Margaret Silf
I put my hand in the oven a few weeks ago and scorched myself on the heating element. In normal times this would have been just another domestic accidenta careless mistake for which my skin paid the penalty. But the times were not normal. I was in a dark space following the breakdown of a significant relationship; and this accident became an incident that, in hindsight, has taken on something of the power of parable. My close encounter with the grill left me, initially, quite oblivious of the pain that was about to follow. As so often in these matters, the pain of trauma is delayed. I recall once slicing off the tip of my finger with an electric bread slicer (oh, the joy of our high-tech kitchen aids!) and being genuinely surprised to see the blood issuing from the wound, and the redesigned shape of my digit. It was a full few minutes later before the searing pain kicked in.

Now, as I reflect back, I can see the same pattern revealed in the deeper, invisible traumas in our lives. The initial shock of what has happened simply doesn’t sink in, and we are granted a short respite of stunned numbness before our minds and hearts have to begin to deal with the fallout.

Needless to say, my hand soon registered its displeasure at being so undeservedly barbecued. For a while the wound screamed through my consciousness, allowing me to think of little else, yet at the same time refusing to allow itself to be touched with any kind of balm. It sat there, across my hand, growing daily more livid and leaving me helpless either to help myself or allow anyone else to help me.

I realize now that my more personal trauma was behaving in much the same way: taking over every waking thought and every restless dream, yet repelling any attempts at tender ministration. The wounded animal tends to bite the one who would feed and care for it. The fact that we belong to that same animal kingdom is particularly apparent when we are hurting.

But then the matter moved on again. Within a few days the pain began to subside. It was possible to touch the wound, and to administer soothing cream to it. I watched, not without a sense of wonder, how my own body’s self-healing capabilities began to work. The angry redness faded to a more conciliatory dark pink. The pain became less insistent. The scorched skin gradually fell away, and I could see this miraculous process unfolding before my eyes, as a new skin cover was being created. Everything that had been damaged and destroyed was being gently set aside, health was being restored, and a new beginning was being woven. The pain was still there, but it no longer dominated my mind. I was beginning to focus on the healing process instead, and even to cooperate with it.

The healing of an aching heart and devastated feelings takes a lot longer than that. Maybe it takes a lifetime. But my hand seemed to be telling me that healing is the real thing, and that Dame Julian of Norwich got it right when she said that all shall be well. My hand is teaching my heart to trust the mystery that is ceaselessly striving for our greater good, out of whatever facts we present.

Day by day my skin has knitted back together, and now all I have left to show for my destructive adventure is a slight scar. I’m actually hoping that the scar never completely fades, because it is something of an icon for me. It leads me through and beyond itself to the place where I meet the Healer. It will always remind me that whatever the trauma, the permanent reality in which we live and move and have our being is about wholeness, not harm. One of my favorite Scripture texts is the assurance in Jeremiah (29:11-12): I know what plans I have in mind for you, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. Our scars are our reminders, not just that we have been hurt but, more important, that we have been healed.

There is a custom among some Native American peoples, that when someone is bereaved or suffers any kind of traumatic loss, that person is invited to go out into the forest carrying an axe, and to choose a special tree, to represent the aching space of the loss or the breakdown. Once the tree has been selected, the bereaved one (for every kind of loss in life is a bereavement), strikes several sharp blows into the bark of the tree with the axe. The wounds of the heart are inflicted, both symbolically and actually, upon the tree. The tree is wounded but not destroyed, and from then on the one who has suffered the loss is encouraged to visit the tree regularly, and to be present to its gradual healing, over time, from the wounds it has suffered. The tree and the mourner become one in their pain and in their healing until eventually what they share has become a deep and sacred scar.

Our neighbors across the English Channel enjoy an interesting linguistic quirk. The French word blesser, which we anglophones are likely to associate with our word blessing, actually means to wound. Since I uncovered this fact in my school French lessons, I have always subconsciously linked woundedness and blessing in my mind. My recent experience confirms that association. In my darkest hour I begged God in prayer for a glimpse of light, an angel’s touch, to guide me on. The next day I put my hand in the oven. And God did the rest.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and the Catholic Press Association award-winning The Gift of Prayer.

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