Trauma and Grace

Serene Jones

Being late to church as usual, I had just settled into the back pew when I looked over to find Michelle piling in beside me.A shy and intense young woman, Michelle and I had become friends since she started attending church six months ago. She had recently asked if I would be her sponsor when she joined the congregation in several weeks, and I had said yes. Our friendship had grown deeper since then as we discussed her life, her faith, and her decision to become a church member. 

As she took off her coat and sat down in the pew, I smiled at her and together we let ourselves be drawn into the familiar rhythms of worship. In typical Congregational style, we stood and sang of God’s glory; we sat and prayed for ourselves and the world; we listened as Scripture was read and the sermon was preached; we gave up our offerings and then rose to sing again. It seemed like an ordinary Sunday morning to me: two friends, a well-loved liturgy, a community of shared faith, the warmth of well-known Bible stories, and the calming power of prayer, silence, and song. Even the slant of mid-winter light as it came through the sanctuary windows seemed to hold our bodies safe and sacred in its cool gray glow.

Since childhood…I liked the image of Jesus gathering folks for supper and offering that mysterious thing called God’s grace to us in bread and wine. But I soon learned that this was not the case with Michelle.

After the offering, our pastor moved, as she usually did, to the communion table and welcomed the congregation to that part of worship where we remember the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death. Since child- hood, this part of the Sunday service had been my favorite; I liked the image of Jesus gathering folks for supper and offering that mysterious thing called God’s grace to us in bread and wine. But I soon learned that this was not the case with Michelle. As the pastor began talking about the night “before Jesus’ death,” I could feel Michelle’s whole body grow tight and rigid. Her nail-bitten fingers began to twist her order of worship, and when I looked over at her, her face had a frighteningly blank look on it. She seemed frozen in fear. When the pastor then invoked the words of Jesus, “This is my blood, poured out for you,” she quietly slid out of the pew and left the sanctuary. As I turned to see the back doors close softly behind her, I heard the pastor intone the familiar refrain, “and this is my body, broken for you.” 

Worried, I followed her out into the back hall and found her standing just inside the open door of a bathroom tucked into the corner. She was staring at the sink. Not moving. Just staring. I stepped inside and asked her if she was all right. The tiled room was cold and she was shivering. She looked over at me and haltingly said that she just needed to put a little water on her face…but she couldn’t remember which faucet was hot and which was cold. A simple thing. How could she not know? Before I answered, I tried to imagine what she might be thinking, where her mind had gone, why she was so afraid. I could feel in my own body the tightening grip of the terror that held her; and for a brief moment, it seemed I was standing beside her not in church, but in a cold, static, confused world. There together, we seemed very far away from the grace I had waited for at the communion table and very, very far from the church, even though we were still, quite literally, held within it.

We stood there in silence, and after a few seconds, I managed a smile and turned on the hot faucet. We washed our hands when the warm water finally came through the pipes. Michelle put some on her face and slowly relaxed. We stepped back into the hall just as the service ended. Michelle found her coat, quietly said good-bye, moved outside into the late Sunday morning light, and headed towards home.

I was assigned to clean up after communion, so it was an hour later when I finally left the building. The afternoon sun was already casting long shadows across the nearly empty church parking lot, and the harsh January wind made it feel like the whole city was shivering. I got in my car, turned on the heater, and looked past the lot to the large colonial structure I had just left. I was concerned about Michelle, and I was very confused about what had happened.

Several weeks earlier, she had told me, in an off-handed way, that she had had a “rough child- hood.” Perhaps, I thought as I sat in my car, this was somehow related to her reactions that morning. I also knew that for her, coming to know the reality of “grace”—God’s unmerited love for her—was central to her growing faith. The fact that the communion service had sent her running from worship troubled me. How was it that the very thing she was reaching for was the thing that so terrified her? I didn’t know. The week before we had talked about grace and God’s desire that she flourish and that she know the fruits of life abundant. This week, I had seen her disappear into a world where it seemed only horror abounded and violence stalked her. How might these words about grace reach her as she stood in that seemingly foreign place? The answer eluded me.

As I stared at the church, an image came to me, one that seemed to capture these conflicting worlds. There before me was a single building, one whose body held within it our Sunday morning gathering, a place of worship, a house of faith. But within this house, I saw the haunting image of a dividing wall—the wall between the cold bathroom that held Michelle’s trembling body and the warmth of the sanctuary that ostensibly held the body of Christ. On one side of the wall was the frozen world of Michelle’s terror; on the other side was a community gathered to celebrate the gifts of grace abundant. Terror and grace. Bathroom and chapel. Frozen silence and joyful singing. The starkness of the divide startled me.

My question returned. How might strains of grace move through that wall and reach the ears of Michelle as she stood there, terrified? How might grace’s warmth seep through and wrap itself around her frigid, terrified body? With these unsettling questions in mind, I turned on my car, pulled out of the parking lot, and drove home.

The following Wednesday, Michelle and I met for afternoon tea, as was our custom, at a coffee shop downtown. I was relieved to see her come through the frosted front door—I had worried that she might feel embarrassed and not show up. To the contrary, however, her spirits seemed high and her smile warm and open. “Cold out,” she said as she took off her coat and plopped into the seat across the table from me. Leaning forward, she grinned and whispered: “Were you afraid I might not come? That I might be stranded in a bathroom somewhere? Waiting for someone to turn on the water?”

“Well, the thought did cross my mind,” I smiled back, only half-way teasing. I paused and said, “I tried to call a couple of times. Are you okay?”

“Am I okay? Oh my, what a question,” she laughed and then paused. “Let me get some tea, and then I’ll try to explain to you what happened.” She rose and put a friendly, nail-bitten hand on my shoulder as she passed me on her way to the coffee bar.

A few moments later she returned to her seat, looking deep in thought. She held her tea cup in both hands, as she spoke, looking into its steam.

“I don’t know where to begin. I get embarrassed talking about this because I don’t know how people will react. But I kinda trust you; you saw me in one of those states, and you didn’t freak out. You stood there.” I warmed my hands on my own tea cup and listened. “I mentioned before that I had a rough child- hood. Well, rough doesn’t exactly tell you how really hard it was.” She then told me, in sketchy detail, the story of part of her life. Her memories of early child- hood were vague, she explained. Her parents had been “hippie types” in the early seventies, and until she was five, they had lived in a tent and traveled around the country with a caravan of folks, doing drugs and picking up short-term work, here and there. During that period, she remembered what she called “lots of weird sex stuff and lots of stoned people frightening me as they stumbled around at night.” When her family finally settled down, her father began regularly sexually abusing her—“We were a liberated family,” she sarcastically informed me. Her parents split up when she was in junior high; and by the time she got to high school, she was doing drugs herself, trying to be cool. She was raped her senior year, by a supposed friend; they had been drunk and she never told anyone. By the time she started junior college, she was “too depressed to do much.” With the help of a teacher, she had ended up at a community center in a group for young women who “were having a hard time.” It was here, she explained, that she first heard a social worker use the word “trauma”; and she had gradually come to see that it fit the way she felt most of time, that her whole self—her body and her soul—still held within it the shock waves of all the violence she had known, for so many years.

Since that time, she told me, she had been in and out of various treatment programs for people like her who suffer from what is called “post-traumatic stress disorder,” people who remain haunted by the ongoing effects of violence in their lives long after the events themselves have passed. Sometimes she felt she was getting better; at other times, she despaired about the future, times like Sunday when, out of the blue, she was suddenly thrown back into an old state of terror and confusion that she couldn’t stop or control.

She took a sip of tea and said softly, “I’m sorry about church. I didn’t mean to act so weird.”

I assured her that she need not apologize and that I was sorry that all these things had happened to her. “It must have been horrible.” To my ears, these words sounded cliché and insignificant in the face of what she had revealed. But I didn’t know what else to say, just like that morning in the bathroom. Ironically, I was the one who now felt frozen. She, however, looked relieved to hear me say this. She rested her arms on the table and continued her tale. 

“I started coming to church when I moved into the city last year because I was lonely and—this may sound strange—but I really wanted to be in a place where I could do things like sing and pray with other people. And be with God.” Growing up, her family had not been particularly religious, except for the few times when her mother, in brief fits of spiritual fervor, had taken her to a nearby church. She remembered how much she liked the hymns and hearing people lift up prayers to God. She told me that even now, she sometimes awakened in the morning with one of those songs rolling gently through her mind, its rhythm comforting her. Sometimes, too, out of nowhere, she found herself praying little prayers that came from a deep place within her. “It’s feelings like these, in my gut, not ideas in my head, that brought me here.”

She leaned back in her chair and wryly grinned at me, recalling that I was her church-membership sponsor. “Don’t worry. In our talks over the past months, I have begun to understand the idea part of faith as well, particularly all the stuff about grace.” I chuckled and said I was glad to hear it, but I certainly understood what she was saying about her gut feelings. They were important to me, too.

She then looked back into her tea cup on the table. “It’s not the ideas that freaked me out on Sunday, though. Well, maybe it was partly ideas, I don’t know. It happens to me, sometimes. I am sitting there listening to the pastor, thinking about God and love and everything, and then suddenly I hear or see something and it’s like a button in me gets pushed. In an instant, I feel terrified, like I’m going to die or get hurt bad. My body tells me to run away, but instead, I just freeze and then numb- out. Last week it was the part about Jesus’ blood and body that did it. There was a flash in my head and I couldn’t tell the difference between me and Jesus, and then I saw blood everywhere, and broken body parts, and I got so afraid I just disappeared. I thought the bathroom might be safe but even it scared and confused me. I forgot my name. I even forgot the hot and cold.” She fell silent and started chewing on the side of her thumbnail.

I once again fell speechless. She had put into words what I had physically felt standing near to her on Sunday. Mind-numbing fear. Descending without warning. Frightening thoughts. Disintegrating order. And then a cold blank. I told her that I could tell she was afraid, and how scary it must have been to feel so unsafe and alone in church, a place where she had sought refuge and company with others and with God. Her eyes welled up with tears.

“Thanks, Serene.” She paused and looked up at me, self-consciously laying her chewed fingers on the table. After a few seconds, she spoke again, this time in an abrupt, matter-of-fact tone that seemed to signal the end of this part of our conversation. “I appreciate you listening, but … I know it’s my problem. My problem. And I’m working on it.”

“Oh, Michelle, no.” I responded quickly, emotion welling up in my voice. “It’s not just your problem. It’s our problem. My problem, the church’s problem, God’s problem. You don’t need to be alone. I hope we can work on it together. That’s what faith communities do.” The words poured out of my mouth before I even knew what I was saying.

A heavy silence then fell. She eyed me with slight suspicion, for only a brief moment. The corner of her mouth tried a smile. She then looked away and turned back to me with a new conversation topic.

They were having a great sale at the clothing store around the corner, and she showed me the new striped sweater she had bought to wear to church next Sunday. She was also thinking about cutting her hair. How short did I think she should go? The brightness she had come in with returned to her face, and we started chatting about one f our favorite subjects, earrings. Looking at her animated smile, I was reminded that the portrait of Michelle’s life was more complex and rich than the tortured images I now had of her violent past and her haunted present. We agreed that her beaded dangling earrings would look great with short hair and a multicolored top.

We left the coffee shop together and hugged good-bye. It was dark as I walked down the street; I was pleased that four days from now, she would once again share a pew with me.

During the next few days, I found myself thinking again and again of our conversation over tea, trying to fill out the picture of her life and connect to her story. In the middle of grocery shopping, Wednesday evening, I suddenly flashed on scenes of her years living in a tent. Did she eat regular meals? The thought that maybe she didn’t disturbed me. The next morning, in the middle of preparing a lecture for my Thursday class, I found myself staring out the window, overcome with anger at her father. I couldn’t focus on my notes.

I also found myself looking at other people differently. As I gazed out into the classroom during my lecture, I wondered how many students had felt the traumatic reactions Michelle described and how I might use the words of my teaching in a way that could reach them better. Friday evening during dinner with friends, I took a sip of wine and suddenly remembered Michelle’s story of rape. How many young women would be caught in a similar place tonight? I shivered and put my glass down. During those days, I also thought a lot about my own life. I was beginning to realize that Michelle’s terror had touched places in my own past that, while unlike hers in form, were hauntingly similar in feel. Trauma. In my mind, I began to see it everywhere.

I kept returning to the promise I had made to her—that she needn’t be alone as she “worked on it.” Myself, the church, and God would be with her. The more I thought about my urgently issued assurance, the less certain I was as to what on earth I had meant by it. My vision of the divided sanctuary loomed large. How could the church’s profession of grace reach Michelle in the cold space of her terror?

On Sunday I arrived at church, late again, and was happy to see Michelle already sitting in our usual pew, her sweater bright and her hair short. As in the past, we smiled at each other and settled together into the familiar routine of worship. This morning, however, that routine felt different. Sitting next to my friend, I kept waiting for even the smallest sign that something might be going wrong. I tried hard to imagine what the songs, prayers, silences, Scripture readings, and sermon might sound like to Michelle. What images might they be conjuring up for her? Grace? Fear? Blankness? I also tried to recall what I knew of traumas in my own life, what it felt like in my body to be terrified and confused. I was aware, as well, of the people sitting around me and what they might be thinking. The veteran sitting two pews ahead of us. What scenes did he see in his mind as we sang the first hymn? The woman whose son had been killed in a car accident two months ago. How did the Lord’s Prayer sound to her? Did our collective words of thanksgiving to God make sense to her?

It was amazing. The whole world of worship, as I had known it in the past, began to shift and change before my eyes. A new world appeared. In this world, Michelle’s cold bathroom had expanded to hold a whole congregation of shivering souls. It was a world where I couldn’t assume much of what I normally assumed about human perceptions and actions. Memories were blurry; commonly held notions of order—like the order of the hot and cold faucets—seemed unstable, elusive; scenes of violence were suddenly erupting, everywhere, without pattern, overwhelming all thought and sound; bodies were frozen in fear and a sense of utter helplessness filled the air; mouths were gaping open in screams, but no sounds came out, no language worked; and cold blankness constantly threatened to descend. 

What was most strange about this scene was that its chaos was unfolding not off in a corner bathroom but in the midst of worship itself. The body of the sanctuary held all of it within its walls; the liturgy moved in and through its midst. At times, that morning, I heard words spoken, sung, or prayed that felt as if they were hitting, hard and violent, against the fragile, traumatized lives gathered there. Taunting. Deepening the terror. Provoking the de- scent of cold blankness. I knew at once that such words and actions were not harbingers of grace but the spawn of the church’s own brokenness and history of violence. I wanted to reach over and shield Michelle from their assaultive force. I knew these things had to change.

At other times, however, our faith-born words and ritual motions seemed truly grace filled. Powerful. Transforming. Merciful. Understanding. In an old hymn, I recognized a plea for vision where only shadows haunted. The familiar song suddenly sounded to my ears like the words of someone who had known a terror like Michelle’s. In the Gospel lesson, I heard anew the story of disciples who kept not understanding Jesus’ message, disciples with whom he nonetheless kept traveling. Were they as frightened as Michelle? Did Jesus’ words disintegrate before them like the order of hot and cold? In the sharp words of the psalmist against his enemy, I heard expressed my own rage at Michelle’s father. And I heard as well God’s condemnation of enemies and promises of comfort. At every turn in the service, I heard and saw with increasing clarity that trauma was not something outside of faith, something foreign and distant that the Christian message of grace had to struggle to address. I saw instead that parts of our rich faith traditions were born in the midst of unspeakable terrors—perhaps some of them similar to Michelle’s cold fright—and that grace had long been unfurling its warmth therein.

The Gospel of Mark calls it “repentance”—that moment when one is turned around and “sees differently.” The apostle Paul names it “conversion” and describes for us the new reality that opens up when one comes to know the Christ and him crucified. Saint Augustine speaks of the baptism of blood, that turbulent transformation in which one descends into death—perhaps terror and cold blankness—and emerges in Christ. John Calvin calls it “mortification and vivification,” a conversion in which one descends into hell to find life. That morning, sitting next to Michelle, I underwent such a baptism, a converted way of seeing.

In the course of one short week, I had come to see that when one becomes aware of the extensive wounds that events of overwhelming violence can inflict on the souls, bodies, and psyches of people, one’s whole understanding of what human beings are and can do changes. It shifts how one thinks about language and silence, how one understands the workings of memory, how one assesses the in- stability of reason and the fragility of our capacity to will and to act, how one grapples with the fragmentation of perception and the quick disintegration of order, and how one conceives of imagination, recognizing that at any moment, haunting, shadowy scenes of violence can disrupt it, twist it, shut it down. When Michelle and I spoke of her struggle, we never framed it like this, but all these issues were there. 

What I saw in church that morning is crucial here. If the church’s message about God’s love for the world is to be offered to those who suffer these wounds, then we are going to have to think anew about how we use language and how we put bodies in motion and employ imagery and sound. We are also going to have to grapple anew with the meaning of beliefs not only about grace, but also about such things as sin, redemption, hope, community, communion, violence, death, crucifixion, and resurrection. 

The reality of violence haunts us all, daily, in varying ways and to varying degrees. And we all make sense of it differently. When we turn on the evening news, one can’t help but see violence everywhere. Buildings explode, nations dissolve, whole peoples disappear, millions die, children lose futures. The violence of our world is, in this regard, very visible. And theologians speak about it often. What these news stories fail to show us in their pictures of devastated lives is the haunting reality that, for the living, violence often continues to exist and expand, in the recesses of their minds and in their patterns of action and of hoping. If faith tell us that God desires that we flourish, that we know the fruits of life abundant, then surely the church should be able to proclaim such grace in the midst of this often hidden legacy of violence. As to how? My guess is there are many answers. When worship ended that Sunday morning, Michelle was still sitting by me. As far as I could tell, no one had left for the bathroom; the community was still gathered when the benediction was offered. I felt relief; maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about her so much this week. Maybe the message of grace was getting through. Maybe church was helping to heal her wounds. Maybe. Maybe.

We rose together and I reached out to pass her the peace of Christ. I expected warmth but was surprised by the coldness of her hands. I noticed a tight clench in the line of her jaw. She wore a smile, but there was an element of blank under it. Maybe I would worry this week. Maybe the message of grace wasn’t quite getting through, at least not all the way. Maybe the healing would not come as quickly as I had hoped. But maybe, just maybe, it would come nonetheless. 

Serene Jones is Associate Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. Professor Jones is the author of Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (2000) and Calvin and Rhetoric: Christian Doctrine and the Art of Eloquence (1995), and the co-editor of Liberating Eschatology: Essays in Honor of Letty Russell (1999) and Setting the Table: Women in Theological Conversations (1995). She serves on the Advisory Committee for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and on the Yale University Women’s and Gender Studies Council.