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Paths to Peace

Finding inner peace through window of hope


By the time I reached the door of the monastery in Berryville, Va., it had been years since I had spent a summer in jail for possession of heroin. I had survived three rapes and one abortion. I had become a good mother to my daughter, an author and a Washington Post reporter. Instead of shooting dope to cope with life, I prayed, meditated and read the inspirational words of others.

Yet on that wintry Saturday morning in 1990, I was having difficulty sustaining my peace. What haunted me was what always drove away peace. I was doubting my worth. Who am I? I asked. Am I so bad that God is punishing me?

In 11 months, seven people I loved had died. My father died on the same day that a good friend died of AIDS. The next month, an old friend died from an overdose of heroin. Two days before Christmas my childhood best friend died after a liver transplant. A week later the tenant who rented my house while I was away in school died of AIDS. Then before the anniversary of my father’s death, two young men I loved dearly, men who were like brothers to me, also died of AIDS.

Overwhelmed by grief

I was overwhelmed by grief. My insides quivered. I was one heartbeat away from insanity.

I knew I would never turn to drugs. What stopped me was everything I learned in my journey toward peace. At the root of my problems had been self-hatred. I hated myself because I was black and female and because I thought my father did not love me.

In my early 20s, I rejected any belief in a Supreme Being. This was because the world seemed to say to me: “God is white.” As a victim of the racist attitudes that prevailed at the time, I concluded that I, a young black woman, could not possibly be loved by a white God. I handled my fear that this could be true by rejecting God.

And yet there came a day when I realized I needed to believe in something. I was pregnant by a man who raped me and rejected by another man I thought loved me. I was unemployed and ashamed. I chose abortion as a way out, and this compounded my shame. In this condition, believing I was unlovable and that life on earth was a horrible existence, I decided I either had to commit suicide or believe there was a purpose for my life, and a Supreme Being who loved me despite anything I did.

I chose to live and in doing so, I also chose to reject the God of my upbringing, the one who seemed white and believed in vengeance. I fashioned my own definition of God, one that gave me a deep, inner sense of quiet. God was neither white nor black nor of any race. God was neither female nor male, I concluded.

Perhaps this one decision gave me more peace than any other I’ve made in my life. My shift in perspective or consciousness changed everything.

Besides this wrestling with God, another major step toward peace was choosing to enter therapy. A simple incident sent me to the therapist’s office. I found out a guy I was dating was also dating a woman who worked with me. While many things in my life had changed, my abusive relationships with men had not.

My family and many of the black people I knew considered therapy “white people’s medicine,” but by now I had seen the magnificent benefits of self-exploration. So I went to a therapist for two years.

I had been carrying around a ton of guilt, I discovered. Guilt because I had not always been a good mother or a good daughter. Guilt for having an abortion, for stealing and doing drugs. I learned to forgive myself and realized I had to. Most important, I discovered there were reasons I made the poor decisions I did -- and it had nothing to do with my being an innately bad person.

I began to redefine myself, to be more patient and loving toward me. You cannot live in peace when you think you are a bad person. It is as simple and as difficult as that.

Blessed, not cursed

I had forgotten all this on the day I went to the monastery. I needed to be in a place filled with prayer, a place where no one expected anything of me. I wanted to talk to a priest, someone who spent hours in silence and prayer, someone I considered not fully of my world.

I asked the young priest if God was punishing me because I had so many gay friends. Or was punishing them because they were gay.

“We are blessed to be alive now, at a time when the world is struggling with questions such as whether or not homosexuality is a sin,” he said.

Blessed? I had not seen the blessing in my suffering.

“I am blessed, not cursed,” I said over and over in my head as I drove away.

The priest’s words reminded me that I had found peace by looking at life’s circumstances through a window of hope. Hadn’t I found a multitude of blessings and peace in a life that had experienced rape, abortion, drugs and prison? The trick is to keep the window clean, and when things are too cloudy and you can’t quite see your way, my goodness, ask someone else to wipe the window for you.

Patrice Gaines is the author of Laughing in the Dark and Moments of Grace.

Peace in history

  • 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested after refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. The black community launches the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After a hear of hardship the boycott succeeds.
  • 1971: At the age of 90, Jeannette Rankin leads an 8,000-woman march on the Pentagon against the Vietnam War.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002