It Had Always Been This Beautiful: Reflections on Trauma, Contemplation, and Divine Re-Encounter

It Had Always Been This Beautiful:
Reflections on Trauma, Contemplation,
and Divine Re-Encounter

Eli Henry

Written for EF 3561: Contemplative Listening I – as a reflection on course readings +
the class retreat with Dr. Bo Karen Lee
November 10, 2022

There is so much goodness. An abundance of it. And I’d lost it all.

– Stephanie Foo, What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma

If Margaret Guenther were able to peer into my mental space, she would find it cluttered. Perhaps she would find it unkempt, unhospitable for welcoming guests, full of dark corners and airless spaces where clearly my spiritual housecleaning had gotten away from me – though one can hope she’d be more charitable than that. I’ve found Guenther’s Holy Listening helpful and informative in many ways, but her concept of spiritual housekeeping has always challenged me. I am well aware my spiritual house is in desperate need of reorganization. But what if one wasn’t the person who caused their clutter in the first place? What if one had, instead, inherited an untidy mental residence, cluttered with old emotional and spiritual furniture, made damp and dusty by the neglect others had shown it, willed to them by familial and relational forces beyond their control? Without dodging my responsibility to attend to my own spiritual housekeeping, I still want to acknowledge that this may be challenging to hear for those who, like myself, have suffered relational and childhood trauma that has significantly impacted their emotional, relational, and spiritual lives. I didn’t make this mess, and yet I’m the one who must clean it up if I wish to welcome others in.

I go about my life as a seminarian, a student leader, a partner, and a candidate for ordination while living with what I will call “posttraumatic symptoms” (and not Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as I’ve yet to receive a formal diagnosis). This stems from abuse experienced in my childhood. My posttraumatic symptoms impact every facet of my life, especially in areas that have to do with interpersonal relationships and emotions. I was hesitant to acknowledge the impact that my posttraumatic symptoms had on my spiritual life, until my psychiatric evaluation for ordination dragged all the damage into the light. My evaluator’s recommendation? Mandatory, intensive trauma-focused therapy, subject to re-evaluation prior to approval for ordination. To put it bluntly, I had failed my psych evaluation.

This result, one that could have put my ordination in jeopardy, was what forced me to finally recognize that my trauma was not only something that lived in my past; it is something that has shaped, and continues to shape, my relationship with others, with myself, and with God. I recognize now that this is why the chapter “Infinite Respect” in Tales from a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk feels so familiar to me. For, “when I was in heaven” – when I was a small child, or maybe, before I came into being – “they gave me a torch with which I could see EVERYTHING.” I’m sure that, at some point, I existed without the faulty mental wiring that I now deal with. My lovely therapist and I refer to it as, “before I learned how to panic.” The Panic that causes me to feel the need to be small and unobtrusive, or to lash out defensively against any perceived threat – it came from somewhere, which means it at some point had not yet come to be. At some point, I had a torch with which I could see the world as safe and good, and could see the Spirit of God throughout it even through my younger un-churched eyes. But traumatic experiences forced me to hide that torch under a bushel to stay safe, and I was given The Panic as a pitiful replacement flashlight. And until recently, I too had forgotten all about it.

A week before our Contemplative Listening I class retreat to Loyola House, I read Stephanie Foo’s book What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma for another course. Stephanie Foo, much like me, lives with posttraumatic symptoms stemming from a similarly abusive childhood. Ms. Foo holds a diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), and What My Bones Know documents her journey of childhood abuse, interpersonal struggles, diagnosis, and healing, and brilliantly puts into words all the ways that C-PTSD impacts the minds and bodies of those who live with it. What I call “The Panic,” she calls “the dread.” This dread is something she describes as permeating every part of her life, shading over childhood memories with a haze of dissociation and wedging itself between her and her friends, family, partner, and anyone else she was in relationship with. The entire book is a masterful, unapologetic, deeply human account of what it’s like to live with posttraumatic symptoms in the aftermath of childhood abuse. I had never read anything that spoke so earnestly to my own experience, and reading this book broke me open. Not only was it the first time I really knew that there is someone else who has felt like me, but it confirmed that there is healing and growth to be found for people like us, too.

Stephanie’s account of healing is realistic, as is her assessment of what trauma takes from us. In Chapter 24 of her book, she describes her experience returning to her childhood hometown of San Jose, California as an adult. While driving from San Francisco to San Jose, she describes how she remembers San Jose as a drab landscape of sleepy hills and fields, a fitting backdrop to her traumatic childhood. But when she makes the same drive as an adult, she is overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. The hills and canyons and greenery bring her to tears as she realizes what she’s missed.

It took ten minutes of me gawping stupidly at canyons and cows to come to the obvious and devastating conclusion: It had always been this beautiful. I’d just missed it… I get off on the Story Road exit, pull into the parking lot of King Eggroll, push my face into the steering wheel, and start sobbing – huge, heaving gasps. I’ve only just gotten here, and already it’s clear how much my dissociation has stolen from me. (152-153)

This is where I realized how much trauma had stolen from me when it comes to my relationship with God. I have gone most of my life detached from what God was really doing; the ultimate, unending goodness and love of God has been there for me conceptually, but I was detached. I preached God’s good news for all others, but never for myself. But it was here the whole time. It had always been this beautiful; I’d just missed it. And now I wanted nothing more than to witness it all with my own eyes and heart and spirit.

One major obstacle between me and leaning into wholly experiencing God is my self-consciousness and fear – The Panic lives here, too. I find myself wanting to engage in more spiritual and contemplative practice, to pray in a more embodied way, to move and walk and talk and dance like David in the presence of God. But The Panic has kept me afraid of taking up space, of seeming strange, and of leaning into this wholeheartedly. It has also kept me from realizing that this is my birthright; it has convinced me that I am not valuable, when really, I am a beloved child of God. I’m not simply being dispassionately offered a relationship with God; I am called into relationship by the Divine Love that is always calling us to come home to Her. But this conflicts with The Panic, so I distract myself from this reality with studies and with consumption, often at the same time. Multitasking has been my preferred way to avoid facing this conflict between The Panic and the calling. The Panic has been a close companion, if not quite a friend, for most of my life. Through distraction, I don’t have to sit with the reality that it has kept me separate from God.

I knew that if I chose to face the conflict between The Panic and God’s call upon me, I must choose the latter. But what could possibly take the place of The Panic?

At Loyola House, I decided to test this. Loyola offered a brief break from my usual reality, separated from the routine settings of home and school where I live alongside The Panic every day. What would happen, I asked myself the night before, If I tried to go back to before I knew how to panic? For one day, I decided to supplant everything that The Panic usually tells me to do. “Make yourself small, unobtrusive, politely Protestant.” No, thank you. I will wear my flowiest, comfiest clothes. I will tromp around the house and gardens barefoot. I will lay on the floor, kneel to pray, and appreciate the Virgin Mary every time I pass by her in the hall. I wanted to see what would happen if I leaned into the abundance of goodness that The Panic and dissociation had taken away from me for much of my life.

What I found was that God has been waiting for so very long to replace The Panic with joy. In the moments after we exited our first plenary and I began to roam the property of Loyola House, God found me. I’ve always been here, She seemed to say to me, but I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you’re home. I didn’t do a single bit of journaling or reading while I was there. Instead, I just walked around, reveling. The Panic was nowhere to be found. I may not be able to restore the blurry intervening years that Stephanie Foo describes, but it became clear that God wants nothing less for me, for all of us, than for Her love and abundant goodness to be in the sharpest focus. It had always been this beautiful.

Our contemplative retreat to Loyola House did not cure my posttraumatic symptoms. When I returned home, The Panic was still there waiting for me. But something had lifted. There was a bit more air in the dark corners. Something seems a bit different about the sunlight that comes through the windows of the library. The Panic is still with me, but now I have a reference point for what its absence can look like, and new motivation for seeking healing from my trauma. Yes, I go to therapy because I want to be better – and because my ordaining Presbytery requires it – but I see that God wants healing and wholeness for me, too. I’m trying to find new ways to cause The Panic to be replaced with joy. And I want nothing more than to keep leaning into the joy that God provided in overflowing abundance that day, and to walk alongside others to make it visible in their lives as well. I think I still have much to do within myself before I can stretch outward to others, but maybe those things can happen simultaneously – I have seen that the joy has the potential to spill over to others while I’m still growing in it myself. I just pray that I can always keep returning to the presence of the Divine Love where it first found me.

Eli Henry is a fourth-year Master of Divinity/Master of Arts in Christian Education and Formation dual degree student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Eli is also a research assistant under Dr. Bo Karen Lee, and an intern with the Center for Contemplative Leadership. He is passionate about spirituality and pastoral care of young adults and the LGBTQ+ community, and is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
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