Teresa Pasquale Mateus, a trauma therapist and author of Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma
An adoptee from Bogotá, Colombia, named after the Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila and raised by a white Catholic family in New Jersey, Pasquale Mateus has always felt drawn to mystical spirituality. In her twenties, yoga and meditation became a lifeline as she healed from sexual trauma.
The modern American Christian contemplative movement sprung out of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when globalization exposed Americans to eastern traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In turn, Christian monastics and lay leaders, like Trappist monk Thomas Keating, began to offer Christian contemplative exercises like centering prayer—a silent, meditative practice. Pasquale Mateus explains that the movement filtered through predominantly white communities and erased a crucial detail from Christian mysticism’s history: that its forebears were men and women of color. She points to “the Desert Fathers and Mothers,” the third-century North African mystics who formed monastic communities, practiced meditative prayer, and lived their lives in service. cocktail dresses for wedding guest
the model of Jesus, whom she calls, “the original mystic.” “You go into the desert for forty days and then you come back and do some shit with it,” she says. “You create radical justice and revolution in the world—that’s the point. The point is the return.”
For Pasquale Mateus, understanding the genetic passage of trauma over generations can explain community afflictions and help in the path to recovery.
Some findings in the growing field of epigenetics, which studies changes in gene expression, suggest that the genetic transfer of trauma helps prepare descendants for similar scenarios. For example, experiments with mice report that when trauma is associated with a specific smell, the next two generations of their offspring inherit that olfactory trigger. For pregnant women during 9/11 who developed PTSD, their offspring mirrored their stress hormone profile. A 2015 study out of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York found similar altered genetic profiles among descendants of Holocaust survivors, predisposing them to a litany of mental health risks, including obesity, hypertension and post traumatic stress disorder, among many other ailments.
Communities that have experienced colonization, slavery, genocide, war, and racial violence are especially primed for the consequences of intergenerational trauma, Pasquale Mateus noted. “You already have this encoding that says that trauma travels with you; it’s just waiting for something to ignite it.” She calls that ignition the “light switch” turning on. It can come in a variety of forms: “early childhood trauma like racism, emotional violence, the impact of mass incarceration on family systems, on communities—light switch, light switch, light switch.”
Pasquale Mateus explains that the pattern affects whole communities, generation after generation, compounding social blight until the narrative sticks: “Violence, domestic violence, suicidality, depression, obesity—these things are seen as some kind of disposition of people of color.” Society blames these miseries on communities of color, when in fact, she argues, the impact comes not only from ongoing forms of abuse, but from those who inflicted the original injuries.
But Pasquale Mateus remains hopeful. As a trauma therapist and scholar who has worked with a wide range of trauma victims—including combat veterans, refugees and survivors of sexual assault—she believes the afflicted can rewrite the narrative and stop the cycle.
When I called her for this article, Louie, who is Cantonese American, revealed that she herself is on a personal journey toward connecting with her mother’s spiritual tradition. Growing up, she heard evangelical Christians call Buddhism “demonic,” so she internalized this condemnation and distanced herself from her mother’s faith.
As she seeks to unlearn and relearn messages about her mother’s Buddhism, she’s trying to let go of the fear that once held her back. “I just don’t want to be so afraid,” she says.
“I don’t have access [to] or even secondhand knowledge of what the traditions of my ancestors are,” says Velasco-Sanchez. “I have this really sad diluted recognition that I am a woman of indigenous heritage. I don’t know what tribe I belong to. I don’t know what language they speak or spoke before they were colonized.”
Across the wide sweep of colonial history, the systematic demonization and erasure of local religion served as a key strategy to empire building. The consequences can still be seen today across the globe.
“All over Africa you find people dressed as Quakers of a past era, wearing formal Presbyterian robes in the middle of the desert, singing ‘Amazing Grace’ instead of their own drummed invocations. It’s weird and sad.”
Across these desecrated geographies, colonizers forbade traditional practices, drumming in particular, because it was a form of communication and they feared it would incite rebellion.
At the Mystic Soul retreat, Pasquale Mateus explained how eradicating and demonizing drumming, a tradition in tribal lineages globally, stripped people of a practice vital to their health and community. Today, some researchers report that group drumming reduces anxiety and depression, increases social resilience and boosts the immune system, along with other physical and mental health benefits. “So this thing that was inherently happening in all tribal lineages was healing the very things that were hurting people,” says Pasquale Mateus, adding that they didn’t need science to motivate them. “They just did it.”
But with today’s scientific backing of drumming’s health benefits, clinical practices like neurotherapy or neurobiofeedback can achieve similar results. “So you erase out of history the very thing that not only heals indigenous people but heals everyone, and then you sell it back,” said Pasquale Mateus, as groans of disappointment rippled across the room.
The movement of people of color reclaiming traditional practices is anything but formulaic. The approaches are as diverse as the multiplicity of ethnicities, experiences and perspectives that fall under that umbrella. But some recent scholarship suggests a common thread: where Western Christianity has relied historically on doctrine and dogma aimed at the individual, many non-European spiritualities can lean toward prioritizing experience, context, and values that connect with the entire community.
Syncretism, or the layering and combining of distinct belief systems, has always been embraced by many African Americans, she adds. “More are exploring Buddhism, Sufism, and African Traditional Religions in adaptive waves.”
Meanwhile, second generation Korean American churches practice a distinct form of simultaneous spoken prayer, which “stems from a shamanistic practice that has been adopted by Christians.”
This emphasis on relationships over doctrine is echoed often in the Native American religious reality as well, says Randy Woodley, Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at Portland Seminary. In his book, Shalom and the Community of Creation, he describes how, in many Native American tribal traditions, truth is revealed in lived experiences. And it’s correct actions and practices—not correct words—that reveal true beliefs. Woodley argues that belief is over-emphasized in the Euro-American religious reality, where doctrine supersedes correct action or practice.
On top of unlearning anti-LGBTQ and binary theologies, Louie has shifted away from the perspective that her Cantonese-American Buddhist family needs to be “saved.” With each step, Louie is beginning to see how her mom’s Buddhism is something lived out in her life—in the way she cares for people and in the way “she sees the interconnectedness of people in a way that feels counter-cultural to the individualist capitalist” American way.