Spiritual directors have the great privilege and responsibility of walking alongside individuals, groups, and sometimes, whole communities, as they seek to deeply integrate their spiritual lives with their everyday routines and experiences. Good training programs for spiritual directors prepare us to witness and companion resistance, struggle, doubt, and deep emotion in our directees. However, sometimes what may initially present as resistance, stagnation, or a “dark night of the soul,” is in fact the bubbles of a previous trauma coming up to the surface of awareness. How can we tell the difference between someone who is having difficulty facing their core questions and someone who’s spirituality has been deeply affected by trauma in their lives?
If, as a director, we find ourselves struggling to discern whether or not there may be trauma at the root of our directee’s suffering or difficulty, we will always do well to start with self-examination. With a trusted and qualified supervisor, explore the questions that may be coming up in your own soul in regards to trauma:
Sometimes what may initially present as resistance, stagnation, or a “dark night of the soul,” is in fact the bubbles of a previous trauma coming up to the surface of awareness.
Once we are relatively confident that our own house is in order, we can begin to explore more deeply what may be going on in our directee. At this point we need to begin to discern the difference between resistance and spiritual trauma.
Resistance is normal in all of us. Most people are not truly excited about the work of lasting change, at least not at first. Resistance in a directee to a discipline or to opening to the movements of the Divine may present as boredom, mild depression, or discouragement. There may be ambivalence toward a topic, a repeated missing or “blindness” to certain aspects of life or Scripture. There may be significant doubts about the efficacy of prayer, or even literally falling asleep during prayer! However, none of these expressions are unexpected, nor of particular cause for concern.
Trauma, on the other hand, has deep and lasting affective impact. A directee may be very clear about their own experience of trauma, as it may have been recent. Or they recognize and acknowledge as part of their story an incident or ongoing situation from their past that was traumatic. For some though, an incident in childhood or other time in their past that they think of as being “ancient history” or from a “former life” may still be shaping their experience of God and themselves.
Whether or not a directee is conscious of the lingering effects of trauma in their life, many of the expressions of traumatized spirituality are the same. Being familiar with them will help the director discern how much post-traumatic stress their directee is under, and with whom to network for professional support if further care is needed.
How can we tell the difference between someone who is having difficulty facing their core questions and someone who’s spirituality has been deeply affected by trauma in their lives?
Some markers of traumatized spirituality may include:
We must always strive to meet our directees where they are and be witnesses to what is happening in their lives in the present. With an understanding of the difference between trauma responses and the resistances or struggles that come with normal spiritual development, directors can be attuned to the specific needs of their directees who are bearing the unique burden of trauma and adjust their companioning style or suggestions to be better helpers on the journey.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther
The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry and William J. Connolly
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