'Tis Merely a Soul Wound
[the Black Knight continues to threaten Arthur despite getting both his arms and one of his legs cut off]
Black Knight: Right, I'll do you for that! King Arthur: You'll what? Black Knight: Come here! King Arthur: What are you gonna do, bleed on me? Black Knight: I'm invincible! King Arthur: ...You're a loony. 
One of the most iconic cult films of the 20th century was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A slapstick send up of the King Arthur legend, it skewers the medieval adventure genre with such scenes as the above. In this particular scene, King Arthur, pretending to ride a horse whilst being followed by a man clacking coconut shells together to simulate the noise a horse’s hooves would make, comes upon a knight dressed in all black. After some brief banter the two do battle. Ultimately, the Black Knight is soundly and hilariously defeated, losing all his limbs, but seemingly unaware of how desperate his situation is, crying out that the battle isn’t over. This exchange gives the viewer such classic lines as, “I’ve had worse,” “Tis but a scratch,” and, in response to losing both arms, “Tis but a flesh wound.”
What makes the movie hilarious is also what makes it incredibly frightening. The Black Knight is a good and loyal soldier. He stands his ground. He’s courageous. He’s loyal. And even in the face of certain defeat and painful death, he’s optimistic. It’s funny when you’re talking about kings and knights in a movie meant to be ridiculous, but it’s scary when you start talking about ministers and pastors and churches.
The simple truth is this: most ministers are the Black Knight. Some are only missing one arm, some are missing both, some are hopping on one leg, and some are completely dismembered on the ground. Only, in this story, the wounds inflicted are not of the physical type, but of the spiritual type. Whether the wounds come from a congregant, family, a hidden sin, or a dysfunctional leadership, they will come, and many a minister or pastor hops up to the podium on Sunday saying to themselves, “It’s okay. We can still win this.” The more deluded even try, in true Black Knight fashion, to convince themselves that nothing is out of the ordinary. But anyone who has been in ministry knows that if anything is true, it’s that the healer is often the one who neglects healing. The doctor can often be the one who is most sick. The danger for a pastor or minister is that their cancers can be buried under a veneer of piety and forced pleasantness, lingering for years, festering in the shadows.
It is to these deep kinds of wounds that Carol Howard Merritt speaks in her new book Healing Spiritual Wounds.  Though meant for a general audience, this might just be the kind of book to save a minister or pastor’s life, however you may want to define it. Merritt is an able guide down a path that few authors have traveled because, let’s face it, everyone would rather talk about their best life now than their woundedness. But Merritt makes the case that, for many, this journey can be one of enlightenment and ultimately, shalom. This is key. Merritt is not out to make you happy, but to point toward the possibility of wholeness. Along the way, she shares of her own abusive upbringing (weaving together the physical and spiritual abuse suffered at the hands of her father), takes on the damage that theology can cause when it focuses on a God of anger (a profound section when you dare to ask why so many people in church are angry), takes on patriarchy in the church, and writes an incredibly rare and invaluable chapter about the importance of a healthy body image and how an unhealthy one can cause such damage. The latter should be required reading for any minister or pastor.
But for our purposes, Merritt’s early chapters on the shape of spiritual wounds, the emotions they produce, and the exercises therein are rife with possibility for healing. Though Merritt is often writing for those who have left the church in response to hurtful church experiences—and her book should be used to that end as much as humanly possible—there is much here for the “tis but a soul wound” pastor.
One of the more bracing sections of the book is when Merritt describes a process called “religious numbing” (75). Merritt argues that those who have suffered religious abuse have often been taught to ignore their pain. For the minister with ears to hear, let them hear. Thus, cries for help or reconciliation or accountability for abusive behaviors are met with gaslighting (diminishing the credibility of the victim by dismissing them as crazy), victim blaming (saying the victim caused the abuse), and martyrdom (encouraging the victim to carry the abuse as a spiritual duty). Rather, be a good soldier. A Black Knight, if you will. Church leaders (including, of course, pastors and ministers) and leaderships should read this list of characteristics VERY carefully and have the courage to ask if this is them. Moreover, pastors and ministers should have the courage to ask if they themselves have experienced such things. Untreated wounds, be they physical or spiritual, can get infected. And infection can spread. Like a doctor with a contagious disease working around open cuts, the pastor must ruthlessly ask if they are incubating such hurts. The spiritual lives of others, and not just their own, rely on it.
The sad truth is that far too many church leaderships operate in such a manner. An insecure leadership will gaslight any challenge to authority, look for a scapegoat when things go wrong, and often encourage members or even ministers to “carry the cross” of their poor leadership. But this is not the life Jesus desires for his people. Nor is it helpful to these very leaderships. If unhealthy patterns exist, they must be called out into the light. This is an act of true love, though rarely seen.
Merritt’s book is, therefore, profoundly important. She is a winsome writer and deserves much praise for the courage to even take up such a task. And, as said before, while the book is not aimed at leaders specifically, it provides a wealth of material to minister to those who have been spiritually wounded, provides a balm for those seeking to heal their own wounds, and holds a mirror to all those in leadership positions in a church. In many ways, the real strengths of the book are the exercises Merritt provides to work through such wounds yourself. In this way, she proves herself not just a capable writer, but a soul friend and spiritual director of the highest caliber. In these days when too many find themselves carrying wounds in their souls, Healing Spiritual Wounds reminds us all of the hard realities of life. People are hurt. Some are deeply wounded. But in the words of the Black Knight, they aren’t dead yet. In that fact, there is great hope. But for the minister and pastor, much work to do.