Saturday, August 15, 2009


The Art of Learning from Pain

Here are a couple of things I've been learning about suffering since the last time I wrote about my bad discs.
On the one hand I've come to see that you have to devote some time to the project and work at listening for the Lord's voice in every circumsance of your life. On the other hand, I need to remember that what I'm seeking is a grace, a freely given gift from God rather than a result of my own efforts. Seeing some sense or significance to my suffering seems like one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit along with wisdom, understanding, fortitude and so on.
I discovered, in other words that there's an art to meditating on your pain. Of its very nature pain wants to just take over your life and your entire consciousness. So, to deliberately and systematically think about it is risky -- it can quickly make you narcissistic and reduce the vast expanse of the universe to the little point which is you and your pain. My life then, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, is measured out in ice packs and Aleve tablets, varying with the vagaries of a couple of irritated nerves in my lumbar spine.

But as a Christian I know that suffering is somehow at the center of God's love for us, and that the mystery of the cross is at the center of God's saving action. So I forge ahead, trusting that the Lord will watch over me in my efforts to come to grips with the deeper dimension of my pain.

Solidarity In Suffering
The first gift came two days after I wrote that blog about suffering. As I looked across at my brother monks facing me from the other side of choir at Monday Vespers, I realized that the back pain I was experiencing at that moment united me with a couple my brothers who were suffering too, one from Alzheimer's, and another from a serious medical problem. Then quickly my imagination took me beyond the church walls and across hundreds of miles as I felt myself joined in a mysterious way with to two friends who suffer from lupus and another suffering from cancer, and another from terrible clinical depression. Suddenly the choir stalls were crowded with all these fellow-sufferers, all of us united with the suffering Christ and to one another. By the time Abbot Melvin prayed the Our Father at the end of Vespers I was feeling my back pain with all the suffering people in the world.

When Suffering Is Just Too Big
A second insight came the next day when I got an email from one of those suffering friends who was responding to my blog about looking for the meaning of my suffering. She observed that as a younger person she had been very good at seeing God's hand in the considerable physical sufferings she had to undergo at the time, but that lately for whatever reason she was no longer able to do that with her present sufferings. The meaning and the vision of her pain as part of God's larger plan had disappeared. What is she supposed to do now?
Then I thought of a couple of friends (and a couple of my students both present and former ones) whose pain is so overwhelming and so all-encompassing that they can't even imagine stepping outside of their pain and looking for some meaning in it. Their suffering is just so enormous that they can't find the edges of it. A couple of times when I've been speaking with someone who is experiencing such overwhelming suffering I've said, "Well, that's what friends are for, right? I'll just sit here and feel miserable with you for awhile. That's all I can do, but it always seems to help." So far it has worked.

So lately I've learned to be humble in my thinking and writing about suffering. The pain in my back is child's play compared with so much of the pain that others are putting up with. All of us know certain people who live with severe, debilitating, mind-numbing pain. It seems to me that the proper attitude in the presence of that kind of suffering is an awed silence. You just take off your sandals and stand mute in the presence of such awesome power -- you're standing right there at the foot of the cross on Calvary.

1 comment:

  1. "It seems to me that the proper attitude in the presence of that kind of suffering is an awed the presence of such awesome power - you're standing right there at the foot of the cross on Calvary"
    This final part of your reflection on the art of learning from pain says it all I think. Each of us is born in the "image and likeness of God", and our life's task is to clarify and refine that image/likeness so that others meeting us see "the presence of awesome power". No one of us, of course, presents a complete picture - which is why it is only together that we are "the Body of Christ"! Some reveal primarily the creativity of the Creator, some the zest for life, some the compassion etc. Suffering, handled with grace, reveals the unquenchable love of God the Father/Mother as nothing else can: it is said that no human pain compares to that of a parent watching the torment and death of a beloved offspring - which is what I think Calvary is about. Jesus dying "for us" is not about paying a debt, but about God saying to us "even this I will forgive, even this will not kill my love for you". Standing there at the foot of the cross as you have described it, whether as the sufferer or the care-giver or the helpless observer, is a huge challenge: to BELIEVE that we are loved THAT much.