Healing hands that remembered how to pray

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

It looks something like a miracle when Father Michael Lapsley signs copies of his memoir with his two hooks instead of hands.

Lapsley meticulously holds a pen in his right hook. His left hook opens the front cover of his memoir, ‘Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer’, and he leaves his mark.

Father Michael Lapsley takes a break from signing his book. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

In this book, he recalls how he lost both hands and one eye. It is co-written with his friend Stephen Karakashian. Struik Inspiration, a publisher focusing on Christian writing, releases the book on September 15.

Lapsley is an Anglican priest born in New Zealand. He landed in South Africa in 1973 as a missionary. He joined the African National Congress and its anti-apartheid struggle. As a result, he ended up living in exile for several years in Zimbabwe.

In 1990, a letter bomb arrived at his house in Harare. It left him without hands but not without prayer.

Lapsley writes in his book how his faith in God carried him through the hardship that followed that attack. He asserts that his personal loss proves “good comes out of evil”.

“Life comes out of death. An evil act happened to me but I became victorious and I’m saying with my book that this is what I have done with my life since then,” says Lapsley.

He says that his book reflects a story that is “personal and collective”.

“It is through my eyes and heart and it’s part of the struggle history. It is one personal account. We need to hear more stories of people’s struggles and their journeys.”

Almost a decade after losing his hands and partial sight, Lapsley established the Institute for the Healing of Memories in 1998. It is based in Cape Town.

This institute runs workshops “where individuals can tell their stories in an atmosphere of deep listening and mutual respect”.

The book informs that in post-apartheid South Africa, “Lapsley saw a whole nation in need of healing. He discovered a new vocation: drawing on his experience of trauma to promote the healing of others.”

Lapsley, described as a ‘wounded healer’, writes that his injuries connect him with others who have been injured too.

“My visible brokenness creates a bond with others whose brokenness is often less visible but just as real. The truth is that pain unites human beings,” he writes.

“In my work as a healer, many people say they can trust me because I know pain. In the end, though, what matters most is whether we are able to transform pain into a life-giving force.”

Karakashian says that Lapsley has been able to “create an environment where people see their lives in a spiritual context” via his institute.

“That becomes part of the healing process,” says the Buddhist and retired psyco-therapist.

Karakashian encouraged Lapsley to write his memoir a few years ago. A biography, ‘Priest and Partisan’, about Lapsley had been published in 1996.

“A number of reviewers and friends said that they would like to hear from me in my own voice… The memoir complements the biography because this is more self-revelatory,” says Lapsley of his motivation.

Karakashian explains the writing process that lasted for two-and-a-half years.

“We had two residencies; one of about two months and another of a month. During the first residency I prepared questions about his (Lapsley’s) life and work. We recorded our conversations and had about 24 hours of recordings,” says Karakashian.

“These were transcribed. I did some background research to provide context. At the end of certain chapters we also included pieces written by people that Father Michael has worked with around the world.”

Lapsley adds: “So it isn’t just my story. We have included the voices of a range of people that I have encountered.”

The memoir also focuses on Lapsley’s work to heal the memories of what he calls a “damaged nation” in South Africa.

“Our humanity has been damaged. We are a community of people affected by the past. But we were not all in need of long-term clinical intervention. Many people, through their resilience and inner resources, were able to lead functioning lives but still have unfinished business,” says Lapsley.

“Many still have stuff in them as a consequence of what had happened. The nation’s journey affected individuals. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 23,000 persons came forward to tell their stories of human rights violations. Only 7,700 asked for amnesty.

“If you take hose figures it’s clear that for a great number of victims there was no corresponding voice saying, ‘I did it, I am responsible’. So in many cases there was no way to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Lapsley explains that the institute’s workshops have participants who tell each other their stories of suffering to create a space for reconciliation.

“We can’t think that we can be reconciled after a six-week programme but we can make a contribution to that,” he says.

“There are an immense number of good and beautiful things happening across the country. But there are very serious issues that we have not faced up to. We have the most unequal wealth distribution in the world. That is a recipe for growing violence and frustration.”


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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