Trauma and the Houses of Healing

In my work as a pastor I’ve walked with a host of people who live under the shadow of trauma, whether active or remembered. Over time, I’ve come to realize that each person—whatever the source of their trauma—requires for their wholeness a similar set of steps. I want to call these steps the “Houses of Healing.”

Return of the King_Houses of Healing

Tolkien, in one of his most obviously Christological moments, writes that “the hands of the king are the hands of a healer.”

The name, of course, is adapted from Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, where the Houses of Healing are the earthly place of restoration where doctors and knowledgeable old wives minister to the sick. I suspect that Tolkien chose the word, “Houses” specifically because it evokes something of the power of a home—a safe place for restoration and recovery, a house with rules, of course, but not the less a home for that. A place where rest, food, and sleep play as much a role in the healing of the person as do the advice and medicines of a physician. ‘Hospital’ is too associated with death and sickness; ‘Home’ can be a place of safety and wholeness.

In my experience, there are three houses of healing—the house of gentle love, the house of faithful love, and the house of healing love. For too many people—and for each of the ones who’ve found their way into my office—they are eager to begin in the third house. They want to be well, are weary of being sick, but they are not ready for that house until they’ve journeyed through the first two. One of my all-time favourite Kung Fu movies is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, where a young ruffian escapes trouble to a Shaolin monastery. There, he eagerly begins to study Kung Fu. Overestimating his abilities, he attempts to start learning at the level of the 35th chamber. He is quickly shown by the monks that he knows nothing—of his body, of the minds and hearts of others, of technique. Humbled, he turns to the first chamber and works his way up. It is the same with the healing of trauma—until we have some experience of the first two houses, we cannot learn the lessons of the third.

36th-chamber-of-shaolin

Gordon Liu, in what is seriously one of the best all-time Kung Fu films.

The first house of healing, then, is the house of the gentle love of God. Matthew 12:20, describing the ministry of Jesus by appeal to Isaiah 43, says that “A bruised reed he will not break; a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” A key characteristic of the ministry of Jesus, in other words, is his essential gentleness. The bruised reed is fragile, so fragile as to nearly fall apart—but these he does not break. The smouldering wick is at the last moments of its life, but even this he will not snuff out. Instead, he comes down to the level of our weakness; Christ is a lord who attends to the weaknesses of the weak, and will not aggravate them.

smoldering-wickFear is the constant companion to the traumatized—fear of memory, fear of situations, fear of helplessness, fear of the word ‘again.’ To those who live in the fear that accompanies trauma, no word seems to me more important than the word of God’s gentle love for them. He sees you, He knows what you’ve experienced, He knows your fear—in the midst of all that, He is deeply, compassionately gentle. He will work with the smallest, smouldering desire you have for wholeness. He will bind and strengthen the weaknesses He sees more keenly than you yourself know. But before you can do any of the work towards personal healing, you must draw near to the gentle Lover. You must allow the Gentle Lover to draw near.

The second house of healing is the house of the faithful love of God. 1 John 4:18 says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Every human love and every human lover is imperfect. We experience uncertainty about the quality and motives of other people’s love, and it is in the violation of the trust of love that our greatest wounds are located. But unlike human lovers, God’s love is perfect. It is so perfect that it can’t be violated or ruined, even by the worst of our actions. One of the common narratives told by the traumatized people I’ve known is that their experience of trauma renders them un-lovable. They have so identified with their wounds that the wound itself corrupts their self-perception before God. But such persons, approaching the gentle love of God, also need to be assured of its faithfulness. “What can separate us,” Paul proclaims in Romans 8:38-9, “from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus?” What indeed? Can any person or situation be stronger than God? Can any angelic power be stronger than God? Can any memory be stronger than God? Can any fear be stronger than God? No!—the faithful love of God is stronger, and deeper, and more efficacious than anything we can know or experience.

Many of us—not only the traumatized—struggle to accept that we are beloved by a faithfully loving God. We continue to believe—because it’s all we’ve experienced—in a performative love. Do the right things, and God will love you; do the wrong things, and God will cease to love you. But that isn’t Christian teaching—that’s a modification of karma, a universal doctrine of just deserts. The foundation of the Christian understanding of God is that He loves us while, and in spite of, our unloveliness; that He continues to love us in spite of our failures; that, in fact, the only thing keeping us together at all is the unfailingly faithful love of God. This is why Malachi 3:6 reminds us that “I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” If it depended on us, we’d be stuffed. Thankfully, it doesn’t depend on us, and therefore we are not destroyed.

old-faithful-geyser-evening_istock_680

Old Faithful has its name because it erupts like clockwork. Even so, one day Old Faithful will cease to boil; the faithful love of God will never fail.

These are the first two houses—the house of gentle love, and the house of faithful love. They provide the precursors for any work of healing because they frame all our work in right understanding. Both loves reassure the beloved, both loves strengthen the beloved, and both loves equip the beloved for the work ahead. Without these loves, the work may only aggravate the harms.

With these loves in place, an individual may begin to enter the third house, the house of healing love. But this house, naturally, is as varied as the wounds people bear, its principles governed by the personal narrative of its inhabitants. But this is, indeed, a house of work. There are seasons of self-disclosure and of self-discovery, periods of grieving and of anger, times for documenting harms, and times for forgiving harms done to us—and for seeking forgiveness for the harms we have done. Each of these tasks, performed outside the frame of the gentle and faithful love of God, can re-traumatize, aggravating wounds, leading to despair.

But the goal of this work—the fulfillment of the house of healing love—is wholeness. He who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps 147:3), promises also that those who were not his people will be his people, and those who were not loved will be loved (Hosea 2:23). You were lost, but have been found, and under the ministrations of the One True King, are being brought into His abundant life.

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