather your joys by means of mementos, sacred or healing images, special words and objects, and sensory objects such as beeswax votives and small bells. Having a place in your home that is set aside as special or sacred changes the way we think, so that we begin to live as though we are special and sacred as well.
  • House blessings: If your religion provides for formal house blessings, consider having your space blessed. You may also bless the space less formally by gathering a few trusted friends and going slowly throughout the home with a candle or incense (or both), praying or saying simple prayers for peace, protection, and happiness. You may consider hanging a cross or other important symbol above your door or on your wall to help establish your current space as a safe one.
  • Compline prayer, or prayers that you say as you go to sleep at night, can help you reclaim your space for the life you want to live now. My preferred prayers when I feel unsafe come from the Episcopal Compline service, meant to be prayed just before going to bed. Here’s my favorite:
    • Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. –Book of Common Prayer page 133

Prayers for When You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night

  • It can be comforting to remember that, all over the world, there are monks and nuns that wake every three hours for the sole purpose of praying for safety and goodness and love to prevail. Christians who are part of religious orders or devout laypersons gather to pray six times throughout the day: At midnight (Matins/Nocturns), at 3am (Lauds), at 6am (Prime), at noon (Midday/Sext), at 3pm (mid-afternoon/None), at 6pm (Vespers/Evening), and at 9pm (Compline/Bedtime). During the morning prayers, the theme is praise; at night, the theme is thanksgiving. Sometimes, just recalling the themes of the monastic hours might help calm you and guide you back toward peace. If you’d like, try praying a simple prayer focusing on praise of the divine or gratitude for the good things in your life or in the world generally.
  • My trigger hour seems to be 3am, which is the Christian monastic hour of Lauds. Sometimes it helps me to say aloud one or two of the prayers, which I look up through the online Book of Common Prayer in the section on Morning Prayer. See the Prayer for Survivors Pinterest Board for specific instructions on how to find the different prayers online.

Prayers That By-Pass Guilt and Shame

  • These prayers are like the prayers that affirm a prior claim, but these explicitly acknowledge that maybe we have messed up, or maybe we are damaged, but we still need the grace that is always reaching out to us. These prayers get me out of shame cycles and back on track.
  • My favorite of these prayers is from St. John Chrysostom’s Litany of the Hours: “Lord, even if I have not done anything good in your sight, do help me in your grace to make a good beginning.”
  • Lord, as you know, and as you love, have mercy on me.
  • Another approach is to name the feelings, and add a “but.”
    • “God, I may be messed up, broken, sick, sad, confused, and foolish, BUT I thank you for loving me anyway and healing me from my real faults and from the habit of imagining faults that aren’t really there.”

I hope that these prayer strategies help you heal by reclaiming your connection with the divine and reasserting the sacredness of your person and physical space. Please know that I am also praying for you, my fellow survivors. Peace be with you.

Summer Kinard is a writer, opera singer, homeschooling mother, Episcopalian, and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. She holds Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from Duke University Divinity School. Her first novel, Can’t Buy Me Love (Light Messages Publishers, 2013), follows the healing and love story of Vanessa, a freegan and survivor of childhood sexual abuse. You can find more of Summer’s writing online at her blog, Writing Like a Mother.

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About writingmother

Summer Kinard is a Greek Orthodox Christian who homeschools her five children, sings opera, and writes books on Faith, Tea, and Love. Texas Tea & Travel magazine called her novel Tea & Crumples an “uplifting story that will warm your heart and renew your faith.” She has a scriptorium in her home and grace stuck in her craw.

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