When therapists enter into the “wild and precious lives” (Mary Oliver) of our clients, we go as guides accompanying courageous explorers of a vast and unknown wilderness. We enter expectantly into scarred and yet sacred terrain. At times, our courageous explorers take us to particular places of remembered grief. At other times, we stand with them amidst a fog accompanied by a searing soul-ache that tells of something then that is held now, remembered not as a coherent narrative but as burning shame in the face or a pit in the gut or a foot on the chest. The pain feels unending, the journey pointless.
We sit with the brokenhearted amidst lost love and unlived lives, disentangling years of accumulated resentment and holding silence for ache-overflowing into cascading tears.
There are moments in this sacred work when my client’s eyes meet mine with that first glance of knowing, when the veil of the survivor-self falls to reveal the vulnerable-self, where the path of courageous exploration begins to unfold before them. The late poet and priest John O’Donohue writes:
You are coming to see how you’re looking often darkened / When you should have felt safe enough to fall toward love, / How deep down your eyes were always owned by something
Into the vulnerable valleys we walk together through seemingly God-forsaken places, meeting exiled parts of of themselves which hold excruciating pain and extraordinary promise. Beneath crafted personas their hidden selves cower for fear of the light and the unbearable thought that they’d be seen only for their shame, for their ravenous hunger and insatiable thirst, for their helplessness, terror, even despair. They are surprised when these strangers respond to Love. How deeply they’ve longed for their ache to be known and held. They hear the whisper of an ancient text: “in repentance and rest, in quietness and trust.”
Gradually, the survivor-selves who’ve only known to grasp now release, aware now that a new Spirit-led self is emerging, able to heal every “wounded and weary, sick and sore” part of a once-fragmented soul. “You have wandered abroad as an exile from yourself. Return to your heart,” St. Augustine wrote. The return is a homecoming, to a place they’ve always known, to a Spirit who dwells within more near to each of us than our breath. A peace prevails.
Now, our eyes meet in a gaze of even-deeper knowing, a more profound remembering. This is who I really am, she says. And a smile returns. I was merely the guide who accompanied her through fear and grief until her heart wept its way to its true self (see the poem below). She was the courageous explorer.
These are moments that happen behind closed doors, without the glare of a camera or a mention on social media. Amidst a world of outrage and indifference, the healing work more often happens in quiet places along the margins, where the traumatized and troubled have always been. This is the work of healing every weary, wounded, and divided self so that we, together, can become ambassadors of shalom, healing a wounded, weary and divided world.
To those who walk this road, I bless you in the name of the one who took the road called Suffering.
From John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us