Monday, October 17, 2011

Ending up the real losers when we want pain to end too fast

We share in our human psyche an energy that repels, abhors and rejects pain, trauma and suffering. It’s something that all of us share as human beings. Of course, there are the minority who actually like suffering and pain, and look for ways not only to have pain in their lives, but to have it in ways that are bizarre and totally unconventional. While calling these people psychologically maladjusted and weird seems a tad unkind and generalising, a lot of these behaviours are no doubt really self-destructing. I recall watching a documentary some months back about people who subject themselves to strange rituals that inflict pain, and the conclusion was that those people were actually sought the ‘high’ that comes from the pain, and had not really sought the pain for pain’s sake.

Here in the States, one only needs to watch one segment any television commercials, and one will encounter a slew of ads for painkillers offering some form of pain relief, from back-pain, to muscle-aches to headaches. It makes me wonder if this nation is obsessed with numbing or escaping some sort of pain and discomfort as a whole. It’s not necessarily a bad thing I guess. After all, people are known to work or studies better if they are rid of their stabbing nerve aches or back pain. I cannot but laugh silently to myself whenever I see these commercials, because half of the commercial is spent on spewing out at breakneck speed the possible side-effects that these pills and medicines can have on the consumer, often with the words ‘cancer’, or ‘high blood pressure’ or ‘death’ mentioned. It is obvious that medication is never without its risks. But the caveat emptor is always there to protect the seller.

But there are, to be sure, other kinds of pains that are not easily treatable with medication - oral or otherwise. These are the pains that come with life. The disappointments of broken friendship and relationships, the failures of endeavours that started out with every good intention, the reality that a good outcome in most things necessarily entails hard work and sacrifice, and the fact that in life, one is not going to be loved and accepted by everybody. From our Catholic vista or perspective, I guess there is one phrase that is a cover-all for this – redemptive suffering. It gives us as a Body of Christ, a sacred way of dealing with these pains when they come along. And it entails that we constantly remind ourselves that this life is not just for ourselves, and that we are not in the world, existent in the universe for ourselves. There is a bigger and far more immense reality than meets our tiny eye.

That Jesus came into our humanity to share in it in the most real and vivid way shows us that each of our sufferings can have a transformative character, if only we would have the same attitude that Christ had. Our sufferings won’t be transformative (for ourselves or for anyone else, for that matter) if we are not willing to consciously join our sufferings with sufferings of Christ. Because his suffering was universally redemptive, our sufferings would also have (at least in some tiny way) some redemptive value for the world. But sitting in pool of self-pitying mud and wallowing in it has little if no redemptive value at all.

Of course this is far easier said than done. Even when I am in a period of pain and uncertainty, when it is dark (perhaps even literally, as in the coming long dark winter months), I do sometimes want it to end, and to end swiftly. What we often cannot appreciate is that there is a learning that comes with staying in that pain, with journeying with that load, and with the sitting in the darkness in patience and solitude. Strangely, it is when we expedite our exit from these moments too quickly with whatever panacea we can get our hands on, that we really end up cheating ourselves from a much better result if we had only waited and learnt patience and some form of ascesis. That’s when we need to pray as Jesus did at Gethsemane ‘Father, take this cup away from me, but if it is your will, let it be done, not mine’. We have not learnt deeply enough that in life, quick fixes are often only a temporary solution (or welcome distraction) that do not bring much conversion and metanoia to our lives.

Most of us do not live in the luxury of being pain-free in all areas of our lives. We struggle and cope with some form of pain and discomfort on some level, but some of us just either don’t admit it, or talk about it. Whether we do or not does not matter. What really matters is that we challenge ourselves to grow more and more spiritually mature when faced with these pains and sufferings.

Each 40-day period of Lent and the 5 weeks of Advent are a very real reminder to us that there is going to be a period of waiting, a period of ‘gestation’, and a period of patience-learning in life before life really can be celebrated in its fullest joy.

No, life as a Catholic Christian is not about being a self-inflicting, pain-seeking masochist. In fact, it is just the other way around. It is learning to see with a different set of eyes what goodness can be seen in dimness when we adjust to a new level of light, illumined by the light of Christ.


  1. Though I am no stranger to pain and suffering, I would not say that I welcome them ( no matter how redemptive!) Good-intentioned people have repeatedly told me that my pain would disappear if I offer it to God for redemption of the Holy Souls.....but it does not work that way – (at least not for me.) Rather, it is in living the pain ( much as I abhorred it ) or as you have so rightly pointed out - it is in ‘’the staying in that pain patience and solitude...’’ or the waiting - that the grace of transformation has the chance to work.

    Pain and suffering is not only physical in nature. More tedious and excruciating -is the accompanying - lingering uncertainty, a feeling of impotency and displacement, of loss and emptiness - recognizing and realizing your own aloneness in all this experience.....all the while trying to find meaning in this confusion/mystery. The words of T Merton on Desolation ( Readings from Ibn Abbad) speaks to me: –
    “For the servant of God
    Consolation is the place of danger
    Where he may be deluded
    (Accepting only what he sees,
    Experiences, or knows)
    But in desolation he is seized by God
    And entirely taken over into God
    In darkness, in emptiness,
    In loss, in death of self.
    Then the self is only ashes. Not even ashes! ‘’

    I realize that this could be the meaning of Christ’s invitation to follow him......for ‘’Christ allows us to participate in his cross because that is his means of allowing us to participate in the exchange of the Trinity, to share in the very inner life of God...”

    God bless you Fr Luke and a very happy and blessed Feast Day ( tomorrow )


  2. Dear Fr Luke,

    Happy feast day - managed to attend mass this morning. Embarking on "the Dance of Life" by Henri J.M. Nouwen; edited by Michael Ford.

    Your blog has initiated me to pick up the book to read...Thank you Fr for your input on being patient to find oneself in the slow process of undergoing uncertainties..only to find God's precious love awaiting....God bless. -Mat.

  3. Thanks frLuke, for these words "What really matters is that we challenge ourselves to grow more and more spiritually mature when faced with these pains and sufferings."

    It reminds me of what St Therese said to her brother priest Maurice "In fact, when Jesus calls a person to lead great number of others to salvation, it is very necessary that He make him experience the trials and temptations of life ..."


  4. Dear Fr. Luke,

    I came to the conclusion years ago that suffering itself HAS to have some meaning; some purpose. How else can one explain why "the good always seem to suffer more?" Or why our God, who is Love, can accede to pain and suffering in the first place. Just look at the great saints; for many of them, hardship and pain was very much a part of their lives.

    Knowing that God allows us to experience pain, I believe that when we accept great suffering, we are participating (in some small way), in the redemption of souls, just as Christ did on the cross at Calvary. There is a redemptive element in there, somewhere; there has to be.

    All this leaves me feeling a little guilty.I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes I wonder why I haven't suffered more- like many of my friends. All the troubles I've had seem small in comparison (at least they do now) to what some of my brothers and sisters are experiencing. Perhaps my time will come sometime in the future.

    No matter what, let His will be done, not mine. I can only pray that I will have the faith and courage to accept wholeheartedly, whatever God allows in my life.

    God Bless,

  5. Dear Fr Luke,

    I visit your blog at least a few times every week, just to read the post over and over again. every time I do that I learn something as I reflect on my life. It is because of this blog I felt the yearn to head down to church (I've just moved to Perth for my studies).

    As I reflected over your entry again today, I realized that many times, it was you who brought me back to church (indirectly and directly). I have always enjoyed your homily - and your takeaways. Somehow I'm able to relate my life in the perspective you put the scriptures into.

    Have a great week Father! Will be reading entries again and again... until your next!

    A very big thank you!