The Gift of Suffering

Today I would like to share a more personal reflection with you. It is about chronic pain, which is something that I struggle with. It is also about prayer and apatheia. My spine is kinda wonky. As the nerves emerge from my spinal cord, they are pinched by the bone on their way out. This means that I have multiple pinched nerves all up and down my spine which cause me anything from mild discomfort to excruciating and debilitating pain.

There are some treatments, medications, and exercises which can help, but nothing actually fixes it. It is something which I just have to learn to live with. Sometimes I do that well and other times I do not. Lately I have been trying something new. Since I cannot get rid of the pain, I thought I should try and transform it into something useful. I make it into a prayer.

Whenever my pain starts to surface I take a deep breath, center myself, and visualise my awareness rising above it and watching it from the outside. I don’t try to ignore the pain, but rather I feel it deeply in my body and remind myself that it only exists in my body. So much of pain is actually emotional. There is the physical pain itself and then there is our reaction to it and our relationship with it. I have noticed that in my own life I often have very poor reactions to my pain. It stirs up things inside me like anxiety (am I always going to feel like this), sadness (this is so unfair), frustration (I can’t get anything done), etc. 

These emotions which the pain brings up in me do not actually help in any way. While I can’t change the physical pain, I can change the way I respond to it. So, when the pain arises I use it as an opportunity to give thanks to God. Because gratitude is the contrary to all the passions which are arising within me. Gratitude calms my anxiety, lifts me out of sadness, and tames my frustration. 

It may seem counter intuitive, but I often give thanks for the pain itself. It is a mirror in which I see my soul reflected back to me. In the midst of deep pain I see myself at my weakest and most vulnerable. If we are intentional about it, that vulnerability can itself become a prayer. Christ himself showed us the way to transform pain into blessing and he calls us to do likewise.

Now, a very important thing needs to be said along with all of this. We do not need to seek out suffering for its own sake, life will provide us with plenty of pain all on its own. Even though Christ walked willingly to the cross, he did not seek it out or shout at them to crucify him. He did what he had to do and when the inevitable suffering and death of his incarnation arrived he welcomed it.

Likewise, as we do our best to walk through this world like Jesus did, we can take our suffering and transform it into a blessing for the world. When we do so, we bring about a resurrection, first to ourselves and then to those around us. With each breath I take I bless my pain in the name of Christ’s passion. Sometimes I feel a great peace amidst the pain and other times it is as if nothing has changed. But I believe that the practice opens my heart to the self emptying of Jesus, to which we ourselves are called. And that in itself makes my pain a gift.

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