Theopoetics of Trauma: Bearing witness to what remains

Luke Edwards

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” – Mary Angelou 

On account of being human, we are shaped into our story and in-turn, our story shapes us and our world. On account of our inherent relatedness, life’s twists and turns can wound and scar. Fate will have a hand in whether these experiences imprint rupture. As I have come to know, this rupture can render one utterly undone; a pain doubled by the agony of carrying trauma’s invisible – mute – dead – weight. To know such pain is to be radically intimate with what it is to be embodied – its haunting absence and its agonising presence. Knowing such pain is to read Mary Angelou’s claim and wilt in assent. Along my path of pained pursuit for meaning, I was blessed to uncover the gift of theopoetics; bestowing an avenue for an imaginative, creative conversion of absence to presence, that could ‘bear the unbearable into speech’.¹

I am no neuroscientist, but I have lived what the research shows. Guided by its own ways and wisdom, the body overwrought by traumatic experience activates acute systems of defence as a protection against being open to life. The body, now focused on survival transforms its neural state to the point where, “Survivors of trauma may have thoughts and mental images of welcoming others in a warm embrace, but their bodies are hypervigilant and resist engagement to protect and defend.²  Wired and wounded, one’s orientation to life is radically altered. Alert and vigilant to threat, the bodies design for relationality and communication is compromised; the agony twisted by the heart’s unending desire for connection that the body will not entertain, left to remain unquenched.

To live this way is to be exposed to what therapist Robert Stolorow describes as the ‘unbearable embeddedness of being’, an “authentic being-toward-death… (where) illusions of everyday life that cover up the finitude and embeddedness of our existence”³ are shattered. Instead, the traumatised person is confronted with a horizon coloured by the perception of aspects of existence that lie well outside ‘everyday’ existence.

Confronted with the unsayability of trauma, Stolorow’s words thawed the freeze of trauma. His ability to language something so radically embodied and yet so distant to expression, felt like being named. Indeed, my existence had been plagued by the seemingly endless and unfolding possibilities of dread, flowing back from an infinite horizon that was stretched by my bodies receipt of and hostage to trauma.

To carry an innate orientation for ‘faith seeking understanding’ alongside this wounding is to carry a further body-blow. What is certain is the questioning that intimacy with such embodied rupture unearths. For if God is love, then where is God amongst and within such brokenness? Invisible, paralysed, and mute, one’s experience is alien to any positive sense of agency and is the absolute antithesis of being made in the image and likeness of God. Rather, to be stuck in the mire of trauma is to experience a life of elision; territory of agonising misrecognition shaped by an unrealised sense of self and by the inability for others to bear witness to the pain. And often well intentioned, notions of God and grace will miss the mark and only serve to compound the ache, bandaging over the wound.

No doubt carried by the Spirit, ways of tending to the wounds of trauma are surfacing. As neuroscience continues to reveal our deeply embodied nature, ways of understanding human experience are catching up to the imprint of Christ-wisdom. Amongst many, Shelley Rambo’s theological perspective offers a breakthrough towards greater visibility. With acute empathy, Rambo invites a way of recognising traumatic experience from the perspective of the ‘middle ground’, where the one/s who is/are oriented to encounter the ‘ongoingness of death amongst life’ give ‘witness’ to what ‘remains’. This way of seeing and living not only has implications for how we live our lives and our relationships, but it invites us to recognise the ‘middle ground’ of the Christian tradition. Whether it be in Rambo’s account of Holy Saturday as ‘middle ground’ or a renewed way of seeing the ‘wounded one’s’ reappearance in the Upper Room, giving ground to such wisdom is to play host to angels.

When we turn with such knowledge of traumatic rupture to look upon the Christian story, we may see more clearly the cross, hear more urgently the call and feel more tenderly the touch, of the one who embodied it all. Softened and humbled by the tenderness of our communal vulnerability, we may open ourselves to the compassion our bodies hold, to truly become the Body of Christ. Revelation from this side, the tender underside, is Good News.

Response Questions:

  • What is the muddiest point in this piece?
  • What does Edward’s piece tell us about the broader implications of using a theopoetical understanding of the Divine?

Informed by his faith and deep sense of spirit, Luke Edwards brings his lived experience of trauma into conversation with what it is to be embodied. Blessed with creative intuition, Luke seeks to offer responses and promptings attuned to a way of being that accompanies and enables an embodied spirituality. As an educator, facilitator, musician and writer, Luke is avidly exploring ways of integrating the best of science, theology and spirituality to the pursuit of being human today in a way that serves the greater good. For examples of Luke’s theopoetic compositions go to (for poems). You can also check out some of his demo’s (songs) here.

¹ Heather Walton, “Poetics” in The Wiley‐Blackwell Companion to Practical Theology, ed., B. J. Miller‐McLemore, ed., (Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2012), 180, doi:10.1002/9781444345742.ch20.

²  Steven Porges in B. Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships (New York: WW. Norton and Company, 2018), Foreword, xii.

³ Robert Stolorow. “Phenomenological Contextualism”, Location 1175, Kindle