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Trauma Healing Advice From A 13th Century Doctor of Theology
Thomas Aquinas on “The Remedies of Pain and Sorrow”
I don’t recall any of my seminary professors pointing me to Thomas Aquinas as a source for counseling theory or technique. Perhaps they did and I missed it; regardless, I probably would have ignored recommended readings from a 13th century theologian-monk. But Aquinas comes up a lot in one of my other favorite areas of study — systematic theology — and I have since come to see that his psychology is often deep and penetrating. Or in the instance that sparked this post, directly practical.
In Ia2ae Question 38 of his Summa Theologica, which deals with “The Remedies of Pain and Sorrow,” Aquinas asks this unexpected question: “Whether pain and sorrow are assuaged by sleep and baths?” His short answer is yes, bodily remedies assuage sorrow. That simple answer rests upon a more profound understanding of the connections between mind, soul and body. This statement in particular caught my attention:
“Sorrow and pain, in so far as they affect the body, denote a certain transmutation of the heart.”
The Latin here is transmutatione cordis. I don’t know Latin, so I don’t know why “transmutation” isn’t translated; it is an uncommon word in English. The sense could be “change from one condition or substance to another”. That is, the psychological and emotional pain caused by sorrow changes and moves from the mind/spirit to the body. This is a philosophical description of Bessel van der Kolk’s catchy title The Body Keeps the Score. When not sufficiently digested, painful experiences turn to sorrow and take up space in our physical bodies. Indeed, Aquinas writes that
“Of all the soul’s passions [or emotions/affections], sorrow is most harmful to the body.”
So, while remedies for sorrow according to Aquinas include “contemplation of truth” (e.g. communion with God through biblical meditation and prayer) and “sympathizing friends”, proper attention has to be paid to the body. Otherwise, you can count on the body calling in its debts. Traumatic memories are capable of inducing all manner of physical symptoms. As Job complained, “When I remember, I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh” (Job 21:6).
Traumatic experiences also contribute to greater general risk for physical diseases. Consider the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study which was released in 1998. As noted by the CDC, this study of over 19,000 adults suggests that
“childhood abuse and household dysfunction lead to the development decades later of the chronic diseases that are the most common causes of death and disability in this country, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lung and liver disease, and injuries.”
This attention to the body is a helpful reminder for Christians, myself included, who can tend to neglect healing and care for our physical selves. As the erudite philosopher observes with profound simplicity1, this begins with the all important duties of personal hygiene. But the list of sorrow-healing physical activities could be quite long: leisurely walks and vigorous exercise; mindful breathing and silent meditation; singing and dancing; physical closeness with loved ones; gardening; music, painting, and other arts; and so on and so forth.
Perhaps you are engaging traditional spiritual disciplines in pursuit of healing and growth after trauma. Consider also your body’s role in healing from heartache. If you are seeking a counselor or therapist, ask how they attend to the embodied nature of trauma.
As I have learned more about embodied therapy, including how to attend to my own physical self, I have been more and more struck by the use of the body in Jesus’ healing miracles. Without equating the two, I wonder if Jesus’ method of healing serves as a reminder to us in the 21st century — with our largely disembodied, technologically driven lives — that healing, even when it is spiritual, must also be physical.
Quote from Bonnie Badenoch
“Something is afoot in society right now, attempting to reshape the conversation and practice of recovery from every kind of trauma, and we in our counseling rooms may be able to respond to this emergence as we sense that the essence of trauma isn't events, but aloneness within them. Who we perceive as being with us before, during, and after an event is central to our ability to integrate the trauma throughout our embodied and relational brains.”
How do you attend to the ways in which sorrow has seeped into your body?
Well, recommending baths is simple, but the way Aquinas goes about answering the question is not simple. For those interested, here’s how he put it: “I answer that, As stated above (Question , Article ), sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it. Moreover such remedies, from the very fact that they bring nature back to its normal state, are causes of pleasure; for this is precisely in what pleasure consists, as stated above (Question , Article ). Therefore, since every pleasure assuages sorrow, sorrow is assuaged by such like bodily remedies” (Ia2ae Question 38 Article 5).