There is always another one walking beside you T.S. Eliot Wasteland
Emmaus, by Slovenian Jesuit Marco Rupnik from HolyArt.com
So, the new “Great Books” book group I’ve got together (we’re steadily reading chronologically through the Classics!) read the ancient Greek trilogy The Oresteia last week. The plot: Orestes avenges the murder of his father Agamemnon by his mother Clytemnestra by killing her. And then, the Furies–personified forces of guilt and conscience–hound and oppress him. In the National Theatre production that I watched online, Orestes shuts his ears while they chant and torment.
The scene triggered inchoate half-remembered memories. Memory followed memory in a vicious circle, and I found myself experiencing snatches of what the evil clinical psychologist Henry Harlow (who tortured rhesus monkeys by isolating them for six months to a year in an inverted pyramid from which they could not escape) called the dungeon or pit of despair…
Painful memories from the past re-emerging… It’s not an uncommon experience, I daresay.
* * *
What is the way out? Not by playing the spool of traumatic memory on repeat. But one must notice the memories, not squash them or shove them underground where they might grow, fester and emerge in a more terrible form
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. (Rumi)
* * *
So how did I deal with the traumatic memory that scene triggered, and troubling memories in general? As it happens, there is a whole branch of Charismatic Christian psychology which deals with it, known as the healing of memories. It lets the light in.
You remember that Christ was there when you suffered that trauma. You were wrapped in invisible light. So nothing worse happened.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past, Faulkner famously wrote. That is its curse. The body keeps the score as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes in his excellent book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
But… more. God keeps the score. God stores all our tears in a bottle, the Psalmist poetically says. And because the past is not dead, and it is not really past, it can be redeemed. Its trauma and meaning can be changed as God uses the experience, and brings green shoots from the ashes, roses from the rubble.
So what we must do with the past-but-still-alive thing in our bodies and memories is to invite God–for whom all time is brightly alive, for whom past, present and future exist in a single continuum–in. To invite him to bathe the scene in light. To take the sting from the memory. And then to redeem it. To bring good out of it.
Good ? What good?
Whatever good God chooses. Wisdom perhaps. Compassion for those who’ve similarly suffered. Kindness. The ministry of “The Wounded Healer.” Understanding of how we should live. Understanding of how our own sins and weaknesses led to the trauma (if they did). Understanding of others.
The past is present to God, who sees all time in a shimmering, still-active continuum. The old, unhappy, buried things in our lives are merely planted, and God can bring forth exquisitely beautiful things from what we view as dead seeds of pain, trauma, and failure. For those who love God, everything works out for good, the Apostle Paul famously and puzzlingly says. How? Because God can make it work out for good.
* * *
The escape routes I know from the black hole of painful memories is the tunnel of love which includes the tunnel of forgiveness–self-forgiveness, and forgiveness of others.
“If you, oh Lord, should count our sins, who would survive?” the Psalmist says. Similarly, if we hold onto other people’s sins against us, if the precious ones in our lives keep a record of our sins against them, which relationship would survive? For who hasn’t sinned against those they love? Most importantly, if we hold on to a record of wrongs, we wouldn’t survive in joy, and peace, and creativity. Forgiveness is not easy, it may take repeated attempts and prayer for grace. Eventually, I can testify, by the grace of God, it comes.
* * *
Yes, the tunnel out of dark places, out of negative spirals, is love.
What is love?
Because Jesus had this super-brilliant mind, it’s always best to go with his definitions. His short-hand definition of love is what is rightly called, ‘the golden rule’: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Scatter teeny-tiny deeds of kindness along your path, according to your capacity, and nature…
Of course, not every difficult relationship, whether at church, with extended family, and at work, needs to be pursued. Sometimes, we just act with grace and kindness, pray a quick arrow prayer for the person when they come to mind, and let them go, realising that this is not the best relationship in which to invest the limited time we have on earth.
But, in general, we must love one another or die, as the poet W. H. Auden says…. And in transforming a difficult relationship we want to keep, we must bend the other way, in Saint Ignatius’s phrase, maybe overdo the love and care and forgiveness, until loving becomes the norm. (This, incidentally, is the way to break the grip of vicious circles in our lives… want to wake early, go to bed super-early; want to become tidy… for a while, devote time to becoming super-tidy…).
So, we let it go, let the past go, and instead live in the present, and gently, inexorably, bring light where there was darkness; positivity where there was negativity; plant green seeds of love, gentleness and service, where there was hate, baby step by baby step, into greenness and light.
* * *
This post was sponsored by holyart.com. Please check them out.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Excellent resource for those recovering from trauma. On Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Sealed Orders: Agnes Sandford’s wonderful memoir deals with the healing of memories. On Amazon.co.uk and on Amazon.com
The Oresteia on Amazon.co.uk and on Amazon.com.
The Poetry of Rumi on Amazon.com and on Amazon.co.uk