Concluding ‘The curse of choice’, the paper about recreating a borderline/narcissistic mother in the Person of Christ thus creating a fake Christ, I wrote:
“I do not know whether the necessity of restoration of a normal, i.e. as commanded by God, order of attachments explains why a habitual act of sacrifice “all or nothing” can suddenly work with Christ and open up an opportunity for God to act. Is it because the fake god is thrown from her pedestal and now the real God can act? …Perhaps the wisest thing that can be said here is that something happens, and that is it.”
I think that “something” is “trusting God”, nowadays a much overused term which, by association, brings to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term “cheap grace”. Or perhaps it just looks overused, cheap or even laughable to a person with c-PTSD. The reason for that is simple: such a person has paid for her trust with her ruined life. What the good-willed advisors often fail to understand is that a trauma, the product of childhood abuse inflicted by a parent, is not something that “happened once upon a time” and thus can be “fixed” with the notion “your parent hurt you but God will not, trust Him” although in itself this statement is true. Yes, God will not hurt her; it is her who will. And, paradoxically, the more she applies herself to practice trusting God the more pain she will feel.
It is now accepted knowledge that sustained abuse, especially childhood abuse (emotional and physical) changes a person’s brain. The abuse, so to speak, burns into the brain pathological “ruts” creating quite absurd, for a normal individual, networks or neural pathways where “love” for example means “humiliation” and “trust” – “pain” or even “death”. Compare a hypothetical neural network of a child brought up by “a good enough mother” with a neural network of a child brought up by an abusive one. In the first case the notion of “trust” triggers feelings of safety, warmth, security, being loved and cared of. In the second the word “trust” brings, together with the notions of the first case, feelings of fear, pain, betrayal, mockery and so on. Those are not conscious emotions but something the body experiences first and reacts to by tensing and going into “a survival mode”; only then the person notices that something is very wrong, that she experiences an overwhelming fear or sense of impending doom seemingly out of blue. This fear was triggered by her attempt to trust God because her past experience created abnormal connections in the pathways of her brain. They are as real and as unnatural as a gastric bypass. Here the objectives of her biological make-up render her seemingly incapable of trusting God.
I do not know whether it is more or less difficult for an abused person to acquire an initial faith in God. I suspect it depends (as always) on an individual. God also is capable of “breaking through” and granting a person the initial spark of faith, regardless of her condition (accept her will not to have anything to do with God). My concern here is with what happens next. Naturally, after the initial excitement of finding God a person begins developing an attachment to this new figure in her life and here, in this area of personal relationships the real problems begins, of a conflict between intellectual knowledge and the knowledge ingrained in her body.
A typical example of the battle between the two: a soul is trying to lift itself towards Christ, Who she has learnt is Love, in prayer and then the tiny irrational thought appears, oblique and murky, typically along the lines “but what if…” (“…I made a mistake”, “…did not understand” etc) – the body tenses, starts sweating, breathing almost ceases, then terrible fear comes – and all the riches of theology can do nothing because the body went into its familiar “in a premonition of abuse” mode. Interestingly, the usual methods of relaxations like deep slow breathing do not work in this case or work poorly. Once triggered, the oppressing mode of existence tends to restart itself as soon as a person stops forcing herself to “relax”.
The notion of “what if…” is the key here I think. It is a typical automatic thought and it is the antithesis of trust. There is not “what if” for absolute trust; if there is then it not trust but semi-trust and this will not do, with the Christian God. What is astonishing here and what cannot be emphasized enough is that the fear = the memory of abuse is triggered by the very attempt to trust Someone who is absolutely good. The fear of evil is triggered by good. The mechanics are simple: a child trusts her abusive mother; no matter how much she is hurt by her she will continue trusting; trust and pain are one for her; every time she reaches for her mother she unconsciously expects to be hurt. Exactly the same is true when later she reaches for God. The childhood abuse served as the tool for corrupting the absolute ideas and even God’s attributes: Good, Love, Trust, Truth, Life. Ultimately, God is experientially (in the person’s mind) rendered a Manichean god, incompatible with the Christian revelation.
This picture is profoundly metaphysical. I think it is much more helpful than the simplistic notion of “just trust God and you will be fine” because it acknowledges the reality, not just biological but metaphysical as well. An abused person’s brain = body in which her soul feels imprisoned is a miniature model of creation, “groaning in travail”. And there is no other way out than the Son of God – just as the “just-trust-God” people say. The question is not about trusting as such but how to trust without being pulled down into hell, by the past which keeps recreating itself in the future thus making the present – the real present in which the presence of the Son of God can be experienced – virtually non-existent.
It looks to me that a person with c-PTSD has two major choices. The first is to be in a very superficial relationship with God, when God or, better to say, the notion of God serves as a guarantor of carefully maintained security. This option usually takes a rigid, ritualistic form; the person “fulfils the obligations” while remaining emotionally numb. I am not condemning this choice by the way because it is certainly better than nothing and, for some, is the only thing they can endure, initially. The second choice is as extreme as the abuse, literally throwing oneself into God no matter what, giving all to Him. This action is best described by St John of the Cross, as “nothing – nothing – nothing” but God only. In my opinion, such an action can be accomplished out of desire for God or out of extreme despair, when one sees herself as a total wretch and has no other option but collapsing into God in the hope that He would do something.
Those two reasons for this extreme action are not mutually exclusive and both require some experience of God. This is very murky territory because it is impossible to write about such a unique and intimate thing, for each individual, as experience of God without falling into the simplicity of shameless platitudes; it is also God Who grants such experience. However, what is common for all of them is the need of each individual for the Person, Another One Whom she may desire or into Whom she may collapse, the Son of God. And here we are entering into the even more difficult area, of God’s revelations about Himself and the hidden desires of human hearts, something that may be grasped only instinctively.
Jesus Christ is One in Whom “all come together”, as His numerous names indicate: Physician, High Priest, Brother, Son of God, the Beloved, the Desire of all nations, Love, Truth, living water, resurrection and life, Bridegroom, everlasting Father, alpha and omega, and so on. It means that a person can relate to Him differently, in a way He grants her and as she chooses or accepts. While I have no intention of representing some ways of relating as more “effective” I feel the need to discuss a currently much neglected way of relating to Jesus Christ, as the Bridegroom of one’s soul.
But first it is necessary to restate that this discourse has nothing to do with treating the relationship with Our Lord as a mere “therapeutic tool”. I have to say it because too many sources do precisely that, treating what must be treasured for its own sake as a means of achieving “well-being”. In the case of Christ it is not only unacceptable but does not work unless a person has at least some wish to know Him as the Person, for His own sake. It is probably not a mistake to assume then that the thirstier an individual for the Person of Christ the more personal ways of relating to Him are opening to her.
It would be misleading to say that I have thought about Jesus Christ the Bridegroom of the soul in connection with childhood abuse only. His manifestation as the Bridegroom is entirely scriptural and well-known to the tradition of the Church. Every Christian is betrothed to Christ in baptism and is supposed to anticipate the consummation of this relationship, as a mystical marriage with Him, in the end of times. It is the eschatological teaching of the Church about the destiny of each human soul and the Church. At some point though it occurred to me that relating to Jesus Christ as the Bridegroom is in many respect very distinctive and different from, let say, relating to God as to a parent – distinctive, stupidly it sounds, on the level of neural pathways.
Both modes of relating, as to a parent and as to a spouse, involve the notion of trust. However, those “trusts” are of different kinds. The Scriptures define the relationship with a spouse as far more close and intimate then with a parent, as “one flesh”. Consequentially, the most radical trust is demanded by the relationship with Christ as the Bridegroom because it involves not only the soul but the body as well. This may sound shocking, especially now, when the teaching of the Church regarding this issue is somehow pushed aside as something “old-fashioned”. I will attempt to explain.
When a believer refers to Christ as her Divine Bridegroom it essentially means the following: “I am totally Yours” i.e. all me, my soul and my body, I trust You absolutely and I love you absolutely and – very distinctively – “I desire You”. A normal individual could not say those words to one’s parent; it is radically different statement, of a desire to possess and be possessed. A believer here is not just a helpless child, someone on the receiving end but one who can give God something that He wishes for, her love, and not sterile disinterested love (the parallel with the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and whose sins were forgiven because she loved much is very apparent because the Lord there speaks to His host about her actions along the lines “she gave me what you did not and what I needed, her love”). Whatever happens, it appears that the psyche of an abused-by-a-parent person when addressing the Son of God in this extremely intimate way somehow begins escaping the familiar “ruts” which the abuse burnt into her brain. She begins feeling something else, a different kind of trust and love, unpolluted by the past. Such a radical trust opens the gate for the inflow of God. Desiring God seems to play the crucial role because it seems to counteract that “Manichean” damage of the body; the intense desire of the spirit is experienced in the soul and body and thus sends a person into a totally different mode of existence when the spirit and soul and body are one and experience Love untainted by the evil, Love in a pure form. I would go so far and say that it appears to me that for many abused individuals the experience of the love of Christ as of their Bridegroom is the only way to God, simply because only in a state of a radical openness can such people perceive the reality of God.
All the above does not mean that I propose to those who suffered sustained abuse to go for Christ the Bridegroom so to speak. I find it worth of thinking though that typical female figures in the Gospels are usually severely damaged, possessed, outcast – and their relationship with Our Lord, after He healed them and they followed Him certainly had the overtones of that very intimate kind of relationship, with the Bridegroom of their souls. Thus there is something there, and not just for those who are damaged or only females.
Finally, I feel the necessity to clarify something that may be missed, that such radical trust and changes in the soul and body of a believer could not be possible if she did not experience the Son of Man as the real Person – just like the women in the Gospels. It takes a person to undo the damage done by another, so no impersonal “God inflow” or “trust in God in general” can do much in this situation and this is why “general trust in God”, God Unknown, cannot really work. Hence true healing (and true spiritual life) must start from beginning to know the Person of God whom a person is supposed to trust. And, completely contrary to human logic it may appear that God demands the most radical trust from those who are least capable of it. Or perhaps it is not God but those damaged by the abuse can see more need for God to crack in, and more need for radical trust in Him – not light-weighted, empty worded “trust” but the trust out of sweat and blood.