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Terrible Beauty, Part II
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of the terrible” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
This line has been swirling around my ahead alongside two other concepts. First, that trauma healing begins with beauty; and second, that trauma healing requires (safely) confronting traumatic memories. Beauty is the proper starting point to transformation and healing. Beauty might also be the best way to confront traumatic memories and their associated feelings of terror, shame, grief and rage. At least, that’s what the Psalms seem to indicate.
More than any other portion of Scripture, the Psalms take trauma head on. Consider the trauma of war and battle which might lie behind David’s words in Psalm 35:1, “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!“ Or the terror that occurs in the context of interpersonal trauma in Psalm 55: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.” Putting such terror into words, speaking the unspeakable, is part of the healing process. What strikes me is that the Holy Spirit gave us beautiful expressions of terror, so that we speak the unspeakable beautifully. The psalms are poetry, after all. But the beauty doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit gave us psalms to sing about the terrible — we sing the unspeakable. The process of healing from trauma that the Psalms invite us into is a process of taking our experiences of terror and dramatizing them in song.
We sing the terror that happened to us:
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. (Psalm 35:7)
Surprisingly, we also sing the terrible that now lives inside of us:
Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it! And let the net that he hid ensnare him; let him fall into it—to his destruction! (Psalm 35:8)
Such expressions of terror and rage — emotions that are the natural and inevitable effects of trauma — are essential for recovery and healing. Suppressed, the emotions become self-inflicted wounds on mind, soul and body. But not just any expression will do. We are called to sing our terror, to mysteriously and paradoxically make it beautiful. And even more surprising, we don’t just sing our terror, we bring it into corporate worship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only God can hold all of our pain, anger, grief, sadness and shame, and the trauma survivor can sing even the most hateful, vengeful thoughts knowing that God will take them and then do what is right, even if that means a different form and timing of justice.
But it is not God alone that receives our beautiful terror. Another beautiful element of singing about the terrible - both terror suffered from others and terror thought against others - is singing with the family of God. Trauma survivors need others who can, like their Savior, sing jointly so as to help hold and contain intense anger, unimaginable grief, and unspeakable horror. A community that can sing the terrible and make beauty out of profound horror will be a community of beautiful healing and profound hope.
This is longer than I like these newsletters to be, but as Pascal said, I haven’t had time to make it shorter. So, I leave you with some short, pithy statements to ponder. Dostoevsky said,
“beauty will save the world.”
Stephen Porges, whose pioneering work on the autonomic nervous system has produced a new field of treatments for trauma, likes to say,
“safety is the treatment.”
Perhaps with Dostoevsky we can say:
“beauty is the treatment.”
Perhaps we can, with an adaptation of Rilke, say,
Beauty is nothing but the beginning of the end of the terrible.
Quote from Walter Brueggemann
We need not flinch from the therapeutic value of the Psalms. In our heavily censored society, this is one place left in which it may all be spoken. But it is more than cathartic, more than simply giving expression to what we have felt and known all along. In genuine rage, words do not simply follow feelings. They lead them. It is speech which lets us discover the power, depth, and intensity of the hurt. The Psalms act as self-discovery that penetrate the facade of sweet graciousness.
Honest to God Preaching: Talking Sin, Suffering, and Violence, by Brent Strawn. I haven’t read this yet, but it’s on my list after hearing a lecture (starting at minute 6:45) with similar themes as chapters 3-4 of this book, and that lecture helped spark these reflections.
Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, by Walter Brueggemann
Just prior to Paul’s statement in Romans 15:4 about Scriptures being “written in former days…for our instruction,” he quotes Psalm 69:9 and applies it to Jesus: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (Romans 15:3). Psalm 69 is a lament / imprecatory psalm with some very striking expressions:
Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. (v. 24) Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. (v. 27)
Could it be that the encouragement of these Scriptures and the hope they produce is especially suited for those who have suffered trauma? What would it be like to sing all of Psalm 69 with respect to trauma you or someone you love has endured?