Psalms: praise and gratitude, sorrow and lament

Just as I had set out the watercolors, paper, paint brushes, and pens on the kitchen island at Magdalene house, the kitchen door opened and all of the Magdalene staff members walked in with pizza, cookies, and drinks. The other Magdalene intern Marlena and I had been preparing for the activity we’d be leading for the residents in our last group of the summer, and suddenly we were having a party, breaking bread and sharing memories and gratitude of our shared experiences together this summer. Each person in the room spoke about our experiences together over the past few weeks, the party wound down, and I was completely filled with sadness, joy, and gratitude.

“So,” one of the residents said once the staff members had returned to the office, “what are we doing today?” Once the party had started, I was not expecting that we would be doing the activity Marlena and I had planned, and I was once again overwhelmed with gratitude. Marlena and I pulled ourselves together and explained that we had planned to write psalms together and display them with visuals on watercolor paper. I had participated in psalm-writing activities with my student fellowship at UVA, and I was excited to give the women of Magdalene space and structure to address their higher power with praise and gratitude or sorrow and lament in a form of prayer to be used both individually and liturgically. Together we transitioned from a celebration over a shared meal to the creation of art and writings that were explicitly liturgical. I found myself for the final time this summer joyfully in community at the intersection of liturgy and the daily work of Magdalene.

To guide the women in their writing, Marlena and I provided formats for psalms of lament and psalms of praise. As we discussed the general parts of a psalm of lament, it became clear that their theological and liturgical functions were deeply felt and intuited by the residents. I found this to be particularly true of the “Confession of Trust” component of a psalm wherein the psalmist expresses her trust in God and her hope that God will assist and be present in her situation of suffering and sorrow. In our conversation­—whether we were writing to God or our personal higher power—the women intuited this notion of simultaneous surrender and lament, trust and petition.

Watercolor paintsIn Serene Jones’ work Trauma and Grace: Theology and Healing in a Ruptured World, she examines the parallels between trauma theory and theologian John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms. According to Jones, Calvin’s progression through the psalms parallels progressions toward healing according to contemporary trauma theory. A key aspect of this healing—in trauma theory, Calvin, and the psalms—is reclaiming a sense of agency and autonomy. This is accomplished, in part, by relinquishing control. As Jones writes, in his reading of psalms of lament, “Calvin creates an imaginative space where those who have felt helplessness in the face of violence can once again imagine themselves as agents whose actions in the world matter,” she says, by trusting in a divinely-created and ordered world (57). Trauma research suggests that survivors “desperately need to believe that the world is fundamentally ordered and trustworthy if they, in turn, are to have the capacity to imagine themselves as meaningful actors within it again.” The paradoxical notion of giving up control in order to reclaim it is a necessary component of healing for women like the residents of Magdalene who have survived significant trauma. It is a constant give and take that arises intrinsically and liturgically in the psalms and works in the normalcy and mundaneness of daily life.

It occurred to me as I reflected on the psalms written by the women of Magdalene that this notion of simultaneously reclaiming and relinquishing control is deeply related to the Serenity Prayer, which is part of a regular ritual in the lives of the Magdalene women.

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,

The courage to change the things we can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and popularized by twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, encapsulates the notion of giving up control as a means to gain autonomy and sovereignty over our lives. Members of this community are exposed to this deeply theological and liturgical notion in their regular attendance of NA meetings. Throughout my time at Magdalene, I’ve heard many of these women speak of a desire to recognize their lack of control over certain circumstances and apply this to their lives and relationships. In writing and discussing psalms together over a kitchen island full of art supplies it became clear that an idea examined in our space of liturgical creation is already deeply woven into daily moments and interactions for the women at Magdalene. In this moment of creativity and in many moments over the past months here, liturgy was created and was at work in the healing process.

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Healing the body, healing the soul

In the midst of taping boxes, archiving files, and clearing bookshelves, I stumbled on several tubs of Thistle Farms body butter. My site mentor Shelia and I were clearing out an old office in a Magdalene House that will soon be converted into a gym for the residents. Finding these body butters—adorned with Thistle Farms’ first generation of packaging—as we prepared for a space for self-care, in the same week that I attended a joyful going-away celebration for the Magdalene nurse who recently resigned, I have been reminded of the holistic healing that has been central to the Magdalene program for years. At the party, I heard women speak of their appreciation for the nurse who cared for them in ways they had never experienced and facilitated relationships in overseeing the community garden. M. Shawn Copeland writes of the need to “cope with body memories of vulnerability, psychic and physical pain, in order to come to grips with internalized repercussions of violence and abuse” (Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, 50). Although not all the women of Magdalene work at the social enterprise Thistle Farms, I have seen how love, healing, and soothing of the body—foundational concepts for Thistle Farms—are at work here.

Copeland highlights an intrinsic connection between loving and healing one’s physical body and developing an identity as a member of a community. She analyzes Toni Morrison’s character Baby Suggs, a freed slave who serves as a spiritual guide to her community, in the novel Beloved. Copeland notes that Baby Suggs “voices the principle of life, which is love, and calls the freed people to new identity-in-community, to the demands of proper love of the black self, black body, black flesh” (52). This simultaneous care for the body and call to community was a founding feature of Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Becca Stevens, who founded the recovery community and social enterprise, describes her vision for Magdalene, a community named for Mary Magdalene, the first person to preach on resurrection: “I wanted to name the community in her honor and for it to be a sanctuary,” she writes, “I knew that in order to heal people, women needed a place to speak their truth in love without fear of being judged” (Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling, 43-44). At Magdalene, to heal and be healed in body, mind, and spirit requires a community of survivors to live, love, work, and grow together.

I’ve seen this interaction at work daily in my time at Magdalene. Becca Stevens believed Magdalene homes “needed to be sanctuaries where women were absolutely safe, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally safe enough to follow their own instincts toward healing. Magdalene would be known for its sweet healing gardens, beautiful baskets, and thick new comforters” (Snake Oil, 45). As my experience at Magdalene has unfolded, this has proved to be deeply true. Over my past several weeks here, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing five new women welcomed into this community. One of my tasks as an intern has been assembling welcome baskets–filled with journals, toiletries, slippers, pillows, and other things to make the residents feel physically cared for—and putting them on freshly-made beds for the new women. I’ve carried the baskets to the house with new women and watched as they’ve met the other residents and have been immediately embraced, showed around the house, and fed.

BedIn this way, the Magdalene program itself is something of a healing balm. In Copeland’s work, she describes the Eucharist as “Jesus’ great nourishing sacrificial gift of his own life in the struggle to bring about this Father’s dream of love, mercy, joy, and peace” (108). For Copeland, the Eucharist is healing and nourishing. And while it does such healing, salvific work, it calls us to solidarity: “in sacramental reception [Christ’s] self-gift nourishes, strengthens, and orders us as we make visible his body through a praxis of solidarity, which counters the disorder of this world” and “sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination” (109, 126). Being at Magdalene, I see a community that nourishes each other and stands together in loving solidarity, cooking meals for each other and proclaiming “Love Heals.” Divine, sacred work is done here. Being a small part of this community, I’ve come to know that “there are balms that soothe our souls and bodies and embracing them is a gift in this world” (Snake Oil, 100). This is true of the oils and balms used at Thistle Farms, and it is true of Magdalene in acts of kindness, care, and community. I’ve witnessed the women of Magdalene care for and be cared for as both individuals with physical needs and members of a community in a gentle and fierce, relentless and merciful divine praxis of solidarity.

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Lament, healing, and recovery

Greeting card with lavenderNotebook, water bottle, and grocery bag full of notecards in hand, the other intern Marlena and I headed across the street to the largest of the Magdalene Houses where community meetings are held. For this session of the weekly group we lead, we would be discussing encouragement as a spiritual practice and writing notes to people we knew who we either wanted to celebrate or to encourage during difficult times. The discussion started out fairly smoothly. We gave examples of times we had felt encouraged, times we had felt that we weren’t encouraged when we needed to be, and how it felt to give and receive encouragement. I introduced the idea of encouragement as rooted in spirituality wherein we seek “to instill courage, confidence, and hope through expressing the delight of God in others” (Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 198). Each of the residents who spoke during the conversation did so affirmatively, sharing how they had seen God or their personal higher power working in each other throughout their time in the Magdalene community. They seemed to internalize the practice of encouragement fairly easily, until Sandra[1]–a resident I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know since my very first day at Magdalene–spoke up.

“I’m just not good at understanding when someone is encouraging me because I get so wrapped up in the negative,” she said, “and I don’t go around thinking about the God in everyone else.” She talked about the combination of struggling to recognize encouragement when it was given to her and constantly worrying about ulterior motives of those who might say something positive to her. What she was ultimately describing was a lack of capacity for imagination.

Imagination, according to Maureen H. O’Connell, “provides our primary means to encounter and be in relationship with a God who can only be understood or experienced logically but also in the context of mystery that invites ever-deeper interior reflection and ever-expansive external engagement in the created world” (If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice, 196). It is not the capability to fantasize or to engage with that which is imaginary, but to use creativity to engage that which is truly real. It is how we take moments of insight in our own reality and “channel them toward creative acts that cultivate whole persons.” It is the way we can move between and understand both the concrete reality and deep mystery of God and the way we reflect Her image. As O’Connell asserts, “it is the capability through which we accept our inherent dignity that comes with being made in the image of a wildly imaginative and creative God.”

That day during our group Sandra demonstrated the difficulty and emotional creativity required to look at oneself or someone else and conceive that they are the bearer of God’s image. This can be particularly difficult for people like the women of Magdalene who have sustained significant trauma. Imagination is a human capability needed for flourishing. It is something to be reclaimed, reformed, and reinstated throughout the recovery process.

Although I hear women tell painful stories and allude to their traumatic past fairly regularly, until now most of my direct confrontation with suffering has been during the intake process, safely distanced by the phone. Now, I was being directly addressed with what was ultimately a lament–a biblical and deeply spiritual form of expression. As O’Connell writes, laments “are a communal spiritual practice that arise from simultaneous experiences of two disparate realities–one of suffering and the other of fulfillment. The depth of emotion they convey can only arise from stark experiences of being separated from God and an even stronger desire for reunion” (188). Laments express deep faith and deep suffering. In Sandra’s case, she articulated that she could see someone encouraging her, but she could not internalize it. She spoke of having a relationship with God, but struggling to see God in others. We all listened as she spoke–frustrated and hurt–of these struggles.

The moment she began her lament, Sandra created space for the rest of the circle to express similar feelings. She was greeted with cries of “I’ve been there” and “It’s hard for me too.” O’Connell describes the way in which laments “have an ability to shift collective consciousness. They interrupt comfortable complacency with an evocative longing for something different” (191). The conversation before she spoke up was a good one–I look forward to our weekly group time together and its capacity to provide some positivity and creativity to otherwise long, sometimes arduous days. But when Sandra spoke so honestly and so expressively, the atmosphere of the room completely shifted to something the group perhaps didn’t even realize we wanted or needed. Her lament “disruptively carve[d] out public space” and granted permission for the rest of the room to express a longing for imagination, for positivity, and for encouragement (190).

I understand laments to be paradoxically both historically-rooted and future-oriented–just like the recovery process as a whole. We work to heal from, but not to forget, our pasts, and to walk humbly and strongly into a salvific, rehabilitated, relational future. Sandra and the women who spoke after her made clear that those who lament “refuse to move toward the future without ensuring that a truthful reckoning of the past is part of the future’s memory” (190). We must understand why and how our capacities for imagination, encouragement, and creativity have been stunted as we struggle to restore them. These women “reveal[ed] the depth of the community’s pain as well as their refusal to be overcome by it” (192). I am humbled to have witnessed and been confronted by such deep, sorrowful, hopeful honesty, and I am grateful for communal spaces for joy, for vulnerability, and for lament.

God of imagination, of beauty, of creativity
God of healing and God of justice,
We are broken by our past
We struggle to see your image in us
To trust one another
To comprehend joy
We trust that you work in and through our imperfections
And we long to heal
Restore in us imaginative hearts
To know that we are made, shaped, and loved by You
That we might feel and see your creation and disruption
In ourselves and in our sisters

[1] Name changed to protect privacy

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Slowing down to play

I sat in the first row of one of Magdalene’s twelve passenger vans as the residents piled in. Leanna–one of the drivers– and Marlena–the other intern–were in the front seat, and we were picking the Magdalene residents up from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. We were heading to Centennial Park where Marlena and I would be leading our weekly group. Many of the women were not excited to spend an hour outside in the Nashville summer heat. Marlena and I had decided to center our group meetings around spiritual disciplines, and this week, as we explained to the women once we arrived at the park and gathered in a shady spot, we would be practicing Slowing. Slowing, according to the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook we’ve been using as a resource, “is one way to overcome inner hurriedness and addiction to busyness. Through slowing, the sacrament of the present moment is tasted to the full” (Calhoun, 88). To practice this, we asked the women to take a few minutes to walk slowly around the park collecting twigs or leaves that we would be using to decorate picture frames. As I distributed supplies and helped the women–who, now that we were sitting under a shady tree in a bright flower garden, remarked that the weather really wasn’t so bad–lay out their gathered materials, I reflected on these projects, these works of art we were creating together. According to John W. de Gruchy, art “is related to friendship, education or formation, play, and happiness” and I felt each of those relations deeply as we sat and laughed and created together (Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice, 148).

In de Gruchy’s understanding of theological aesthetics, the ability to create beautiful things is a divine gift. He writes, “Genuine artistic creation is then understood as a gift, a Spirit-inspired construction which breaks open that which is hidden” (120). The task of artists and creators is to respond “to that which is given and discerned in creation and redemption.” In this way, the artist’s and the theologian’s goals are on the same plane: to respond to what is given to them by God. Creation and creativity are gifts. In this particular project in the park, we responded to creation by taking pieces of it to make something beautiful that we would use to frame images that are significant to us. The particularity of the final product we created together points to a theologically aesthetic response to creation. De Gruchy emphasizes the importance of responding to creation and God’s redemptive power within and through our own particular contexts. He writes, “There is, in fact, no other way whereby we can truly know something of the mystery of God incarnate than in terms of images that relate to our present reality and experience” (121). The picture frames we created were a profound example of a product made with materials collected in a particular time and location. These creations would then be used to house and to highlight precious images from our particular experiences.

Picture frame made of twigsThis group session in the park presented an opportunity to have fun together in community as we worked on our individual frames. A key component of this creative task was play. According to Bonhoeffer, play “goes beyond the categories of doing, having, and achieving and leads us into the categories of being, of authentic human existence and demonstrative rejoicing in it. It emphasizes the creative against the productive and the aesthetic against the ethical” (de Gruchy, 157). Though this project was centered around the practice of a spiritual discipline, what we were asking the women to do in the park that day was to play. We had an hour to be away from the Magdalene houses and offices, work, therapy, and other responsibilities. As Bonhoeffer understood, play is a necessary experience for flourishing. As the women work and learn to gain independence and full autonomy upon graduation from the program, these moments that “break open fresh possibilities” are a necessary part of healing. Just as Slowing counters mental hurriedness, play counters the constant emotional work that comes with the healing process. It cuts through the inevitable tension in a community of trauma survivors. Play has true, relentless, strong, salvific, redemptive power.

Beyond the depth of the creating we were doing together and within the grumbling complaints about the heat and sharing of supplies was an undeniable presence of friendship. Bonhoeffer underscores friendship’s differentiation from other relationships with legal or contractual components. It is “unlike marriage in that it has no recognized rights but must depend on its inherent quality. In distinction from marriage, work, state, and the church, each of which has its own divine mandate, friendship belongs to ‘the broad area of freedom’” (147). The residents of Magdalene routinely refer to themselves and graduates of the program as their sisters as a way of fostering connection and reminding themselves of the women who came before them. But fully investing in bonds of sisterly friendship while also focusing on individual recovery must be a freely taken choice. Bonhoeffer also suggests that the church ought to be an arena to foster friendships that are beautiful and “a key element in ‘aesthetic existence’” in addition to formal, legal relationships. The church, he argued, could be the point of intersection for art, education, friendship, and joy. In my time at Magdalene House­–particularly on that day in the park–I feel situated at a similar intersection as we learn, laugh, create, and play.

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Witnessing to story

A large part of my experience here has been to witness. At Magdalene, witnessing often means listening to stories. Whether I hear them in the small group meeting I co-lead, in one-on-one interactions, or as I interview potential residents over the phone, my job is to listen carefully to the stories that are told. At this halfway point in my summer, I’ve been reflecting on the personal stories I’ve had the privilege to hear. In my experience as a student, theologians and theorists of all kinds often analyze the importance of narratives, but I’m grateful that my time at Magdalene has shaped my understanding of the role of narrative for individuals in recovery. That the Magdalene program is a two-year residential program with women living and working together in community means that each resident is at a vastly different point in her recovery–in her story–than the next. The nature of the program has given me the opportunity to see how stories change–in how they are understood and how they are shared with others–throughout the recovery process.

TelephoneOne of my main duties as an intern at Magdalene is answering the phone to take messages, tell prospective women or social workers about the program, and to complete entrance request applications that put a prospective resident on our waiting list. These applications require me to ask very personal questions regarding the particular woman’s history. While I’m constantly struck by their honesty and willingness to share in order to seek help in our program, I can imagine that talking to me, a stranger, over the phone about mental illness, addiction, and prostitution is not an easy thing to do. Having daily conversations with women seeking entrance into the program alongside daily interactions with women currently in the program adds an entirely new dimension to my reflection on personal narrative and healing.

These stories can be painful. I listen to these women describe their current and past situations, record their responses, and know that this is merely a beginning step in their Magdalene journey. As Maureen H. O’Connell writes in her essay on Dorothy Day, “She refused to shield herself from the ugliness of poverty precisely because of the sharp contrasts it brought into focus for her: the inherent dignity of persons assaulted by these conditions and the God to be encountered and loved in those people” (She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, 174). It would be fairly difficult to shield myself from suffering and “ugliness,” to use O’Connell’s language. And focusing on such harshness is perhaps not the most productive thing to do in the context of Magdalene. But on a fundamental level, the program couldn’t function for these women if we didn’t pay attention to or document the “ugliness” of the things these women experienced prior to their entrance in the program.

These reflections brought me back to a moment from one of my earliest days at Magdalene. An individual at Thistle Farms, the social enterprise side of the Thistle Farms Magdalene organization, had approached Sara, the program director at Magdalene about wanting to interview some of the more senior residents. I listened to Sara explain to two of the women who have been here the longest about the nature of the interview. She made it exceptionally clear that they would not be asked to tell their story, but to speak on their personal growth since entering the program. At the time I understood this to be an explicit expression that these women would not be exploited for their stories, and I think this was an incredibly important point to establish. But this distinction between the recitation of a history–like that of answering entrance request application questions–and the personal growth since then seems to be an important one.

I fully believe that the stories of our lives and the stories we encounter play a fundamental role in shaping us. In Serene Jones’ discussion of endings, she writes, “What God performs in the silence before creation is the subject of the gospel. It is a gesture toward redemption and restoration that renders the Creator vulnerable to the contingencies and chaos of the unfolding human story” (Trauma and Grace, 96). Perhaps these narratives of growth and development are something of a gesture as well. In terms of the nature of stories and memories, perhaps these later understandings of growth can’t be captured in descriptions of past events. In speaking to prospective women on the phone and spending time with the current residents–those who’ve been here two days and those who’ve been here twenty-one months– I sense a shift in how stories are understood and told. That the women who were to be interviewed at Thistle Farms agreed to do so with the knowledge that they could answer without fear of exploitation demonstrates a powerful gesture of ownership. The women move from responsively telling their story as fact to be documented and assessed to sharing narratives of growth and development. These stories gesture to redemption, recovery, and the formation of future narratives upon graduation from the Magdalene program.

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Paperwork and Eucharist

Every week the residents of Magdalene fill out “Weekly Sheets.” These two-page packets are used to document the meetings they attend, to notify staff of upcoming appointments, and to request weekend passes. Every week, after appointments have been entered into the group calendar and passes have been reviewed, I file them. I organize them alphabetically and chronologically in a system I created in the first couple weeks of my work here. I also often file various paperwork and documentation into each of the residents’ individual files labelled with their names and entry dates. It isn’t the most glamorous or exciting of tasks, but as the weeks have gone by I’ve begun to feel the significance of organizing and attending to these individual narratives. In the practice of filing and organizing these documents that mark the past experiences of the residents and their progress as they move forward in their recovery, there is a great deal of beauty and weight. Completing these tasks has become somewhat of a ritual in my week.

As my site mentor Shelia has explained to me, accurate file-keeping is critical to tracking the progress of the women of Magdalene in their recovery. Another regular part of my internship has been observing staffings – individual meetings between a resident and staff to address issues and complications as they arise. As Shelia says, having accurate and complete files that document a particular resident’s past is critical to making in-the-moment decisions about how to move forward. Part of the significance in the seemingly tedious task of filing is in this confluence of past, present, and future. Consulting a resident’s meticulously organized file can allow staff to consult the past, comprehend the present, and plan for the future.

Filing Cabinet

William T. Cavanaugh’s work Torture and Eucharist concerns the particular context of Chile under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. He asserts that the Eucharistic liturgy can function as resistance against state-sanctioned violence in the form of torture, which he sees as an “anti-liturgy” (206). He goes on to write that “Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of his followers.” In Cavanaugh’s work, this simultaneous experience of past, present, and future is referred to as Eucharistic time that exists outside of historical, linear time in the liturgy of the Eucharist. He writes that when the sacrament of the Eucharist is performed and experienced, “past and future simultaneously converge, and the whole Christ, the eschatological church of all times and places, is present” (234). While the sharing of Christ’s body and blood is, on some level, deeply incomparable with hole-punching and filing papers, there is something of the “simultaneity of past and future in the present” that occurs in the moments that these files become necessary for decisions regarding care for the women at Magdalene (222).

In my practice of organizing and filing in the Magdalene office, I’ve found something in the imposition of order on the chaotic and traumatic histories of the residents that feels somehow liturgical. Rather than reducing the residents to a series of documents, this humble and conscientious filing functions in defiance to the chaos and turmoil of the traumatic histories the women of Magdalene have survived. Cavanaugh writes that Eucharistic liturgy resists the fact that “modern torture is predicated on invisibility, that is, the invisibility of the secret police apparatus and the disappearance of bodies” by making “the true body of Christ visible.” In a similar way, these files are resistant to trauma as predicated on chaos and disorder by intentionally organizing and giving form to documentation of deeply personal narratives.

There is something sacred and liturgical in the handling, organizing, and reorganizing of these files as assemblages of past, present, and future and as physical manifestations of a refusal to submit to chaos. This week in particular, as I’ve assembled the proper tabs in their proper order in empty folders for the two new women who have been welcomed into the community, and placed them–waiting to be filled with history, progress, and trajectory–on shelves with the rest of the files, I’ve felt the privilege of being part of this liturgy and catching glimpses of its power.

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Breathing and glory

I sat cross-legged in a striped armchair in a circle of couches, love seats, and rocking chairs in the living room of the biggest Magdalene house. The Relapse Prevention group had just ended and most of the women were outside in the courtyard taking their break between sessions. Now, sitting with Marlena, the other summer intern, I prepared to co-lead our first group meeting together on grounding techniques.

ArmchairsIn preparation for the session, Marlena and I had discussed the experience of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally chaotic. What do we do in our own lives to bring us back to where we are? When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lose my sense of presence in the moment and in the world around me. This loss of presence can be particularly acute for people like the women of Magdalene House who have suffered significant trauma. As Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, people who have histories of trauma can “physically disconnect their minds from their experiences of embodiment,” a phenomenon clinically referred to as dissociation (16).

During the session, the group discussed tools for grounding ourselves in moments where we feel emotionally or mentally chaotic. We talked about breathing exercises; some of us had preconceptions about the idea of using breath as a coping and healing tool. We’ve all heard someone tell us to “just breathe” when we’re upset about something. It sounds absurd that something so small and so bodily could make a difference. But after we led a few breathing exercises, the women spoke of feeling noticeably more relaxed. We discussed other ways to use our five senses to bring us back to the present moment: plant our feet on the ground, take a sip of water, light a candle, focus on an object, listen for ambient noise, and come back to the moment and the world around us.

Jones writes that God’s glory–the beauty, breadth, and depth of God and Her creation–is experienced and encountered both intellectually and with all of our senses. Just as lived theology purports that we can access reflections and insights about God in the world by living, we can learn about and experience God’s glory by being and being attuned to the world around us. As Jones writes, “God’s glory is known incarnationally, in the depths of our bodies, at the point of connection with the most unlikely of all” (121).

This week, I’m reminded of how we must constantly return to the context of individuals living, working, and healing in community. The tools the group shared during our session invited each participant to engage with our surroundings in the present moment. Doing so inevitably means engaging with the people around us. These tools help us to live more peacefully with ourselves and in our community. Community living can be messy. But using our senses and our breath to re-engage in the present, particularly at Magdalene, means re-engaging with a community of survivors at a vast range of phases in their recovery processes. It means re-engaging with glory. In focusing on our own bodies and spirits we are made aware of surrounding bodies and spirits. We recognize the present while we look to the future. In the context of Jones’ understanding of vocation that we are all bodies and lives with a “direction intentionally unfolding in the context of community” (113), combatting dissociation with engagement in glory–as Marlena and I explored with the women of Magdalene–can begin to point us in the direction we are called.

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Finding sacred space at Thistle Farms

My second day of work at Thistle Farms Magdalene Residential, I attended a funeral for the seven-year-old granddaughter of a graduate of Magdalene’s recovery program. I sat between two members of Magdalene’s staff I had met earlier that morning, looking down at the flower arrangements and enormous stuffed animals carefully arranged around a small casket bearing of the Princess and the Frog. Everywhere I looked people fanned themselves with programs full of pictures of Harmony with her family and friends. Soft organ music played. On the other side of the church I saw many of the staff members from Thistle Farms I had met during my visit to their offices the previous day. The same people who had warmly and openly greeted me with the scents of citrus, lavender, and vanilla in the candles and soaps they were making now sat in solemn support. It was simultaneously public and deeply private. Family members wept and held each other in the pews closest to the front of the nave as a news camera filmed from the back of the balcony.

Somehow watching a grieving community from the balcony of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church became part of my workday, and since then I’ve been thinking about something the pastor said in the eulogy. He directly addressed the family and told them emphatically and repeatedly that “this is your time to grieve.” There was something powerful about the declaration of a period of time as specifically designated for grief. Without any desire to compare or weigh tragedies, I’ve been reflecting over the last several days on the ways that the residents of Magdalene experience similarly delineated time in the wake of their own traumatic experiences.

A refrain that I hear repeatedly from the women of Magdalene as they talk about their time in these beautiful Nashville homes is “we have been afforded a gift.” They’re given two years of housing, medical services, and support while they work on their recovery from histories of addiction, prostitution, and sex trafficking. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of sacred space, and the Magdalene houses and offices exist as a sacred space that has to be experienced to begin to be understood or described.

Thistle Farms SinkOne of the founding ideas of the Project on Lived Theology is that “the concrete forms of God’s presence and action in the world promise rich and generative material for theological method, style, and pedagogy,” as Charles Marsh puts it in his Introduction to Lived Theology: New Perspectives on Method, Style, and Pedagogy. Our interactions with the presence of God as they happen in real time and in particular places have substantive theological significance. As my theological mentor Nichole Flores told me the other day, “If you’re going to have an encounter with God this summer, it’s going to be when and where you are.” God meets us where we are just as the Magdalene staff meets the women where they are within the sacred space and time of the Magdalene homes and recovery program.

There are delicate balances being struck everywhere you turn at Magdalene in a way that could only be possible in particular spatial and temporal bounds. The women live in homes that are sacred in their distinction from the world for a period of time that is sacred in its distinction from all the time spent outside of its walls, even as the objective is independence and reintegration into the outside community. The recovery process is both rooted in the present moment and looking forward. It is both deeply individual and collectively rooted in encounters, relationships, and community-living. It is heartbreaking, and it is beautiful.

As I spend more time with the women of Magdalene I have been reflecting on how I have been afforded my own gift. I have been welcomed into their designated space and time for reckoning, learning, and healing with open arms, and I am so grateful.

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