Welcome to the community of the wounded

17 April 2019

A Holy Week Meditation on Wednesday of Waiting by Helgard Pretorius

Parable: Where to find the Messiah?

We begin with an old legend in the Talmud:

~ Where to find the Messiah? ~

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi asked Elijah the prophet, “When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”

“Where is he?”

“Sitting at the gates of the city.”

“How shall I know him?”

“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds.
The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again.
But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself,
‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

Reflecting on this parable, Henri Nouwen, notes that it raises many questions, such as: How does the prophet know when the Messiah will come or where he might be found? Why would the Messiah be found outside the gates of the city? Why sitting among the poor? Why covered with wounds? Why changing bandages, others’ and his own, one at a time?

The picture that is painted before our eyes is of the Messiah as a suffering servant and a wounded healer, an image that first comes to us through the prophets, such as in Isaiah 53. His place is among the poor. He tends to his own wounds as well as the wounds of others, in anticipation of the moment when he will be needed.

So it is with all servants of God. We are called to be wounded healers who look after our own wounds and at the same time prepare to heal the wounds of others.

On this Wednesday of Holy week, which I have heard is traditionally known as the Wednesday of Waiting, it is fitting that we reflect on our woundedness, which is also Christ’s woundedness.

To that end, I would like to share with you just a few insights – not a sermon, just a thought or two – on how we might read the gospel from the perspective of trauma. We will then move from our thoughts down into our hearts. I will lead us through a guided meditation of about 10 minutes. We conclude by listening to another piece of music, before departing in silence.

Reflection: Reading the gospel through the lens of trauma

I have been reading the work of a North American theologian called Shelly Rambo, and she has really helped me see how what we know about trauma, might change the way in which we read the Bible.

In two well-received books, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (2010) and Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (2017), she presents the view that trauma is not one more issue that theology addresses, but a lived reality from which Christian traditions need to be fundamentally rethought.

“Trauma brings to theology a new ignorance,” she says. Knowing what we know about trauma, theologies that apply a redemptive gloss or soothing bandage over festering wounds, not only sound hollow and unconvincing, but can also dangerously partake in suffering’s repetition.

So, Rambo suggests that we could benefit from reading the gospel through what she calls the lens of trauma. It is a lens that illuminates possible readings that are hidden from view in the way we normally read the Bible.

I will first say something about this lens, and then I will give a brief example of how applying this lens, helps us see something that was always there, but hidden from view.

Now, of course, Trauma has always been with us, but the concept of ‘trauma’ and the field of ‘trauma studies’ is relatively young.

The term trauma first became popular after WWII and burst into everyday speech in the 1980’s with the notion of ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD).

It is the idea that experiences of loss or violence leave behind a hidden wound – trauma literally means ‘wound’ in Greek – that remains alive long after the initial occurrence of violence.

This insight fundamentally changed the way that we view and deal with human suffering. Trauma studies allows us to linger on this elusive nature of suffering that does not remain in the past, but continues to inhabit or haunt the present.

Trauma manifests on at least three fronts: it distorts our experience of ‘time’, of the ‘body’ and of ‘language’. Let me say something about each of these:

Firstly, trauma manifests as distortions of our human sense of time. Anyone familiar with PTSD, for instance, will be able to tell you that time does not ‘heal all wounds’, as the cliché goes. Rather, time is part of the wound itself. Distortions in time are what constitute the wound.

This complex relationship between trauma and time is evident in a comment recently made by our president Cyril Ramaphosa at Winnie Mandela’s funeral. He said that we as South Africans are “damaged by our past, numbed by our present and hesitant about our future.”

In trauma, the flow of time from past to present to future is disrupted. The past invades the present to the extent that the violence and suffering of the past is relived and repeated. Such invasions often result in the loss of the present as a time of initiative and agency. Trauma also impairs one’s ability to reckon with the future, as plans and hopes make way for the task of anxiously avoiding situations that might trigger a debilitating flashback. Trauma theorists often speak of trauma’s ‘double structure’ to refer to how an initial traumatic occurrence can have a belated awakening, even years later, unexpectedly, apparently without rhyme or reason.

Rambo tells of a conversation she had had with a man from New Orleans twenty-nine months after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina about how they were getting along. He told her about a strong drive to claim that New Orleans was back to normal: “People keep telling us to get over it already.” However, such language of restoration obscured the many ways in which things were not back to normal. Then he said: “The storm is gone, but the ‘after-the-storm’ is always here.”

Trauma studies teaches us that suffering and loss cannot be isolated to a particular time and place. Life after suffering, life after death, is life marked by death and loss; it is wounded life. The storm is gone, but the ‘after-the-storm’ is always here. I am sure that we can all attest, in one way or another, to how suffering or loss lingers or remains. The treatment was successful, but the scars, these I always carry with me… we said farewell, we have done our mourning, but actually, we are still saying goodbye…

The same can certainly also be said of historical, communal traumas:

Apartheid is over, but the ‘post-Apartheid’ is always here – its poisonous effects are still painfully palpable, visible. Conscription has ended, yet the border sill haunts many of us, even if we cannot recognise it, even if we don’t have the language to speak of it.

Secondly, trauma studies has also made us more aware of how traumatic experiences are registered and remembered by our bodies, often in ways that escape conscious thought and awareness. Psychiatrists and neuroscientists, have recently shed important light on how traumatised bodies can ‘keep the score’ in debilitating ways that keep us trapped in the past and unable to give adequate expression to our experiences. They have also shown how, very often, therapies focussed on speaking, or telling your story, are not as affective as one might expect – while therapies with a stronger focus on the body, such as meditation or yoga, can deliver surprisingly positive results.

Thirdly, trauma exposes the fragility of language. The traumatic is exactly that which cannot be assimilated or integrated into our personal and collective narratives. It is the unclaimed experience that nevertheless makes itself felt in the present, thereby placing us in the impossible position of having to speak the unspeakable. This loss of speech often deepens the suffering of traumatised persons for it isolates them from their community. The inability to communicate severs bonds of trust, causing our social world to disintegrate along with our sense of self and identity.

Furthermore, the difficulty of speaking of traumatic experiences is linked to the vulnerability of witnessing to such experiences. Internally, one even doubts one’s own experience, while externally, traumatic wounds become easy to dismiss, deny or cover over.

Rambo also points out how, faced with trauma, our Christian language and stories, while “Christianity claims to offer healing,” can become “implicated in the covering up and covering over of wounds that lie beneath the surface.” It is not that Christians deny the existence of wounds per se but, that we tend to “spiritualise, interiorise or privatise the wounds.”

So, to recap, trauma distorts our experience of time, it is located deep in our bodies (and our communal body or community) and it reveals the limitations of our language. As South African’s it should be immediately obvious how these insights can be applied to life in South Africa today. To use Rambo’s terminology, South Africans are living in the ‘after-life’ of a number of historical traumas. These wounds are not historical wounds, if by that one means wounds that have passed. Rather, these are a hidden wounds, painfully alive and powerfully active, living under our collective skin.

What might it mean to witness to Christ when the after the storm is always here?

One of Rambo’s most important contributions is to reclaim what she calls the ‘testimonial’ character of Christian witness as truth-telling, lament, confession of guilt – different ways of giving testimony to what is unspeakable, unclaimed, hidden, repressed.

By speaking of testimony, she wants to compliment the more dominant ways in which Christian’s witness to the gospel: through ‘proclamation’ (where we preach or teach the gospel); and through ‘imitation’ (a life of discipleship that embodies Christ’s example).

Alongside, proclamation and imitation, Rambo wants to recall that neglected aspect of the Christian tradition that bears witness by simply giving testimony to human suffering. This testimonial character of Christian witness means that we position ourselves in respect to suffering and wounds in ways that allow hidden truths to emerge through the cracks.

***

Such an understanding of Christian witness as testimony comes to light when she applies her lens of trauma to the Bible. In her book, Resurrecting Wounds, Rambo rereads the famous narrative of Jesus’ resurrected return to his disciples in John 20:19-28, from the perspective of trauma.

It is late at night, on the Sunday after Jesus’ brutal crucifixion. The disciples (traumatised?) are on lockdown. In fear of being persecuted by the same people who murdered Jesus, they are hiding in a room with the doors barricaded. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them, almost ghostlike, except that he is flesh and bones like them. He blesses them, “Peace be with you!” and then, immediately, shows them his hands where he still bears the wounds of where nails pierced them; also the wound on his side where the spear entered his body.

We are all familiar with how the story unfolds. One of the disciples, Thomas, was not there on this occasion. When he hears the other disciples’ account of what happened he defiantly claims that he would not believe, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” Eight days later, when the disciples were again gathered in the room – still on lockdown, but with Thomas present on this occasion – Jesus appears again. “Peace be with you!” he blesses them. Then Jesus, standing, wounded before his apostle, repeats the words that Thomas spoke when Jesus was absent. He invites Thomas to bring his finger and put it in his wounds, to take his hand and thrust it into his side. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaims in response.

What is this story about? The dominant interpretation is that this is a story about faith, or rather about doubt. It is, after all, the story of the ‘doubting Thomas’. “Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” Faith is more than sight; trust is more than certainty; don’t be like the sceptical Thomas who requires proof; believe and you will have life. We have all either heard or preached the sermon. Something, however, gets lost in this interpretation. Interpreters following this line tend to overlook or belittle the importance of wounds surfacing on the body of the resurrected Jesus.

However, interpreters like Shelly Rambo invite us to take seriously the fact that God’s resurrecting work includes the resurrection of wounds. They ask a different set of questions to the same text:

What remains untold or unsaid in this wound-story? What does it mean that God, in raising Jesus, also raises his wounds, bringing them from the dark and inaccessible grave into the light – within view, within reach? What is the significance of wounds surfacing in the midst of the worshiping community gathering around the risen Jesus? How should we interpret the invitation to see and touch Jesus’ wounds? Are his wounds just unimportant background to a story about belief and doubt? Or can we allow ourselves to acknowledge them as an integral part of a story about how God raises us to reconciled life in the community of the wounded?

For me, the surfacing of wounds on the body of the risen Jesus and the invitation to see and touch those wounds is a compelling Easter-message of how God is at work in history to bring wounds from the dark and inaccessible grave to the light, to where they are within reach, to where they can be touched and tended and transfigured.

Easter hope is not about triumphally glossing over wounds, but about finding joy in the possibility of wounds being brought to light so that they may become transfigured.

***

We return to the parable with which we began and Henri Nouwen’s idea of us being wounded healers.

“Nobody escapes being wounded,” he says, “We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds? so we don’t have to be embarrassed,” but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

What I found quite striking in the parable we began with, is that even Christ, needs to be tending to his own wounds, in order for him to become a healer for others. It made me realise that facing my own woundedness might require more courage than helping others with their healing.

We now move to a guided meditation. It is an opportunity to tend to our own woundedness, not to celebrate our victimhood, but as a step towards heeding Christ’s call to become wounded healers. The premise of the meditation is this image of the resurrected Christ, who, like those suffering from trauma, continues to bear the wounds of his crucifixion and invites us to see and touch and tend to his wounds.

Guided meditation: Welcome to the community of the wounded

Become quiet before God in prayer – in whatever way you choose. Perhaps by simply closing your eyes and becoming silent for a time, or by relaxing your body, or by slowly deepening your breath for a while… continue doing this until your mind has become calm…

Now focus your thoughts on Christ. Think of Jesus’ body… think of when he became hungry, thirsty, tired, or sad. Try to focus your thoughts on the body of Jesus in the narratives…

Now focus your thoughts on his hands and feet. Wait patiently until you begin to see the wounds; or until he shows them to you.

“Be not afraid,” Christ says to you, “Welcome to the community of the wounded. Here it is safe to be wounded.”

Let this knowledge and this peace flow through you now.

Wait patiently for the courage to speak with Christ about your wounds. That moment may not arrive now; be patient with yourself and only share your thoughts and feelings when you are ready. Perhaps it is enough to dwell in Jesus’ invitation: Be not afraid. Welcome to the community of the wounded. Perhaps it is enough to know that you are safe here, even as you are wounded.

If you can speak, speak from the hart: tell Christ what is unspeakable.

When your words run out, see how Christ is sitting next to the Father. See how he is showing his hands and feet to the Father saying, “do you see these scars: this is what our brother and sister is trying to speak of, but for which there are no words.”

Amen.