Most of us have heard of the phrase “no pain, no gain”. In the world of exercise and fitness, this is uttered by trainers who encourage their trainees who complain of pain as a result of having activated muscles which have otherwise been unused before. To avoid this pain, many choose not to exercise altogether.
In fact, avoidance of pain seems to be an unspoken quest by millions the world over. Some choose not to enter certain relationships so that ‘pain’ can be avoided. Married couples choose to raise certain ‘painful’ topics which can result in arguments with volcanic repercussions. Various addictions can result from finding in them ways to ‘escape’ facing pains in life.
In the medical world, there exists a condition called CIPA or Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. This is an extremely rare medical condition where the sufferer is born without the ability to sense pain or extreme temperatures at all. At first glance, it does seem like a good thing, doesn’t it? One can imagine life to be so different and carefree, when one can live life with less care about getting injured, and move about as if one was invincible. No more fearing injections or maybe even going for operations without the need to have anesthesia.
But take it a step further and one can imagine all sorts of complications that can result of being unable to feel pain. Think of little children who walk into rough walls scraping skin and not feeling blood streaming from their forehead, or biting their lips till they bleed, and not stopping because they don’t feel the pain, or literally rubbing their eyes out, of plunging their hands into boiling water without thinking about the pain, but resulting in terrible scalding. Indeed, sensing pain is actually necessary for proper growth and protection in life.
So too for our spiritual lives. There are without doubt, many experiences of pain in our lives. Just go to any Novena session where petitions letters are read out, and you will see the various kinds of pains and sufferings that many are going through daily in their lives. Underlying the letters seems to be a request that these instances of pain be removed from their lives, so that happiness can be attained. I do empathise and do pray for people suffering from pain and have sufferings of various kinds, but I am suggesting that a different approach to suffering can help us in a way that many of us have not thought about. And that approach is to ask “what?” Not “why?”
Asking ‘why is this pain happening in my life’ is a very common question. One doesn’t need to be living on a higher plane of existence to ask this. Anybody experiencing suffering of any sort asks this. But when our spiritual lives begin maturing, we need to change that question to a ‘what’. ‘What can I learn from this pain?’ or ‘what is this suffering teaching me about myself, about life, and about God?’ In my encounter with people, this question is not often asked, but it is a transformative question.
To ask God to remove all our pain could be the worst thing that we can be asking from him. We could be asking him to prevent all possibilities of true growth that comes from our experience of pain and suffering. We could be asking God to give us a case of spiritual CIPA.
Our good Catholic spirituality must instead help us to embrace what is known as ‘Redemptive Suffering’ where suffering becomes transformative not just for ourselves but for the world as well. This is when our suffering is carried with a purpose and a decision to love. It is to offer our suffering to God and ask him to use this in an act of loving surrender.
“No pain; no gain” could thus then be applied to our spiritual lives as well.