Since trauma survivors are sometimes not able to recover complete regulation of their nervous systems on their own, they require a community of “witnesses” who will surround them with the sources of regulation (Rambo 2010). Among the chief resources of Christian caregivers and spiritual caregivers in hospitals and other settings is that of embodied rituals that can restore a person to an entire sense of self while blessing the survival skills associated with the activation of each nervous system.
In what follows, I describe a ritual designed to bless the experience of self-states associated with nervous system activation and to help persons find an appropriate place for these responses. In this ritual, the role of the body as resistant to trauma is emphasized, as is the knowledge gained from traumatic experience. This ritual draws together the emphasis from somatic experiencing therapy on the body as the site of knowledge embedded in resistance against trauma with a spirituality related to each nervous system.
These series of prayers could follow after a day of teaching at a workshop for Christian and Jewish trauma survivors. Participants could be encouraged to engage as they felt comfortable but also to leave the ritual space if necessary. The ritual provided here offers something particular that recent rituals for trauma survivors do not, namely, a blessing for the originally self-preservative intentions of the body’s response to trauma (Procter-Smith 1990; Rogers 2002).
Retreatants begin with five minutes of three-six breathing (breathing in for three seconds with hands held at the diaphragm and breathing out for six seconds with hands held at the diaphragm). Then they are invited to calculate their pulse, jotting it down on a piece of paper— this activity reinforces their capacity to regulate their own bodily systems, and they may experience further relaxation when they return to the pulse later in the workshop and mark it. If participants feel uncomfortable sitting they may stand with a low center of gravity and sway gently from side to side, even pushing lightly against a partner’s hand if they wish.
Order of Service:
Leader: O God, Out of the desert of despair and dry valleys of desperation you bring us. Participants: Hear the voice of our prayer and no longer let us be speechless.
L: May your entire self listen to the voices we raise, God, and may you be moved by our witness.
P: While we felt afraid and alone, we now join voices together with a spirit of courage, knowing that this very same courage brought us far along the journey.
First reading: Psalm 130.
Prayer of Blessing for the Power to Freeze: The prophet Isaiah claimed that “in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (30:15). We praise you O God for the ability to hide, for stillness and for the ways that numbness protected us from the injury of overwhelming fear. We thank you for the ability to “go inside” when all the world was unsafe and for the sense that in an inaccessible inner darkness we guarded things that were precious to us but that would be damaged by a cruel world, secret thoughts, the powers of our minds. We thank you for the great knowledge that comes hard-earned from the experiences of pain and for the ways that we have learned to let our core self guide us, being supported from deep within. We bless you for the power to freeze.
Release the Gifts: Having known abject terror, we thank you for those who have allowed us to take our time and gradually return to the land of the present-time. Now that we are in a safe circle, we place this ability to freeze in its place, close at hand, among the gifts of deep contemplation and the wisdom of winter. And we thank you for the range of feelings that come from being awake and engaged in the world. We place the immobility of freezing back in its rightful place and allow warmth to return to our core, heating us with the breath of our abdomen, deep inside.
We give thanks for the animals that “play dead” and escape, and for the knowledge that is expressed in their bodies as they shake and wake up, knowing in our limbs that same kind of wisdom. May we return to the soul of things, to our guts, where we can grow and be safe and free. Warmly radiating from the center of us, may our hearts be aligned with gut-wisdom.
Participants are encouraged to rise, walk around the room, shake their limbs, and return when ready.
Second reading: Psalm 139.
Prayer of Blessing for the Power to Fight and Flee: God, you heard the cries of the Hebrew people in bondage and you guided them safely into a new place and you used the energy of their witness to help them flee and fight oppression. We give you thanks for the tremendous energy of the heart that springs forth in terror when fear arises; we give you thanks for the strength that is released when we defend our inherent dignity against violation based on your image within us. We thank you for the knowledge of self-defense and release, the freedom that comes from knowing our power and using that power to resist the evil of both oppression and control. Bless the limbs that have been toughened and scarred from fighting. Bless the feet that have fled and have felt the travail of exhaustion.
Release the Gifts: The prophet Isaiah promises that those who are tired will be borne up on wings like eagles, experiencing God’s sustaining power. May that same power help us to calm our hearts, to keep our power close by even while we rest for a time from diligent self-preservation. May we feel a profound love that soothes our hearts, returning warmth to our hands and erasing the furrows from our brow so that we can rest both our fighting hands and our running shoes, all the time keeping them close at hand.
We thank you for the gazelle that escapes the lion and for the buffalo that charges its hunters, and we find place for this incredible strength of heart and limb, breathing deeply through our hearts and calming its rhythm, even as we warm our hands, palms, fingers, feet, soles, and toes. Tensing and shaking out the hamstrings as we sit, we feel the strength of legs that have learned to run and can kick and arms that can both rest and fight.
Again, participants are invited to rise and walk in slow circles in the retreat space, shaking tension from their hands and feet, and visiting with each other briefly.
Third Reading: Psalm 17
Prayer of Blessing for the Power to Rest: God, you created us for safe and life-giving relationships. We thank you for the connections we make that are filled with both love and justice, mutuality in both power and place, and knowledge that comes from the deep sharing of linked lives. We thank you for the embodied rhythms of sleep, rest, and sexual desire, for the share pleasures of foods close to the earth and good water, for the knowledge that comes from using our minds to build connections to others and to nourish them in ways that lead to a flourishing of justice.
Releasing the Gifts: We hold this rest lightly, knowing that it may be stressed again, but having peace that it is a place to which we can return, given the wisdom of the mind and the kindness of friends. We give thanks for the crow that learns and remembers, returns to perform the same tasks, and with its decade-long recall for the human face makes connections to others. We thank you for those fearless ones who have remembered trauma and refused to allow societies to forget. For the gifts of the fully awake present, engaged in the capacity to remember, rejoice, lament and bless, we give you thanks and praise.
Participants are invited to write a note of blessing for a fellow retreatant.
May God bless your life-saving stillness, your freedom to fight or flee, the contentment of rest, creativity, and reflection, and your ability to mend the world. We give thanks for the knowledge gained in your bodies and we restore it to its proper place, ready to be used again when needed. May God strengthen your capacity for Holy Desire, beginning with the desire for your own love and self-protection.
Participants are encouraged to leave the workshop in an attitude of reverence.
Given the analysis of somatic therapy, it is important that the offering of the ritual prayers be done with careful attention to the physical and somatic experiences of those attending, with careful intention not to use male images for God or metaphors of rule and lordship (Procter- Smith 1996) but also to attend to the physical experience of participants. If possible, the ritual should take place somewhere other than the church and should be officiated by a woman clergy rather than a man. In terms of ritual experience, it is also important that facilitators understand and explain the dynamics of prayer, including the notion that prayer is not the same as magical thinking or creating a miracle that means instant recovery . . .