Finding a New Faith, Part 2: Wandering the Desert

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Introduction

This is the second in a series of three articles on how my faith has been shaped by spiritual trauma. The first post focused on how I lost the faith of my childhood when I couldn’t reconcile my life experiences with the faith stories told in church. This second post in the series will focus on how spiritual trauma shaped my understanding of God and the people of God. The third post will explore what a Faith that acknowledges spiritual trauma looks like for me.

Cracked mud flatsWaking Up in the Desert

My disillusionment with God and loss of faith continued into my college years. When one of my friends committed suicide after high school people talked about him taking the easy way out, and they didn’t understand how someone could lose hope. I felt alone, afraid to tell people how badly I was hurting. At the same time, I knew that I was withering inside, that depending on suicide as my ultimate option was killing me by inches. My friend’s death made me aware of the impact of one life on so many others, and I didn’t want to inflict that pain on my friends and family. Though I was determined to persevere and wanted badly to believe in something beyond myself, eventually I attempted suicide twice and dropped out of college, unable to continue functioning.

Testing the Waters

Following my suicide attempts I entered 12-step recovery and began meeting other people who were searching for a different way to live, and for their own spiritual centers. One of the friends I made in those meetings asked me to come hear her perform in the handbell choir at her church, and I spent a brief interlude one Sunday on the edges of the congregation, though I stayed at the back of the sanctuary, cried during most of the service and snuck out before anyone could talk to me. The following summer I went back a few times, still sitting in the back of the sanctuary, and mostly succeeding in leaving before the pastors could get back to meet me, but eventually they caught up with me (pastors are tricky).

Through a ministry of lunches outside of church and a willingness to listen to my anger at God, the pastors drew me out and helped me to feel comfortable being among church people again. In conjunction with my 12-step family, my new church family helped me to begin to think about trusting in humanity again, though I still wasn’t ready to trust God. There were a few major people that were responsible for helping me to trust people again. My pastors earned my trust when were willing to listen to me curse God for the awful things he had allowed to happen. My 12-step friends earned my trust when they were willing to listen to me at 3am and drive me to the hospital when I was too caught up in suicidal thinking to remain safe on my own. A local meditation group invited me to join them and helped me to find calm, even when I was unwashed and too angry or too sad to be calm.

G.O.D. = Group of Drunks

One of my early AA mentors said that “God” meant “Group of Drunks”. After being long without a personal connection to God, that version of God that lived in the wisdom of groups of mutually loving people was an amazing connection. Before I could trust God again I learned to trust people, one person at a time. Before I came to believe again in an abstract, omnipresent God, Higher Power was many, many people who served as personal incarnations of the Christ, allowing me to experience a direct version of God’s love that gave me a basis for believing in a love beyond seeing and beyond reason.

My trust in humanity was restored by a thousand small acts of kindness, fleeting acts that passed without the givers being aware how significant they were to me. As a trauma survivor I had become hyper-alert to who in a room noticed me, in order to protect myself in case someone decided to hurt me. In recovery that meant that I was aware when someone in a room or on the street genuinely SAW me, rather than skimming over my face as one of the crowd. There were days when I decided to go on living because one person on the street nodded, or smiled, or in some other way let me know that they saw me.

I’ll never forget the homeless man who saw me lighting up a cigarette after leaving a midnight AA meeting, asked to bum a smoke and walked with me for a few blocks, asking if I was OK. He told me he’d been in recovery a few times, and wasn’t sober at the moment, but he hoped I made it and encouraged me to keep on keeping on. In that moment, our fleeting connection was my connection to Higher Power.

Coming up Next

The third part of this series will explore what a Faith that acknowledges spiritual trauma looks like for me, and offer hope for others on the journey of recovery from spiritual trauma. If you missed the first post in this series you can find it here.

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Matt Hartfield

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