Trauma, Our Global Pandemic, and an Ignatian Year

Trauma, Our Global Pandemic, and an Ignatian Year
Peter Musso, Ed.D.

This year, during the ongoing global pandemic, professional development for our high school teaching faculty & staff is centered on the continuation of discussions about trauma and executive functioning skills – because these two areas have the potential of impacting students. How can we help students move through trauma, caused by terrible experiences?

While perhaps only some of us have been diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began, we all know people who have contracted Covid.  

In a recent conversation with my dad, who was recovering from a breakthrough Covid contraction, he said, “This was the worst experience of my entire life.”  Disbelief, shame, and loneliness characterized his experience.  He has been hesitant to even talk about contracting Covid or be around others, post-Covid.  Our collective experiences over the past few years are marred by isolation and quarantine.  Death rates from Covid are high, and some of us who have had Covid are still living with its side effects.  As mindful people, we strive to grow in our understanding of both uncertainly and entitlement.  And, we continuously adapt to changing and challenging contexts, especially as the Delta Variant wreaks havoc on predictability and support in our lives.  We grapple with socio-political and racial disparities of health and well-being in our country and in the world.  When will this end?  

In isolation, some of us work from home.  And, those who return to the workplace find it irrevocably altered.  Fighting about masks continues, boiling over into school board and educator attacks, school picketing, and gentle classroom reminders.  Some of us have lost jobs, while some of us have seriously considered why we do what we do, in light of this ongoing pandemic.  Some of us are perhaps food-, financially-, and housing-challenged.  And, nearly every one of us is exhausted, planning for and adjusting to a future that changes daily.  Our faith is challenged and the way in which we practice our faith changes. Some of us adapt easily, quickly, and well.  Others, not so much.  

We all have unique Covid baggage – individual wounds – which we carry with us into every situation, every day.      

This global pandemic is our common life event, producing unique trauma for each of us. While some trauma is visible, some is hidden.  Ironically, in An Ignatian Year, perhaps we can look to St. Ignatius – his trauma, reactions, and responses – as an appropriate model for a way forward not only in acceptance, but also in growth through Grace. 

  • How does Ignatius experience terrible events and trauma?
  • How does Ignatius react to such trauma?
  • And how does Ignatius respond, in order to grow?     

Experience & Reaction

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event.  Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical.  Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.  While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives” (APA).  During a quick read of A Pilgrim’s Testament: The Memoirs of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (Geger, SJ, Ed.), I noted well over 50 occasions where Ignatius experiences terrible events that cause him trauma, where he reacts in particular ways.

Ignatius is a soldier during the Battle of Pamplona, who suffers life-changing injuries. “After the bombardment had lasted a good while, a shot struck him on one leg, shattering it completely.  And because the cannon ball passed between both legs, the other one was badly injured” (Geger 26).  His body is broken. 

As a direct result of his battle wounds, Ignatius is thrusted into new, uncomfortable practices.  

Perhaps as an indirect result of his battle wounds, Ignatius contracts scrupulosity, and “While he had these thoughts, the temptation often came over him with great force to throw himself from a large balcony in his room” (Geger 38).  Clearly, Ignatius has signs of depression and contemplates suicide.  

Throughout his life, Ignatius has many bouts with illness, sickness, and life-threatening fevers.  When he is not experiencing events that cause him trauma, Ignatius sees terrible events happening around him.  On his way to Jerusalem, in the Gaeta region, “there was also fear of the plague” (Geger 46).  Along his journey, Ignatius finds “the mother and her daughter in the courtyard below, wailing and complaining that there was an attempt to rape them” (Geger 46). From Cyprus, Ignatius boards a ship bound for Venice, with a fleet of ships:

However, a storm came upon them, separating the ships one from the other.  The big ship wrecked near those same islands of Cyprus, and only the passengers were saved.  In the same storm, the Turkish ship sank, and all its passengers lost.  The small vessel had great trouble, but in the end, they reached land somewhere is Apulia.  This was the depth of winter, and it was very cold and snowing.  The pilgrim had no clothing other than some breeches of course cloth. (Geger 53) 

In addition, authorities frequently investigate Ignatius.  Arrested, put on trial, and held in captivity, Ignatius finds himself in prison.  No doubt, Ignatius experiences terrible events, which cause him trauma – and as a result, he reacts in certain ways.    Here are some questions for us to consider:   

  • Reviewing our own lives, what events cause us to experience trauma?  
  • How do we react to these terrible events? 
  • Why do we react in these ways, and do our reactions help us become better? 

Responses to Trauma 

Ignatius sometimes reacts to his experiences erratically and drastically.  Often, his reactions are not helpful.  However, Ignatius also develops positive responses and uses specific strategies to move through terrible events, to heal and reconcile.  

Self-Care and Reflection 

After his battle injuries, Ignatius is “obliged to stay in bed” and forced into a different way of living (Geger 27).  In lieu of his active life, he spends time reading and reflecting – but not by choice.  Even during his convalescence, Ignatius is not given the books he prefers to read.  Instead, he reads “A Life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints in Castilian” (Geger 27).  During his convalescence, Ignatius is a critical thinker, reflecting on how the readings make him feel.  “But interrupting his reading, he sometimes stopped to think about the things that he had read.  At other times, he thought about the things of the world, about which he had been in the habit of musing earlier” (Geger 28).  His reading and self-reflection are cornerstone practices and habits, allowing Ignatius to identify key feelings as part of the Spiritual Exercises he writes – those of consolation and desolation.   

Ultimately, reading and self-reflection lead Ignatius to make a decision to change his life. 

  • When we experience terrible events, how do we step back and practice an occasional pause, to care for ourselves?  What does that care look like?  
  • Is this “stepping away” always our choice?  
  • How do we help students “step away,” to reflect on the terrible events happening in our world?  How do we help them consider appropriate responses?   
  • What opportunities exist in our school, for self-care, reflection, and response?
  • It’s okay to physically withdraw from situations for a shorter or longer period of time.
  • Maybe we seek outside help – talking to trusted friends and family or trained counselors or specialists.  
  • Perhaps we practice simple silence, as we listen to others around us for clues about what to do next.  
  • Maybe we use silence, prayer, meditation, or reflection.

 

Imagination

As part of his self-reflection, Ignatius uses imagination.  “For in reading the life of Our Lord, and of the saints, he stopped to think, reasoning with himself:  ‘What if I do this which St. Francis did?  And this which St. Dominic did?’” (Geger 28).   Ignatius’s imagination takes him into the lives of saints.  It challenges him to think and act in new and different ways. Imagination allows Ignatius to wonder about and create new possibilities toward living a new life.  We know that Ignatius’s imagination led him to do great things.          

  • How often do we employ imagination, asking our students and ourselves, “What would it look like if . . . ?”  
  • When do we use our imagination to help us heal (and grow) amidst the craziness of terrible events?  
  • How do we challenge one another and our students to use imagination to wonder about and then create new positive possibilities for our lives? 

Noting & Writing

Ignatius does not just critically read, reflect, and imagine a new way forward for his life.  He is an organized note-taker and writer.  In fact, what today are identified as executive functioning skills, Ignatius uses during his life.  In Manresa, “he planned to stay in a hospice a few days, as well as to note some things in his book.  This he carried around very carefully and it consoled him greatly” (Geger 34).  

Ignatius values writing and continuously integrates reflections and experiences into solutions for his life and the lives of others. His reflective noting and writing has a purpose.  “As he very much liked those books, the idea came to him to note down briefly some of the more essential things from the life of Christ and the saints.  So he set himself very diligently to write a book . . . with red ink for the words of Christ, and the blue ink for those our Our Lady.  He did it on polished and lined paper, and with good handwriting, because he was a very fine penman” (Geger 30).  Therefore, “Into this potting soil of Manresa were planted the first, the primordial seeds that sprang to life in his notebook and that eventually flowered in the Spiritual Exercises” (Idigoras 202).  

Writing is therapeutic.  The practice of composition helps us move through trauma – mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. 

A certain kind of guided, detailed writing can not only help us process what we’ve been through and assist us as we envision a path forward; it can lower our blood pressure, strengthen our immune systems, and increase our general well-being. Expressive writing can result in a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; improve our sleep and performance; and bring us greater focus and clarity.  (Siegel-Acevedo)

Noting and writing can be simplistic or complex.  It can be task-oriented, professional, reflective, or artful.  

  • How is noting and writing a reflective and therapeutic practice in our lives today?  
  • Do we make “to-do” lists that help us pragmatically manage?
  • Do we jot notes and reflections into our phone apps?  
  • Are we curriculum writers?  
  • Do we create poetry or prose?  
  • How are we authentic note takers and composers?   Wondering about, imagining, or making sense of our world?  
  • How do we help students practice habits of note taking and writing, as important parts of class participation and engagement? 

For Others

Writing the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius “wants to give to others what he has found” (Idigoras 202).  Ignatius continuously finds reconciliation with trauma by serving others.  For example, he empties himself by giving away his ducats, “spontaneously to anyone who approached him, who usually were beggars” (Geger 47).  

Ignatius “busied himself helping certain souls” (Geger 39).  While at Alcala, he is engaged in giving spiritual exercises and teaching Christian doctrine” (Geger 57).  Ignatius is “teaching and giving exercises” (Geger 59).  “He gave exercises almost simultaneously to three persons” (Geger 69).  In St. Ignatius’s early life, he is self-centered and vain.  Nevertheless, as he grows, he serves for and with others, to discover his purpose.  

  • In what ways can we continue to be attentive to the needs of others during this ongoing pandemic?  How can we continue to serve others, especially those who are on the margins?    
  • How do we move from selfish to selfless, as we strive to live for others, in big and small ways?  How do we model this way of living for and with students in our schools?
  • How do our school’s systems, policies, and procedures help us move toward a spirit of generosity and invitation to be women and men with and for others?  

 

Companionship, Community, & Dependence on God

Ignatius recognizes the value of companionship and community rooted in a mission of service to God.  “So he embarked, having been in Barcelona a little more than twenty days.  Before embarking, while he was still in Barcelona, he sought out, as was his practice, all spiritual persons, even though they lived in hermitages far from the city, to converse with him” (Geger 45).  And, “Ever since Manresa, the pilgrim had the habit, whenever he ate with anyone, never to speak at table, except to answer briefly.  Instead, he listened to what people were saying, and noted somethings that he could use as opportunities to speak about God.  When the meal was finished, he did so” (Geger 48).  As Ignatius seeks help from others and friendship, the notion of companionship is deeply rooted in faith and a dependence upon God, as “he wanted to place that trust, attachment, and expectation in God . . .” (Geger 44).   In most things, Ignatius would “commend the matter to God,” as “he imagined that the master would be Christ” (Geger 68).  The foundation of response to terrible experiences, for Ignatius, is to surround himself with companions and community, to serve, and to allow himself to be led by God, in all things.    

  • How are our schools places where we continue to create companionship and community that is oriented toward a clear mission of knowing and loving God? 
  • What specific school practices reinforce our mission?  

As we continue to move through these uncertain Covid times, An Ignatian Year challenges us to re-discover more deeply the authentic life of St. Ignatius.  By doing so, perhaps this year, too, we are invited to use Ignatius’s strategies to be better, so we can continue to orient ourselves toward service and grow in our relationship with God who loves us all unconditionally.      

 

Works Cited

 

American Psychological Association.  Trauma.  

https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma

Geger, Barton, SJ.  Ed.  A Pilgrim’s Testament:  The Memoirs of Saint Ignatius.  

Jesuit Conference, 2020.

Idigoras, Jose Ignacio Tellechea.  Ignatius of Loyola The Pilgrim Saint.  Chicago:  

Loyola University Press, 1994.  

Siegel-Acevedo, Deborah.  Writing Can Help us Heal From Trauma.  

https://hbr.org/2021/07/writing-can-help-us-heal-from-trauma

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