Wounds that don’t heal

By Martin L. Smith

I will be celebrating Easter in Sydney this year, and no doubt the aromas of early fall down under will be different from the springtime scents of the northern hemisphere. But I expect there will be Easter lilies there somehow. I was recalling their fragrance the other day, and very particular feelings it has evoked in me ever since Holy Saturday, 1989.

I was arranging Easter lilies in a little chapel, not very well, so it is no wonder that I got distracted by one of the old magazines I was using to protect the floor. I glanced down and was shocked to read the title, “Children After Divorce: Wounds That Don’t Heal.” I knelt down and began to read the damp page with a strange feeling of apprehension; I felt on the verge of breaking a taboo. I was abandoned by a parent when I was a child, and endured the divorce that followed. And I was forbidden to grieve. I internalized the ban so thoroughly that for most of my life all sorts of upbeat interpretations of my experience sprang instinctively to my lips: “Well, it was hard, of course, but maybe it was all for the best… Everything worked out OK in the end. My parents weren’t a good fit for each other. We were resilient…” etc. etc.

This was the passage that struck me from Judith Wallerstein’s article, one anecdote from her research with kids who have undergone the divorce of their parents. A 6-year-old boy came to the research center. He wouldn’t talk about his parents’ break up, but he made a beeline for the array of dolls and toys that the therapists used. “When he found a good number of them, he stood the baby dolls firmly on their feet and placed the miniature tables, chairs, beds and, eventually, all the playhouse furniture on top of them. He looked at me satisfied. The babies were supporting a great deal. Then, wordlessly, he placed all the mother and father dolls in precarious positions on the steep roof of the doll house. As a father doll slid off the roof, the boy caught him and, looking up at me, said, ‘He might die.’ Soon all the mother and father dolls began sliding off the roof. He caught them gently, one by one. ‘The babies are holding up the world,’ he said.”

The devastating simplicity of that little boy’s words and the piercing eloquence of the scene he had created with the toys struck me to the core. “The babies are holding up the world.” That’s how it had felt! This unjust reversal of roles, this burden of protecting parents from their pain, this huge sense of responsibility… Kneeling among the disarray of Easter lilies, I felt knots beginning to loosen. It wasn’t too late, then, to feel the healing that comes when one’s pain is acknowledged as absolutely real. The burden of having to obey the protocols of denial begins to be lifted away.

Self-pity is such a horrible phrase that its associations can prevent us from feeling something that is different and wholly good—self-compassion. I felt tender compassion for the child I had been, and I put my finger on the wounds that suppressed grief had inflicted, wounds I had been taught to pretend weren’t there. I somehow managed to arrange the flowers though my vision was blurred by tears—good tears that seemed like the harbingers of integration and blessing.

Was it merely coincidental that this moment of truth happened on Holy Saturday? Perhaps not. After all, wouldn’t “Wounds that don’t heal” be an accurate title for an Easter sermon? I’m not alone in finding this single detail found in the stories of Jesus’ Easter appearances—that the Risen Christ has open wounds—to be the key that convinces me that the resurrection did occur. A made-up story would have had the wounds healed and an imaginary Christ as a figure of sheer glory. But no: the resurrection as it actually happened is God’s savage rebuke of all human tendency to cover up pain, all cosmetic smoothing over, all letting bygones be bygones, all conspiracies of silence, and phony cover-ups masquerading as reconciliation. “He showed them his hand and his side.”

Yet the resurrection of the wounded one is also the supreme gesture by God that bestows irrevocable permission for all time on those who have suffered to acknowledge their suffering as genuine, however others deny or minimize it. In the resurrection of the crucified, as the crucified, sufferers meet the Son of God as the one who keeps them company in the worst that can befall us. Through this meeting, we can find the redemption of what we endured, and delve into possibilities of grace in which buds of life and creativity can germinate just where injury and loss have done their worst.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

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