You Have Set Us Free:  Scriptural Reflections for Trauma Survivors

Fr. Kenneth W. Schmidt, MA, LPC, NCC
St. Catherine of Siena, Portage, Michigan
$9.95 paperback, 74 pages, Liturgical Press (November 2, 2016)

The goal of You Have Set Us Free is to integrate both spirituality and psychology when dealing with trauma. These two realms of a human’s personhood are profound and have a major influence on how each person understands himself or herself — how they think, how they feel, and how they behave.

The psychoeducational foundation of You Have Set Us Free is the Trauma Model, a paradigm for understanding and healing childhood trauma based on the work of Colin Ross, MD. For my part, as the author, I bring my experience as a Catholic priest and Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked directly with childhood trauma survivors for the past 15 years. This model permits approaching the experience of trauma in an informed and flexible manner, including integrating spirituality with psychology.

Trauma is an event or series of events which, combined with an individual’s unique vulnerability, creates an obstacle in normal human development.  The effects of trauma tend to be more obvious when the abuse or neglect occurred during childhood, but trauma can occur at any age and have lasting effects on anyone.

Many people do not acknowledge the trauma in their history because they are ashamed.  They believe that what happened was normal or expectable or what they deserved.  Some believe that it was given to them by God, and others interpret it as merely a coincidence.  Nevertheless, they are still traumatized because of the impact on their neurological development and because of the interruption or adverse effects on their emotional development.

So, what constitutes trauma?  The event or events can be any form of abuse or the result of severe neglect or of negligence.  An experience of abandonment, whether real or unintentional, can be traumatic.  Medical problems, natural disasters, personal tragedies, being of minority status within a rejecting culture: anything which results in a person not feeling safe or not having some sense of belonging can be traumatic.

However, it is not the event alone that constitutes trauma but the event coupled with the vulnerability of the person who experiences the event. Children in the same family can respond differently to the same situation. One’s age can influence how one experiences and interprets the traumatic event, as well as one’s temperament. The context or time at which the event occurs can also influence its effects. These are only some factors that can increase or lessen the impact of trauma.

Because variations in factors affecting trauma, people also experience the effects of traumas as a continuum, a range of symptoms and consequences. It can be counterproductive to think of trauma as either/or, seeking a conclusion about an event that “it is” or “it isn’t.” These are some reasons why, to help someone who struggles with the effects of a traumatic experience, it is not necessary to determine whether some event “fits the definition” of trauma.

Based on this approach and with this model for trauma recovery, You Have Set Us Free is intended to introduce core concepts of recovery from trauma in the context of a survivor’s practice of prayer and spirituality.  It presents 27 episodes which took place during the final week of Jesus’ life. Each unit has a selection from the Gospels, a reflection about the experience from Jesus’ perspective and how it connects to the life experience of a trauma survivor, and ends with a prayer passage.

The volume is designed for extended prayer (reflection), increasing awareness (illumination), and then practicing new ways to think, feel, and behave (purification), growing ever freer and into a healthier human being who was made in the image and likeness of God (deification).  As Irenaeus tells us, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

Although it is a small volume, You Have Set Us Free is not intended be read in one sitting, but rather it can serve as a prayerful guide to recovery and healing. Some themes may be new or surprising or even upsetting.  Readers may experience the contents as jarring, as it may challenge routine (but unhelpful) patterns of thinking or behavior. Alone for personal reflection or in dialogue with others, You Have Set Us Free can also be helpful to people living or working with trauma survivors (who may not identify themselves as such).

In closing, a last and most important reminder is this: Healing from trauma is a long process, even for healthy people, and requires patience, gentleness, understanding, and compassion.

Fr. Kenneth W. Schmidt, MA, LPC, NCC, is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Portage, Michigan. He has a doctorate in canon law, a Master’s degree in counseling psychology, is a Licensed Professional Counselor (Michigan) and a National Certified Counselor. He is a co-founder of the Trauma Recovery Program in the Diocese of Kalamazoo and the non-profit Trauma Recovery Associates.  For more information visit traumarecoveryassociates.com. Fr. Ken has contributed an article to this magazine which describes this program, The Trauma Recovery Program. You Have Set Us Free is available on from Liturgical Press and amazon.com.

This article was first published in the May 2017 issue, which may be viewed in full here

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