The work of a spiritual director has been beautifully compared to that of a midwife. A companion in, and witness to, the miracle of new spiritual life. As someone who has given physical birth to four children, I appreciate the depth of this metaphor. That not only is each pregnancy, labor, and delivery different, but each outcome, each child, is unique. Who I was before and after each of their births is a testament to growth and experience. This metaphor gives me great comfort and patience as a spiritual director to be able to wait with, witness, and encourage in timely ways each of my directees as God continues to bring newness of being into their lives.
I am able to be moved by this metaphor because I know that my basic life needs are being met. I feel safe in my physical surroundings and cared for in my relationships. I am also able to easily distinguish where I am in time and I feel connected enough with my body to engage in sensate memories. All of this allows me to be reflective, to use my “observing I” to consider not only my present circumstances but also my responses to them. I am able to wonder, use my imagination, and generally be in awe of the world around me and my place in it. Simply put, I am not currently traumatized.
Trauma causes disruption in our experience of time and space, our use of language, and our sense of embodiment. The disconnect from these foundational parts of our being can result in a spiritual “stuckness". A difficulty in experiencing, not to mention expanding our experience, of the Divine. An understanding of trauma and its effects, as well as the trajectory of healing can help us create spaces in which traumatized congregants can find spiritual rest and relief from the exhausting work of daily living.
Both a person’s faith experience and general life experiences need to be considered when we are attempting to understand her spirituality.
Being willing to be honest and listen well are important skills for anyone who spiritually companions others in any role. These skills are also invaluable because as leaders we often find ourselves not only leading a congregation, but also sitting across from just one person who is hurting. How might our understanding of formational dynamics be applied here? Both a person’s faith experience and general life experiences need to be considered when we are attempting to understand her spirituality. The deep questions do not only revolve around what she knows, but rather what she believes. And for better or for worse, these are not always the same. Most people already believe many things to be true about life and love long before they can recite a creed or participate in a ritual. Life experiences give us deep, core beliefs from which we build our spiritual practices. Sometimes it is these deep beliefs that draw an individual to a particular doctrine or tradition. The publicly adhered to behaviors associated with the faith tradition actually enable the core beliefs a person holds, rather than being the foundation that has helped shape their soul. Exploring these deep beliefs, finding God to be in them or not, is much of where the “rubber-meets-the-road” in spiritual direction. It is in the acknowledging of these places that people begin to experience freedom that comes from being deeply loved.
Spiritual exertion in an attempt to avoid or move past the trauma often seems to make it worse.
Trauma can feel, spiritually, like spinning wheels stuck in the mud. Spiritual exertion in an attempt to avoid or move past the trauma often seems to make it worse. Companioning someone through the spiritual affects of trauma requires patience and grace on our part as companion, but also requires that we help our soul friends have patience and grace for themselves. Walking with others as they forge paths through the Valley of the Shadow of Death often includes being the bearer of hope when others see all as lost. It takes a significant amount of time to reach green pasture after surviving a trauma. Even once the circumstantial dust has settled, the spirit can still feel disturbed. It is in this disconcerting place of experiencing physical safety but spiritual unrest where a spiritual director becomes a valuable companion. The spiritual director’s gift in this season may be to help the directee begin to attend to how the story of their trauma integrates into the story of their life. As a directee moves from feeling that the trauma story is the story of their life to a sense that it is a story in their life, we can help them to draw up from their deep wells of experience the corresponding deep beliefs. We can create a safe space to examine those beliefs as our directees decide which ones to reclaim and which ones to let go.
We hold the person in front of us as having inherent dignity and ability to heal.
Some questions to consider as we sit with others might be:
In a posture of wondering, we hold the person in front of us as having inherent dignity and ability to heal. We hold and offer this hope to the whole of them by acknowledging and honoring their trauma, but also the whole of their life. We wait as identity comes back into focus and we bless every step of the journey. And by the grace of God we see spiritual formation that was interrupted, but not stopped.
In the current pandemic crisis, we are seeing an overwhelm of the health care system that is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes. The restrictions around hospitals limiting visitors (for everyone’s safety) mean that often people will be suffering, even dying, in some degree of isolation. For some there may be a nurse or chaplain that stays with them. But many will not be attended to by their family. And in kind, the family will be home without their loved one. Feelings of helplessness, anger, and overwhelming sadness will accompany this difficult experience.
IMAGE: NOVANT HEALTH
It is likely that most of us will know someone either directly or through someone close, who dies of this disease. That means we will also be coming into contact with directees who have lost loved ones in this cold and detached way. In older congregations we may see dramatic drops in members and be grieving these lonely deaths as a group. This experience of losing so many people in a way that is so outside the norm may heighten the experience of bereavement. The strong emotions that accompany grief, combined with a sense of helplessness can quickly reach the levels that we define as being traumatic. How can we help people to process through their experience in a way that helps them avoid becoming stuck? How can we help people to find comfort in the Presence of God in such trying times? How do we honor traditions that normally would comfort people with “last rites” when we cannot be physically present with the dying? Responding well to the very real and tangible losses of life around us will be part of the long term recovery process. Being intentional in our response will also help build resiliency and protect the mental health of our directees in the aftermath of this global crisis.
Different helping professions will all need to navigate their own response and how they provide care. For spiritual directors, this journey will necessitate facing theodicy, or the “why do bad things happen” question, with our directees. We will need to create space for, and perhaps provide instruction about, lament. We must allow space for tears, anger, and the heavy silence that falls when words fail. Embodied work will need higher priority.
For those of us who fill a dual role as minister/shepherd/pastor, or who consider ourselves part of an institution or congregation, attending to the communal experience will also require tender attentiveness. There is so much loss in this season for everyone. Each of us has and will experience different affects on our emotional, physical, spiritual, fiscal, and relational health. Senses of “normal” and security have been and are being threatened. There is so much grief work to be done. Finding the grief connected to losing a loved one and holding it in context of all the other losses swirling around will call for patient and precise care.
If you have not already begun to meet with directees who have lost loved ones, consider that it is likely that you will in the future. Begin to prepare yourself now, both in heart and in training, to walk alongside a level of unique grief, unknown to most of us. This is a new chapter. We are preparing the way for what spiritual direction will look like for decades to come. Discuss this with colleagues. Bring it to supervision. Perhaps the resurgence of interest in being trained as a spiritual director that we have seen over the last decade or so, was for just such a time as this.
Most survivors of trauma, whether the disaster was man made or natural, find some element of betrayal in their experience. Perhaps there was violence done to them by another person, stranger or trusted companion. Perhaps a natural disaster struck and was made worse by the misguided or ill-informed actions of others. Or maybe it was simply that something bad happened, and it just is not fair. That feeling of being betrayed, of foundational beliefs being shaken or the “oughts” of relationships being ignored, strikes deep. This is why so often the concept of forgiveness becomes part of the healing process. But forgiveness is complex, it’s tricky, and if we as directors try to push for survivor to offer forgiveness prematurely, we may actually hinder our directees from experiencing the empowerment and relief found in the process.
Psychologically speaking, forgiveness is a natural outcome of healing. When deep healing has occurred and a survivor is able to feel safe the trauma can finally be released. Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor. Forgiveness is the conclusion of the healing process.
This is not how forgiveness is viewed in many religious traditions. Particularly in Christian traditions, forgiveness is often touted as a first step in healing. It becomes an “ought,” something that is required of the survivor. This is unfair to the survivor as they may not be ready to release yet. For many, the word “forgiveness” also carries with it an implied absolution of the wrong done or the perpetrator. Some traditions or individual faith leaders may even push for reconciliation between perpetrator and survivor. These are not healthy, nor helpful, directions to force a survivor. Forgiveness is an important human concept and experience that easily becomes clouded by dogma.
If we, as spiritual directors, are able to hold open handedly our personal concepts and definitions of forgiveness - how it plays out and what it looks like - we will better serve our directees. We can be sensitive to what the implicit meanings of forgiveness are in our tradition and perhaps offer safer language. One such option would be “unburdening.” What would it be to be free of the burden of what has happened to you? How might you become free of the burden? Usually, the word forgiveness is not needed. In cases where I have had directees who felt they must offer forgiveness, and who specifically defined forgiveness as both absolution for the offender and the first step to reconciliation, I have gone so far as to say, “Forgiveness as you define it is unnecessary for healing.” What is necessary is to release the self from the power the event or person holds. It is necessary to become free as much as possible from fear. These hard found freedoms have great healing benefits, but the journey to them can be long and should not be rushed.
Forgiveness comes when the anger, in whatever form it was carried, that was keeping a survivor safe and alive are no longer needed. The service performed by those strong emotions and biological responses is complete, and they are let go. Forgiveness may be helped along by justice being rendered, or at least acknowledgement of the pain caused to the survivor.
Letting go of anger, hate, and a desire for vengeance is an important part of healing. However, the part of us that was or feels betrayed is often one of the last parts of us to receive healing because all the other aspects of what is changed in our day-to-day life have to be settled, and we have to sort through the pressing emotions and reactivity before we can address meta-emotional concepts like unburdening.
How can you as a director hold space for the lengthy and important journey your directee is taking towards releasing the burdens held over from their trauma? How can you help them navigate the language and theologies involved? What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you? What do you believe is truly required for healing to take place?
Still Listening: New Horizons in Spiritual Direction, by Norvene Vest
When discussing and discerning the way that a directee personally interacts with or understands the Divine, I find it helpful to discern together the difference between their “God Concept” and their “God Image.” God-concept refers to what they may intellectually know or believe to be true. This concept is mostly built on study or learning from religion or religious institutions. It tends to be more theological or philosophical in nature and outward focused. God-image on the other hand is the deep, emotional beliefs and reactions that a person may have about God, even if they seem out of sync with their stated beliefs. For example, someone’s God-concept may say, “God loves everyone,” but when pressed their God-image answers, “But God is disappointed in/despises me.” Our God-concept is often formed in great part by the faith institutions we are a part of, especially in our “growing-up” years. Our God-image however tends to be deeply shaped by our experiences with caregivers when we are children. People may be able to talk about God being kind or loving, but deep inside they believe that God feels about them and will interact with them exactly as their parents or caregivers did, for better or for worse.
Unpacking someone’s God-image is a precious work that often becomes part of the spiritual direction journey. Everyone has to some degree or another conflated God with some childhood authority figure and differentiating between the two can bring great freedom and relief. This work becomes much more difficult when our directee has experienced trauma, even more so when they have survived complex trauma.
“Complex trauma” describes the experience of a person having multiple or chronic traumatizing experiences throughout childhood. Because these chronic situations are often experienced in the child’s home and/or at the hands of a caregiver, the stress of daily life can lead to developmental gaps in attachment. What does this mean in the context of spiritual direction? It will be helpful for the spiritual director to understand that for these unique survivors, their God-image may be one in which the Divine is malicious, or powerless, or indifferent. In addition, the survivor’s understandings of love, safety, and peace may not only be lacking, but those experiences may be completely foreign to them. There will be a much greater risk for transference and counter-transference issues in these direction relationships. Consequently, there may also be a much greater temptation for the director to turn toward a more therapeutic “treatment” of the directee rather than a companioning.
Everyone has to some degree or another conflated God with some childhood authority figure and differentiating between the two can bring great freedom and relief. This work becomes much more difficult when our directee has experienced trauma, even more so when they have survived complex trauma.
Walking with someone who is a survivor of complex trauma is, well, complex. These dear people are often best served by a team of helping professionals. If that is difficult for them because of finances or associated stigmas, community or public health resources may be a good option. Part of the healing of complex trauma requires that new experiences of healthy love and safety need to be had and integrated in the present while also allowing space for traumatic memories to be processed safely. When companioning complex trauma, it is a good season to focus more than normal on movements of the Divine, rather than being distracted by counter-movements (“Movements” refers to those feelings or experiences that bring us toward God or our true selves; “Countermovements” are those that move us away - these are also sometimes called “consolation” and “desolation” respectively).
As a society, our understanding of the nuances and rates of occurrence for complex trauma are a growing edge right now. We need to continue to educate ourselves on the realities of the long-term impact of childhood stress on health and spirituality so that spiritual directors can continue to be a loving, helpful presence in the lives of those we accompany.
Recommended Further Reading:
Teaching Spiritual Accompaniment in the Context of Trauma by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell
Trustworthy Connections: Interpersonal Issues in Spiritual Direction by Anne Silver
Erin Jantz received her Master’s Degree in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from the Institute for Spiritual Formation. She also holds a B.A. in developmental psychology and has furthered her education with trainings in trauma care from Boston University and intensives with Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. She has been practicing spiritual direction since 2012, helped to author ICTG's Spiritual Formation Resource Guide, and also teaches and speaks on a variety of spiritual formation topics. Erin lives in Southern California with her husband and their four marvelous children.
One of the emotional experiences that often accompanies trauma is that of abandonment. The feeling of being utterly alone and vulnerable and feeling that one could not find the resources within one’s self to handle the crisis at hand in the moment (But be confident, we use the word “survivor” for a reason! Those resources were present and accessed as evidenced by the person sitting across from you!). For those who identify with Abrahamic or monotheistic religions, this is a feeling of “God-forsakenness” - the sense that in the occurrence of their trauma, even God became absent. This feeling of being abandoned, perhaps betrayed, by even God, and the necessary changes that occur in their perceptions of God, faith, and religion in the aftermath of trauma, is what I refer to when I talk to directees about their “double dose of grief.”
For many this is a difficult feeling to name, and depending on the faith tradition, even more difficult to talk about. Trauma often challenges both our conscious and unconscious theologies to the core. Unintegrated or untested beliefs about God’s presence in the world, God’s ways of interacting with people, “providence,” and many others come into sharp moments of cognitive dissonance when we try to make meaning out of what has happened. For some, this painful time of refining and shedding old beliefs will eventually result in a more grounded faith. Many survivors find that they are in fact able to discover that Love does still exist and is accessible in their new understanding of the world. For others, they may find that the old tradition does not adequately address reality as they now experience it and they will find homes in other traditions. A spiritual director can be a great asset during these delicate and tender transitions.
There is quite a bit of nuance in this type of questioning. There is a difference between questioning one’s faith and questioning the rhythms and rituals of one’s tradition. The first brings us to the core of ourselves where we deal with existential loneliness. The latter may cause us to feel like a misfit in our community and so we deal with a more tangible loneliness. A director must tread softly on this hallowed and fertile ground. Assuming that for the most part, we meet with directees who are part of the same or similar faith traditions as ourself, we must challenge ourselves to be honest about how open-handed we are with our tradition. How do we view those of other traditions? How do we view those who “leave” our tradition? By what means do we truly believe God meets and interacts with our neighbors of other faiths? With us? Does our tradition or institution welcome evolving faith or will that be viewed as threatening? These questions will have to be answered by you and by your directee. The answers may become particularly complicated if the trauma that has been survived was directly connected to a betrayal from within the tradition -either from a specific person or institution.
Particularly challenging can be the experience of feeling distant from, or within, one’s own tradition. This often means a loss of support, community, and rhythms that previously were held dear. Experiences and groups that often religious folks find their identity within. The rumblings of change in one person’s faith often causes ripples that are felt by the entire community, if it is close-knit. Does your directee feel safe to discuss what they are experiencing honestly with their spiritual leaders and friends? Do they feel supported, encouraged, and accepted as they explore?
Trauma often challenges both our conscious and unconscious theologies to the core. Unintegrated or untested beliefs about God’s presence in the world, God’s ways of interacting with people, “providence,” and many others come into sharp moments of cognitive dissonance when we try to make meaning out of what has happened.
Faith and religion, and the practices thereof, have been shown again and again to be powerful tools in building resilience and healing. The deeper one’s spirituality is integrated into one’s life, the more necessarily it will be affected by trauma, for better and for worse. When walking with survivors, the question is not “if” their experience of trauma will lead to some challenging questions about faith, it is “when.” As spiritual directors, we can hold space for these questions, and stand with our directees at these crossroads, with the deep intention of not adding to their grief, but helping them to experience joy.
Recommended Further Reading:
Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction, by Matthew Linn, et al.
Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, by Shelly Rambo
Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, by Serene Jones
Spiritual direction involves caring for and attending to the whole of a person. Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Physically moving, both as a gentle state during a direction session and as spiritual discipline, can help relieve symptoms within a person as they work towards healing connections within a fragmented self. Trauma is often held in the body as the physical responses of fight, flight, or freeze become stuck. These excesses of hormones and neurotransmitters become literal blockages that make it difficult for survivors to access some of their higher brain functions and leave them vulnerable to unpredictable instinctive responses. Including tailored movements into direction sessions can help directees connect more deeply with their own experiences and help them to remain grounded and present while doing so.
Deciding how to engage the body in spiritual direction is a wonderful opportunity to discuss with your directees what helps them in very practical ways. For some, taking a leisurely walk while you talk and pray together may be the only chance in their busy life to be outside and moving. For some it may be needing to pause at regular intervals to check in with their extremities. Literally feeling their feet inside their shoes, wiggling their fingers, or shaking their head. Some may find that beginning or ending a session with gentle stretching helps them to release anxiety. Others may find it most helpful to have something to do during the session such as coloring -which helps coordinate the hemispheres of the brain- using a sand tray or other tactile meditation device.
Our emphasis is on the soul or spirit of a person and so we often spend time developing habits of prayer and contemplation that facilitate deep connection between our experiences of the Divine and our conscious mind. In some cases however, and particularly when serving survivors of trauma, engaging the body is the best way to help make those connections.
Of course, we directors are people too with our own physical limitations and comforts. Be honest about what your limitations are and find something that works for both of you. There are many kinetic meditations that could be practiced by your directee alone such as using a candle to focus on, measured pacing, taking a trauma-informed yoga class, or changing postures regularly during prayer. Some directees even find it helpful to create choreographed movements to accompany a personal lament or prayer or a favorite passage of scripture to help them connect with it. Be open to what works for your directee.
In a broader sense, any physical activity or expression can be viewed and treated as a spiritual discipline. In everything we do from washing dishes, to exercising, to laughing at a comedy, there is an opportunity to connect to the Ever-Present-Ever-Loving. How might you encourage your directees to use the activities already built into their lives, those that seem mundane, to be a pathway to connection with the Divine? Allowing even the smallest of physical routines to be a reminder of Love is a powerful way for survivors to connect with themselves and to experience Presence in their bodies in healing ways.
Recommended Further Reading:
The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out, by Susan Pease Banitt
101 Trauma Informed Interventions, by Linda Curran
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Calhoun
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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From 2012-2020, this blog space explored expanding understanding and best practices for holistic health in the context of spiritual direction.