Tending Trauma as Transformative Communion

The best sushi I ever tasted was handed to me fresh from the Sea of Galilee. I was the last customer at the restaurant when a fisherman brought it in. A Palestinian Christian waiter, the Jewish fisherman who caught the fish, and his Palestinian Muslim friend invited me—an Irish, Italian-American Catholic—to share this meal at a back table of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. The experience of sitting with those three men, in a country where each represented a different religious group, discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together, in vulnerable and open ways, impressed itself into memory.

Over the shared meal, we talked about what brought us together, our past and present experiences of the conflict, and the traumatic living situations that exist simultaneously in Jerusalem and other parts of the world.

That meal initiated the time that I spent in Israel working at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with 15 other international scholars as a part of the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity. The gathering explored the complex meanings and practices that shape our understanding of human dignity, affronts to it, and ways of honoring and restoring it. The topics of the master classes emerged out of, and had been shaped by, the historical relationship between Israel and Germany, where we would spend the second phase of the project. Against this backdrop, participants struggled to define the parameters of human dignity amidst current political and religious strife.

Nearly a year after that shared meal in Jerusalem, a meeting of other faiths took place when Congregation Bet Ha’am, a Reform synagogue in South Portland, Maine, hosted Christians with different affiliations for The BTS Center’s 2017 Convocation. The Convocation theme of “Course Corrections” referred specifically to current narratives of church decline, as well as to the closing of Bangor Theological Seminary and other seminaries across the Northeast. The theme also prompted discussions about changes occurring at additional levels of experience—personal, national, and global. (For additional insight into Convocation’s content, see Pamela Shellberg’s preview of the event, “Facing the Future, Eyes Wide Shut.”)

As I listened to Convocation presenters and participants, I heard echoes of the voices that had surrounded me during dinner in Jerusalem. In Israel, my conversation partners and I had debated how to adapt to trauma, and how to best advocate for positive change amidst religious and political tension. Similar questions arose during the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity and are amplified in international exchanges that take place between Germany and Israel. Even today, Germany feels a deep responsibility for the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust, in part as a commitment to ensure that both the German people and others around the world never forget what happened there.

Reverberating beneath all of these discourses lie accounts of trauma. Traumatic narratives underpin the words that shape conversations about tensions in the Middle East, historical attempts at genocide, and contemporary angst over spiritual disruption and dislocation.

Trauma is an event of immeasurable magnitude. It overwhelms the senses, obstructing the ability to integrate an external occurrence with inner experience. Convocation’s opening made clear this reality, as Pamela Shellberg evocatively recited, from memory, the story of the apostle Paul’s life-changing experience upon the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-19). According to the biblical narrative, Paul has a dramatic encounter with the Holy while traveling to Damascus to search out and arrest followers of Jesus: “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and … though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.” Paul does not know from where the light originates. And he is blinded. Subsequently, he can neither eat nor drink.

Paul experiences a trauma, and his embodied reaction indicates what trauma theorists would identify as an aspect of the “fight, flight, or freeze response.” While this kind of reaction occurs immediately during trauma, it often emerges again in the face of triggers that echo or are similar to the original traumatic event. Thus, stressors that may seem minor sometimes provoke intense emotional and physiological responses, such as outbursts of anger, the instant need to get out of a situation that is experienced as threatening, and even the inability to speak. Strong reactions to seemingly minor stressors often indicate residue of past trauma. Ultimately, the fight, flight, freeze response reflects one of the most significant aspects of trauma: its relationship to the body. As Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes in his book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma affects the body and is stored in the body.

During Convocation, clinical social worker and community minister Michelle Walsh also discussed Paul’s Damascus Road experience. She traced the impact of trauma on the body and discussed how traumatic events—especially those brought about by human design—can exacerbate the experience of losing control of the body. As a result, it is vital to attend to the body in the aftermath of trauma. Breathing exercises and physical practices such as yoga, which van der Kolk advocates, can have a grounding effect and help survivors who have dissociated (i.e., disconnected emotionally from the felt sense of their bodies) to reconnect.

In my experience working with survivors of physical and sexual abuse, I have learned that cultivating the ability to tolerate negative emotions, such as shame, anger, and fear, promotes recovery. This aspect of care includes assuring survivors who might experience bodily flashbacks that the trauma is not presently occurring—that it took place in the past. Thus, the dimensional work of recovery includes learning to distinguish between past threats and present triggers, recognizing and attending to embodied reactions, and moving from tolerance of one’s experiences to deeper forms of self-care.

The concept of “course corrections,” which informed Convocation and undergirds trauma survival, centers on processes of discernment, change, alteration, and adjustment. All of these actions involve or imply movement, a point that Michelle highlighted when she interpreted healing not as the cure of a wound but instead as movement itself: there is movement from the paralysis of trauma to the reintegration of painful experiences. My work negotiating communal, national, and global issues of trauma corroborates Michelle’s assertion.

Healing is not “the cure of a wound but instead movement itself: there is movement from the paralysis of trauma to the reintegration of painful experiences.”

The nature of movement in processing trauma came to light for me in a discussion with a Sri Lankan doctor who asked me if I believed in complete healing from trauma. I responded no, because traumatic memories can have residual effects. From this point of agreement, we had a fruitful conversation, and she invited me to visit her trauma recovery program at the Centre for Holistic Healing in Jaffna. For her, recovery can be best described as a process of “continually creating”—for instance, by working on the self and helping others. She learned this as she navigated the world of survivors of the 2004 tsunami and the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka, dealing with individuals and families whose struggles and growth indicated that the idea of becoming complete through healing was wholly inadequate.

Liberating the concept of healing from its imbrication with Western, medicalized models of therapy that seek to completely eradicate a wound shows reverence for the multiple ways that people reincorporate meaning into their lives after trauma. Trauma is indiscriminate and is, as Judith Herman asserts, “a normal part of human experience.” Being aware of the cultural realities that underlie trauma and its survival honors individuals and communities across the globe and how they deal with the aftereffects of trauma.

In attending to trauma, we must recognize its ability to severely thwart our capacity for meaning-making. As Paul discovered after his Damascus Road incident, trauma survivors often face the reality of needing to come to terms with life-altering events before they can discover new direction. Being thrown off course, and then recollecting—quite literally re-collecting—oneself in order to discern what it means to live in the aftermath of trauma often includes a spiritual recovery. During Convocation, the poet Scott Cairns shared his personal spiritual journey, turning us toward ancient Greek expressions that have been integrated into Christian belief: theosis, the process of transformation which seeks union with God; nous, our most divine and intuited intellect; and kardia, our heart. Understanding Christian adaptations of these concepts, Scott suggested, can serve to aid us during and after trauma.

Being thrown off course, and then recollecting—quite literally re-collecting—oneself in order to discern what it means to live in the aftermath of trauma often includes a spiritual recovery.

Connections to faith communities and active spiritual lives, whatever their manifestations, emerge in the lives of survivors I have encountered all over the world. While I have seen this on an individual scale, it evidenced itself in the call to prayer from the Muslim mosques heard five times a day in Israel. I experienced the Adhan as a great call to God, an entreaty to peace in a land that is characterized by trauma and strife from many angles.

Of all the things that we can learn about trauma—including the ways that it betrays us and leaves our bodies wounded—perhaps the most important is that we must engage with others in our attempts to process traumatic events and situations. We cannot change our course without other people. Paul does not walk into Damascus alone, and the church cannot exist without a community. Helping individuals struggling to manage the overwhelming effects of trauma might first occur through the simple act of being present. Eye contact and touch, when welcomed, can also facilitate endurance and generate positive responses. Whatever the particulars may be, what Scott Cairns called “prayer as communion”—as a gathering, as being physically and spiritually present to one another—is essential.

My trip to Israel evidenced this for me. The Jewish fisherman came to the Muslim part of the city bringing the gift of sushi. He arrived in a spirit of friendship and peace. As we discussed possible resolutions to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even disagreeing at points, it became clear that recovery from trauma in Jerusalem, and indeed everywhere, requires people coming together. The prayer offered through conversation and efforts at understanding during a communal meal, however it manifests, remains a crucial component of facing and transforming trauma.

Stephanie Arel

Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion at Boston University, where she works on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

Image credits:

Cover – Uzi Yachin, “Fishermen from Achziv 3,” September 14, 2007. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0.

Inside – Gabriel Barletta, untitled. Via Stocksnap. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 / Cropped.