There is no escaping that this fall has seen the heartbreak and trauma of war in a way that has caused normally aligned friends and family to be at odds, and even (for many) conflicted feelings within ourselves as we reckon with the horrors of Hamas’ brutal massacre and at the same time struggle with the horrific loss of innocent lives in Gaza, while hate spreads death and destruction. We’ve watched as antisemitism and Islamophobia have increased exponentially, exacerbating the widening gulf between left and right. We continue to be numb to yet another senseless mass shooting, this time in Maine. We’ve seen the hopelessness in the eyes of our youth as they watch repressive new laws taking away their bodily autonomy and as they watch the continued degradation of the planet they will inherit. For many (young and old), it seems the safest bet is to lose themselves in social media, digital gaming and substance abuse, checking out of the larger world. We’re seeing an epidemic of isolation in the world today.
While the old models of religion did give folks a sense of connection, they also came with some hefty dogmas and otherizing of anyone who didn’t believe as they did. We are seeing a rising Christian Nationalism which clings to those older models and rejects the pluralism which has been a source of hope for others in a world that is far more nuanced and interconnected than the binary constructs would have us believe. Countless people have walked away from religion in the past 30 years, and many ran due to religious wounding.
Yet, being in spiritual community can be a source of emotional support when times get rough; studies have actually shown that being in spiritual community can reduce mental health problems as well as lengthen life. Conversely, other studies have looked at the rise in White Christian Nationalism, and at the various hate groups akin to it as a reaction to the loss of connection and a yearning for any community even if it is one based on hateful tribalism. We are relational creatures; without that we fail to thrive.
Many of the mystics and sages have said we’re in a time of paradigm shift, but what does that actually mean? Yes, we know that religions across the board have grown smaller and smaller in the last 20+ years while the largest growing demographic is that of the Spiritual But Not Religious. But what will spirituality look like when the old models die away or reinvent themselves? How will spirit thrive when it is no longer tied to patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism? How do we build beloved communities which honor the lived reality of people of color, queer folk, poor & homeless people and the refugees of the world, let alone a beloved community which embraces all of the Abrahamic family – Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims & Palestinian Christians? How do we step out of our safe but lonely cocoons to help create the world we want to live in?
First, we must pause to breathe. Our automated and hyper-connected lives leave no room for nonproductive being. That is by design. Audre Lorde said that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It was the radical reason that a group of Israelite slaves created as their most sacred commandment, the sabbath – a day of rest for all of us enslaved to the demands & power of commerce. Those powers know that if we have time to rest, then we have time to notice what is happening in the world around us, and that awakens compassion within us. We need only look at the massive turn out for Black Lives Matter in the early days of the pandemic – we were all at home to witness that knee on a throat and couldn’t look away.
One of the terms that came out as the pandemic drug on was “compassion fatigue” because there was so much heartache that folks had nothing left to give. Was that what the Divine meant when scripture speaks of “hardening” someone’s heart? But compassion is what calls us to stand up for the oppressed. It is what calls us out of our self-interest to lend a helping hand. Yet, we have so little compassion for ourselves; we are enculturated in this capitalist society to berate ourselves if we don’t measure up to someone else’s idea of “success.” Ironically, compassion is the one thing which can lead us back to connection and community. Compassion is a name for the Divine in many traditions. Compassion calls us to see the devastation, to cry with the heartbroken, to hold the children and to say no to the machine of war.
The experts in trauma teach us that to heal from any trauma – individual or collective – we must be witnessed as we tell our stories, and to engage in embodied practices which ground us, connect us to each other and to the Breath of Life. Some of the very practices we see in spiritual communities – singing together, sharing the same breath patterns as we speak aloud our hopes and our concerns through prayer, hugging our neighbors – are the same tools for healing trauma.
Spiritual community may not look like megachurches in future years. Before we see what the collective will look like, though, we first must pause, breathe, and explore what our own spirits are yearning for, individually. We must name the hurts and hopes of our own souls and be witnessed on that personal journey. We must reconnect our souls and minds with our bodies and the body of the earth which sustains us. It is no coincidence that our fevered society is mirroring a fevered planet. We must engage in the political act of self-care and self-compassion. We are seeing myriad unions standing up to big business; workers saying they’ve had enough of subjugation for subsistence. What is possible when we collectively empower our own spirits and make holy the very real need for healing and compassion on a global scale?
Instead of bowing to guru, priest or politician to tell us what to do and think, a new spiritual care provider has been emerging in recent years, the spiritual companion. There have been Spiritual Directors providing pastoral care for a few centuries now, but the current breed of spiritual director isn’t directive – doesn’t tell you what to believe or how to relate to the Divine. We walk along side – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists and Spiritual But Not Religious – as those we support make meaning of their own lives and their own relationships with others and with that which is holy to them. Most chaplains and spiritual directors/companions honor what you believe AND what you don’t believe. We make space for you to decide how you want to relate with Awe or Gd or whatever Source is guiding you.
In this time of grief and trauma, we all need a witness on our journey, who listens for our hopes and celebrates our own soul-connections and self-compassion. We all need the sacred space in which to heal our spirits. So in this heart-wrenching time, pause to breath; seek out a spiritual companion; invite self-compassion. As you nourish your own spirit, may your compassion grow for those who are counting on us to create the world we are all waiting for. In healing our own spirits, may we bring healing to this hurting world.