August 2006 - Volume 11, Issue 1

What A Pain!

By Rev. Ray Petrucci

Photo of boy at the beachThese days, I am very wary of the sun. This was not always the case. As a child, summer vacation often found me at the local beach frolicking in the surf and sand bathed in the rays of the sun. More than once, I paid the price of that exposure. Sunburn is a nasty thing. Blatant and insidious in its effects, sunburn causes one to feel self-recrimination over allowing it to happen in the first place and the physical pain incurred by the burn and the fear that, decades from the event of the burn, a skin cancer might appear. Let the circumstance of summers past serve as a warning for summers present and future.

The topic of pain raises the question of whether or not there is more to the experience of pain than pain itself. Through my duties as a hospital chaplain, I have encountered a vast display of the forms of pain and suffering a human being can endure. Every patient must come to grips with their own sickness. They need to reach an understanding of the burden that they are carrying. Nearly every patient I visit who is in the throes of a serious medical condition reflects something intent and thoughtful in their gaze. The person seems absorbed in some intense process of trying to fathom their state. Does pain teach us something?

There has been no one in recorded history more qualified to speak of the exquisite agony of spiritual, mental, and physical pain than Jesus of Nazareth. Willingness to carry one's cross, to share in the suffering of Christ is an essential aspect of discipleship. Therefore, is pain redemptive? If so, what does it signify? People who are suffering a painful ailment for a period of time, or are involved in managing pain as a constant part of their lives, see reality through different eyes. In my experience, those who carry the cross of pain view life itself and their particular lives with a new perspective. Priorities change, the pace of life slows, the arena of one's activities shrink in circumference, and the person's mental and emotional outlook is redefined. Most of the patients with whom I spoke tell of a spiritual awakening. They accept the veracity of the saying, Man proposes, God disposes. Emerging from the depths of their souls is an urgent need to strengthen their relationship with God. Another pressing matter is the desire to set things right, as it were, regarding their personal lives and their wishes for their loved ones. A wonderful gift that spouses, family members, and friends can give to those suffering is to be a sincere listener. Feelings and thoughts may need to be shared by those who are hurting and especially by those who are dying. I would say that those who are willing to listen to the terminally ill are, perhaps, those suffering individual's last best friends. As a priest, I have the good fortune to be able to bring the loving, healing, nourishing, and forgiving presence of Jesus to them in a personal and sacramental way.

Bodily pain affects man as a whole down to the deepest layers of his moral being. It forces him to face again the fundamental questions of his fate, his attitude toward God and his fellow man, of his individual and collective responsibility, and the sense of his pilgrimage on earth.

- Pope Pius XII

Photo of a starfish on the beachYes, I see that pain can be redemptive. Suffering signifies very much. There is a purposeful mystery in how suffering is utilized by God. Also, there is a humanly sensible effect of the redemptive power of suffering. The individual finds that the distractions and concerns that had clouded his or her connection with God have been dispelled. Eternal truths prevail over mortal ones. A honed comprehension of the ultimate and total need of God reveals to the sufferer the true freedom of living. Ironically, the condition of suffering has relieved a misinterpreted agony in their heart and soul– the aching after eternal life. The attainment of this goal is to be found, if at all, in the contrite and humble surrendering of one's self to God. Then, for the first time, the person may perceive clearly the full power and significance of faith.

Praise of suffering is not an element of a masochistic religion. The suffering one may bear is a means, not an end. Metaphorically, pain may clean the lenses, allowing a sharper view of God, humanity, and one's role in life. Assuredly, pain is pain. It is not a pleasant reality. Health in mind, body, and spirit is preferred in lieu of suffering. Jesus, himself, prayed that the suffering he had to undertake might be lifted from him. In the final analysis, our passing through life and departing from it, painful or not, reaches its completion most satisfactorily by uttering the words of Jesus upon the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.