Offering: November 12, 2022
How to be with a wound without acting
Image description: A hand is holding a Tarot card, Queen of Cups, in front of a window, a snake plant and a wood floor. The card depicts a person dressed in a flowing robe and cape that looks like water, on the edge of the sea. There are rocks and shells all around her feet, and a throne engraved with baby mermaids. She’s holding an ornate vessel with both hands, away from her body, and looking at it intently.
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I’ve spent much of Autumn trying out new ways of telling an old story I love called the grail legend. Out of personal necessity, I’ve been trying out new takes that trouble the fantasy of the perfect individual choice that yields total healing.
I have been questing. Seeking adequate charms for living with wounds that don't heal. Healing is only one of maybe a hundred ways to relate with an injury. And healing is not always possible.
Last winter, after the release of Tarot for Change, I was considering leaving the psychology field for religion and theology. I spent a lot of time in the Offerings reflecting on the works of different theologians, including a book called Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining by Shelly Rambo.
Rambo writes that the challenge with trauma is “to remain and to be one who remains” and that witness, which is related to remaining, “describes a way of being oriented to what remains, to the suffering that does not go away” (2010).
I think part of the reason Shelly Rambo's work was and is so impactful for me is that there are wounds I live with that are never going to heal. And even though I know intellectually emotional life is not linear, I still trip up on the expectation that it should be, or could be.
I know they exist, but in my own work I’ve encountered very few tools for being with hard things that aren’t going anywhere. It feels like every problem has to live under the weight of this perpetual demand and expectation of resolution.
And maybe this is also why I'm so obsessed with the grail legend. It's a story in which the ultimate shameful act is the protagonist's failure to do the thing that would’ve brought total healing. The implication being that the worst thing one can do is to let a wound live, unresolved.
Honestly, until now, I’m not sure I’ve had much in the way of images, symbols or stories to support me or anyone, in the cases where solutions either don't exist or aren’t accessible. I’ve got whole charm bracelets full of wheels for change, and lions for willingness and courage, and swords for discerning real dangers from fake. But when it comes to the difficulty of living with the thorns in my heart that aren’t going anywhere, there’s not much here yet.
In October, I made a series of Offerings which I called "A fool’s dream of not healing.” Drawing on Joseph Campbell’s point that ritual is the re-enactment of myth, I wondered about how popular therapeutic rituals re-enact old stories about healing, like the grail legend.
In it a king is wounded who can only be healed through the asking of a perfect, redemptive question. The main character, Perceval—a fool for all intents and purposes—fails to ask the question during his first visit to the grail castle.
Of course, he eventually makes his way back to redeem himself; the question is ultimately asked and from that visual springs a fantasy of a permanent health and happiness that is the result of one hero's perfect effort and action.
With myths like these, it’s no wonder I and many buy into the idea that if we could just do the perfect thing all would be well. All will never be well. “Hope all’s well” is indeed a strange and delusional greeting.
In previous Offerings I’ve suggested that we pluck Perceval’s first visit to the grail castle from the rest of the story and imagine it as a myth unto itself. One in which a fool visits a castle, glimpses a sacred object and a wounded king, and is gifted a one-of-a-kind sword. The next morning, he wakes up and everything's gone but the sword and his horse. In this version, we'd have no choice but to assume it was all a dream.
This tale—of a wound that is seen but not healed—is a very different story from the larger one it’s tucked inside, in which Perceval’s witness without action is construed as profound failure.
If it's true that ritual is the re-enactment of myth, the re-enactment of this truncated, alternate version—where a fool dreams of not healing—would yield different rituals and ways of relating to our wounds. For starters, it would intercept this fantasy of the perfect thing that brings the total healing.
It might also give something about how to be in the presence of wounds for which there are no perfect antidotes, and to remain with the problems that cannot be solved. What does Perceval do at the grail castle if he does not heal the king? He bears witness.
The premise of Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma is that the Christian narrative about Jesus’ death and resurrection skips too quickly over that liminal place between trauma and rebirth that is well-known to all those living with wounds that either haven’t been or cannot be resolved. She spends a lot of time exploring what’s known in Christianity as Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday and the discovery of his resurrection on Sunday.
If we could dwell a while longer with Perceval beholding the grail king's wound—or freeze it in time, as part of a dream scene without resolution—then perhaps we could gather a better sense of what it takes to remain. To accompany the wounds in ourselves and others as witnesses, rather than aspiring healers or fixers. Because I don’t know about you, but I have come repeatedly to the painful realization that solutions don’t in fact exist for everything I experience as a problem. And I, personally, need new ways of relating to those things.
Rambo draws on trauma theory to assert the necessity of witness after trauma. And she notes that because trauma is something that’s not comprehended in full at the time it occurs, it can’t be fully named or seen later on, either.
So adequate witness, For Rambo, is not a matter of precision or exact seeing, it’s a matter of remaining. Not only in the sense that a witness themselves must stay, but that they must be able to tolerate the remaining of the wound. Which means the goal of healing has to fall to the wayside, at least for a while.
In the grail legend, Perceval leaves the castle after having seen the king’s wound and is continuously shamed for not asking the question that would have healed the king and restored the land. The ups and downs he goes through as he tries to make his way back to the castle are often read as honorable and persistent; good food for the archetype of hero who always and eventually prevails.
But I wonder if Perceval’s capacity to be with the king’s wound without acting gives us something that is actually much more remarkable and needed; an image of steadfast witness and sacred accompaniment for those times and places when the hope of doing the perfect thing for the total healing proves impossible and is therefore inadequate.
So I present the possibility of a different story with a beginning, middle and end plucked directly from the old Grail Legend. It’s called The Fool’s Dream, and it goes like this:
Perceval is raised in the forest, immersed in the wild and in his mother's deep grief. When he’s just old enough, he leaves to pursue a dream of knighthood. He is seen as a fool by most everyone he meets.
Along the way, he acquires armor and a warhorse and is mentored by a kind and well-meaning elder. One night—en route to find his mother who he doesn’t know has died of sorrow since his departure—he goes to sleep. And there he dreams.
In the dream, Perceval meets a fisherman who invites him to spend the night. At the fisherman’s castle, he learns that the fisher is actually a king who can’t walk. He has a wound that’s so bad it’s laid the whole land to waste.
At the castle of the wounded fisher king, Perceval is gifted a one-of-a-kind sword. He beholds a magnificent glowing object, that pours endless venison and mead which everyone in attendance partakes together.
Through all the gifts and revelations, Perceval sits silently as witness. He imagines the questions he’ll ask in the morning, but is satisfied for the night to simply take it all in.
When he goes to sleep that night, the wound remains. He wakes up the next morning, confused. He still has the sword and his horse, but everyone and everything else have vanished.
To listen to me read this Offering aloud, click here.
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Rambo, S. (2010). Spirit and trauma: A theology of remaining. Westminster John Knox Press.