by Barbara Keffer
Barbara Keffer has been helping others listen contemplatively to the sacred dimension of their life experience for over twenty-five years. Trained in Spiritual Direction by the Cenacle Sisters, the Catholic tradition and Ignatian Spirituality form her own horizon for meaning-making. As a psychologist, she has also reflected with seekers in the language of transpersonal psychology. She is especially intrigued by how the spirit works in times of transition, when life as we know it seems to fall apart. Barbara is married, with four adult children and five grandchildren, and meets with people in her home office in Roseville.
A number of years ago I read a poignant article on the editorial page by a 25-yr-old Marine temporarily home from Iraq and re-training to go back. He spoke of the confusion and disorientation he experienced flying home over the deserts of Iraq seeing everything from above look so peaceful while the world he just left was a “reality of thumping helicopters, deep rumbling explosions, and crackling gunfire during all hours of the day and night.” He struggles to reconcile these contradictory experiences, as he also struggles to find the balance within himself between the light and the dark. In order to do their job, he says, “Marines are fortified mentally and physically in ways that civilians might find shocking, and that at some point many Marines learn to segregate from their friends and family their grittier darker side that has evolved in response to the unique demands of their jobs.” “That is why,” he says, “civilians commonly understand Marines to be well-mannered, clean-cut American boys, while Marines commonly understand Marines to be, more or less, barbarians.” Coming back home they all need to re-learn how to interact with families, just as brain trauma patients might re-learn the simple abilities they formerly took for granted. They have to attend compulsory classes to re-learn those skills. The piece he wrote began as an expression of gratitude to one of the performers in a resident String Quartet at Emory University in Atlanta. In listening to their musical performance he experienced “a spiritual buoyancy.” He writes, “There are some sounds that seem like the voice of God himself. In moments like these we let our guards down and remember who we are. When the performance was over everyone in the audience stood as one in acknowledgment of something great and timeless, and for the first time in a long time I felt connected to my fellow human beings.” For one night he experienced respite from his stress.
I was profoundly moved by this letter from Cpl. John Matthew Bishop. By writing this article he showed his wounds from the war to thousands of people – a pretty gutsy thing to do, especially for a Marine. Thank God, I thought, that someone is publicly talking about this. I was also given hope by an article in the Catholic Spirit about the Archdiocesan concern about parishes welcoming their soldiers back from war and supporting the families. We are starting to see the wounds of war that have been previously hidden and in seeing, we are called to respond as a community and not leave the burden with the families that are affected.
I also find it personally healing that these hidden wounds of war are being addressed. My father returned from World War II with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He sought help, but they didn’t know how to treat it then. There were no compulsory classes to help soldiers learn how to re-connect with family and friends at that time. Like many men of his age he tried to medicate with alcohol, which brought its own problems. The personal wounds I carry, now mostly scars, in part derive from the healing that wasn’t available to him. Over time in my own healing those scars have been transformed into compassion for the military personnel and their families–they deserve all the care and respect we can give them. We have asked them to pay a high price to serve their country in war. I thank Cpl. Bishop for helping us see the hidden costs of war by sharing his struggle.
We have a tendency in our culture to want to hide our wounds, to be ashamed of them. Children don’t do that at first, of course. They instinctively bring their hurts to Mom or Dad. But somewhere along the way we get the message we should present a perfect picture to the world. The problem with that is that wounds that aren’t attended to can’t get healed and often, as we hide them from others, we also hide them from ourselves. It is out of unacknowledged wounds we unknowingly hurt others. I marveled at this 25-yr-old Marine’s acknowledgment of his wounds.
But Cpl. Bishop didn’t stop there. His letter wasn’t just about his wounds. He also helped name what most of us long for in the healing of our wounds – a sense of connection with God and with our fellow human beings. For Cpl. Bishop both of those were mediated by the beauty of music. And once experienced he naturally went on to express his gratitude and to share his moment of grace in the written word.
Though I have also had moments where beauty and nature and art have mediated that sense of connection, through much of my life it has been the scriptures, and liturgy and the church community that have been the usual place where I have felt most connected to God and to my fellow human beings. Often in the midst of a Eucharistic celebration I too, “drop my guard and remember who I am.” It is here too, we can connect our stories to a larger story and gain the perspective and hope that helps deal with our wounds.
Hidden away behind locked doors the disciples gathered with their wounds of grief and fear. Their locked doors didn’t stop Jesus and after the greeting of peace He shows them His wounds. In those wounds are revealed not only man’s inhumanity to man, but also the God who desires to come close to us in our woundedness and the ultimate triumph of love and vulnerability. Jesus also revealed his need for us to continue his work of healing and reconciliation in the world. The disciples began immediately by going out to find Thomas. I am reading between the lines here, but I wonder whether the reason Thomas wasn’t with them the first time was because his pain was so big he couldn’t even deal with community. I wonder whether he was ashamed of his pain and of his inability to make sense of things. He wouldn’t be the first human being to experience that. The temptation when we are in great pain is to go off by ourselves and avoid what we need the most—community. The community went out to him. And note there are no recriminations – both the community and Jesus accept Thomas right where he is.
The risen Lord continues to show us his wounds in so many ways – in our returning soldiers, in the hurts of a child, in the cancer patient, in the misunderstood public servant, in the elderly, in the overburdened teacher or Priest, in the hungry, in the homeless, in refugees, in our polarized church, in our fractured nation, in our war-torn world. And He continues to call us to be wounded healers. We have learned from the Risen Lord how powerful vulnerability can be. Our wounds, like the wounds of our Lord do not have the last word. They allow us to come closer to our fellow human beings and can be transformed into compassion. Like Cpl. John Matthew Bishop we can share the moments of grace we receive and become a source of healing in the world.
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