Episode Description: Is spiritual trauma real? And if so, what is it? In the first episode of this podcast, Dr. Hillary McBride introduces the definitions of trauma in a more general sense, and spiritual trauma more specifically. Trauma in all forms creates a kind of shattering, with a legacy of fragmentation that lives on in our bodies, communities, and stories about ourselves. When trauma happens to us, nothing in our lives goes untouched, reminding us that even if we have been told otherwise, we are still whole. J.S. Park is interviewed as part of this episode, and it concludes with a guided grounding practice.
Run time: 1:03:46
Release date: July 12, 2023
Easton, S. D., Leone-Sheehan, D. M., & O’Leary, P. J. (2019). “I will never know the person who I could have become”: Perceived changes in self-identity among adult survivors of clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(6), 1139-1162.
MacKnee, C. M. (1997). Sexuality and spirituality: In search of common ground. Journal of Psychology and Christianity.
McCormick, W. H., Carroll, T. D., Sims, B. M., & Currier, J. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences, religious/spiritual struggles, and mental health symptoms: Examination of mediation models. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 20(10), 1042-1054.
Panchuk, M. (2018). The shattered spiritual self: a philosophical exploration of religious trauma. Res Philosophica, 95(3), 505-530.
Pasquale, T. B. (2015). Sacred wounds: A path to healing from spiritual trauma. Chalice Press.
Vanderpot, L. E., Swinton, J., & Bedford, H. (2018). The unforeseen relationship between spirituality and psychiatric medication: A hermeneutic phenomenological study. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 20(1), 14-26.
Wortmann, J. H., Park, C. L., & Edmondson, D. (2011). Trauma and PTSD symptoms: Does spiritual struggle mediate the link?. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(4), 442.
This podcast does not provide medical, counselling, or crisis services. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your local emergency services. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not always represent the views of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
Hi everyone. My name is Dr. Hillary McBride, the host and creator of the Holy/Hurt podcast.
If you are listening to this, you likely saw the name of the podcast and noticed that it included the words spiritual trauma. I want you to know a few things before we head any further.
First, this series was created for those with lived experience of spiritual trauma. What has been used to hurt you in the past can come with significant and sometimes surprising physiological reactions when you encounter the same words, behaviours, or processes in the present. So I made the decision not to use prayer, references to scripture, or lots of Christian language. I don’t know what specifically was used to harm you, and how the legacy of that still lives in you, so I cannot guarantee that listening to this will feel easy or gentle. But I did want you to know off the top that there will not be any altar calls or surprising prayers that pop up, and that I trust you to know when you have had enough or need to take a break. If you are not sure about that, your body will tell you.
Second, if you are actively part of a faith community or find yourself within the Christian tradition and are listening to this to better understand what spiritual trauma is, and how it impacts those around you, I am so glad that you are here. You might notice that although this podcast is about spiritual trauma, spiritual practices and ways of making sense of pain and trauma are decidedly absent, and I hope based on the previous comment that that makes sense. Those of us working on the podcast hope that you can integrate what you are learning with your faith and theology. You can look for some additional resources to help you do this from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, the show sponsor. Although this material may be uncomfortable or new to you, I invite you to stay with us through the discomfort, take breaks as you need, and hold the posture of openness and curiosity. I really believe that your ability to learn about spiritual trauma will help you create healthier communities and love your neighbour with more compassion and wisdom.
And third, this episode makes reference to sexual abuse. Although the details are not graphic, I wanted you to have a heads up. Thank you so much for joining us. It is so important that you are here.
Okay, now for our first episode.
I want to start with a story. Shortly after my parents were married, they moved to the west coast, both leaving behind big families who farmed in the prairies. They started life over out west. A central feature of their lives was a vibrant and warm church community of a central Vancouver thoroughfare. There were choirs with vintage choir robes and youth groups, barbecues in the park, low budget musicals at Christmas, and a community that continued to grow as the families that belonged to it did, too. A new building was built by a local developer with the pulpit at the very centre of the building—a signal to the church of what mattered most to them, the Word of God.
When I reflect back on my growing up years, this church is a central feature in my narrative. I never knew a time without it. Because my parents had left their families, this community was in a sense the most tangible expression of extended family that we had. At birthdays and Christmases, it was their cards and gifts that filled our home, their poppy seed cake for dessert mid-week that anchored us in place until we saw each other again next week. One auntie’s hand smacking my hand away as I found the stash of cookies in the church kitchen, while another auntie sneaking the very same kitchen cookies to me through the billowing skirt pockets when no one was looking. This really felt like my family.
Then, half of them were gone. It seemed almost overnight, but I can’t remember if that’s how it actually happened or just what it felt like. In many more adult-to-adult conversations I’ve had with my dad since then, I learned just how much they protected me from at the time. My not knowing was a feature of being allowed to be a child. But my confusion a reflection of the chaos around me—and the loss of a rich relational world that seemingly collapsed overnight. Some people I would never see again.
If you were watching a movie of my memories of this place and these people, this is where the film would take on a distinctly dull tone—the colours less jewel-like, everything looking like it was covered by a thin layer of dust, laughter sparse and muffled, voices indistinct, and the whispering constant and just out of reach. Nearly half the people in our congregation left at once, and with the cavernous sanctuary dotted with the fragments of community, fabric samples were picked for the drapes that would cordon off the unused pews where our bustling church family once sat.
Many more of the adult-to-adult conversations with my parents that I alluded to happened, and I learned more about what had occurred when I was too young to know the details of the story, but old enough to feel the chaos in my body. The pastor had been grooming and sexually abusing women who had gone to him for pastoral counselling. He was found out, behind closed doors he admitted what had happened, and then when it came time to tell the congregation why he was no longer the pastor, had been reported, and was fired from the church, he changed his story and he denied it all. To the women who survived the abuse and had to witness this, it was undoubtedly horrific. Their experiences of abuse debated by a community they belonged to, in front of them, without those enraged by the accusations ever really knowing that it was their sister, mother, daughter, sitting beside them in the pew that had survived the trauma they were unwilling to admit had ever happened.
The horrors of sexual abuse by clergy are profoundly complex, taking years to navigate through, leaving multiple layers of wounding. This is always the case when abuse happens at the hands of the people we have learned to trust, who are supposed to protect us, who also represent a God they believe to be all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful. As I make sense of this story, the layers of wounding that were left were never a question for me. I see survivors of sexual abuse, and sexual abuse that occurred within the Church, in my practice regularly, and it makes me think of these women, the names of whom I will never know, but I grieve with and for.
What it took me years to understand is that the rest of the community faced a trauma of their own kind, too—different and at first invisible to me in the shadow of the enormity of clergy sexual abuse. The congregation was left with two opposing stories: one story came from the board that their pastor had been sexually abusing women, one story came from the pastor that he was being wrongfully accused. No matter what they believed, they lost some part of their social network, their identity—and someone they trusted to tell the truth about them, to tell the truth about God, and to care for their community, had lied. The pastor left, as did half the congregation who believed he had done no wrong, and this included some of the family members of the women who had been abused. Not long after he had left the church, the pastor died, and what went with him was the ability to know even more about what happened—all the things that were untold by the women who survived them. What did not die with him though was the legacy of churches, people with power in trusting communities covering up sexualized violence, ignoring the trauma being caused to their own communal body by the unwillingness to name what really happened out loud and heal the systemic wounds to prevent this from happening again. He was not the first—this story is painfully unoriginal, although perhaps it is an obvious example of what is otherwise insidious, more commonly-occurring but harder to name and point out as wrong because it doesn’t have the law behind it.
But we are getting better at naming what was previously unnamable or unspeakable. There are more spaces, better language, more research and more theories to talk about why it all happened, what it means, and to find ways to heal from wounds that happen in communities of faith, by the hands and words of those who are supposed to represent God. Our wounds, whatever they are, made more powerful by the silence around them, voicelessness, at times the fear of disruption, or the internalized silencing of our voices being trapped by those with the most power, telling us not to trust what our pain told us. The naming of what has hurt us, how we have been hurt and how we have hurt others, and how it still lingers with us, is the very undoing of the cloak of invisibility that keeps the pain stuck. And this—the naming, the unveiling, the “unsettling truth” as Mark Charles calls it—as painful as it is, this is central to how we heal our spiritual trauma.
When I started thinking about working on this project, I did a little search of the academic literature that exists. By little search, I mean I reviewed all the academic articles ever published and accounted for by our most powerful academic search engines—anything that included words like spiritual trauma, spiritual abuse, religious abuse, religious trauma… you get the point. I found just over 100 academic articles, about sixty book chapters, fifty dissertations, and twenty-four books. The earliest piece of literature published using these search terms was in 1991. The field of academic study was catching wind of the need to write, theorize, and research about ritual abuse, cults, and the very real trauma that comes from wounding in abusive spiritual communities. But not long after that, the number of published pieces started to climb.
1991 is not that long ago, and the dramatic increase in academic and theoretical discourse suggests something: we are getting better language to define what spiritual trauma is, how it occurs, and what to do about it. But a word on academic publishing first. There are a few fields in which research and science are at the forefront. I know from colleagues doing stem cell research, cognitive neuroscience, and biomedical engineering that there are treatments coming for our illness and diseases on the horizon that we can’t even imagine. But with our social sciences, and psychology in particular, it seems that academia is often the last to know about what the bodies of people everywhere have been saying for millennia. Spiritual trauma didn’t emerge in 1991, nor did it emerge as soon as white evangelical Christians started talking about it. It has always been here. It is woven into conversion therapy and what the queer community has faced in faith communities, when parents with children who have disabilities were told it was because they sinned, when Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in church-run residential schools, when clergy sexually abused children and the people in power hid it, when Christians owned slaves and used biblical proof texts to do so. Colonization, first contact, and the Doctrine of Discovery, the reasons white people are even on North American land, and the long lineage of stripping communities of their ways of knowing and spiritual traditions in the name of evangelism. Spiritual trauma has been with us as long as religion has existed. Spiritual trauma has been with us as long as people used power as a means of getting control. Spiritual trauma has been with us as long as anyone has been told that they were broken from the start.
The academic and clinical communities are just now catching up. And that allows us to name things, put categories and language around what bodies have always known and felt in unspeakable ways. This is part of how we heal. I started speaking about spiritual trauma in a public way part way through my doctoral degree. As a therapist, I have specializations in trauma, among other things, and that looks like an understanding theoretically and academically, but also working with it in my practice day-to-day. It was first in my practice treating my clients with trauma that I started to hear the stories people were bringing to therapy about how the lines began to blur between their trauma and their spirituality. In some cases, people came in with clearly identified stories of hurt. Someone had abused them and had done so in the name of God, and now they couldn’t sleep at night, didn’t want anything to do with God, and would rather die than step foot in a church where it might feel worse than death, and felt dissociative and detached from their bodies except for when they were panicking or in a state of terror. Here—in the TV mystery series where the detective is putting together pieces of the case, and there is a single red string between the events that transpired and what the person feels like in the future—we understand that they are connected. But, more often than not, I start to hear stories of people who had symptoms in the present they could not trace back to anything in particular. After all, how do you point to something specific that was so regularly occurring that it was actually woven into the fabric of your development? How can you identify a thing that hurt you when you were told that doing so would be a sin and would cause eternal suffering? How can you name what was wounding when the source of the trauma caused you to sever the knowing that a wound existed in the first place?
As the stories of spiritual trauma were coming into my office, I was beginning to reflect more on the experiences where I had incurred hurt, and—even more challenging for me—the experiences that I was a part of where I hurt others, all of it falling into this increasingly real category with ill-defined edges that I call spiritual trauma. I set out to learn more, heal more, and help others do the same. This is a collection of things I have learned, what I am still trying to understand, and the voices who have guided me along the way.
My name is Dr. Hillary McBride, and this is Holy/Hurt: A Podcast Exploring Spiritual Trauma and Healing.
I know that some of you listening are within the Church, walking alongside others who have spiritual trauma, or trying to navigate your own. Some of you listening have found that the only way to retain a sense of spirituality or a relationship with the Divine is to leave the communities and buildings that remind you of how you got hurt. And for some of you, the very thing that has saved your life is getting as far away from anything that gives you a whiff of the religious or spiritual. I have each of you in mind as I was thinking of all this, trying to pull together a collection of ideas and conversations where each of you could be understood, heard, considered, valued, and treasured regardless of what you believe, have experienced, or how you identify yourself.
To trust me to do that, you might want to know how I understand myself. I want you to know how to frame the kinds of things that I say. So, I am a white, cisgendered woman, an uninvited guest and a settler on the land of lək̓ʷəŋən speaking people where I live with my husband and daughter. I have disabilities, but none of those are visible. I am highly educated, trained as a psychologist, and I am within the broader community of folks who want to keep learning from the person of Jesus and how he lived in the world. I find that the word Christian means very different things to different people, and I am increasingly aware that, for some, even the word Christian is connected to trauma—so I use the word sparingly and with intention, wanting to privilege the reality of people who have been harmed by this legacy over an in-group bias or a sense of rightness. I believe that for those who identify as Christian, there is a great responsibility to own the harm done to others in the name of the God they serve, to be devoted to learning from and treasuring the people who have been called “other” by those who have the most wealth, power, and control.
It is my hope that in learning more, we can create conversations wide, gracious, and patient—informed enough to build communities of faith that hurt others less, that can acknowledge and recognize the hurt that has been caused without ignoring or avoiding it, and that are places of gentleness and healing for the people who belong to them or who rub shoulders with them in this world. We will do this by talking about spiritual trauma, what it is, how it impacts us, and how we heal.
A word on listening to this: what I love about media in this form is that you can listen all the way through 1000 times, or not at all, or start and stop and restart again, or decide it’s not for you and never touch it. In situations where there has been abuse and trauma, there have often been an imbalance of power and control. I want to remind you that you don’t actually have to listen to this, and that you have choice about when and how you do listen if you decide to. Engaging content like this with choice can be an act of healing, recovering a part of yourself that was previously disavowed.
18:05 INTERVIEW PREVIEWS
18:08 WILLIAM MATTHEWS III
What came to mind for me was this image of trudging through mud. That’s what spiritual trauma means for me. It’s one of those things that it’s very hard to explain because it doesn’t feel tangible like a lot of emotional hurt or abuse. It doesn’t feel like you can necessarily grab a hold to it, but it feels just as real.
18:28 ROBERTO CHE ESPINOZA
Well, I know that it’s pervasive. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind.
18:33 ALISON COOK
This feels like holy ground. There’s always a sense of fear and trembling for me in talking about it. And I don’t know why that is. I think it’s because of the space that I’ve honoured with clients, spaces in my own life. This is—spiritual trauma cuts to the core of who we are. And it’s just—it’s deep. It’s not something to take lightly.
18:54 K.J. RAMSEY
I’m going to go with what my body is doing. When I hear the words spiritual trauma, my heart instantly goes a little bit faster. And I crossed my arms, which is like a bracing posture. I think my body says, “This is something that is painful and damaging,” and has a physical response to it.
19:20 MARK CHARLES
Well I think there’s a lot—the Church has been complicit and initiated a lot of oppression and violence, and that has caused trauma in a lot of people. This is going back 1400 years at least.
19:39 J.S. PARK
You can sell fear in a church; you can also sell the solution to that fear.
The first time I began to understand what trauma was conceptually, I was in a graduate level counselling psychology class on abuse and trauma. The professor, psychologist Dr. Rick Bradshaw, named it as the experiences that confuse us and overwhelm us and leave us feeling powerless in the face of a negative event. If you listen carefully to that definition, you will hear first that the experience of trauma is about what happens inside of you. It is defined by your inner experience in response to what happens to you or around you. That’s why two people can face the same thing, and for one person it’s a stressful event, maybe even a neutral event, and for another person it’s trauma. Our systems get overwhelmed, and mechanisms outside of our control get activated—sometimes this means being frozen in terror outside of our capacity to manage or cope, or the unconscious mechanism of dissociation and shutting down takes place. Our bodies instinctively know how to shut down, shut off, or disappear, and they only do so when there is no other resources to help us endure what would otherwise be totally unbearable. When it might mean annihilation if we move a muscle, we have the ability—completely unconsciously—to disconnect so powerfully from the present moment experience that we collapse, lose consciousness, or store no memory of what is happening.
We all go through stressors day-to-day: someone cuts us off in traffic, we are running late for a meeting, we see a former love interest at the grocery story on the exact day we decide that dry shampoo and cinnamon bun stained sweats are the right choice for the trip out, and we hide behind the chip display for twenty minutes—I mean this is strictly hypothetical, of course. I would argue that most of us who live in cities, who are in school, commute by car to work, have children, are renting a house, have a mortgage, have some degree of baseline stress. It can wear on our body over time, but it’s actually supposed to be there to help us navigate these events and environments. In a perfect world, our stress is good. In a perfect world, we experience a stressor, feel the activation in our bodies, the activation mobilizes us to create change, ask for help, perform at a high level, or signal to others that we need some support. We use it up and the stress goes away, our bodies recover, and we can rest again. And then if something else happens the cycle repeats itself.
Then there is this next-level kind of stress. The kind of stress that feels more like an overwhelming terror, like something inside of us is being gripped by the tight hand of fear and there is no letting go. It is the stress that comes from believing and wondering if what is happening or about to happen might obliterate us. The violation of our safety strips us of our agency, our ability to stop something or protect ourselves or others. These experiences of stress change us. Categorically, they sit outside of our ability to tolerate, to cope, or manage. Any number of things can cause us to feel this way—too many to name, really. And when this happens, whenever it happens—but especially when it happens to us young, because of things that happen in relationship, or with people who are supposed to care for us—how we experience ourselves in the world is fundamentally altered. Once moving at the normal pace of life, pieces of our internal systems break off and get drawn into a pace of time all their own, stuck lingering in what happened in the past, and preoccupied with preventing it from happening in the future.
When I think of this analogy, an X-ray of a broken bone I saw once comes to mind. All the pieces of the bone still there, but now in pieces more or less, depending on the blow, and how severe, and so on. The pieces create pain, dysfunction, and demand a new way of orienting to the world. On the outside, I guess unless it was a compound fracture, it just looks like a limb—but when we look inside, when we see what was once connected has gotten fragmented out from itself, we see that the proof of the trauma is there and it exists in the shards. In this analogy, the shards are the symptoms we commonly associate with this kind of overwhelming stress or trauma, or what we call big T trauma, or shock trauma. These are the things like the feeling of constantly anticipating something threatening, wanting to avoid or get away from the things that remind you of what happened, the reminders of what we survived that come to us in unwanted or unwilled ways. That sometimes happen in nightmares or flashbacks, through sound or image—sometimes what we call emotional flashbacks, where the body feels the same sensation it felt in association with the trauma. These rememberings seem detached from what is happening around a person and often don’t make sense logically, but are the body telling the story of what it felt like, desperate to have the story heard one way or another.
I think of these unwanted reminders like unpaid parking tickets that we get in the mail: bright yellow, hard to ignore, demanding our attention. They are there to say we have unfinished business, and something that happened is still alive in us. Some part of us is stuck back in what happened and doesn’t yet know that it’s over. We can also experience big changes in how we feel day-to-day. Clinically we call this alterations in mood, but that feels like an oversimplification of what it is. The pattern of how we orient to the world and what we believe about ourselves, others, and the future, changes. The foundation upon which our self-story sits gets disrupted. It’s so normal for people who live through things like this to feel wildly disoriented to the world around them. Nowhere feels safe, not even the rest of sleep is accessible. Suicidality, self-harm, and using substances can appear as the systems, trapped in the unending reliving of what happened, look for ways out of the pain. When these experiences are significant enough, we can even experience change in our consciousness, leaving us feeling shut off or numb or in a dream-like state. The parts of our nervous system that pass messages between body sensations and thoughts get disrupted. The mind effectively floats away to somewhere safer than the horrors of whatever is happening in the present.
The overwhelming distress experience gets our attention. It’s meant to. But these experiences are not the only kind of trauma. Sitting beside them on the continuum of traumatic experiences are the things that happen so frequently, or so early on in our lives, that somehow we don’t even really know that they happened. There was no single blow. No limb-shattering injury. Just a slow erosion, or subtle contortion around ourselves into a posture we believed would keep us safe, make us good, keep us inside whatever we were told we needed to be inside of. These chronic injuries can be psychological, relational, spiritual—and often without the obviousness of the big T traumas, the little T traumas leave us confused about why we are in so much pain. Culturally speaking, we rarely think of it as trauma at all. But if we do think of trauma, we point to the obvious things, because in our limited understanding trauma is the thing that happened. After all there was no single thing to point to that explains why we feel so awful, so unlovable, so desperate for escape, plagued by guilt and shame and worthlessness. But even if we can’t point to one specific thing, our bodies tell the stories of the injuries we’ve incurred.
When talking about trauma, philosopher Michelle Panchuk uses the word multiply ambiguous. The word trauma means so many things to us culturally and clinically; it is used in so many ways. We use the word to mean what happened to us, but also what happened to us because of that, and also the combination of the two. There are also multiple definitions of trauma clinically. The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM V for short, defines a traumatic experience as the “exposure to an actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” that is directly experienced or witnessed by a person. When someone learns of an experience of this nature happening to someone they love, or the details of experiences like this which are repeatedly encountered (in the case of first responders and therapists). That seems to capture some of what might happen in the experience itself that makes it categorically horrific, but it doesn’t really get to the impact side of things.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the US defines trauma, at least in part, by the ”lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, and emotional, or spiritual wellbeing”, and also as “the experience that is too much to handle within the body’s normal coping mechanisms; it overwhelms our ability to manage.” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has described it as the current imprint of pain, horror, and fear that lives inside of a person because of what happened to them back then. Dr. Judith Herman helps us understand it as any event that overwhelms a person, removes their sense of control, connection, and meaning. She says it can be anything from a single overwhelming moment that never qualifies for a diagnosis, even if its effects linger, to a complex syndrome, where repeated relational trauma has occurred. Trauma expert Peter Levine says it this way: “Trauma is about loss of connection, to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognize, because it doesn’t happen all at once. It can happen slowly, over time, and we adapt to these subtle changes sometimes without even noticing them.”
Trauma is a kind of shattering. Trauma in Greek means wound. Although the word originally referred to our physical wounds, we now understand it to mean the wounds that we carry that exist in us in an invisible way. So, if we go back to the definition of the word, it may help us re-engineer the definition. We can ask: what are the kinds of things that have wounded me, and what about the kinds of things that wounded me in a way that left a lasting impact? It doesn’t take going much further to establish that the things that wound us fall into two categories: the things that happened to us (we call this commission, like if someone punches you in the face) and the things that didn’t happen but should have (we call this omission, when a caregiver, or leader, should have protected us from the abuse but did nothing). We are wounded by the bad things that happen to us, but also in the words of Dr. Gabor Maté, “the good things that we didn’t get.”
What are the kinds of things that have wounded me? And what are the kinds of things that wounded me in a way that left a lasting impact?
You might want to pause this and actually think about that question, but my guess is that if you’re listening to this on the treadmill, or driving with your kids in the car, or on the way to work or school or a party, it may be useful to come back to that another time. Because this is where it starts to get a little more complicated. Sometimes the strategies we use to hide our woundedness from ourselves are sophisticated. Often, there is more woundedness than we’re prepared to examine, especially if pretending a wound wasn’t there was one of our strategies for surviving it. If that sounds complicated or far-fetched, let me give you an example. I have lost track of the number of times that a person has said to me in therapy, “I’m fine, I had a perfect childhood”—long pause—”Can you help me with my chronic alcohol use or my rage at my partner, or the panic attacks I’m having every night? But those are totally unrelated to my perfect childhood.” It doesn’t take long to figure out that the things that bring people into therapy don’t appear at random. If this sounds bleak, and you’re thinking the thing that most of us do as therapists when we’re early on in grad school and we learn about trauma—”Oh no, trauma is everywhere”—it’s not wrong. But it is helpful to know that healing, hope, and resilience is everywhere, too. Paying attention to one actually helps us see the other. We’ll get more into that later, I promise.
You might be starting to get the idea that trauma—as much as it is exceptional, horrific, and overwhelming—is both the things we can point to in our narratives and the things that didn’t happen but should have. It is what happened, but also how it lingers in us. It is the big things and the little things that cause a fracture deep inside of us, and sometimes it leaves us caught in a cycle of pain, avoidance, numbing, that we can see and feel doesn’t work—but other times is so accepted or hidden under our defensive strategies, it’s all we ever knew, and maybe we don’t even really know it’s there, but some part of us senses something is lurking in the hallways of our interior life. Perhaps a kind of haunting. We stay busy, numb out, avoid, just don’t think about it. Shut it down, man up, tell yourself the story “it wasn’t that bad” or “they really did love me”—all of our strategies that signal how hard we’re working to keep ourselves from seeing what might be there if we just looked.
With all that variation, the vastness of the continuum of experiences we could label trauma, the subjectivity in reactions, there is one thing we can know for sure about trauma, our bodies tell the truth. Our bodies always tell the truth. Even if we find a way to cover it up first, the story always comes out—and if not in our thoughts, or in our relationships, then always in our bodies.
Whenever I’m giving a lecture or workshop about spiritual trauma, I run into some questions right around here. They sound like, but when are you going to talk about spiritual trauma? But what does this all have to do with the Church? Or how long till you get to the part about God, or cults, or fill in the blank. And this isn’t surprising, and let me tell you why. Our difficulty in seeing spiritual trauma as something impacting and interwoven with every aspect of our lives, something accessible and embodied within and around us, is because of spiritual trauma itself. Many of us have been led to believe that spirituality is something else or somewhere else, or it belongs in the realm of the unreal, the transcendent, and certainly not connected to our bodies, not right here. Our minds and bodies are distinct from each other, our bodies and the bodies of others is separate, functioning in isolation and independently self-sufficient. Our relationship to ourselves is something different than our relationships to each other. But this separation, the separation of all parts of life, it is actually one of our original spiritual wounds.
It helps to define spirituality here as the sense of connectedness, the sacred, and the search for meaning. In 2018 a paper was published addressing psychiatry and mental health. Authors Vanderpot, Swinton, and Bedford identify that spirituality is the guiding framework that supports a person to address the deep existential questions at the centre of human life: who am I, where do I come from, where and I going, and why? They go on to say that spiritual belief systems can come from both religious and non-religious sources. In a 1997 paper on spirituality and sexuality, psychologist Chuck Macknee suggested that spirituality is a core dimension of our humanity, nudging us to discover meaning and purpose, and connection with self and other and God. Interestingly, although spirituality is sometimes seen as something transcendent—or outside of what is happening right here and now, in this body, this brain, this beating heart—we actually have the neuro-scientific data to prove that connection is so fundamentally wired into our bodies from birth that we have body reflexes, autonomic nervous system processes, geared up from the moment we’re born to help us locate our caregivers, reach towards them, interpret their emotional states, and seek closeness and comfort. The longing for connection is in each of us from the beginning—our nervous systems organizing our inner world, our bodily survival, and flourishing, based on our connection with those around us. It seems as though everything we thought lived “out there” in the spiritual is actually right here, in our matter. And everything in our matter is telling a spiritual story—or said another way, telling a story about connection.
When you hear those definitions, it may become clearer why there is no spiritual trauma that is not physical, and there is no spiritual trauma that is not relational, and there is no spiritual trauma that is not psychological. And it goes the other way too: no physical, psychological, sexual, or relational trauma leaves our spirituality untouched. Trauma of any kind strikes to the core of who we are, and who we are is not as fragmented as we have learned to believe.
I want to introduce you here to my friend Joon. You might know him online as J.S. Park, the Korean American hospital chaplain and author whose voice in the often-turbulent land of social media is like a refuge. I think of his storytelling as an elixir that somehow warms and thaws the frozen and rigid places in us, that makes us see each other and ourselves as objects or problems to be solved. I would go so far as to say that he should not have to do this work alone, but the posts about his job and his daughter single-handedly could fix our problems with social media. Here are some of his thoughts on spiritual trauma.
39:15 INTERVIEW WITH J.S. PARK
Yeah. You know, I think I come at this from both the Eastern and Western upbringing. I have a hybrid almost comprehension of what spiritual trauma looks like, because I think at least the Western sense of trauma is very much like maybe a clinical definition of how a virus affects a computer. And I like that definition. It’s very like the wires and wares are all messed up, and even its own capacity to heal itself is affected. But when I look at it from the Eastern perspective of spiritual trauma, I think of the feeling of being cursed—that somehow there’s a sentence upon my life, and that my own value due to other moral decisions I’ve made, or my standing in the community, or what I appear to be in my family and in my name, has wrought something on me that is irreversibly and irrevocably not repairable. And so when I thought about spiritual trauma, I think even more so than the feeling of having a virus affect our wires and wares, I thought of—if my body is a house, then spiritual trauma means that my house is haunted, and that God is the ghost. And it’s that feeling of being cursed, like I cannot do the, I don’t have it in me to cast this exorcism, to get this sense that God hates me and is haunting me. To heal that part of me. And I think that can happen certainly from bad theology and bad leaders. You know, and in bad leaders we’re thinking in terms of institutional and systemic and the forces that continue to enable perpetuation of those abuses.
And in particular with my patients—it’s almost like they’re in the hospital because of this physical illness, and at the same time, the spiritual trauma adds a layer of difficulty in their healing because it is essentially telling the story of what their illness is all about—in relation to God, in relation to their own moral and spiritual value. And so I had a patient, and I’m going to change some of the details just for privacy’s sake, I had a patient who said, “My pastor said if I get mad at God I’d go to hell.” If I get mad at God I’ll go to hell. Now that sort of spiritual trauma is a narrative that’s going to get that patient stuck. It’s not going to make them any more free or liberated. And because of that, because their anger—which I believe is justified and is right—has no place to go and it seems to just make them more sick. And they seem to almost believe that this disease, one, was wrought upon me somehow because the supernatural order of things, I somehow attracted it to myself, and then two, I have to just accept it because I am afraid to get mad at God. I just have to believe that God did this to me and it’s justified somehow. And I think that sense that God punishes and that God has accursed our lives—it’s a very prevalent thing among spiritual trauma. That’s a very prevalent narrative. And I think church leaders will use that control and coercion to keep their congregation almost constrained.
Because if you can sell fear in a church, you can also sell the solution to that fear. Church leaders, whether it’s for the money or for their fame, for their reputation, for their congregation size—they’re going to use those supernatural narratives and impose that superstition upon their congregation in order to continually keep them coming back. And so I think those who are spiritually traumatized, it’s like if I can fill up my fear meter, then I am right with God, which is very sad; or, if I can fill up my guilt meter, then God and I have good standing. And it’s like, okay I’m going to get my bucket of guilt and then we’re okay. I chuckle because on one hand it’s, like, a knowing laughter, because it was used on me for so long. On the other hand, it’s a trauma laughter, because it’s so sad and it’s still ongoing and it’s perpetuated. Most of all I think of that feeling of being haunted—God is after me.
When spiritual trauma happens, no part of us is left untouched by it, highlighting that even if we have learned to believe otherwise, we are—have always been—integrated, whole beings. Although it is impossible to create hierarchies of what kind of trauma is the worst—especially when we can’t artificially separate out one part of a person’s life experience from another—because of how central relationship is to who we are and our capacity to heal, when trauma is interpersonal and occurs early in our development, this has a profound impact on the way our minds work, how our nervous systems develop, and the foundation of what we believe about the world. It is awful to have a car accident and think you are going to die. Having had a safe and connected upbringing where you were told you are good and can trust people to help you, the road to recovery is long and painful, but in a society where people know that this has happened and mutually agree that it is awful, the recovery is often supported and affirmed.
It is a different kind of thing to be told horrible and scary things on loop at an early age by people who are supposed to protect you, and then be celebrated when you believe those things and get good at convincing other people they are true, too. I want to make this point right here because there is something particularly insidious about spiritual trauma: it is almost always relational, often occurs at a young age, is often repeated, is typically normative, and is often celebrated in most cases. You might have heard it said that as people we are meaning-making beings. While that might be true, as someone who has studied the neuroscience of trauma, a better or more clinical statement for the purposes of this project, is that we are association-making beings. Our brains and nervous systems are making associations all the time. We are pairing, in an unconscious way that dessert tastes and feels good, that fire is hot, and that we will feel better if we take a drink when we’re thirsty. Our system makes associations between things that hurt us, or are scary, even faster and more effectively than associations between any other kinds of things. What that means is that if we have a scary or painful event, our brain will categorize it, and anything involved or like it is scary or dangerous.
So when a person is hurt by someone acting as a stand-in for God, or someone who tells them that God wants this to happen, and God is understood to be everywhere, even in the afterlife, there is nowhere to go to escape from the perpetrator. It is hard to do anything but collapse, give in, or get really good at what you are told might have the slightest chance of protecting you from eternal torment.
In her 2015 book, Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma, Teresa Pasquale defines spiritual or religious trauma as a “painful experience perpetrated by family, friends, community members inside of religion.” Marlene Winell, author of Leaving the Fold, developed the term Religious Trauma Syndrome in 2011. She suggests that religious trauma is the physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional damage that comes from being indoctrinated into an authoritarian religious community, and then leaving it. And while there is a significant and specific kind of trauma for those who leave their faith community, especially after indoctrination, and the definition is useful for that particular experience, people can experience religious trauma who stay within their religions—or it can occur at the hands of a spiritual authority in a community that does not identify as religious. Still, there are times when a person could experience trauma that occurs outside of a religion, but in a way that isn’t necessarily obvious to an outsider, the trauma is connected to religion in some way for the survivor, linking the event and religion in their memory systems.
Although there isn’t the word trauma in the title, another definition for a spiritually traumatic event is an Adverse Religious Experience, ARE. These experiences are overwhelming, disruptive, and include any religious belief, practice, or symptom that undermines a person’s sense of safety, autonomy, or agency, and negatively impacts their physical, social, emotional, relational, or psychological wellbeing. These experiences include abuse or neglect at the individual level and the practices that happen in communities. A little more on that later. What you might notice in the definition of the AREs is that it feels much closer to the definitions of trauma above, highlighting the many ways a wound can happen and can show itself in different facets of our lives. Although some of these adverse experiences happen in isolation (a singular incident with a leader, a painful experience when visiting a neighbouring community), but—like the cases of other forms of complex trauma—because our religion often keeps us connected to systems, communities, and relationships as a primary value, but also at times a mechanism of control, it is more common these adverse religious experiences happen repeatedly, at multiple levels, and in a variety of ways.
I have found that the categories defined by Michelle Panchuk to also be clear and specific, as she describes it in the following way:
- The trauma is caused by something that the person closely associates with religion or spirituality, is inflicted by someone who is thought to be a stand-in for the Divine, is said to be justified by the spiritual practice or religious belief, or occurs because of religious or spiritual practice. For example, a pastor who uses scripture to justify a public humiliation, a rabbi who is sexually abusive, a venerated leader in a yoga community who touches students inappropriately under the guise of education, or a parent who physically abuses a child and says they are disciplining in a biblical way.
- The survivor believes that spirituality or religion was somehow the cause for what happened.
- The post-traumatic psycho-biological responses are connected to God, religion, or spirituality in some way.
Here’s what I like about this definition. As she describes it, the trauma can be a wound of many kinds; there is no specifier about severity, and it allows for there to be traumas of omission and commission. The person doesn’t necessarily have to articulate it was a trauma, they don’t have to be leaving their religion or spiritual practices for it to be valid, and the responses can be expressed in any domain of the human experience. But here’s the problem with any of these definitions: whenever we try to define something, we have to exclude other things. Trauma, especially of the spiritual kind, is complex, at times nebulous, and while there are obvious things at the centre of it that we can draw a circle around and point to, there are things that sit on the edge of that circle and defy our ability to create neat and tidy categories for our pain in the way that many of our religious systems taught us to. And, based on what I described above, I don’t think there is a trauma of any kind that doesn’t also impact our spirituality.
Trauma, by its definition, changes our spirituality, shattering our assumptive worldview we had before we were hurt, or seemingly reinforcing the experience of unsafety, fear, or mistrust that characterizes being profoundly overwhelmed and existentially wounded. Simply put, if I walk through life believing each chair I sit on will hold me up securely, then I sit on a chair and it crumbles under me, my assumption about chairs will change in the future. I’ll likely take a look around, inspect it, and be reluctant to let the full weight of my body rest on the chair. In this situation, the chair is like our spiritual worldview. We don’t think about how much of it exists and holds us up until it doesn’t anymore. Regardless of the kind of trauma, it seems that a feature of trauma is the loss of meaning and trust, undermining the sense of self-worth, value, and humanity, while increasing the presence of guilt, shame, fear, and the numbing and defensive strategies to mask it all. In his article “Bearing Witness as a Social Action,” author Darryl Stephens highlights how trauma experts from a wide variety of disciplines and levels of training have identified the spiritual damage of trauma. Dr. Van der Kolk describes it as “a hole in the soul” that stems from overwhelming experiences that create alienation from self and others. Resmaa Menakem describes intergenerational trauma as a soul wound. And Dr. Judith Herman identifies that the foundation of faith is basic trust, which is first learned in primary relationships, and that trauma fractures this sense of trust. Darryl Stephens says, “fundamental self-worth, human connection, and basic trust are deeply spiritual issues.”
In a paper titled “I will never know the person who I could have become,” research by Easton and colleagues published in 2016 showed that survivors of clergy sexual abuse found the negative impact touched every aspect of their lives: the psychological self, the relational self, the gendered self, the self they hoped to be, and the spiritual self. But even when the trauma happens outside of a faith or religious context, the research data shows that our spiritual self is impacted profoundly. In 2017, an article was published by McCormick, Carroll, Sims, and Currier about how Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, impact religious or spiritual struggles and mental health symptoms later in life. They found that adults who survived ACEs—regardless of if they are experienced in relationship to faith or religion or not—grappled with faith and spirituality as adults, and the extent to which they struggled with religion and spirituality mediated the link between trauma exposure and PTSD. That was a finding from Wortmann, Park and Edmondson, in 2011. It is important to note in this situation that religious and spiritual struggles occur when some dimension of a person’s religious or spiritual belief or practices or experience becomes a source of negative thoughts or emotions, and this leads to conflict or distress. As an aside, nothing riles me up more than learning about this, and setting it against the backdrop of churches that blamed people, shamed people for their spiritual struggles, as if they lacked faith. All this does is heap more blame and guilt on the already toxic pile that lives inside a person from the trauma they endured growing up, making them feel morally inferior for what is a very normal symptom of the abuse that they have had to endure already.
So we do our best to catch these wounds by identifying what our bodies say to us in the aftermath, which makes it murkier to categorize what caused these wounds, or separating it out from the other experiences or facets of life. Again, if each part of us is connected—our past, our present, our future, our minds, our body, our spirituality, our relationships—there will certainly be places of pain that bleed across the artificial lines that we draw. While it’s helpful for a time to identify where the wound began, it is over-simplistic to think that the wound stays in the place where it started. All that does is turn us away from the pieces of shrapnel hiding out in the other parts of our experience of being human.
Early on when I was starting to think about spiritual trauma and how to understand it, I was laying on the rug in my living room, and the morning rain somehow met the light coming in the kitchen window and cast a prism of colours across the wall. I saw how the light came in through the window in one direction, but seemed to bend and bounce across the room, splitting into all the colours of the rainbow. Although the rainbows from a prism of light typically represent jovial, whimsy, magic, hopeful, possibility, even pride, they seem categorically different from the imagery I described earlier of painful injuries, shrapnel, and broken bones. However, they remind us of how when trauma, like light, has a specific point of entry, regardless of where it comes from. It may seem to split into different parts, but really just makes visible what was there all along. The light seems like one colour, but is really just one presentation of all the colours. Even if trauma happens in one domain—for example, when it happens spiritually—it’s connected to all the colours, all the facets of the experience of being human. No matter the point or manner of entry, a trauma impacts each part of our lives, each dimension of our human experiences. Spiritual trauma touches each part of our lives. And even if we learned otherwise, if we’re looking closely, it actually shows us how we are still whole.
Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor too much, but if you’ll allow me, trauma is not unlike light in a number of other ways. It helps us see what is there. What I mean by that is that it shows us where the places of injury are inside of ourselves, the places we have learned to turn our gaze from, while also highlighting the places, patterns, people, and systems which caused the wounding, allowing us to see the places where healing is needed around us so others don’t get hurt like we did. More on that to come next time on Holy/Hurt.
58:21 EMBODIMENT PRACTICE
For now I want to leave you with a practice. We’ve been talking so much about our bodies and how they are important in telling the stories of our trauma, but also healing—so I want to lead you through an exercise that I find helpful to help me be here, to reconnect with my body, to remind myself that in this moment I am safe and I am here. Take a moment to feel and encounter what is around you. It might seem simple, but I want to invite you to slow all the way down. Notice what your body is in contact with. If you’re sitting in a chair, what are the places where your body touches and is held up by the chair? If you’re sitting at a desk, where are your hands resting? What are you in contact with? And we’re really good at moving our attention around really quickly and not really seeing things, so see if you can move your gaze around your space at half the speed that you did it previously, really noticing. What are the colours around you? What are the shapes? Is light hitting objects differently depending on where the light source is?
And also what about on the inside? Can you notice your interior world the same way you notice the environment around you? What do you feel drawn to? What is it like in there right now? Perhaps giving yourself a moment to be curious about yourself in the same way that you might have been curious about your environment. Instead of judging or trying to change, see if you can just allow your sensations the same way that you allow the desk to be there, or the chair to be that way, or your feet to be resting on the floor how they are. You might, if it feels good, take a few breaths, noticing that as you pay attention to your outer landscape, and your inner landscape, that it helps you be here. And while here is sometimes a hard place to be, sometimes here is also exactly where we need to be, at least reminding us we are not back there, and not in the thing that we think might happen, but in this very moment, in this place feeling this way. Thank you so much for joining us today for this first episode of Holy/Hurt.
The Holy/Hurt podcast was written and recorded by me, Hillary McBride. Executive producer Leslie Roberts. Sound editing by Bradley Danyluk and Micaela Peragallo. Music and scoring by Jon Guerra adapted from the album Ordinary Ways. Strings performed by Valerie Guerra. Logo and art from Courtney Searcy. This episode’s guests are William Matthews, Roberto Che Espinoza, Alison Cook, K.J. Ramsey, Mark Charles, and J.S. Park. This podcast was made possible by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Sanctuary equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. They provide free resources that meaningfully engage the topics of faith and mental health. The content is developed in collaboration with mental health professionals, theologians, and people with lived experience of mental health challenges. These resources prepare communities of faith around the world to raise awareness, reduce stigma, support mental health, and promote mental wellbeing. To learn more and access these resources, please visit sanctuarymentalhealth.org