A rich sense of blessing came over my wife and I not long ago. The experience has stuck with me and continues to loosen the barriers between me and my original union with God. Bessel van der Kolk and Psalm 139 help. Here is a bit of the psalm:
For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe.
You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful;
I carry this knowledge deep within my soul. — Psalm 139:13-14 (The Voice)
You should probably take a deep breath and read that again so you can sink into it.
It took me a few decades of life before I could take a deliberate breath and appreciate what my mind and body knew about God. So much of the Christianity surrounding me as I grew up was focused on being in right relationship with God, the great “external locus of control.” You’ve heard: “Get right with God. God is good all the time. Everything happens for a reason. Jesus is Lord of all. Jehovah is King.” The Church has often been a place where men fight each other to see what image of God is going to dominate, or what philosophy will rule. You’ve seen: Pastors raised up in sky-high pulpits or on jumbotrons, giant altars, a screen from behind which a man brings out holy things, founders who end up as dictators. Even Psalm 39, above, has been used to describe a very powerful creator whose total knowledge gives him total control (“God’s in control”) and so gives infinite opportunity to criticize the smallest details of our sin.
My Christian clients often come to therapy with the predictable effects of their damaging view of God. Even when they accept Jesus into their hearts (often in response to fear of hell or fear of ostracism from their family if they don’t), he resides in them like a prison warden, and the most avoidant are in solitary confinement. Yet, once given a chance to tell their story, to be seen and heard, to explore the taboo topics of trauma and self-condemnation, they find a surprising knowledge of another God deep within. As they find their own value and exercise their own agency they get a new sense of an internal locus of control, and a new view of God emerges. They are free to form a much deeper relationship. As a result, Psalm 139 becomes more like the very gentle reading in The Voice. In that amplified translation, the rich word they translate “shaped” feels more intimate and, for what I want to say today, like a loving touch.
Is resilience all we’ve got?
As I have been languidly reading The Body Keeps Score (in order to keep up with everyone else, honestly), I have enjoyed Bessel van der Kolk’s memoir-like presentation of how the science of trauma has developed over his lifetime, since the 1970’s. He’s a learner and open to any way to help people, to whatever works to free them, including spiritual ways. In 2021, Krista Tippet unearthed that his parents were fundamentalist Christians and the fact he “spent a fair amount of time in a monastery in France called Taize.” One thing he has learned lately impressed me. It came from his own experience of MDMA as a means to revisit places where memories are stuck in a debilitating narrative of trauma.
Van der Kolk was a sickly, impoverished, hungry child with neglectful, traumatized parents. He says in the interview,
In my last experience [with MDMA}, actually, I experienced in a very deep way what that little boy went through, who was starving and his mom was not there for him. And I had a tremendous sense of compassion for, oh my God, what that little boy went through. And the people around me were extremely attuned. And it sort of took care of something so subliminal inside of myself that I think it’s produced quite a significant transformation inside myself. In terms of that I don’t feel deprived. I don’t feel that there’s a deficit anymore.
He says the drug gave him access to the “cosmic dimensions” of himself. It opened him to the “mystery of the universe” and he ended up “feeling at once insignificant and utterly precious at the same time.” He could have written Psalm 139 himself!
When van der Kolk and others explore trauma they are looking for psychological, relational and physical ways to diminish or reform memories that color future reactions to life and love and often shape us for self-destruction. When most therapists get to the “bottom of things” their main hope for healing is human resilience. In their view, our personal capacity, for the most part, is the power we have to get well and feel well, or at least stay safe and sober. Often their confidence is well placed because we are wonderfully made and have an amazing capacity for survival. For most of us, trauma often ends up transforming us, not tormenting us. In North Jersey I think most people say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
What is beyond the trauma narrative?
I am often amazed at the resilience people demonstrate. Once they rediscover their capacity, when it is affirmed, and they construct a new narrative for how their life works, they often feel good to go and they go. Others, once they have a new sense of safety and personal agency, are free to see what is deeper than their trauma. Beyond the faulty foundations of their attachment and the troubles of this world, they have always known God, in one way or another. Van der Kolk begrudgingly sees this knowledge in his parents’ infantile faith. But then he can’t miss it when his normal senses are bypassed with MDMA and wonders are revealed, received by and stored in his right brain, where he knew God before he knew language.
This post arose from a similar experience of revelation and reassurance. We were having a conversation and both felt grateful for how our faith had helped us keep going and even transforming us when we were deeply hurt, not only by each other and the forces surrounding us, but by the trauma of the last two years and experiences clear back to our early childhood. We were helping each other memorize the new narrative of love we had learned, the love that preceded our trauma, the trauma to which we had devoted much energy recounting and fearing.
Maybe now that scientists like van der Kolk are belatedly acknowledging the primacy of the right hemisphere of the brain, more and more people will be open to their natural state of oneness with God. He says in his book, “The right brain is the first to develop in the womb, and it carries the nonverbal communication between mothers and infants” (p.79). I believe it is primarily in the right hemisphere where God also nonverbally communicated with us and continues to nurture us in a spiritual womb. I often tell about my first experience of church as a five-year old. I did not bother much with the left-brain lessons. But when we sang the songs, music being among the languages of the right brain, I felt like I was at home; they gave my senses the words to explain how I had always known God.
Psalm 139 gets at the sense we have always been with God and God has always been with us. I think it has always been a good reminder, a symbolic representation, of what we all know in our deepest hearts beyond our brokenness. We were created in love. Psalm 139 is another version of my kindergarten experience of oneness, “If it happened there it happens everywhere.” We are all known by a loving God. Jesus makes that plain.
So we can all find faith in God which supports us even better than our own resilience. We can find assurance that allows us to keep going when we are hurt. In the face of all the trouble we face, it makes sense to be stubbornly loved and always looking for love, even when the absence we feel hurts, knowing it is there, sinking into it beyond words, feeling it in the love of others. If it happened then, it can always happen. Deeper than suffering, than resilience, even deeper than trauma transformed is love. My prayer remains, “Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.” I am the work of your love.