Pain is clarifying. When in real physical pain one’s interest in other things is superseded by the NOW of moving through acute bodily distress. In this state there is not much energy left to attend to relational complexities or remember the books yet read, or work yet done. This week I was struck by an infection that morphed into a kidney infection over the span of three days. Starting, most inconveniently, on Sunday morning. It was very painful. At some point in my slow decline I pulled out Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World and reread her chapter on pain. I am indebted to her for much of the reflection I share here.
Pain is experienced in the body but we are dependent on language, specifically metaphor, to try to describe the physical experience. Pain can feel like your lower abdomen is on fire, like your sinuses are full of cement, like someone has a voodoo doll of you and is poking hot coals into your eye sockets. Just to give a few examples.
I am now on the slow road to recovery, courtesy of some antibiotics, and I notice such a difference not only in my physical but also in my spiritual posture. Specifically, I note the transition from an altered state of consciousness to a reconnection with regular life and its demands. This week has me wondering—what does pain teach us as practitioners on the Jesus Way?
For starters, pain strips away the illusion that we are in control. And that is often what is the most troubling about it. It feels like a snub from the universe. And can also be a sort of invitation to ask the age old spiritual question: “Why me?” or to turn in on yourself and think of all the things you could have done differently that might have avoided this situation: “If I had only eaten better last week, or gotten more sleep etc.”
But Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that real question with pain is not “why?” but “when?” For to be alive, en-fleshed, moving on this earth is to be vulnerable to physical pain of every sort: illness, infection, and physical accident.
It is possible to cultivate an awarenessof our physical vulnerability without giving in to a state of fear about it. Simply being aware of our bodies and the possibility of pain is a valuable spiritual exercise because it reminds us of what is Really Real. And God always lives and moves and finds us in the really real space of now. Not in the exhausting catalogue of pain related to our past, nor in hopes or concerns over the future.
Stated differently, I think God holds us and accompanies us as we anguish and suffer about past and future, but I don’t think there is much openness on our part in those states for the Holy. God is really only absorbed, in a way that can warm and change and nourish us, in the present.
That is pain’s great gift. It keeps us in the present.
Then there is that moment when the pain stops: the antibiotics kick in, or you get a good nights sleep and wake up and can breathe again. It is like an invitation to reanimate your body. To flow back in and reclaim the part that was shut down, shut out, or that you tried to disown for the pain it was causing. And concurrent with this change in body is a wave of gratitude— a thankfulness for the experience of relative health – something which of course is so much more valuable now due to its recent absence.
The awareness that pain can bring is not just an internal practice. I found that pain sharpened my gaze outward as well—making me more aware of the beauty of the trees out my window or the first breath of fresh air when I made it outside after a couple of days. And my interaction with my kids was a great solace. Seeing Rosetta thrive, squeezing her chunky body, holding Perl and listening to her tell me a story. I felt in some ways that I was seeing them more deeply than I normally do in the busy flow of life. And I relished that awareness even as I resented the pain that brought it.
Now this is all regular pain. Every day pain. Nothing life threatening or extra-ordinary.
Yet there are some among us and in the world who live with chronic pain. This is akin to struggling with an unwelcome and high-maintenance relationship. And it is an experience of pain of which honestly I am not qualified to speak. I have had friends who lived with this kind of pain and heard their stories. One was in a terrible car crash at forty and lives with pain. She talked about the choice to sit in a chair and watch her grandchildren or to get right down on the floor with the pain and play with them. The pain becomes a suitor—someone vying for your attention. And for people living with pain on this scale the struggle is to learn how to continue to live with it—and not to spend all of your energy fighting the pain but instead to somehow coexist with it peacefully. Kind of a reclaiming of whatever energy is left over after part of your psyche goes out to meet the pain. And making the choice to continue to live with that. This is a spiritual practice on a whole other scale, and is a day to day, moment to moment dance. There are those in our midst who model it with grace.
One last lesson related to pain and community. Physical pain can point us toward a healthier mind/body/spirit integration. To risk an oversimplification, so much of Christian tradition and contemporary expression of Church seem focused on spirit and mind—and just leave the body behind. As an example, last week I attended the annual multi-day meeting of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. I experienced some beautiful things, and there was much important work that was accomplished. My favorite part was the session in which retiring clergy had a chance to speak to the thousand or so delegates gathered. These folks could preach! They were funny, and humble and irreverent and I loved them.
But in terms of bodies? I kind of had to forget I had a body in order to be able to bear to sit there, in a chair, in the Plano Conference Center for the better part of 10 hour days. I fueled my way through on coffee and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies (which might have been part of the reason my immune system was not functioning in tip top shape.)
I have heard that ministers on the whole are one of hardest groups to insure— because we tend to be overweight, have high blood pressure, and be stressed out. What does that say about us— both the Church and the pool of pastors who serve her — that the work tends to cultivate such unhealthy bodies? Something I hope we continue to talk about.
Final point– We always have to be careful how we talk about God and pain: for there is a lot of hurtful theology out there that suggests that God masterminds who will hurt and when as some sort of cosmic punishment.
Yet pain is, often, a part of living. Pain is an invitation to remember our body and not just to be mad at it for not doing what we want it to do– perform on command. And if it can remind us of what a gift it is to be alive and awake, pain has the potential to burn off some nonessentials. And sometimes God can use that extra space and do something meaningful with it.
Peace and health to you all. And I hope to see you Sunday!
We are raising funds for our Heifer Mission Project. Want to help Iris buy an ark? Checks to CitC with Heifer on memo line. PO Box 5072 Dallas TX 75233.