Theology of Bodily Pain

“Dear Celine, sweet echo of my soul! If you knew my misery! Oh! If you knew… Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, in feeling them! … It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness! It has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer, one has to agonize!” — St. Therese of Lisieux

Re-post from 2013 in honor of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Martyr

I shared in a post the other day some of the insights had I gained from Dr. Veronica Rolf’s book, Julian’s Gospel, that I read over Christmastime. It’s a scholarly book about the 15th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Reading this book made me re-appreciate the incredibly rich and unique theological vision of this solitary hermit. Most people who have heard of Julian would associate her with her highly popularized saying, “All will be well in all manner of being well.” What is usually not noted is that for Julian this affirmation of “ultimate wellness” refers to the end of history when Christ will return in glory to shepherd his people into the New Creation and bring evil to a final Final Judgement.

What really struck me as I read Rolf’s book was Julian’s sharp emphasis on the theologically positive meaning of bodily suffering. For Julian, and for her Christian contemporaries, bodily suffering was seen as a privileged — even the highest — means of entering into intimate communion with Christ.

Let’s take a moment to think about this astonishing affirmation together.   

Holy Communion

In the Christian spiritual tradition, the path to union with God is an irreducibly rich reality that embraces every aspect of human life. Some spiritual authors have emphasized the primacy of intellectual communion with Christ (e.g. knowledge of God in faith), others free will (e.g. love of God through the virtues), while others emphasize affectivity (e.g. spiritual feelings of longing for God or compunction over sins). Still others emphasized the primacy of devotion to the Liturgy and Sacraments. That said, within the Catholic spiritual tradition it is bodily suffering that plays a privileged role in opening us to intimate union with God. Whether it be the martyr’s pains or the agonies of  those who suffer from chronic pain or the hardships of the penitent or the countless daily discomforts that attend life, physical pain offers the faithful a singularly graced opportunity to commune with the suffering of God in Jesus Christ Crucified. 

The Visitation

Theologically speaking, every aspect of Christ’s human life opens up for humanity a fresh portal into the mystery of God’s limitless love. God clothed himself in human frailty in order to achieve a union in love with each human person. From the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, God’s Son made every detail of human life capax Dei, “capable of God.” Conception, gestation and birth; childhood and adulthood; marriage and family life; eating and drinking; manual labor and study; art and play; weariness and sleep; boating and fishing; growing angry and grieving; feeling joy and laughing; being tempted and afraid — all of these human realities were taken up by God in Jesus. Absolutely everything of the human experience of life, in Jesus, is shot through with God. Even sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). But above all, it is in the violent Passion of Christ — in its every detail — that the veil between God and humanity is torn open and we are granted unfettered access to the deepest mysteries of God.

Because the Passion of Jesus stands at the center of God’s saving plan, Christians have understood that bodily communion with Christ’s own pains are rife with spiritual power. Wonderfully subverting the twisted logic of sin and death, God transforms — through sacrificial love — that which is worst into what is best. In Christ, victimized Lambs defeat victimizing Dragons, and the inglorious specter of human suffering unveils a vision of divine glory. The suffering bodies of those joined to Christ in Baptism are made earthen vessels of celestial glory. For medieval Christians like Julian, this theological vision transformed physical suffering into a veritable “liturgy of the body,” as St. Paul’s admonishes us in Romans 12:1:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

For saints like the stigmatized Francis of Assisi, Christ’s violent Passion was a nuptial event of divine-human communion. The Cross was the supreme moment of Christ’s self-emptying love for his Bride, the Church; his consummatum est. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, drawing from this tradition, refers to Christ’s cross as “our marriage bed.”

There was a powerful awareness in the middle ages that the Holy Eucharist — the “wedding feast of the Lamb” — wholly contained the Passion of Christ, and to receive the Sacraments of Christ’s Body and Blood was to receive the wound-bearing Risen Christ.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, in his book Epiphany, offers a vivid description of this link between the Eucharistic liturgy and the details of Christ’s Passion:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the “aversio” of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy.

Our suffering, united to Christ’s suffering opened out to us in the sacramental Liturgy (especially the Mass), becomes a co-redemptive self-offering that deepens our union with Jesus and brings life to the world. To embrace bodily pain in the economy of divine love is to embrace God in Christ — or, rather, to be embraced by God in Christ. This is the spiritual power hidden in the Morning Offering prayer:

O Jesus,
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works,
joys and sufferings
of this day for all the intentions
of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
throughout the world…

St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of Christ, Francisco Ribalta, c. 1620. Taken from caravaggista.com

That said, orthodox traditions of redemptive suffering never consider pain as a good in itself, and do not require that Christians accept suffering that can be legitimately avoided. Neither does our tradition not bind us to heroism in embracing suffering that can be avoided. Heroism, while always an option that can be chosen in response to one’s personal vocation, is never strictly required of anyone. In addition, Christians also confess that palliative acts of mercy to relieve human suffering are equally essential to a holistic understanding of salvation.

What the tradition we speak of here does affirm, though, is the wildly hopeful Good News. Life inevitably brings to us bodily sufferings, and a fully-lived Christian life brings with it its own hardships. The Good News? All of these can become not merely privations of health or well-being, but sacrificial offerings and experiences of profound intimacy with our crucified and risen Savior. On the Cross and from the empty Tomb Jesus secures for us a good greater than we could have ever imagined: nothing in life, no matter how bad, if given to Him, is wasted.

The act of faith opens to you this vision of bodily suffering, allowing you to see and experience the world in this way. Julian, who begged God to allow her to taste Christ’s bodily sufferings in her own body, wrote later that the terrible bodily illness she suffered opened to her the grace of “oneing in suffering love with God.” In other words, her pain became an instance of sacramental communion with the God’s supreme act of love for humanity on the Cross.

This vision of faith is radically foreign and strange to the eyes of a modernity that sees in bodily suffering only a meaningless enemy to be eradicated. But this insight bears within it faith’s most radiant mystery: the saving meaning of human suffering. It infuses ultimate meaning into a universal human experience, revealing to us that indeed God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

I will leave you with a quote and a musical piece. The quote was written by a Deacon, now deceased, whom I had the privilege of coming to know in Iowa. He was suffering the last stages of a painful terminal illness when he wrote these words to his children, and copied to me.  The musical piece is by Mozart, and is his musical setting for the liturgical text, Ave Verum Corpus, which reveals in only a few lines the exquisite beauty of the suffering that abides in God’s human love.

United with the cross of Christ, we are gifted with the blessing of sharing in His cross and participating in our own sanctification…

One comment on “Theology of Bodily Pain

  1. n.o.s. says:

    Dearest Thomas, how timely is this post for me . I have a dear friend , Jerry Dovalis, he is in the very final stages of bladder cancer.he also happens to be of the Greek orthodox tradition. His priests here knew your fr. T Hopko, spoke quite highly of him he too misses him. Our conversation when together always centered on GODS goodness and mercy . I had not talked to him for about a month when another friend called with news of him taking a sudden turn. He is on heavy medication for the pain. The cancer has spread to much of his body causing much much pain. Yet despite this his surrender to GODS plan for him is a marvel to behold. His dependence on CHRIST mercy, and the blessed Mothers love of her children brings to this pathetic sinner an haha moment. He still laughs heartily and hugs with a conveyance of love .. Iinstead of me comforting him he consoles me.this has been a wonderful experience for my son’s they have known Jerry for years and love him so. His total surrender to GODS love has touched them in way my talking never could .oh. HOLY 3 thank you for this man . And so I thank GOD for so many holy people in my life. Thomas ,to you and yours P.B.W.Y.

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