The Murder of Christ: Diagnosis and Treatment for Post-Traumatic Spiritual Disorder for Humankind
July 14, 2010 Length: 1:21:13Stephen Muse (Ph.D.), Director of Counselor Training and Clinical Services
I want to make a couple of preliminary remarks, and then I want to take a 30,000 feet view of something that I’m exploring. Maybe we can have some conversation about it. Just a personal note, I was reading what I was going to talk about. I wrote 100 pages and had to shrink it down to a Swiss cheese of 20. I was reading some of it to Claudia, and she said, “You know, this is your life. This is what you’ve been working on all your life.” I think she’s right. Part of what we’re going to be talking about comes out of the trauma of my childhood with a paranoid, schizophrenic father who became real crazy and violent. My parents split up when I was three and a half years old, and we went to live with my grandparents.
We talk about the brain—for example, the hippocampus which allows us to put things in verbal, declarative memory and organize it in space. It doesn’t really form fully until we’re about three years old. So there is a lot of loss of memory of what happens at the explicit level for children. But at the implicit level, in our viscera, our body, we have a memory.
One of the things I’ve been a hound dog after all my life is the pain and the meaning that was lodged in that three year old child’s body that I had no memory of. After we went to live with my grandparents, my mother became ill. By the time I was in high school, she was so crippled that she couldn’t get up off the sofa without my help. This involved me with a kind of intimacy with her at a level that I then repressed in some areas around my sexuality and physical body. So there was a shame that linked that with what I went through in the first three years.
At the same time, my mother was such an incredible person. She gifted me with an inner life of intimacy and kept pushing through the wall that I had built up to dissociate from my emotions. She gave me this incredible gift of richness at the feeling level, while, at the existential level, I was watching the flesh be destroyed in front of me and take my mother with it. This did something to me.
I began working with military veterans and combat questions and a whole lot of incest and abuse. It just worked out that way. This changed me again as people are dealing with the traumatic impact of what they see and do in war and what we live through in the horrors of our families and in the world. It’s so devastating that it leaves spiritual shrapnel, a spiritual splinter, down in the heart. So as you work with the neurological and the physical aspects, I think PTSD is ultimately a
What I want to raise today is something in the context of Orthodox theology that looks at the meaning and role of suffering and what love is. So, let me say a couple of things just about psychotherapy and training of psychotherapists.
Let’s start with this little schematic. I want to suggest following Martin Buber, who is one of my heroes and who I think is more Orthodox than many folks, who suggests that love is not a feeling. It’s not something we do. These things are affected by love and participated in. But love is a divine energy, like air. We’re all breathing air. We tend to think, “Well, it’s my breath, and if I get scared, I’ll even hold my breath until I pass out.” But air is like a tree, and we’re like fruits hanging from the air. So we are breathed together from the same big, giant source.
If we think of that as a kind of metaphor of love, then love is something we can enter into. I want to suggest, then, that we start with, rather than the fall, the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world, as God’s love proposal to humanity before creation has been created.
This is love saying, “I will be sacrificed in order to make it possible for heaven and earth to be united.” God’s foreknowledge and forgiveness knows that this is going to be incredibly difficult and painful, because God is going to existentially make freedom possible. [5:09.2] We won’t be just airplanes flying like our kids – we’re going to kill him. This puts us in the situation of being passive witness to God’s murder, victim of God’s murder, murderers of God, and beneficiaries of God’s grace and mercy. All of these tie in together. As we think of human relationships, then this is my five ways of meeting. The first three are really preliminary, because they are not really, totally a meeting.
Fusion. When you fall in love, it’s glorious. You’ve got a lot of endorphins going, and the unconscious is creating conditions in the body neurologically so that there is a euphoric, altered state of consciousness which can be kept up about a year and a half. That’s why, perhaps in Hollywood, the marriages change that fast, because people are going on chemical highs. It’s not that dialogue doesn’t happen—we’re pouring our hearts out to one another. There is an aspect of dialogue, but it’s a dialogue that doesn’t really take any ascetism. You’re so drawn to it that there is an element of consciousness that’s missing. Fusion is our paradise that we can’t stay in, because we won’t fully develop.
What happens is that this one-mindedness – that we are really complete in one another – gives way. It happens as we start to grow. We sprout something here and there and suddenly you’re not the same as you were. This causes a threat to the one-mindedness. At this point, I call it the stage of converting or being converted. I use that word, not to be religious about it but, to pick up the aspect that what we are going to then do to one another potentially is force, consciously or not, the other into a situation where you will either come back to what you were like that allows me to not have to be changed to stay with you. Or I’ll give up who I am in order to be like you.
I wrote a little children’s story about a boy from another country who goes to school. The first thing he does is go out and meet some people. One of the kids says, “You’ve got a funny nose!” So the boy goes home, and he wakes up the next day. His mother says, “What happened to your nose?” He says, “Well, Johnny told me I had a funny nose, so I erased it.” This goes on until finally there’s nothing left of him. He’s totally erased and his parents can’t find him. He has to learn the lesson about what it is to be in relationship. You can’t give up every part.
So convert or be converted will ultimately move to “if you won’t change, and I can’t change to be like you, I’m going to ignore you.” But what happens now? I can’t fuse with you, can’t convert you, can’t be converted by you, and you refuse to be ignored. Now we get to the place where we’re either “for” Christ or “against him”, and there isn’t anything in between. We’re either going to encounter Christ, and that’s going to happen right here where – using Buber’s anthropology – in our normal experience, all that we experience is virtually the log in our own eye. If I experience you, it’s past. I’ve already converted it into something that is my view of who you are. If I don’t get past that, then you remain an object of my subjective knowledge. So you will always be determined by the log in my eye.
This is terrible if it’s diagnostic and I lose you behind the category of borderline or something. Then I’ve injured you by not being able to see you as that person who is iconic. So, in our ordinary life, we live mostly in the “I–it” category, because we live out of our experience. If I experience you, you’re objectified. This is very subtle and interesting. How can you get out of that? Western philosophy has dealt with this question for two thousand years.
Buber says that at the point when there is an authentic meeting – the “I–thou” occurs. This happens in time and space but comes from outside time and space. I want to suggest that this is where the meeting between the created and the uncreated world takes place. The damage done in trauma ultimately is from here as well as the miracle of our formation in theosis happens here. Both the hell of our life and the difficulty of God’s marriage proposal in uniting heaven and earth as well as the incredible possibility of theologos—to meet one another “through the logos” – through Christ. As Bonheoffer says, “Christ is always between I and the other.” Well, we don’t always see that. So we operate out of the log in our own eye – “If I stay here, I will never develop”. The question that God puts to us is: “Will you encounter me and will you encounter one another; for wherever two or more of you are gathered together in this way, there I am.” Christ is in our midst.
Now, I put down here “Not I, but Christ”, drawing on the Pauline language, because I want to suggest that the “I” that is hid with the “self” in God, of which Paul speaks, is the true self. The self that we think we know, that psychology studies, is the self of experience. There’s an apophatic aspect to this: I can never be in control of my own development. Only God will do that, and this will occur through meeting. What happens in meeting? I’m vulnerable. In meeting, you are as beloved to God, sharing the same air as I do. If you’re Muslim, Jewish, atheist or homosexual or whatever the other is that threatens me, if I refuse to encounter you, I refuse Christ. If I refuse Christ, I refuse the life that’s offered to me.
This is such a challenge, because in therapeutic training what I am suggesting to my supervisees is that the process of conducting therapy is a spiritual formation process for the therapist. Every person you meet is a confrontation to you which involves this possibility: If you haven’t changed, then you haven’t met the client yet. You will be changed by the encounter, and you have to bring that into supervision, psychotherapy, self-examination. A friend of mine, Jamie Moran, has a statement: Projection is a failure of repentance. Projection is a function of my experience that I deny, and I don’t know myself fully. To do therapy is going to mean continual repentance – it means to enter into the relationship as you would enter into prayer.
If we don’t (and we don’t), something called therapeutic aggression occurs. This a Buddhist term I saw in a dissertation when I was working on my project, and I like it better than counter transference because it’s so simple. Therapeutic aggression is this: If when I try when I’m with you and what you say or how you are threatens me in some way and I become anxious, I have two options. One is that I will abandon you, and that happens in a thousand ways. Or I’ll try to fix you. Both of those are reactions to anxiety and they are self-protective. They preserve the false self, the self I already am. Whereas the silent place that we try to neptically cultivate in prayer – we can say hesychasm which is silence – is the place of freedom where there is absolutely no coercion to the freedom of the being to respond.
Only God is without therapeutic aggression. The rest of us have it. The question is: Can we see it or are we willing to see it and do the work entailed in trying to open up territory to actually encounter people, to enter into the space of love and encounter people?
I tell my clients, “Speak so your body confirms the truth of your words.” From this standpoint, if the person comes in and we’re doing this [indicates on board], and they’re only talking from their head, and I’m talking to their head, no therapy is really going to take place, no second order change. They will be some alleviation of some anxiety – they may feel a little better – but there will be no transformation from this side. If they come in and they vomit out all that’s going on with them in a way that I notice that it’s starting to have an adverse reaction, they’re going to be re-traumatized. They are digging deeper into their problem by telling it.
It’s a very narrow road between them getting re-traumatized and doing nothing. In this case, the mind and the body have to connect. Going back to Archbishop Lazar’s drawing, in the brain our survival mechanism is set up so that the sensory impressions of our life go to the place that is to keep us physically alive first. Then they go to the prefrontal cortex and then come back to readjust that as necessary.
If I tell my story from here only, I only have part of the story, because it’s declarative memory – that’s words. If I tell it from here, without connection to this, I’m viscerally going through it again but I’m not integrating these two. So what kind of therapy takes these two and enhances this? It’s this one. The body has to be involved. The theological parallel would be God becomes flesh. God assumes our flesh in order to make this love possible. Will the adult that I am allow the three year old who went through the ripping away of his father feel that mute voice, that paralyzed, untouchable, shameful self that’s down in my visceral, that is my visceral, that is my body (the body is the unconscious), cry his tears in my body?
For many of the military guys, this is very difficult. What you have to do to survive in war is to master this part, using tactical breathing to shut it off, keep it’s association alive at one level in order to do what you have to do. When you come home, you’re not really home, physically, spiritually, or emotionally, because this hasn’t opened up again. The fear that you have is: I’ll never stop crying. Or in the mind you have the image of being a little, tiny, helpless person (the way a three-year-old feels) and are so shameful—that I am “badness”, I am “rejectedness”.
To feel that as a grown man is reprehensible to the ego and to the Press Secretary. The Press Secretary says, “Man, you better do something. Get away from that feeling.” If the man bounces off the cognitive aspect of that, he’s locked out forever from the part of him that’s lost. He’s saying, “I have to preserve my self image.” He’s not doing what Christ does for us. Theologically, Christ shows us what we have to do. God says, “I’ll be traumatized in order to risk loving you.” And we do. We traumatize God.
With that preamble, let me share some of this paper with you and then we can talk about it.
What is Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder? The central dynamic of Christian faith is the overwhelming impact of the uncreated divine love of Jesus Christ encountering the created order in the unfathomable place where the human heart is free to respond or to turn away from a meeting. This encounter is traumatic for both God and humanity. Yet God risks everything in Christ in order to create a marriage between heaven and earth. I’m using Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder to refer to the range of reactions resulting from this encounter in which are passive, as witnesses, victims and perpetrators in the denial, rejection and the murder of Christ as well as beneficiaries of the gift of God’s eternal love and co-creative partners in dialogue with God.
This is not an attempt to psychologize what is spiritual but to focus on the dynamics of our existential condition which awakens on an island of enfleshed consciousness, drifting in and out of fragmented glimpses of life lived in brief moments between the ocean of nothingness prior to creation and suffering and death that extinguish all hope of life and immortality that we long for based on the goodness, beauty, truth and love that we taste in between. More than attaining personal well-being and salvation, we find ourselves involved in a struggle for the life of the world as Christ fights for the world, for love, feeling the unfathomable abyss of resistance of Gethsemane that Christ faced in trying to make this link.
The many ways that we discover the length and depth and breadth of divine love in our lives as we wrestle with the meaning and purpose of life on earth in the smallest details of our lives testifies to the truth of Ernesto Cardenal’s observation that we human beings “are not a meaningless passion as Sartre supposed but a passion whose meaning is God.” Someone asked Archimandrite Sophrony once during one of his talks, “Tell me, Father, what is God?” Archimandrite Sophrony responded, “First, you tell me, what is man?” Paul Ricoeur said, “The quickest way to the self is through the other.” Jean-Paul Sartre said, “The other is hell.” Perhaps Orthodoxy’s combination of these two is, “The way to God is through hell for the sake of the other.”
Christ’s revelation of himself to the Apostle John as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is congruent with his assertion before his crucifixion : “No one takes my life from me. I give it.”
So often the clergy that I work with have gone into their work compulsively carrying the cross from the childhood womb. What we have to do is help the child put the cross down so the adult can pick it up freely. How could Christ say “come to me, all of you who are burdened and heavily laden, and I’ll give you rest” when he had the heaviest burden in the world? He did it freely, for love. If we do it compulsively for any other reason—to survive so my mama won’t leave me, so daddy won’t get drunk again—there’s a fly in the ointment. This fly must be dealt with with great compassion, like Alice Miller speaks about in her work. The child must be freed of that cross as much as possible, to free the adult to actually choose it.
Prior to the creation of the cosmos, God’s foreknowledge of the conditions needed for humanity to become capable of responding to God’s love is present. Christ’s murder without God condemning humanity reveals God’s agapic love. I added that this morning because of you, Mother, using it the way you said that it is not possible for betrayal from that. God shows us his agapic love at that moment and opens up the possibility for a reciprocal process on humanity’s part. In other words, you and I can say that God does not force me to receive love or to return it. I choose to freely.
Humanity is invited to join the paraklesis of the Holy Trinity—the dance of self-emptying love—by freely obeying the new commandment given by Christ in John 13:34 to “love one another as I have loved you”—not by coercion, but by free assent to the Holy Spirit whereby Christians lay down their lives for the beloved. Our spiritual disorder reflects both a developmental immaturity and the immense potential for relationship with God, as well as a state of fragmentation, dissociation, and captivity of the passions into which we fall in response to the enormity of this lifelong challenge. The invitation of love, like a moth to a flame, is both inviting and terrifying. We sense that the way Christ bids us, “Come and see”, evokes the prescient observation of the monk who said, “Those who do not love are already dead, and those who do love will be put to death.”
To know God the Father’s heart one must travel in the direction God the Son goes. Where love does not reach, life, healing, growth and redemption do not occur. Or as one of the Early Fathers said referring to the dogma of the theanthropos and salvation, “Whatever is not assumed is not healed.” Think parallel process. If the nous is not connected with the body, how does the body experience grace? Flesh and blood cannot reveal Christ; neither can desire. The organ that experiences the divine energies must be in the heart, in the body. Then the body can be raised. If we try to do that, keeping them separate, we do bad therapy and bad theology.
Too often this kind of theological aphorism is interpreted through our individual egoistic frames of reference that happens outside of us rather than in partnership or synergy with human freedom, as though it was some “done deal” rather than an ongoing drama that continues to hurt God. In other words, redemption is spoken of as though God acted unilaterally without any need for response on our part to save us all regardless of our response. As comforting as this may seem on the surface, the fly which spoils the ointment of such a view is that it would be a unilateral action on God’s part which wouldn’t offer humanity the freedom to resist or contribute anything to the relationship; thus, love would not be possible. By contrast, God’s risking God’s own and creation’s life by bringing human beings to life and offering us eternal love and the freedom to reject it.
Humanity’s freedom to resist love means that both God and humankind will be tested, as Christ himself endured testing. The ultimate fight for love that unites earth and heaven occurs in that place which separates the two worlds which Christ unites in himself.
Let me tell you this story of an interesting meeting. What do we really know about this spiritual black hole that potentially eliminates all light and threatens us with death and recreation over and over? Like the monks say, “Die before you die, so that when you die you don’t have to die.” It’s comforting, but we mustn’t gloss over the terror of it because that’s part of what is sobering—not the terror that destroys us but something to realize “look, this is total gift”. The fact that we’re sitting here right now—complete gift out of nothing. If we draw close to this, and become quiet, because we approach the miraculous and we approach the place where we aren’t in control—we approach the pneumonos.
Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex tells a story of the first meeting of Elder Sophrony with St. Silouan. Elder Sophrony had already been a deacon on the Holy Mountain for several in the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon, and he had noticed he had always felt shame whenever he sensed Silouan in the liturgy. He attributed this to Silouan’s holiness, and he tried to avoid him. That’s an interesting question as to whether it had anything to do with this. Was he avoiding the holiness because it threatened him even at his own level of spiritual development? It’s a possibility.
One day, a brother was visiting Archimandrite Sophrony and asking him for a spiritual word to help him in his spiritual struggle. Archimandrite Sophrony was serving tea at the time in his hut, and he responded regarding the brother’s question about prayer by saying, “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you get tired, and then go make yourself a cup of tea.” The brother immediately went to ask St. Silouan if the deacon’s counsel was correct. As it happened, the next day Elder Sophrony was walking in the monastery and he saw St. Silouan approach him.
Now, keep in mind that Archimandrite Sophrony had been at the monastery for several years and had never had a conversation with St. Silouan other than his imagination and whatever was affecting him when he sensed him in the liturgy. When he saw from a distance that St. Silouan was approaching, he changed directions to avoid meeting him. But unbeknownst to him, St. Silouan also changed directions, so they would eventually meet in the stairwell. St. Silouan asked, “Did such and such a brother come to you yesterday?” And without any intervening dialogue or greeting or having ever discussed anything with St. Silouan before, Father Sophrony asked simply and with humility and urgent simplicity, “Was I wrong?” St. Silouan responded, “No, you were correct. But it was too much for this brother. He’s not ready. Come to my cell later and let’s talk together.” And this is the meeting that began eight years of close spiritual friendship and discipleship of Elder Sophrony with his mentor, St. Silouan, which he describes in part in his highly recommended book, St. Silouan, the Athonite.
Archimandrite Zacharias makes the point that both men were intimately familiar with the abyss, and it was this which St. Silouan recognized in Archimandrite Sophrony could open the door to sharing his own experience with him—fifteen years of an inner struggle in which he had ultimately been led to hearing the words of the Lord spoken quietly in his heart at a point of near despair, “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.”
Stand in the place where the created and the uncreated meet. Weep for the world’s pain. Jesus says, “I do whatever I see the Father do.” In the abyss, even Christ experiences abandonment by God at the point of existential fulfillment of his self-offering. This is incredibly paradoxical. “O God, who is not there, into your hands I commit my spirit,” as the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. So by entering the abyss, carrying the suffering and death of humanity, abandoned by God, Christ is able to bring forth for humanity the possibility of life with God.
What happens when a person seeks to draw near Christ without willingness to risk being loved and loving? The responsibility of a person who sees what is needed in the world and does not act on this is much greater than for one who is largely ignorant. The rich young ruler, by drawing near to Jesus and pressing him for a response that was presumably beyond his willingness to put into action, received a spiritual wound in his heart. By drawing near to the fire to warm himself with Christ’s approval, his heart began to burn with a decision about his life that could not be solved apart from existential choice leading to action. It’s recorded that Jesus “looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21), and responded to his insistent theological questions, laced with hints of self-justification, with an invitation to go deeper. “If you would be perfect (telos, if you would hit the mark for which you are aiming), go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor (return it to the spiritual commonwealth) and come and follow me.” Being unwilling to respond to Christ’s call, he will inevitably develop symptoms of Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder, as will we.
Encountering Christ has the impact of trauma. Like the prophet Jonah, he will simmer and cook, dissociated and captured by the passions until he responds to the Lord’s invitation to freely live the Lord’s new commandment of love in the world, because this is the end for which human beings are created, and this is what our heart yearns for. So the suffering serves God’s purposes and really our own, though we resist it and kick against the goads.
In Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder, the passions act like spiritual tranquilizers to dampen and disrupt the link between hearing the Word of the Lord and doing it. They swallow us like leviathans, diverting the will by fantasia into alternative realities that separate energy of mind and body, like flint and steel, so the heart is not sparked to action by the fire of the Word landing on good soil.
Christ stands knocking at the door of the heart with his Word, waiting to be received on the throne where as Lord and King he can lead us into the battle of love for the fate of the world. The throne of the heart belongs to Christ only when the usurper—little i—of egotism have found their proper place in the whole as servants, crucified for love so that it is no longer the Press Secretary driven “I”, the manmade self “I”, but it is the “self hid with Christ in God” who lives. Christ doesn’t destroy us to live in us. We are unified, but we remain who we are.
Paradoxically, I become myself only in those moments when I am no longer interested in myself. I am no longer looking back, managing the impression that I give to others in the world, or that they have of me by projection (because that’s failure of repentance when I’m doing that). So I can only become who I am when I don’t know that it’s happening, because love has become more interesting. Love has become real enough that an actual encounter can take place and not this long questioning of Christ and theology and everything else to make myself somebody. To paraphrase Jesus, the reason our bodies are not full of light is because the eye (and I would say here, the nous, the lamp of the body) is not single or pure is an indication that we are far from the state of Christian maturity that is approached in theosis, which is one of integrated singularity as St. Anthony of the Desert characterized—to become oneself.
In contrast to the Western views of inherited guilt influenced by St. Augustine, the spiritual anthropology of the Eastern tradition is more congruent with the trauma perspective that emphasizes the existential dimensions of disintegration, fragmentation and estrangement that result from how freedom is used. St. Maximus the Confessor connects fragmentation with self-love and an unpurified nous which alienates persons one from another and cuts our single human nature into many fragments, introducing an insensibility into our nature which now dominates it so that our nature, divided in will and purpose, fights itself, which our clients and ourselves are doing in major league ways, especially in trauma. The spiritual seed put into the heart of trauma is fire and anger and despair with God, with the self for being victimized, for letting myself down, for killing another man. These are huge questions, and they cannot be dealt with by talking to the head.
This state is analogous to that in which the traumatized person dissociates from himself/herself and direct experience with the world in order to find a safe haven in an illusory world that does not include the trauma or the human response to it. Or, if it does include it, it includes it like Freud’s Repetition Compulsion, like a child who keeps acting something out because they don’t have the words to say it. We do that in our relationships, so we have to listen for what’s going on at that level to see what the trauma is that hasn’t yet been brought into consciousness.
The split leads to continued violence toward the self and others who are essentially scape goated (scapegoating is projection). The scapegoat is driven into the wilderness and the other goat—named the Lord, I understand, in Jewish tradition—is sacrificed, an interesting connection between those two. The scapegoat carries the dissociated pain connected with being unconsciously transformed into what, in Object Relations Theory, is referred to as a “bad object” which the doctor wants to be assured she is not. I don’t like to be a bad object! It’s hard to stay a good object and sometimes it does work.
The bad object is maligned and attacked for being the “cause” of the person’s disassociated pain. “If we can get rid of you, we’ll be okay.” “I just need to get a divorce and get a new wife (new husband, new kids).” Repentance disperses the state of beguilement, reuniting us to the self as we break out of monologue and come to our senses, once again in relation to God who is encountered, not as a screen for our projections but, as a genuine “other” capable of relating from beyond what I already know that I am.
How can I be called to life if I am not called to by life and the Author of life? So, as Archbishop Lazar reminded us, we can say thousands of knots on the komboskini, and it might just be rattling around up here, because there is no attention given to connect with the part where the pain is. It’s basically a pharisaical situation where the publican is left to his own. The leper that is in me who is mute, paralyzed, and deaf is left in a dungeon and given a little food every once in awhile, but told by the Press Secretary, “Stay out of sight, because you’re unacceptable.”
This is not prayer. Prayer is going to involve being settled in such a way that when the mind is in the heart then the heart’s in the body. Now, we may be taken out of the body and don’t know we’re in the body, but that’s another story beyond us which we’ll leave alone.
Theologically speaking, if we make that kind of error, it’s equivalent to the Manichean or Docetic heresy in which life is sought outside of or beyond the body or the earth, the physical world, as though these words were dangerous and defiled in some way. Full connection with sensation of the body and through the world around me threatens to bring into awareness the unintegrated feelings and meanings that were impeded at the time of the trauma, in order to preserve the coherence of the self from the impact of the encounter. So, we split. There’s an African proverb that says if you hurt a child, their spirit goes outside of them. It’s a beautiful way of speaking of this thing that happens. It’s like getting cut and being numb. It’s for survival, but if you get stuck in your armor, then it’s a bad situation.
A spiritual question arises from Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder like a splinter seed lodged viscerally, deep within the heart. In the face of what has happened, the question always has something to do with variations on the theme of “what is my responsibility for the other, for the world, for myself?” We see this confirmed in the question asked of Peter and the Apostles at Pentecost, enabled by the Holy Spirit to confront the trauma of the rejection and murder of Christ in which all recognized they had a part, respond from the depths of their heart, their spleen: “What must I do?”
Repentance is the Copernican shift from self-centered monologue to other-focused, communal responsibility within the dialogical drama of the “I-thou” encounter. In other words, it’s call and response. It’s an openness to the moments of recreation that occur in the midst of our ordinary life with one another if we are attempting inwardly to be present. If we’re working against the dissociative faculty that faces the abyss and love and says, “I can’t bear it.” There’s this tension that we live with between the two.
More than a hospital, the Church, if we see it as Christ’s oneness with life itself, is God’s life and joy offered to the world creating a kind of proving ground of love, constantly questioning us as to how much of my heart, of my body, of my blood, can you bear? God wants to give it all, but won’t do it in such a way that we’re eliminated. But how can we really become one with God without being stretched? It’s not just a magic carpet ride.
Receiving the Eucharist unworthily by not discerning the body and blood of Christ has more to do with the depth of being grasped by the significance of the Eucharist existentially in daily life than with any sort of adoration of the body and blood and sacrament as an object. In fact, it’s indicative of our spiritual disorder that we can adore Christ liturgically at the feeling level while being existentially blind and deaf and turning our backs on Christ in the world of our daily lives.
Discerning Christ’s presence means to find one’s self placed squarely in one’s humanity before God and others and the world, and recognizing our part in witnessing, assenting, and participating in the damage to others and to the world. Keep our mind in hell, because there’s a lot of hell. If I don’t, I’ll dissociate and build myself a little castle, comfort myself with Jesus and let the rest go to hell.
I’m preaching to myself, so don’t worry.
It’s painful and difficult to realize how I resist, reject, and murder the One who calls me the life and love. Look in our marriages and in our children to see what we do. The devil I know is more comfortable than the God I don’t know, whose love is infinite and capable of constantly recreating me through every encounter. Novelist Toni Morrison with the experiential wisdom born of facing the abyss inherent to human pain and degradation points out in one of her novels, “Anything coming back to life hurts.”
The One seeking to free us from the demonic perils of hatred for humanity and what we do to each other can be seen as the enemy while we foam and grind our teeth, go blind, dear, mute, paralyzed, feel abandoned as if already dead in the process of discovering for ourselves the lessons of love which our forefathers and mothers, Abraham, Jacob, Job, Mary and Peter and the other martyrs and murderers of Christ discovered in their struggles, being promised something by God and having to wait until you’re a hundred and ten before it’s fulfilled and thinking you’d better do it yourself. That’s what happens with Functional Atheism—we say we believe in God but we act as if it all depends on us. So Abraham talks to Sarah and says, “Well, maybe we need to do something. We’ll go have a kid.” Then he gets the child, and God says, “Now you have to give the child up.”
Then Jacob who has to wrestle with a darkness that he can’t overcome, but he shows us an icon of not letting go until he gets a blessing. The blessing means that he is thrown out of joint, he gets a new name, a new identity. But he’s able to face his brother whom he estranged. Esau (and I don’t mean to put this only in an inter-psychic context) got hoodwinked out of his blessing, because he only cared about a bowl of soup. He is “hairy man”, he is instinct, he is earth. Jacob was a “mama’s boy”—he got what he wanted by hook and crook, but then he had to face the fact that Esau didn’t go away. Esau was living all that time that Jacob was progressing up the ladder and becoming Archbishop. And suddenly the Press Secretary’s minions went out and said, “Esau’s coming and he’s got some guards with him, he’s got some power. He won’t be denied this time.” Jacob is shaken. You know he’s wrestling with something difficult, because he’s got to come to grips with what he rejected. How can Jacob and Esau live together?
How can Cain and Abel live together? Job’s counselors all therapeutically aggress after seven days, because what Job is confronting is something that scares them too badly. They want to offer a theological bromide, some sort of answer to explain away his condition so that he’ll fit here. They don’t want this, because this would mean that they’ve got to face what Job’s going to face. And Job says, “I’m going to God. This stinks.” Job prays Psalm 88. He goes into the darkness and questions, “Are the dead an audience for your miracles? Where are you? All I have left is darkness. You’ve taken everything from me.” This is the human question. This is the abyss. His friends are not good counselors because they’re afraid of this. They won’t do the work themselves – they won’t compassion with Job into that place where he finds transformation.
Consider Mary and all that she went through—pondering in her heart a birth that subjected her to humiliation, her husband questioning her morality after she had been a temple virgin, and growing up watching her son be questioned and taken, standing by the cross when all the men but John had fled. How much could she bear? What is she showing us?
I want to read something I wrote twenty years ago in my journal. This is just as it was, and it’s interesting to me because it’s twenty years later that I’m writing conceptually about this. This was May 26, 1990.
Watching a TV documentary while ironing, dolphins are being slaughtered on the films taken by biologists on board the tuna ships. Endless talking and lawyering and PRing while the slaughter continues of this gentle, beautiful, and intelligent creature who’s been a friend to humanity for thousands of years, brings the rage up from fathoms of my unconscious. The helplessness and sense of how all this just keeps going on and keeps going on—the starvation of children, the filling of our bellies and pockets, the taking from the earth 3,000 year old redwoods, razing their irreplaceable forests and anything else MAN wants, gross, sickening destruction of the planet and its life forms, because we lack empathy to recognize life outside our own social interests.
It is the crucifixion, again and again and again. I do the metanias and, after the second one, the sobs break forth and the groaning, like I have known only in the deepest grief. I am experiencing helplessness by the cross, rage, sickness at the power of the gigantic forces that just keep wheeling on across the centuries, bringing cruelty in their wake, fueled by greed and mechanical, addictive patterns.
For me, the dolphins’ crucifixion by our Congress’ lack of capacity to have conscience when facing economic interests of the tuna industry articulated by high-priced lawyers is just Caiaphas, Pilate and the mob crying out for the death of God all over again. It’s the death of our bodies and our hearts within them. The destruction of the dolphin and the rain forests and the redwood trees are the continuation of our Gnostic arrogance and Docetic denial of the incarnation.
Why does this continue in me? I see it and I cry out as to Peter and the rest of the Pentecost-enlightened witnesses, “What can I do?” Or as St. Paul, “Who will free me from this body of death?” The answer is not easy. Dare I be forgiven? Dare I reach out for forgiveness before seeing the depth of hell that I’m contributing to? Forgiveness of the kind that God offers can only come to those who, like Peter’s first congregation at Pentecost, have discovered the awful, mind-shattering heart-rending truth—I crucify Christ in myself…in the sea, on the land, in my children, in my wife, and in the church I pastor.
I am responsible for the evil of the world that so sickens me when I read about it in the paper or see it so vividly portrayed on television. I am lost except that God may have mercy. This world I use for my interests. This dolphin I frighten into showing me tuna and then killing it and tossing it aside in my greed to convert the miracle of life into Federal Reserve Notes. This is the body of God and his blood that gives me life. If not for God becoming flesh in and around me, I would have no life. Everything that I have and am has become what it is through having taken life to sustain life. I have crucified God for all life, from the tiniest seeds to the planet itself which is the flesh of God.
I am made through God’s Word and I know it not. I live on God’s body like a flea on a dog, biting the life that supports me. And when I see that my very life depends on taking life which is from God and is God, I am raised to a pitch of suffering that cannot be contained unless I discover and believe what Peter has learned from Jesus: By God’s grace, I and my God are one, as Christ is one with the Father. The proof is all around me and inside of me. Bread and wine are God’s body and blood. I eat him and live forever, along with the cosmos that pulses in and out of time in rhythm to the music of the spheres praising, “Holy, holy, holy.”
There’s a larger, collective aspect to trauma. Systemically, the murder of Christ occurs on the societal level within historical time wherever one aspect of humanity is hidden from another, so that the dominant society defines the world in a way that institutionalizes the oppression of groups of people whose pain cannot be seen, because it serves the interests of the dominant group. There is no meeting of mutuality, authentically, but rather cultural, racial, socio-political and other forms of supremacy which deny and murder Christ by refusing to encounter the least of these. Genocide and forced assimilation of indigenous populations, 350 years of slavery in our country, domestic and economic abuse, sexual captivity and exploitation of women and children are examples of splits between the dominant segment of society which benefits, ignoring the reality of the oppressed whose suffering is required for our benefit.
Traumatic dissociation and the anesthesia of captivity by the passions in the face of failure to act on what the heart knows prevents real encounter which would elicit repentance and co-creative reconciliation leading to creative repretive, societal reforms. It’s just so big. What do we do?
When one of America’s first self-made merchant kings, John Jacob Astor, possibly the richest man in the world in his day, died and left 2.5% of his accumulated fortune to the public’s charitable causes, the public was outraged: “What was the wealth accumulated from the commonwealth for if not for the commonwealth?” Symptoms of spiritual disorder that affect nations are built from these individual problems that enslave those like oil tycoon John Rockefeller who in 1901 said, “Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure? It is to see my dividends come in.” When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877 and left his son William his entire 100 million dollar estate, with nothing to charity, the community expressed a sense of betrayal. Vanderbilt’s response to that was, “The public be damned.”
In the 100 years since, until quite recently, the public, like Seligman’s dogs, has come to accept the situation with little outcry. It’s particularly appalling when we realize that collectively our passivity is creating a world where the disparity between rich and poor continues to increase exponentially and evidences the splitting of collective life which is symptomatic of Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder.
Between 1983 and 1998, the net worth of the top 1% in the United States grew by 42%. The net worth of the bottom 40% dropped by 76%. In other words, the bottom 40% of the United States population (70 million people) lost three-fourths of their family wealth over the last 20 years. As of 1998, the top 1% of Americans owned 95% of the country’s assets, and the top 60% owned 99.8%. In Jesus’ day, it was 10% owning 90%. When the Romans took Israel in 70 A.D., the gold market in Syria dropped by one half because of how much gold was taken from the Temple. This gold later went to build the Coliseum where the Christians were murdered. There are some strange ironies in all that.
The fate of the world and the fate of each of us is bound up with the fate of Christ, just as Christ’s fate is bound up with ours by God’s own loving intent from the foundation of the world. Christ is God’s willingness to be wounded by creation for love. The Apostles recorded how they went to sleep outside Gethsemane three times when the Lord asked them to keep neptic watch with them. As he prayed at the abyss that he would soon encounter to the fullest extent in facing the ruler of this world. Before he is abandoned by God, Jesus is abandoned by those who profess their love for him. And because we are not able to go where he goes, as we begin to grasp the meaning and depth of sacrifice that’s revealed through Jesus Christ, we better appreciate G.K. Chesterton’s acerbic quip to the effect that “Christianity has not failed. It has simply proven too difficult to try.”
Christ accomplishes what is not possible for human beings to do alone, and he does so in hope that he will not have to bear it alone. Love is freely given, but the hope is that the love will be received and offered in return. Christ’s suffering is all the greater for, in remaining faithful to loving human kind, God allows himself to be wounded and killed in order to open up a new possibility—the union of heaven and earth, spirit and body. For those who continue to draw near to the abyss as St. Paul and his companions experienced, it’s precisely in following Christ that they find themselves wrestling with the powers of the world beyond their strength, to the point that Paul says, “We despaired of life itself.” Only to discover that, in some way, this only made them stronger.
As my friend, Dr. Jamie Moran, has powerfully articulated in his writings on the passion of Christ to which all are called by the Holy Spirit to follow:
Suffering, if we stay with it and go far enough into it without turning back, takes us beyond our own hurt and disappointment and loss of innocence, and initiates us into the deepest suffering of all mankind—the suffering, old, dark, deep, dirty, despairing, twisted, agonized—the suffering inherent to the human tragedy. Only from this deep and dark place do we receive the true call, the real summons, to rejoin the human race and plunge into the human dilemma as a fighter, as one who stands up for the human possibility as its advocates and will give it their all, their last drop of sweat, tears, and blood to redeem the human condition.
In the final analysis, human resistance is encountering the full life of Christ which leads to repentance and encounter or neglect and murder. Or, as in the case of Christ whose solidarity with human suffering went beyond what the established Church and political establishment and those depending on these for their security on the worldly powers could bear. Similar to how the therapist who confronts the characterological defenses of the client who experiences either pain of self-confrontation or discharges the pain by attacking the therapist in order not to have to self-confront.
He whose life and love for us goes beyond what we feel capable of responding to begins to be perceived as a threat which must be extinguished if it cannot be ignored or voided. So we move with Christ through this—conversion, joy, and “uh oh” something is being asked of me because I’m being affected by the fact that I’m experiencing love and it’s awakening a part of me that wants to love, this is too difficult, I ignore it, passions, anesthesia. But over and over we are brought to this, because love keeps breaking through and inviting us to respond to what God is doing with us.
Thus, the prologue of John: “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” His own received him not. That’s us. When we spend endless, wasted hours watching TV and we turn football games into pilgrimages, as if the meaning of our lives depended on the outcome of the Alabama/Auburn game, when we take drugs and we buy things we don’t need and we work longer than we need to in order to pay for them, we are evidencing our part along with the Apostles in the drama of dissociating from the terror of the abyss of Gethsemane, which is the cost of love. This is not what Fr. Sophrony meant by making a cup of tea. We can take a break, because we all break if we don’t take a break. But there’s a difference between that and dissociating and losing ourselves.
What happens when we cannot even bear to stand at the cross, as Mary and John did? The women stood at the cross much better. That’s very interesting. How come they can stand pain? Much less carry it on a daily basis in our personal lives as citizens of the spiritual commonwealth belonging to all people of the world who are beloved to God.
We, like the rich young ruler and the brother who asked Fr. Sophrony for a word, are “not ready”, as the Lord advised St. Silouan, to endure the hell of the human condition which includes recognizing our helplessness before the abyss, as well as our responsibility for responding to Christ in all persons as the Lord’s love engenders in us, all without giving in to despair that stands ready to envelope those who draw near the abyss of human frailty, sin, and helplessness, apart from God’s love.
In other words, what happens when God’s heart is too much for us to bear? To the extent that we love as Christ loves, facing human life in all its uncertainties and pain, with all its resistance, blindness and sin, we’re always poised over the abyss, where, one of my clients reminded me, is written the words from Dante’s Inferno: “Let all who enter here abandon all hope.”
This is our Gethsemane, just as it was Christ’s, and as it is for all who, by our martyrdom and murder of Christ, testify on a daily basis with our deeds where we stand. I would change one word in my seminary professor’s, Bruce Metzger, oft repeated observation that “none of us will ever know the degree to which Christ suffered testing, because we always give in and he never did”. The word I would change is “he never does.” According to the apocryphal, second century Acts of Peter, when Peter was on his way out of Rome to escape death, he met Jesus on the road headed toward him. Peter asked Jesus, “Where are you going?” The same words the Apostles asked him before his death. Jesus responds, “I’m going to Rome to be crucified a second time.” This word is given to all of us, in all times, and in all places. It is God’s forgiveness for being passive witnesses, betrayers and murderers. He knows our weakness as well as our potential for life and for love. We are a passion that is God.
What the disciples tell us was overwhelming and incomprehensible to them on a daily basis, living with Jesus, is no less to us even though we have the liturgy, the Gospels and two thousand years of intervening history of martyrdoms and murders to help us. Historically, those before had Moses, the Law, the Prophets, and before them the Word of God is written in every conscience, so that, according to the Apostle Peter, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34)
St. John Chrysostom says, “Whoever loves acquires a new self.” Every time something occurs here, this experience is redone. It’s like a tiny drop of vital life of the real person graces the artificially made, manmade self. Whoever loves acquires another self. For the self that existed before the encounter now includes the reality of the other. The other is an essential nourishment for humanity. Without the other we cannot live. When God loves us, we die. When God encounters us, we die, and in dying are born into a new life greater than the one that we lose, because now it includes the other of God.
To encounter Christ is to be changed by Christ’s love as St. Silouan was instantaneously filled with the love for humanity, in the encounter that he had with the living Christ who appeared before his icon in the space of less than a second, in the time and space form. Christ’s love was responsible for Silouan’s wounding and which called St. Silouan to pray continuously for the whole world, consciously enduring the pain of compassionate solidarity with the human race, along with enduring the pain caused by vainglory. The proud always suffer devils. He was dealing with that too.
This conference is a great help for that—realizing that every person has five loaves and two fish to give, and we need all of these. My Press Secretary always wants to be “special”. But my God knows what it is to be caught in that. The Press Secretary says that you can’t be “special” unless everyone else is not.
So St. Silouan prays continuously for the whole world, consciously enduring the pain of compassionate solidarity, and forgiving the jealousy and immaturity of some of the other monks around him. With pain of heart, patience, mercy and Holy Spirit-stoked intercessory prayer, his own repentance deepened as he joined with Christ to bear within himself the pain and responsibility for human suffering and misery.
The incredible paradox of Christian life is that, being loved by Christ, we are wounded with the very wounds that Christ receives from the world. Our wounds become his, and his wounds become ours.
Archimandrite Zacharias summarizes the developmental process of growing in charismatic Christian love as set forth by St. John Climacus in The Ladder: “In the beginning, you refrain from rendering evil for evil when someone hurts you. The second degree of love is to begin to pray for the person who hurt you. This leads to beginning to experience pain of heart for the person who hurt you, because of the damage that their sin has done to them.”
Mature Christian love is to join Christ in taking upon oneself responsibility for the other’s sin against you. This is to love: to sacrifice one’s personal sense of entitlement to fulfillment, to lay down one’s life for the life of the world. This is to transition from the purely psychological to charismatic gift of eternal life, which is to know Christ, to living and dying through facing reality, through continual repentance.
In this light, we can say that the cure for Post Traumatic Spiritual Disorder is to love the world as Christ loves us. This is difficult. I guess we won’t be cured fully this side of death. We begin to fulfill our calling as the Royal Priesthood of all believers when, as St. Paul writes: “It’s no longer I but Christ who lives in me.” The Apostle speaks of becoming love as God is love, in partnership with the Holy Spirit and Christ, while yet walking the earth as a human being. The way to this love is not some intellectual belief system, but an existential faithing that follows where Christ goes and loves as Christ loves. The Lord told Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” This was Silouan’s Gethsemane—giving his blood, sweat and tears to pray for the whole world to know God and the Holy Spirit. That was the monk’s way there.
While the particulars of each person’s path are unique, we all face the same existential conditions. The Divine Liturgy points us toward becoming Eucharist, in and for the world, as Jesus suggests to Peter the first time he encounters him on the beach. At this point, Peter still carries the seed-splinter of trauma incurred in him by seeing into the abyss of his weakness where his created self and uncreated self came into contact. And he realized that the man who would give his life for Jesus and never deny him, denied him three times. But he had in his mind the gift of the Lord of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world which is to us all: “I already know the place where you are helpless, you are frail, and you don’t know yourself. I already know, and I love you. And when you discover this and see your own nothingness, and you recover from the pain of this trauma, come back and strengthen the brethren.”
This is the place of ordination, in my mind, when he calls him on the beach and reminds him of the place where he recognized the difference between what is given by God and what we do out of Functional Atheism and naiveté. It’s like when St. Silouan says to Fr. Stratonikos, “How do the perfect speak?” Fr. Stratonikos realizes there’s something here greater than what he knew, and he responds, “I don’t know. You tell me.” St. Silouan says, “The perfect never say anything except what the Spirit bids them to say.” It’s just extraordinary that someone could even begin to notice this. It’s so beyond my experience.
So, Peter, experiences being loved by Christ at the place where he feels most unlovable. This is beyond therapy, this is beyond healing the inner child, this is beyond fulfilling our personal wants and wishes, this is the transformation that occurs and invites us to be co-creators with God to redeem the world, to enter into something we could not do on our own, to be born from above.
Being loved by Christ at the place where he feels most unlovable, of being invited to live not by his own power only, but by co-creative dialogical relationship with him who is eternal love. We feed on the New Testament of love given in Christ’s own body and blood liturgically, only so that we can come to feed on Jesus’ word as Peter did, to be nourished in our places of greatest defeat, humiliation and heartbreak. By giving up trust in ourselves, we begin to cling to God and place in him the hope of our salvation from the prayer before the Eucharist—“it is good for me to cling to God and place in him the hope of my salvation”—rather than, “have I done enough to be saved?” That’s a crazy thought. It puts all the emphasis on me. No, it’s about being loved, so that we may go out existentially in the world and to love as we are loved.
St. John Chrysostom says, “When I leave the altar of the Divine Liturgy, I go to the altar of my neighbor.” Hagia koinonia, the holy fellowship. This is holy koinonia, Eucharist, and the koinonia, the fellowship of the community. These are seamless as body and soul. The holy people of God who partake of the Eucharist are like Peter, invited to become Eucharist.
Having been first loved by Christ eternally, we are invited to offer back to Christ “Thine own of Thine own”, through others, eternal love and mercy that we’ve come to know. Apart from this, the liturgy remains a ritual. God’s word bears no fruit in the world unless it is first planted in the ground and dies.
Does it make sense to say that the Church has failed in this often? Yes, but only when we realize that it is symptomatic of our spiritual disorder. If we allow the Church to become a place where we hide from the world’s pain, rather than a launching pad into the world as Christ is in the world, to be salt and light where there’s passivity and victimization, and to go where we’re called into the darkness to contend with the spirit of antichrist, where genocide, slavery, economic exploitation of mass populations, destruction of the natural world, and all other forms of hatred and unlove that reject and murder Christ continue.
It was a big leap for St. Elizabeth to start a monastery and to help the sick and the wounded in Russia after her husband’s murder. It was outside of what monasticism did in Orthodoxy. The same for Mother Gabriela to go around all over India.
The invitation to love God and the world simultaneously is born invisibly in the still, uncoerced, quiet place of the heart where Christ’s self-offering and love freely bears the cross without requiring any response or payment from us. It is pure gift. Confronting this, we both come to life by responding to this love, acting in and out of love for its own sake, and we reject the encounter with love, because it is too difficult. This is why there can be no systemic plan or method made of the Christian mystery of love which reduces the dialogue between God and the world to some sort of prearranged, egoistically controlled, quid pro quo activity where I can say, “If I think in the correct categories, if I follow the science of sciences, if I manifest the right piety, if I accept the right ascetical boundaries, if I acquire all knowledge and give my body over to be burned, then I will achieve theosis regardless of the fate of the rest of the world.”
No, what happens to Christ, happens to humanity. What happens to humanity, happens to Christ. We struggle as did Saul kicking against the goads and as Jonah in the whale belly, because we resist the invitation. And as Jacob wrestling with God’s darkness which he could not defeat, or an outraged questioning of God intensified by traumatic loss that brought Job into the whirlwind of authentic meeting, beyond the theological maps and explanations of his friends whose compassion ended where their fear of his trauma overcame them. Their solutions were, however correct at the functional level, buffers to Job as protection for themselves from responding to the question arising from the actual encounter with the depth of Job’s suffering.
Orthodoxy, like any religious faith when it becomes an ideology rather than an existential encounter of authentic relationship, is an idolatry of monologue which always leads to spiritual beguilement, to evasion of love, blindness to God’s activity in our ordinary lives, and ultimately to the rejection and murder of Christ as it did in 33 A.D. at the hands of devoutly Orthodox of Jesus’ time.
Standing before this tragedy, we who are divided within us still cry out, “Lord, save us, and have mercy. We do not know what we are doing. We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Love is the only way and, though we slay you, yet do you love us. And though you do slay us, yet shall we love you. Lord, come.”
Therapy is a conversation until the heart begins to burn and burns long enough for it to catch fire with the Spirit and recognize Christ in our midst, as happened to Silas and Luke on the way to Emmaus. The responsibility we have as therapists to enter that dialogue is to be on the same level as the client as pilgrims in the presence of God without any attempt to use our knowledge, our privilege, our power of any kind as a buffer with which to avoid encountering the greatest leprosy and longing that they have and are, which means we have to be willing to encounter ours.
Lord, forgive me for speaking over my head, but Viktor Frankl said as an old man and as a pilot, “You can’t fly from here to here. You have to fly and aim up here, because the wind’s going to move you. So you have to aim above humanity to come here.”
"I cannot thank you enough for the endless source of teaching, encouragement, and inspiration. May God continue to give you all the wisdom and strength to continue the invaluable service you offer to those of us who are new to Orthodoxy!"