Suffering, Remaining, and Witness

Below is a post by Theophilus editorial board member and CTU MA student, Susan Francois, CSJP. She reflects on this year’s LCWR address which happens to correlate to work that Susan is doing right now as she prepares for her comprehensive exams. This post first appeared on her blog.

I was delighted to see that Nancy Schreck, OSF drew upon the work of Shelly Rambo in her 2014 LCWR Keynote address. I have been 412Gx1t-D-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_reading (and re-reading) Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (2010 Westminster John Knox Press) these days. I first used Rambo’s book for a paper I wrote on the ministry of reconciliation with trafficked persons. I’m now using it as part of my thesis work (today in fact …. it sits open before me as I procrastinate in my research with this blog post!)

It was interesting to read Schreck apply Rambo’s work on trauma to the place where women religious find themselves today.

This shifting within religious life and in world events has taken us to what I call a middle space. We find ourselves in this place of both creativity and disorientation. Much of what was is gone, and what is coming is not yet clear….

I am greatly helped in this next section by the work of Shelly Rambo and her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Rambo speaks about a theology of remaining in difficult places because “when you enter certain worlds, they do not let you go.”

Though her work is with trauma survivors and in no way do I want to diminish the aspect of trauma, I do think some parallels with or experience can be drawn….

The task of “remaining” in this uncertain place is to pay attention to the reality that does not go away. In this experience all of our theological categories are re-defined: concepts like love, divine presence, incarnation, and world view are reshaped. Knowledge, truth, and experience of our world are transformed, placed on much more fragile terrain because of the radical disruption….

What we try to do in the middle space is to describe events that shatter all that one knows about the world and the familiar ways of operating within it. What if from this place we simply witness to and provide testimony about this experience, with special attention to truths that often lie buried and are covered over….

In this middle space that is what we do: we call attention to things, things others might bury, or are afraid to face. That is why I say, however long the night we will be faithful and we will speak about what we are learning in the middle space. We trust Holy Mystery revealed in our midst. (Excerpt, Schreck, pages 7-10)

I need to think and pray into that some more, especially as it relates to my experience as a woman religious.

I’ve certainly been thinking and praying with a heavy heart today about the immense (human induced) suffering in our world today. And I mean, quite literally, today. A friend recently posted a very poignant list she’s been carrying around with her these days: “Fergusson (police state, Black Man Walking), Gaza, Ukraine, Malaysian Air Flt 17, Refugee kids fleeing violence in Central America, Yazidi’s fleeing the Islamic State, The Islamic State, Syria, Afghanistan, Ebola …” No doubt you have your own (similar) list. It seems to be growing by the day. So much violence, oppression, death, and trauma being caused to human beings by other human beings. One can feel paralyzed, helpless, or even complicit. Our globalized media savvy reality means that we are present to this suffering on one (superficial/virtual) level, even though the vast majority of us are removed in our privileged spaces of comfort and safety. In my case, I think that’s at the root of much of my own sense of being uncomfortable in my own skin as human induced suffering rages on and seemingly spreads. Removed as I/we are from the reality of suffering, I worry that it becomes easier to ignore or fail to act against it, thereby fueling more suffering.

Which is where I find Shelly Rambo’s work so helpful:

In our current world, we are witnessing ongoing atrocities and different manifestations of suffering. The invisible forces of global capital and the undetectable effects of new wars and their justifications demand that theological accounts of suffering attend to the elisions constituting traumatic suffering. Although some may say that all ‘suffering is suffering,’ there are different expressions of that suffering and its effects that press for renewed theological articulation. I understand this as the increased invisibility of suffering and the power of its erasure. The discourse of trauma engages these invisible realities, continually calling attention to what falls outside the lines of what is, or can be, represented. The challenge of theological discourse is to articulate a different orientation to suffering that can speak to the invisibility, gaps, and repetitions constituting trauma….

A theology of the middle Spirit can help us rethink the theological discourse about suffering, given its new unique dimensions in trauma. Bessel van der Kolk acknowledges that one of the primary effects of trauma is a crisis of the human spirit. This crisis refers to a complete loss of meaning and trust in the world. … How does a theology of the Spirit meet this crisis of spirit?….

I have started to envision practices patterned after this testimony, practices of tracking and sensing that propel us to recognize suffering amid its multiple elisions….

The tracking and sensing, then, not only unearth and give theological significance to the unknown and unutterable within human experience, but these practices also testify to something of who we understand God to be. The work of the witnesses is to track the undertow and to sense life. But this witness is, as well, a testimony that runs deeper than we might imagine, to the nature of divine love. In the middle, divine love is witnessed in its remaining. …The work of tracking and sensing is sanctifying work, the work of making love visible at the point where it is most invisible.

If we read this sacred story as a story of survival, we are pressed to think about what it means to remain in the aftermath of a death that escapes our comprehension. To witness this sacred story is also to receive it for the truth that it tells: love remains, and we are love’s witnesses….

From this space, a different vision of life can be glimpsed. It is life as remaining. This transformation, this redemption in the abyss of hell, is not about deliverance from the depths but, instead, about a way of being in the depths, a practice of witnessing that sense life arising amid what remains. The middle story is not a story of rising out of depths, but a transformation of the depths themselves.

(Excerpt, Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, 169-172)

A lot of words, many of them big theology words. But really, if I am even beginning to understand their power, I think it is summed up best by these two contrasting photos that have come out of Ferguson:

Top: Violence, suffering, and trauma.                                                           Bottom: Witness, remaining, and healing.

 

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