Our faith is informed by narrative knowledge, for stories help us know how to live faithfully. Telling our stories shape our lives in various ways, and they can promote healing..
Studies have found that recovering from traumatic experiences can be expedited by writing about those experiences for others to read, or speaking about them to others who are listening. Writing or speaking for an attentive other person, turns experiences into narratives. This has a healing effect, as measured in a variety of ways, including auto-immune responsiveness, pain tolerance, and quicker healing time.
I saw this occur when in the middle of Advent during the turbulent economic times of 2011, a young mother sat with me for spiritual direction, head bent over clasped hands, tears streaking her cheeks. A scholar and teacher unable to find employment in those fields, Zoe found that for the sake of supporting her family she was going to have to accept the only job being offered to her: a low-paying, unskilled job as a barrista at a café.
Zoe told me that in her loneliness and anguish she had prayed and felt God with her. God listened to all that she was thinking and feeling. And then God gave her a vision of himself as Trinity at the beginning to the world before the Incarnation. For the first time she felt the magnitude of sacrifice involved in God becoming human—not just the sacrifice of dying as a man, but living as one. She imagined what it was like for the Holy One to be confined and subject to bodily discomfort, aging, and heartache. Her own story was illuminated by the light of Jesus’ story.
Zoe felt accompanied by Jesus in the depths of her experience. As she raised her smiling face toward me, I asked what she was feeling now as she remembered that time of prayer. “Peace,” she said. “I feel peace. Relief. Hope. I can take this job and be glad that it helps my family.”
Zoe experienced healing as she told me about the shame and anger she felt when expected to work as a barrista. She felt those feelings again when she told me the story. The warmth and light of grace then touched Zoe when she wept before me and prayed. This is healing work. Many believe that it’s only through re-experiencing painful feelings in a safe and loving environment that healing can occur.
What do you think about the idea of re-experiencing painful feelings in a safe and loving environment so that healing can occur? Have you tried it? Do you have a safe attentive other person who listens to you? How do you invite others to tell you their stories?
Be sure to check out Susan S. Phillips’ full article in the most recent issue of Conversations Journal (10.2). Click here for the link to view and purchase the article: Telling Our Stories: Spiritual Direction, Healing Gift
Susan S. Phillips (Ph.D.), executive director of New College Berkeley of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, is a sociologist, spiritual director, and professor of Christian spirituality. Her writing includes The Crisis of Care: Affirming and Restoring Caring Practices in the Helping Professions (with Patricia Benner, Georgetown, 1994) and Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction (Morehouse, 2008). http://susansphillips.com/published-work.html