The golden light of God’s kintsugi: mission and mental health

Anvil journal of theology and mission

The golden light of God’s kintsugi: mission and mental health

by Bill Braviner


There is a poem by Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, available in translation as “Childhood Friends”, which contains the following lines:

Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.1

Rumi seems to have been the first person who explicitly talks about the light entering a person through a wound, but it is an image that has been taken up and used by many people since.

Benjamin Blood wrote in 1860:

There is a crack in every thing that God has made; but through that crevice enters the light of heaven.2

In 1929, Ernest Hemingway wrote:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.3

And famously, Leonard Cohen sang of the light coming in through the cracks in his 1992 song “Anthem”. Cohen’s own comment on the song was, “There is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.”4

How do all these quotes help us explore mission and mental health?

As someone who has experienced severe mental health difficulties in the past, I write from the perspective of that experience, and of the healing I continue to experience, as well as the insights I have gained over a decade’s reflection on and learning from the experience.

In common with many people who have suffered psychological, emotional or spiritual trauma over the years, one of the concepts and images that became, and remains, very resonant for me is that of the Japanese art of kintsugi – the repairing of a broken object by incorporating new material that highlights and celebrates the repair, the joins, the “cracks”, and makes the resulting object into something that celebrates its story and identity as something that once was broken and is now more beautiful, because of the repair rather than in spite of it.

This image became very profound for me, as it has for others, because I experienced a deepening of my understanding of God, of the world and of myself, as a result of the process of living through and living with mental health issues, and the experience of how God wrought healing in me.

My healing noticeably began when I was brought up short by the realisation (obvious in so many ways!) that the story of Easter, of the resurrection, contains the central truth that Christ was raised with his wounds – and that, in fact, it was the wounds themselves that were offered as a proof of his resurrection, for example in John 20:24–29. Just as the risen Christ bore his wounds, so my healing would be not in spite of mine, but with them – and in some ways, through them.

We live in a world where many are wounded, in many ways. The psychological, emotional and spiritual wounds that so many people carry are not more important than the physical wounds inflicted on so many in our world, but neither are they less so. We recognise far more acutely today the seriousness of, for example, PTSD – something for which a century ago, brave men were being shot as “cowards”.

Healing from such woundedness need not, and often does not, involve a recovery from something so much as an adapting to it, a living with it. We are not called to a God who says, “Come back when you are fixed,” but to a God who is with us in our walk through the valley of the shadow of death, a God who promises that the weary and heavy-laden can cast their burdens on him and find rest for their souls. Our healing is less about “being fixed”, and far more about finding peace, wholeness, shalom in God.

This becomes very important when journeying with people who have psychological, emotional or spiritual burdens that are impacting negatively on their mental health, on their ability to interact with and cope with the context in which they are living, the circumstances of their lives, the filter through which they are able to see the world.

Where, for those of us who live with woundedness in our psyche, our emotions and our spirit (and I would argue that to some extent at least, this is all of us), do we find the deepest activity of the Holy Spirit? Surely it is at those very places of brokenness, where God seeks not so much to undo our woundedness but to transform it, not so much to “fix” as to heal, not so much to bring repair as wholeness? It’s at those places, those parts of who we are, where God finds the cracks through which the light – the light of God’s love and life – gets in.

In mission, therefore, in working with people, or communities, or societies to enable and encourage an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit as God seeks to reveal his kingdom more and more fully, it is the places of brokenness, of woundedness, of crucifixion, that ought to be a central focus. It is those places, those cracks, where the healing God seeks to bring, needs to pour in – and it is in transforming those aspects of people, communities, societies and so on that the glory of resurrection begins to be seen, that new life begins to flourish, that the glory of God transforms trauma and brings beauty from brokenness.

As the golden light of God’s kintsugi pours in through the cracks, part of the healing is that people, communities, societies begin to discover anew what they are and what they are called to be, what potential they have and what they can do. Often this is in new or unexpected directions, through new perspectives opened up by the processes of brokenness and healing. My own engagement in the field of disability and theology would be a case in point, but so would the stories of so many others. Some good examples are recounted in Pastor Mike Mather’s Having Nothing, Possessing Everything,5 and in Fr Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir.6

It is my conviction, borne out of over 30 years engagement in parish life, 26 of them in ordained ministry, that it is when we pay attention to beautiful work of healing that God is doing and seeks to do in people (including ourselves), in communities and in society, that we come to an appreciation of where God’s mission is focused, and where God’s activity is directed. This is not to suggest that God is only interested in particular people or places – only in those who have some recognisable psychological, emotional or spiritual difficulty but it is to suggest that there is something of this in us all, and in all the ways we live together, that God seeks to work on, to heal and yes, to use as a strength – for his power is made perfect in weakness.

God calls us, not so much to “the broken”, as to engage individually and corporately with our brokenness; not so much to “the poor”, as to engage individually and corporately with our poverty; not so much to “the needy” as to engage individually and corporately with our needs, and with our abilities and assets, so that the golden light of his wholeness can both pour into us through the cracks in our being, and also shine out of us through those same cracks, for the healing of others and of the world.

The wounds we carry, then, are not so much burdens to be shed as anchors of grace. Not so much shame to be borne, but openings to love. Not so much faults to be fixed as openings to healing, to wholeness, to the kingdom and to Christ. May we help one another to let God pour in the golden light of his kintsugi, that all may see the enhanced beauty and blessing of those who know that they are made whole.

About the author

Originally from South Shields, County Durham, Bill Braviner trained with Price Waterhouse as a chartered accountant after university, before responding to a call to ordination. He was ordained in 1995 and recently moved to the Diocese of Leeds, where he is the archdeacon of Halifax.

Having experienced a period of mental health difficulties some 10 years ago, Bill was led to develop his engagement in issues around disability, working with and journeying with others who brought a perspective from the “inside”. This led to the formation of Disability and Jesus, a “user-led” group that seeks to encourage change and foster access and inclusion across the church. Bill was also disability adviser to the bishop and Diocese of Durham from 2015 until leaving the diocese to take up the role of archdeacon.

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A man with a mission

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Notes

1 “Childhood Friends” in The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks et al. (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 139–41.
2 Benjamin Blood, Optimism: The Lesson of Ages (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1860), 91.
3 Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (London: Arrow Books, 2004).
4 Reported in Cassie Weber, “‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’: The story of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’”, Quartz, 11 Nov 2016, accessed 22 October 2021, https://qz.com/835076/leonard-cohens-anthem-the-story-of-the-line-there-is-a-crack-ineverything- thats-how-the-light-gets-in/.
5 Michael Mather, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).
6 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010); Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).