I remember teaching my best friend, Lisa, how to ride a bike at 22 years old when she was nearly a college graduate.
Sister Lisa — yes, she is now a religious sister with the Servants of God’s Love in Ann Arbor, Michigan — is one of those apparently fearless people who will try anything new, has an awesome heart for adventure and isn’t afraid of having to learn “on the job.” So why, you may ask, did she not learn to ride a bicycle until she was 22 years old?
Lisa grew up in a war zone; she lived in Baghdad, Iraq, in the 90s and early 2000s, only migrating to the United States when she was 16 years old. Her childhood was deeply impacted by war. Children did not go out to play in the streets; they sequestered in homes to stay safe from bombs. Family and friends were kidnapped and then killed. Children did not have the freedom to learn how to ride a bicycle.
For a long time, Lisa thought she had a “normal” childhood, not realizing how deeply past events had impacted her and not understanding how to begin to process that trauma. Friends witnessed Lisa’s charismatic personality and infectious laugh, but few people understood her traumatic past or that it was almost too painful for her to touch.
Fast forward to March 2020: coronavirus shutdowns begin. For most of us, the initial news of the virus sparked some combination of concern, frustration, loss, anger, sadness or fear. For Lisa, it was an immersion into her childhood trauma, a parallel experience to living through war. Lockdowns and quarantines were all too reminiscent of wartime panic, mandatory shut-ins and living in a constant state of fear. When quarantine began, Sister Lisa was faced with flashbacks, forced to revisit her childhood and compelled to find a way to work through the trauma she had buried for so long. She felt vulnerable, exposed and completely helpless.
When Sister Lisa shares her story of healing, she speaks of the deeper lesson the Lord has been teaching her: “How to thrive in a survivalist time.” Those words resonated deeply with me because they offer a profound reflection on what we have all experienced in this past year.
We may not have grown up in a war zone, but we have all undergone some degree of trauma in our lives, perhaps especially this past year. The question is not if trauma and pain will come, but how to deal with them — and ultimately, how to find hope in the midst of trauma and how to let Christ heal it. To be clear, if you find yourself struggling in any serious way in the present because of some past or ongoing trauma, please do seek professional help. That is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and there are even many wonderful Christian counselors (as Sister Lisa and countless others have discovered) who understand that our deepest healing comes from the Divine Physician, Jesus himself, who can help lead us on that path.
Yet in this Easter season — this time of Resurrection — I would like to share a few pieces of wisdom about how to confront wounds from our past and move forward in hope. Inspired by Sister Lisa, here are three steps that may help you on your own journey:
Acknowledge the hurt
Sometimes we are afraid to acknowledge that something has hurt us. As a first step, we have to realize that it is okay to acknowledge a past trauma or a deep hurt — not because we are choosing to focus on the negative, but rather in order to be honest with ourselves. When we simply admit that we have been hurt and are in need of healing, that takes the pressure off of us and opens our hearts to the possibility of healing.
Healing is not something that we give to ourselves. It is something that we allow Jesus to minister to us — something that we receive. Through her own journey, Sister Lisa discovered how closely her experience of trauma mirrored the experience of Jesus on the Cross.
“The power of Christianity is that the wrongs of others can right us,” she told me. “Even the most evil thing that can happen to us can bring us healing.” This is the hope that we have in Christ. Nothing is beyond him. He is the one who has the power to transform the cross into Resurrection. The most obvious and essential route for receiving Jesus’ healing is through the power of the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist. Yet it is also important to take particular areas of pain to focused prayer.
As a step to receive the Lord’s healing, set aside a few moments for meditative prayer. Choose one area where you have been hurt, and invite Jesus to revisit that situation with you. In his name, forgive those who have hurt you, and ask him to show you his presence and love in the midst of your pain. Pray for healing and freedom in the name of Jesus. Allow him to break through the status quo of your survival mode and lead you into the freedom of thriving with him. If that is difficult to do alone, invite a mentor or a friend whom you trust to a night of healing prayer with you. Pray for and with each other, and experience the healing and freedom that Christ wants to offer you. Sister Lisa also highly recommends the JPII Healing Center as an excellent resource and aid on the path to receiving healing.
Live fully alive
The beautiful thing about being healed is that it sets you free! Sister Lisa and others who have learned how to thrive after trauma attest to that same freedom. Auschwitz survivor Edith Eger reflects, “You can’t change what you did or what they did to you. But you can decide how to live now.”
Cardinal Van Thuan, who survived years of imprisonment and solitary confinement under a communist regime, became an expert at learning to live abundantly in the very midst of trauma. He writes, “All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love.” Cardinal Van Thuan went on to live a radical life of Christian hope and love, even ministering to his very captors.
The witness of those who have gone before us speaks louder than words: Jesus loves you too much to leave you in your pain. He wants to meet you there and free you. Whether or not you find yourself deeply impacted by a past wound, we can all get better at living as people of hope in the present. May you be inspired to open your heart more fully to receive the healing love and mercy of Christ, and may you shine forth the radiant witness of the hope that does not disappoint (cf. Rom 5:3-5).