In the many conversations I’ve had about religion in the last two months, trauma seems to be a reoccurring catalyst for spiritual change. Many who were once active participants in the church left, and many who hadn’t been religiously affiliated started filling the pews on a Sunday morning. For both of these groups, God played a role.
I think trauma has a way of making us feel more human. All of a sudden, we’re forced to pry open the storage boxes hidden at the back of an attic that we don’t visit often; boxes filled with darkness and secured with the tight lid of loneliness. We reach in and try to grab at something tangible- someone to blame for the neglect of this space, for the rancid, musty smell. And often, all we can find is pain. Our hands swim in the density of emptiness and we’re left to confront our sorrows and commence a search for light.
Many non-believers and believers alike, find that light in religion. The comfort of an indescribable, uncontainable (but also organised and documented) God, married with a loving community of strangers with warm arms and generous hearts can bring a sense of peace, purpose and acceptance. For many, spiritually analogous stories as well as the support from this community, can elucidate the other objects in their attic, can contextualise them, and bring meaning as to why they’re there.
For many who had lived a life not worthy of a testimony slot on a Sunday night (aka me), those who would spend their weekends gracefully sifting between isles after church services attempting to comfort mourners and pointing them back to Jesus, the shock of trauma (or for some, their confrontation of past trauma) blackened their pastel-coloured memories of church. They became the mourners.
And this is what happened to me. When I returned to church after my sexual assault, I felt the distance between myself and the congregation- people I had come to see as family. The distance was oceans wide and oceans deep, with an unswimmable current swirling between us. Suddenly, the idea of coming together in a small building and singing words off a projector screen felt inadequate, almost embarrassing. If there is a God, and if He is in control of all the pain and hardship that exists in the world, something that I have only very briefly tasted, how is standing in this building worth anything at all? Why is it so emotionally empty and yet so full of the privilege of western wealth and security? Why is this routine so comfortable? I was terrified of the power of God, and I felt this place, so often preached by conservatives as ‘necessary’ to my relationship with the Christian God, did not match the fear that He evoked in me. I was trying to fit my trauma in that little brick building with me. But it was bigger than that, like the depth of my thinking was bigger, like the God I was singing praises to was bigger. I needed to find my fear and awe of Him somewhere else, because I no longer feared Him in the routine of church.
But you know, it’s interesting, because in both of these circumstances, only two of which I have mentioned due to their reoccurrence in conversation, still revolve around God, or the fear of God. We run towards Him, finding comfort, or we run from Him, in fear of His power, seeking to match it somewhere else- often in His creation, sometimes in harmful substances. Whichever direction we take, I don't think it's fair to prescribe church (or organised religion) as a healing mechanism for all.
When you find that light- be it in a church, in a psychologist’s green-painted room, in the arms of a lover or within your own self, things start to get better. And then one day, all your bad days are replaced by good days, and the rare good days are replaced by rare bad ones. And on those days, you feel so fragile that the gust of another’s presence would be enough to blow you away. You feel pain lurking at the back of your throat and at the tips of your fingers. You think everything at once, without the faintest clue of exactly what ‘everything’ consists of. And then the next day comes, and it’s all okay again. Someone has turned on the light in your attic and you can see the dust on your boxes and realise the cloth to clean them is sitting right there on the floor.
The focus for you now, when you find that cloth, is to pick it up and start cleaning, and to start filling those boxes with substance. The focus is not whether you attend church every Sunday. The focus is not whether you're following the reading schedule of 2 chapters a night. The focus is not whether you're on the roster because you've been a part of the church for a year now and other people think you ought to...
I think God, if He's out there, whoever He might be, knows that the way you heal is not something that can be fit into a timeline or a structure. I think He loves you enough to know that religion can be incredibly unhelpful sometimes, maybe even forever. Give yourself time. Give yourself space.
No one laughs at God in a hospital
No one laughs at God in a war
No one's laughing at God when they're starving or freezing or so very poor
No one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one's laughing at God
When it's gotten real late and their kid's not back from the party yet
No one laughs at God when their airplane start to uncontrollably shake
No one's laughing at God
When they see the one they love, hand in hand with someone else
And they hope that they're mistaken
No one laughs at God
When the cops knock on their door and they say we got some bad news, sir
No one's laughing at God when there's a famine or fire or flood.
(Regina Spektor - 'Laughing With')