Mass shootings. Sexual abuse. War. Substance Use Disorder. 9/11/01. Illness and accident.
These all can be examples of trauma, defined as “being slashed or struck down by a hostile force that threatens to destroy you.”
Our awareness of trauma has increased over the last several decades partially due to the development of the psychiatric diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However careful observers of the human condition have noticed for centuries that trauma leaves marks on us both physically and psychically.
As a culture, we are also recognizing that trauma doesn’t only happen to individuals, entire communities can be traumatized, and the effects of trauma — individual and collective — are passed down through generations.
As a pastor serving a parish that has been traumatized, as a daughter and sister of war veterans and abuse survivors, and simply as a Christian who wants to be a channel of God’s healing grace, I have an interest in understanding how trauma works and what movement toward healing and wholeness looks like.
One spiritual resource from our Christian tradition is praying the Psalms. The Protestant reformer John Calvin famously remarked that the Psalms offer an “anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Calvin pastored in a context of recurring trauma in the mid-16th century Europe.
He wrote a vast commentary on the Psalms and divided this collection of ancient poetry and song into three types: Psalms of Deliverance, Psalms of Lament and Mourning, and Psalms of Thanksgiving. These three types broadly correlate with three phases of healing from trauma.
There seems to be therapeutic consensus that the path to healing begins with the need to be safe, to be heard and to recover a sense of order in their lives. Time and again in the Psalms of Deliverance, we encounter both an immanent God who ‘hears our cry’ and ‘inclines his ear to us,’ and a transcendent Creator who orders the sun to rise each day and moon to wax and wane.
The second healing phase is a time of remembering and expressing what happened using words, art, and/or physical movement and allowing oneself to feel the emotions that accompany the memories, often sadness and anger.
The Psalms offer many testimonies of what it is to live with fear of an enemy who seeks one’s life, psychically or physically. And a full third of the Psalms are considered Psalms of Lament.
A third phase toward healing and wholeness is reconnecting with everyday life, the ability to remember and integrate the trauma without it regularly overshadowing one’s moods and actions.
This phase correlates with Calvin’s third type of Psalm — Psalms of Thanksgiving — where at the end of the day we can be genuinely grateful for another day of life and for the ways that grace permeates life almost imperceptibly unless we are attentive.
I encourage you, whether you have directly been impacted by trauma or not, to consider praying the Psalms and experience their ancient reassurance that God’s steadfast love is present even in humanity’s worst and most evil moments.
Joslyn Schaefer is the rector at Grace in the Mountains Episcopal Church.