Do we need Healing of Memories in the Monastery?

pMichaelWhen we enter a monastic community, we are clothed in a habit and often, especially in the past, given a new name.
Does that mean that we ourselves are like a tabula rasa – a totally clean slate on which the monastic experience begins to be written? In that regard what has been our own experience as consecrated persons ourselves, and with our religious sisters and brothers.

To what degree do we carry inside us the impact of the families from which we come as well as the effect of what happened to our parents and grand parents.  Do we carry the imprint of our unfinished business into our communities?
How has the journey of your nation or community affected you? 
Is it relevant to speak about the healing of memories to us. as monks and nuns, as religious?
Do I have  unhealed wounds  that have been buried rather then healed because of experiences that I have had since I first entered the monastery.

For the last few years I have had the privilege of working with numerous religious congregations across Southern Africa both individually and together?

Together with other colleagues in the Institute for Healing of Memories we offer healing of memories workshops.   How I would characterise a geeric workshop is as follows

• A Healing of Memories workshop is a three day journey that encourages people to move from pain to hope. It provides participants with a safe and sacred space where they can be acknowledged for the pain of the past and honored for their sacrifices.

•The entire workshop can be thought of as a journey or, alternatively, as an open liturgical form. Using a variety of techniques including drama, drawing, clay, poetry, song and, above all story telling in small groups. The process gently encourages participants to move from a place of victimization to one of being able once again to become agents of history and to shape their own lives. A key component is being a member of a safe and caring group.

•Workshops culminate in a communal celebration or ritual devised by the participants themselves that looks towards the future with hope. The celebration is the capstone of the entire process and is informed by the belief that healing trauma has a spiritual dimension because it helps restore the sense that life is a journey rich in purpose and meaning, regardless of whether that is conceptualized in a traditionally religious framework.

• Workshops also further the healing of relationships and communities. When participants come from diverse social groups, listening to one another’s stories also helps to overcome negative perceptions of “the other”. People witness first hand the thoughts and feelings of participants different from themselves who have nevertheless experienced great pain. Thus, the experience that promotes individual healing also promotes mutual understanding, reconciliation, and a sense of community empowerment.

The workshop focuses on feelings rather than thoughts. The reason is simple. Poison within us is not because of what we think about what happened to us. It is because of what we feel.

In the past, especially in our novitiates there was no place for feelings – it was all about obedience.  Consequently some people have spent decades  harbouring resentment because there has never been “space” or “permission” to deal with early hurtful experiences.

In our context here in Southern Africa we join religious orders from societies which have been infected  by racism. Not always, by any means, but often, white members of racially mixed communities have said that “race” was not an issue in their community which has then been contradicted by black members.

Because of the history of discrimination and oppression, novices of colour are inevitably going to experience formators and those in authority in the light of their life experience and may impute motives and interpret behaviour which may or may not be right off the mark. This history of oppression may also be a factor in the dearth of religious vocations from South Africa compared with other countries in Africa.

It is particularly around the issues of remembering and forgetting, around acknowledgment and denial and about struggling with forgiveness, that I would like to focus.

As I wander around the world, listening to the pain of the human family people who are hurting often tell me how much they would like to forget what has happened to them but they cannot.

Can we or should we forget the past?

For a long time. I have mulled over these questions of remembering and forgetting. If you are a Moslem, if you are a Jew, if you are a Christian, whether you worship on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you belong to one of the worlds three great remembering religions.

Pervading the Hebrew scriptures is the Exodus story: from slavery to freedom – when the Jewish people misbehaved or became morally lost the prophets would chastise them with the words, remember when you were slaves in Egypt. Remember the God who walked with you, who talked with you.

And of course at  every Mass, the words of Jesus will be said: Take eat, this is my body, this is my blood, do this in memory of me.

Indeed we are and we are called to be, remembering people.What kind of memory is it that we are invited to have in Scripture: it is redemptive memory – memory of good that comes out of evil, of life that comes out of death.

From slavery to freedom. And in the Jesus story – the betrayal, the suffering, the crucifixion, the death and the resurrection to new life.

There is another kind of memory – destructive memory – memory that fuels conflict from one generation to another – memory that has poison connected to it. Grandparetnts teach there grandchildren how to hate – they tell the stories, they remember and there is poison connnected to the memory.

With reference to South Africa, imagine for a moment, if Nelson Mandela had walked from prison after 27 years and said "Its time to get them" We would have died in our millions – if his memories were filled with poison – instead he said: Never, never, and never again should people do to one another what was done to us.

The key question is how do we transform memory from destructive memory to life giving memory.

This is true in relation to individuals, communities and nations.

For many people, the key first step on the journey to healing and wholeness begins with the journey from knowledge to acknowledgment. Individuals, families, communities and nations have guilty secrets – everybody knows something to be the case, but there are conspiracies of silence

There is knowledge but no acknowledgment.

In our intimate relationships, all of us know the power of "Darling, I am sorry, I was wong, please will you forgive me." Of course, "darling" may say "Not yet, come back tomorrow, I am still hot".

When I am in the wrong, even only partly, the beginnimg of healing often begins when I acknowledge to myself, .my part in the wrong that has happened.
Every story needs a listener.

A little while ago, I was in the northern part of Sweden meeting with the Sami – the reindeer people who have their own stories of oppression and dispossession. There has been formal acknowledgment by the church of the wrong that was done to them over centuries. However I was told that whilst there was acknowledgment, ordinary Christians lacked knowledge about what happened. People have not heard the stories and dont know about the pain which was caused.

The long term impact of wars both just and unjust, not only on the lives of combatants but on their families. This can continue across the generations.

Often the legitimised violence of armed conflict which happens in public space gives way to other horrors which happen in private space behind bedroom doors – sometimes in harm to loved ones and sometimes in harm to self. Domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and psychological disturbances are just a few of the consequences of war.If a war is popular, soldiers return as heroes. If a war is unpopular soldiers may be seen as villains, or at the very least seen as pawns of politicians. In neither case does society really want to hear the story the soldier has to tell.

Part of the work of the Institute  has been to create safe spaces for returning war veterans. I listened to the pain of mothers and fathers whose children have come back from  war with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), who have become drug addicts, who are unable to hold down a job. Because of the advances in medicine, those who are injured in todays conflicts, often live for the rest of their lives, with indescribable physical injuries. Even more terrible are those whose pain and terrors are not visible to the naked eye.

In the South African context, I recall a young man coming to a healing of memories workshop – he had been a fighter for freedom and for good reasons was regarded as a hero in his own community. He told us that he did not want to speak about the heroism but rather about that of which he was ashamed. The stereotype of just being a hero had not allowed him to be the complex human being that we all are – living with contradiction and ambivalence - capable of being a fighter for justice, bystander, perpetrator and varying degrees – sometimes all at the same time.

Are our churches, monasteries and convents, safe places where we are willing to hear the stories of those who have imprinted upon them the horrors of what they experienced during war? And perhaps even more telling are we willing to hear the stories of those who represent the "other".

As people of faith dare we ask the question whether our own nation and the choices we and our leaders have made have contributed to exacerbating extremism and terror?What role do we as followers of Jesus have to make in addressing the root causes of terrorism?Our faith, the Jesus story itself, invites us to the life long journey of seeking to bring life out of death, good out of evilAs followers of Jesus how do we navigate our path between the demands of the gospel and that of the state? In South Africa the choice was even starker for some of us. The state called for our loyalty on the basis of our skin colour, whereas the teaching of Jesus encouraged us to act on the basis of our common humanity.

Lets equally pray that it wont take 200 years for the leaders of the worlds great religions to say sorry to same gender loving persons for the pain that our faith communities have caused.
In all human conflicts there is an "us" and a "them". A key element in the journey of healing happens when we meet the full humanity of the other – discovering that in the deepest sense there is only "us " - we do share a common humanity and that we all have a shadow side – in the horror of what others do I am confronted by what I am capable of doing myself. There but for the grace of God, go I.

Religion is increasingly a factor in contemporary conflicts. Never in human history has it been so important for religious leaders at local and national levels to model interfaith dialogue and to encourage their followers not simply to "tolerate", but to "reverence" people of other faith traditions. As Jesus says, I have other sheep that are not of this fold. The western media speaks constantly of the danger of Islamic fundamentalism. There is silence about the dangers which we face from Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and secular fundamentalism. We in religious orders have a great role to heal the wounds of history as we reach out to the monastic type traditions in other great religions as well as to the many forms of contemporary lay communities.

Allow me to return to my own story – to come up close and personal for a few moments.For nearly 20 years, I was part of the liberation struggle in South Afica, becoming one of the chaplains of the African National Congress of South Africa. As you recall, we as a faith community came to the conclusion, that apartheid was not only a crime against humanity, we also declared it to be a heresy, a false doctrine

Back in April of 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, on the eve of negotiations the apartheid state sent me a letter bomb hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines. My many injuries included the loss of both hands and one eye. Whenever I tell the story of that night – what is important for me to tell you, is not about the pain, but the sense that God was with me, that Mary who watched her son being crucified understood what was happening to me.

For 14 years before the bomb went off, I had lived in the countries of Southern Africa and travelled the world seeking to mobilize people of faith to see that apartheid was an option or a choice for death, carried out in the gospel of life. After I was bombed I received messages of prayer and love and support from people of faith and people of good will across the globe. My own story was acknowledged and reverenced and given a moral content.This was what enabled me to travel a journey from victim to survivor to victor – to move from being an object of history to become a subject of history once more – to becoming a participant in helping shape and create the world.

Often when I speak I say that I am not filled with hatred and that I dont want revenge. After I have spoken, people tell me that I am a wonderful example of forgiveness – curiously because I never mentioned the word forgiveness.In the faith community we are inclined to speak of forgiveness as something glib and cheap and easy. Most human beings find forgiveness, costly, painful and difficult. Sometimes we are too quick to tell people they should forgive whilst they are crying out for their pain to be heard to be acknowledged.
So far no one has claimed resposibility for what happened to me so there is noone to forgive yet. Perhaps on my return to Cape Town, someone will ring the door bell and say :" I am the one, please will you forgive me". Now forgiveness is on the table – I guess I have three choices of response: yes, no or not yet. Perhaps I might ask:" Excuse me, Sir, do you still make letter bombs?" "No" he replies – "I work around the corner from you at the local hospital. Will you forgive me?" "Yes, of course, I forgive you. I would prefer that you spend the next fifty years working in that hospital rather than be locked up". I believe much more in the justice of restoration than the justice of punishment – in restorative justice than in retributive justice.
Over tea, I might say to my new friend; I have forgiven you, but I still have no hands, one eye and damaged ear drums. I will always need someone to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course you will help pay for that person – not as a condition of forgiveness but as part of reparation and restitution in ways that are possible.

Reparation and restitution are part of the journey of forgiveness.

Dear sisters and brothers, I hope as you read what I have written  and as you reflect upon it,  you will ask yourselves, whether to yourself or to others you need to do some acknowledging. How have I been shaped by my country's past and what acknowledging do we need to do collectively as part of the faith community and as citizens? Do I need a safe space where I can begin to let go of that which is poisonous within me – because of what I have done, because of what was done to me, because of what I failed to do.

We all know so well the account of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples with and without Thomas. That story tells us that the Risen Christ was not a tabula rasa  but was also the crucified Christ however the wounds were   no longer bleeding – they had healed  This story  illustrates our vocation to be wounded healersWe are called to acknowledge each others wounds – to be NOT  Good Friday people – continuing to crucify one anther but rather to be  Easter Day people.

Do I need to begin a journey of forgiveness for the sake of my own freedom?Let us claim the promise of God: God's promise to accompany us on our journey. We receive it each time  we eat and drink – Christs body broken and blood poured out – food for our journey.

Father Michael Lapsley, SSM Director of the Institute for Healing of Memories
Provincial of the Southern African
Province of the Society of the Sacred Mission
Cape Town
South Africa