In my occupation I encounter trauma regularly. It could be walking into a hospital room and seeing a person’s broken body that is struggling for life. It could be sitting with a weeping wife as CPR is performed on her husband in the next room. It could be stepping into a room where fifteen family members surround the bed of the family matriarch as her breathing grows steadily more shallow and her pulse weakens until it is non-existent.
Your job might not bring you into regular contact with that sort of trauma but life being what it is there is a 100% chance you will experience trauma. It might be the sort of trauma the comes from a horrific collective experience witnessed through a screen like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting. It might be the loss of a relationship, job, or the death of a loved one. Trauma and loss are universal human experiences and our hyper connected world guarantees that you will be more exposed to traumatic events across the globe than in generations past. Plus, the 24 hour news cycle means that those events will be constantly in front of your eyeballs thus repeatedly exposing you to the trauma. Does anyone else have the images of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center on 9–11 permanently etched into their mind? Those images will never leave me.
With trauma being a universal human experience, it raises a question. How are you processing that trauma. For many, trauma raises religious questions. People cry out to God and wonder how such evil could happen. It’s a classic philosophical question known as theodicy. Maybe those cries to God are kept internal. Maybe you voice your questions and doubts to a member of the clergy or to a trusted friend. But have you ever considered writing out those struggles in the form of a prayer?
In my particular tradition, written prayers are a rarity. This is a bit strange since an entire book of the Bible (Psalms) is essentially written prayers. Some of the Psalms are clearly prayers of praise that come from a heart experiencing joy (Psalm 24). Other Psalms would suggest hardship, trauma, struggle, and even doubt (Psalm 22, Psalm 23). I found that sometimes in my own prayers I struggled to be honest with my feelings. It felt somehow transgressive to reveal my deepest thoughts to God. It seems absurd but sometimes I felt like I had to “have it all together” in my prayers. Going back to the Psalms served as an inspiration for my own prayers as I realized just how brutally honest and real the psalmist was in his writing.
Writing out prayers after encountering difficult events helped me to think carefully through the emotions and words I wanted to express. Am I angry? How can I write that out? Am I sad? How can I express that sadness? Am I hopeful? How can I make that hope clear even in the midst of these challenges? In other words, slowing down to write the prayers helped me process the range of emotions that I was experiencing and instead of keeping them bottled them up I let them flow to the page and into the prayer I was writing and offering.
An unforeseen benefit of writing out prayers has been going back to those prayers as time passes and seeing how I have grown and matured through the challenges. The written prayers capture a moment in time of real struggle in my faith journey and the more honest I am in writing them the more beneficial they are in helping me see how I’ve grown. They also serve as reminders of what inspired the writing of the prayer in the first place. With time and healing, going back to those prayers doesn’t bring up a PTSD-like reliving of the trauma but rather a testament to how my faith helped to sustain me through the valley of the shadow.
If you have never written out prayers, I would encourage you to give it a try. Buy a notebook specifically for writing out your prayers and keep it handy for whenever you need to think through something you have experienced and want to share those deepest thoughts and struggles with God. Be honest. Be raw. God can take it. If you need inspiration check out the Psalms I referenced earlier. You’ll find that the psalmist was brutally honest and that’s one reason why those prayers still strike such a chord today. You’ll find that the more honest you are in your written prayers the more healing they will be for you.