February’s liturgical calendar has us turning attention to illness and pain.
On Feb. 3, the memorial of St. Blaise, we have our throats blessed, and the familiar prayer includes a request that we will be spared not only throat ailments but “every other evil.” On or around Feb. 11, when we celebrate Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of Prayer for the Sick, our parishes highlight the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Then Lent begins, and we are counseled to offer up our sacrifices and sufferings. This exerts a mysterious spiritual leverage for the good of others. Amid its silences and sparseness, Lent also reminds us to commit to a year-long and life-long fasting from complaining!
In the 1970s and 1980s two interesting books emerged which offered significant insights into what to do with pain. The titles were “Creative Suffering” and “Creative Malady.” Subsequent to these publications, the College Theology Society in the 1990s published an essay collection called “Broken and Whole” which dealt with how believers in Christ can find wisdom and new life when they make a positive approach to what C.S. Lewis termed the “problem of pain.”
As Catholics we are aware of the call of Christ to unite our pain with his Passion. Even when we pray for relief, we may find, as St. Paul did, that the thorn in the flesh doesn’t go away. He found, however, that he could minister with and through it.
On a practical note, we have to note that the only way to get through life pain free is to be drugged to the point of disability, suffering a serious neurological disorder — or being someone’s human-looking robotics project.
The studies I’ve mentioned give us some notable psychological and medical insights. It seems that some of the greatest researchers, humanitarians, inventors, musicians, artists, and writers have been people who were afflicted with chronic pain and/or serious chronic illness.
Over and over again, the studies show that these people became so absorbed in their projects and purposes that they became quite self-forgetful. Mothers know this from experience. Not only childbirth but all the aches, pains, and illnesses they themselves endure often fade when they have to attend to the needs of their children. One of the studies cited above records what it calls “the narcotizing effect of concentration.”
It reminds me of something we sisters heard from a Sister of St. Joseph who spent several summers at our motherhouse in Pennsylvania. One of her favorite sayings was “What you focus on grows.”
She was talking about ministry, outreach mission, and prayer, but it is also applies to personal suffering. If we immerse ourselves in good causes and focus on the persons, divine and human, beyond the borders of our own skin and nerve endings, our sense of the other will grow. Meanwhile, any temptation to grump about our own lot in life shrinks.
Some pain is unbearable, and, especially as death draws near, can require vigorous medical intervention. But many of our day-to-day pains, and even our decades-long illnesses, are normal.
Pain is part of the human condition. If we turn inward and are preoccupied with our ailments, we will tend to aggravate and maybe even exaggerate our pain. We may well hurt others as well, because we will not be focused on empathy, possibility, and Christlikeness.
We may have the most feel-good Lent ever if we look around and embrace the good works and graces out there in which we can be absorbed.