(You may view video of this sermon here).
Let’s say there’s a wood mouse out and about in the wide world outside its den, busy with its mousey business.
Then suddenly it hears a noise, the sound of a hawk that’s just launched from its perch. That mouse is going to freeze in its tracks. Its only hope is to be as still as it can be and blend in with the brush as the aerial predator flying overhead rakes the ground with its gaze.
And let’s say it works this time. It’s a lucky day for our wood mouse. The hawk doesn’t see it, and flies on.
After the hawk passes, that mouse is going to stay frozen for a little while longer, all its senses on high alert, until it’s clear that that threat is gone.
What happens next doesn’t make it into the nature videos.
That wood mouse is going to book it home and fly down the hole into its den. Then, when it’s safe at home, that mouse will just shake and shake and shake … and then begin to ease up and settle down and get calm … and then rest and sleep.
And when that mouse wakes up after it’s rest, it’s going to be ready to go out and about again into the wide world and busy itself with its mousey business. It’ll have a healthy level of alertness, but it won’t be any worse for the wear.
So, it’s common to talk about the fight or flight response to a threat – but to freeze is just as natural a response. We should really talk about the fight or flight or freeze instinct.
In the natural world, when you look at animals who freeze when there’s a threat, that’s the best option for them, apparently, according some people who research trauma, that wild animal, after the threat is gone, will then instinctively discharge all that adrenaline and won’t end up with signs of post-traumatic stress. But, domesticated humans in a culture like ours that can be very cut off from the body tend to not even realize what our bodies and hearts and souls really need, if we’ve had a kind of freeze response to a sense of threat, and instead we do things like drink to calm ourselves down, or we check out into a screen, or we pick fights out of nowhere, or what have you.
I’m saying all this because I think that part of what’s been so hard about the past year for so many is that, with the pandemic and all the social upheaval, there’s this overall feeling of fear and threat and unease that it can be easy to feel frozen in the face of, especially because of how limited life together has been. A lot people have expressed struggling with a sense of helplessness at the same times as feeling alarm and urgency. And that all just cinches down and the pressure builds and it doesn’t have an outlet. That’s stressful.
I also wonder if our technology makes the freeze experience more common. You know? I mean, first of all, these screens seem to help us dissociate from our bodies. But then also what we can see on these screens, we’re able to see all these horrific videos and images from around country of people doing horrific things and suffering horrific things. And if that video pops up and you watch it and witness those things, and you’re a half-way empathetic person, your heart rate increases, you’re dosed with adrenaline, the ancient part of your brain thinks you’re right there and it’s telling you to jump in and fight off the threat or to somehow pull George Floyd to safety, but in the end we’re just helpless bystanders hunched over our phone on our couch. And this, I’ve been told, is orders of magnitude worse, worse than I can understand, if you’re someone who because of racism and the color of your skin, identifies very strongly with the person suffering in the video, and it brings up terrible memories.
So, what happens to all that raw energy, and the grief and the anger?
If we don’t give it somewhere meaningful to go, especially with others we know and trust, what does it do? And what does that do to our bodies and our souls, as, I like to say, the truth is that we are embodied souls and ensouled bodies?
A lot of European and white American Christianity and a lot of secular European post-enlightenment culture has a reputation for having cut off the soul from the body, and having separated the mind from the heart, and split heaven from earth. The soul and mind and the heavenly realms are seen to be morally pure and more valuable and more real than the body and the heart and the earthly realm.
This way of understanding things hasn’t really worked out so well for us and our emotional and spiritual health.
It’s also just not true to the biblical tradition and biblical wisdom. There isn’t a separate word in ancient Hebrew for what we call the mind, consciousness, the self, and our emotions and felt experiences. It’s all one word, and they saw it as residing in the heart of the body.
And in the early Christian understanding of Christ, Christ’s reality as a body was very, very important. The divine in-the-flesh, “On earth as it is in heaven,” that’s the big deal, right?
There were in fact some groups of early Christians who believed in a really stark separation between the soul and body, heaven and earth. They said that the earthly and bodily realm was so evil and depraved at its core that Christ was 100% divine and 0% human. But they lost the debate with other Christians, who understood just how important it is that we understand Christ to have come in the flesh. I think one of the important things at stake here has to do with the power of the Christian witness with respect to trauma and healing. This Easter season we’ve been paying attention to just how physical these resurrection stories are, how important it was to the early Jesus followers that the risen body of Christ is literally a body that can bare wounds without being destroyed. This is the opposite of dissociation, it is a renewing integration: the body and its experiences and feelings and value and dignity and beloved-ness, becomes reintegrated with the broader spiritual realm of our beings as we are rooted in God, our source and our sustenance and our ultimate destination.
This is the path to true healing, true restoration as Children of the Living God.
“Christ Shows Himself to Thomas: Mosaic from the Resurrection Chapel, Washington Cathedral, by Rowan and Irene LeCompte, creative commons)