So my work has taken a very interesting, albeit sacred, turn recently: once a month I now find myself driving a few hours to a local army base. There at the hospital I meet with soldiers who have a dual diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). My purpose is to talk with them about prayer and prayer beads.
This came about because of the book I’m currently writing. It focuses on the use of prayer beads to help trauma survivors address their spiritual wounds and develop/heal/deepen their relationship with God. Before unleashing the book on folks – and in the spirit of handling this topic with the greatest of care – I wanted to test the material to make sure it was sound and helpful. A friend of mine, who recently retired as chaplain of this army hospital, put in a good word for me, and so this became a thing. A really and truly amazing thing.
I admit I was hesitant. I didn’t know how the soldiers would receive me – a complete stranger – into their tight-knit group. More so, I didn’t imagine these big tough guys (so far, no women in the group) would be much into beads, especially when it came time to invite them to make their own sets of prayer beads. I pictured blank stares, loud guffaws, or polite – yet firm – dismissals. But that hasn’t been the case at all.
I start by telling my own story of trauma. I want them to know I understand PTSD – the nightmares, the anger, the fear, the loss of control. Not just that: I want them to know I have experienced profound healing, to the point that the nightmares have subsided and I can generally live from a place of peace and deep gratitude. So I share my story of a little 7-year-old girl who experienced great terror . . . and they listen. More than that, they honor my story.
Last week, after finishing my story, I started to move on to talk about prayer beads. One of the men stopped me and said, “Before we go any further, I want to thank you for sharing.”
I was touched. “Thanks for listening,” I responded.
“No,” said another guy. “In this group, when someone shares something, we say, ‘Thanks for sharing,’ and then you say, ‘Thank for caring.’ That’s how we do it in here. So let’s try that.”
And we did. In unison, the soldiers looked at me an said, “Thanks for sharing,” to which I responded, “Thanks for caring.” It was a moment of complete grace.
It’s clear that my willingness to share my story – to be vulnerable and speak my truth – makes a strong impression on the group members. They relax. They recognize the safe space we have created together. They share parts of their own stories, which are powerful. They open up for what I have to say next. They begin to get interested in the idea of prayer beads.
I’m sensitive to the fact that these guys are not all Christian; indeed, they may not consider themselves to be spiritual at all. Thus, I invite those who are willing to describe their prayer or meditation practices, to give me some idea of what I’m working with. So far, everyone in the groups has shared, though in my first group, a man named Vic* waited until his fellow members had spoken. Then he looked at me, somewhat defiantly, and said, “I’m an atheist who hates religion!”
“No problem,” I replied. “I appreciate your willingness to share that. It’s okay. And just so you know, these beads don’t have to be about any one specific faith. They can be used to relax and practice mindfulness as well.” He started to nod. I’d heard the soldiers had been learning about meditation techniques as a calming method. Clearly, that resonated with Vic. He started to relax.
When I talk about prayer beads, I cover a bit of the history and how they can be used to pray, focus, and be still. I show them prayer beads from a variety of faith traditions. I also share some ways they can be used to help with PTSD symptoms. Then I invite the men to make their own set of prayer beads, encouraging them to use whatever format or configuration of beads that has meaning for them.
Much to my surprise and delight, the soldiers have approached the bead-making with great enthusiasm. They study the bead colors and pendant options. Some choose crosses or other faith symbols, while others use peace signs or nature symbols. Each puts great thought into how he will design his bead set. Stringing their beads together, they chat and swap stories, creating a space that is both ordinary and holy.
In the end, each set of beads is amazing, an outward and visible sign of each person’s inward and invisible journey. The guys are often excited to explain the thought behind their designs – the reasons they chose particular colors or patterns of beads. They want me to know how they plan to use the beads to pray to God, to calm down when they get anxious or agitated, to sit and be still.
One of the most profound moments for me so far involved Vic. When he was finished, he brought his string of beads to me to be crimped. “Tell me about your design,” I said.
“Originally, I wanted to make my prayer beads in four sets of seven beads, the way the Protestants do with their prayer beads. But as I started working, I realized I had a set of six beads, not seven. So I asked myself what the number six meant for me. And I realized it had a lot of meaning, because it was in the sixth month (June), on the twelfth day, of 2006, that I was shot in Afghanistan. So my set has six beads, then twelve beads, then six again, to represent that date. That was the day my life began again.”
I do not know whether Vic realized he had created prayer beads that represent resurrection. What I do know is that this brave man was willing to open himself up long enough to be vulnerable and speak his truth, and in response, he received a sign of God’s grace. Surely, that is all any of us can hope for.
Already, I’m looking forward to next month.
* not his real name
Y’all. You’ve been hearing about my work involving soldiers with PTSD. Now you can participate! Your contribution will enable me to continue this work, and perhaps even expand it.
Check this out Soldier Ministry