Many of us know the ambivalence of naming desire. It requires us to face the agony of our harm and, if we allow it, opens us to a new imagination for the future. Here, Rachael Clinton, Teaching Staff member and Director of Organizational Development, writes about a recent experience of Valentine’s Day that reflects her long, profound journey to healing and to the beauty of waking desire.
Now comes the long blue cold
and what shall I say but that some
bird in the tree of my heart
That same heart that only yesterday
was a room shut tight, without dreams.
Isn’t it wonderful–the cold wind and
spring in the heart inexplicable.
Darling girl. Picklock.
Now comes the long blue cold
-Mary Oliver in Red Bird
Not long ago, I found myself sitting in my living room with candles lit, wrapped up in a huge, cozy, fleece robe…alone. It was Valentine’s Day. Now, before you jump to any conclusions or find yourself moved to pity (just say no to pity), you should know that I often sit in my living room with candles lit, wrapped up in a huge, cozy, fleece robe, alone. And I love it.¹
No, what was significant about this Tuesday evening was the presence of an ache, a deep kind of ache I haven’t felt in years. Typically I treat Valentine’s Day like any other day, with an air of nonchalance, gratitude for my life even in singleness, and just a pinch of dissociation where I might feel the absence of romantic love.
But this Valentine’s Day, desire was making itself known, and despite the temptation to annul it with television, food, alcohol, mockery, self-righteousness, or shame, I let warm, salty tears baptize my face. I let longing for affection, for comfort, for companionship take up residence in my body. I let dreams awaken my heart, dreams that feel so threatening to the deep, sacred places where faith, hope, and love abide. It was agonizing and terrifying, but also beautiful and glorious because a part of me I thought had been damaged, possibly beyond repair, was emerging in the land of the living.
A part of me I thought had been damaged, possibly beyond repair, was emerging in the land of the living.
Like all of us, I bear stories of heartbreak, and those stories alone have been detrimental enough to steal my desire for romantic love. The pain is real, the impact profound, and healing takes time and work. But there are some stories that bear deeper levels of harm, and the trauma we experience banishes parts of us into the shadowlands, where death remains, language fails and the body is divided, a shattering of sorts.²
I found myself in the shadowlands three years ago after I was sexually assaulted while on a date in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Though I won’t go into many of the details of that day, I will tell you that I met this man at my favorite tea shop while working on a sermon about hope for Advent. I will tell you that I brought my voice assertively to no avail. I will tell you that to my horror, my body experienced arousal at moments, which is one of the insidious complexities of sexual harm: our bodies work how they are supposed to, and that can be exploited—and it feels like our bodies are betraying us. I will tell you that I believe evil wanted me to feel powerless, abandoned, silenced, terrified, violated, and culpable.³ I will tell you that despite the fact that I work with survivors of trauma and abuse, it took me weeks, if not months, to start telling myself, let alone others, the truth.
I knew that I was being invited by the enemy to name my desire as dangerous.
It’s like a part of me departed after that day, the woman who loved, the sensual and desirous woman, holy and embodied. I couldn’t even access her. I knew that I was being invited by the enemy to name my desire as dangerous, a liability and an invitation for harm, and although I didn’t believe that to be true, my body felt differently. I could bless that I was a fierce woman and a kind woman, a preacher lady and a good friend. Life indeed went on, but the sensual and desirous woman, the woman who loved, she remained in the shadowlands.
I didn’t date. I couldn’t date. I tried a few times, but that just brought about symptoms of PTSD. I knew cognitively I still longed for companionship, but my body was either shut down or triggered. Thankfully, I felt profound kindness toward myself, especially because of my work with trauma, and pursued many different forms of body care, i.e. massage, acupuncture, yoga, naturopathic medicine, etc. I prayed a lot. I also felt powerless, frustrated, and entrapped. I wish I could say that I immediately stepped into regular therapy, but I wasn’t ready and wouldn’t be for two years.
Last January, something shifted.4 I started to wake up. It turns out you can only keep hope bound for so long, especially if you are stepping more boldly into places of calling and kingdom play. I found a therapist and slowly began re-entering this story of harm, along with other stories. Graced with humility, vulnerability, kindness, fortitude, and courage, I’ve entered the shadowlands to bring her back, this woman who loves. And with the help of Jesus and the care of my community, healing is happening.
I’m learning again, that healing is a powerful form of resistance to the structures of evil and chaos, and I cannot imagine a time more relevant to re-learn this knowledge. It is why I worked feverishly with Dan and the team on our new online course Healing the Wounded Heart, designed to deepen understanding of the complex issues related to trauma, especially sexual harm, and look forward to moving through it myself. Healing is a gospel reality that declares death is never the end of the story. The pursuit of healing grows our capacity for compassion and empathy. It disrupts the complacent corners of our hearts and minds, moving us into life, into action, into love. And it is not something that we can do alone.
This past December, I wanted to mark the significance of this season of healing and reclamation, but also wanted help imagining goodness for the future. So I called on a friend, a woman of faith, creative and courageous, who curates rituals. Surrounded by a circle of my closest female friends and led by a tender priest, we told some of the stories of my heart, embodied them, shouted, cried, and laughed, dug our hands in soil, buried things and planted things. It was an incredibly rich gift and profound healing experience. I didn’t walk away magically whole, but I did feel deep welcome to parts of me that hadn’t seen light in a long time, good, sensual, holy parts of me.
So even though there is agony in the ache, I consider the tears of this week to be precious. Despite all of the enemy’s efforts to destroy my capacity to love from my deepest place, to annul hope, and to bring disorder to my body and imagination, life remains. I remain. Thanks be to God. I am still a woman who loves and wants to be loved, and I refuse to be ashamed of that even if I am sitting alone in my living room on Valentine’s Day, longing.
¹ I have all kinds of thoughts around Valentine’s Day (the commerciality of it or the fact that Saint Valentine was martyred) and lots of thoughts about singleness and Christianity that are for another day, another post.
² A few books worth reading if you want more insight into the trauma and its impact: Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope for Healing by Dr. Dan Allender, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining by Shelly Rambo, and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D
³ I don’t have space in this post to speak more to some of the cultural structures and theological systems that support misogyny, often leaving the burden of shame and guilt of sexual harm on the victim, especially if the victim is female, but I do believe they exist and are quite powerful. We will be addressing these realities on this blog in more depth in the future.
4 I did spend the entire year prior tending to a fracture in the tiny sesamoid bone on my left foot. I spent six months in a medical boot attempting to heal the fracture. That didn’t work, so I had it surgically removed. I couldn’t walk on my left foot post-surgery and rode around on a knee scooter for two months. Then, patiently progressed to the walking boot, to tennis shoes, to walking normally, after many months. This experience helped me attune to my body and learn a lot about what kind of labor is involved in the healing process.