Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down.
Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 191
It’s strange that I have found, over the years, that the practice of the Jesus Prayer cuts both ways with this matter of pain.
Firstly, it most assuredly does form “a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds,” more deeply and powerfully that any other way that I have found—at least for those called to the Prayer rather than any contemplative other form. As Irma Zalesk says, in Living the Jesus Prayer (p.63), “…the essential thing is to keep that deep, central space of our being that we call the heart wide open and turned towards [Christ]. The Jesus Prayer leads us into that space, and allows us to live there unceasingly.” If that will not transform our pain, I don’t know what will.
But there is another side to living so closely in the presence of Christ, in the “deep central space” of the heart. The Christ who said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light...” (Matthew 11.28-30) is the same Jesus who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16.24-25)
The practice of the Jesus Prayer leads us deep and deeper into loving our fellow-creatures (human and otherwise) and so into opening our hearts to their pain. I said the other day that I could understand the impulse of those called to contemplative sorts of prayer either to gather in enclosed communities, or to live as solitaries. This life makes one so vulnerable, so thin-skinned, that it is all but impossible sometimes to live a “normal” life among people who will often have no idea what is the matter with us. Living with a heart open to the pain of the poor, the unjustly accused, the victims of war, rape, violence; to the pain of desperately mistreated animals in fur farms, the fear of the hunted fox, the grief of the abandoned kitten—these are not things that will leave us unmarked, unruffled.
But the wounds we bear in prayer for others are sacred wounds. In their very little way they are like the wounds of Christ. (A very few contemplatives, like St. Francis, have kept it up to the point where they are physically wounded in prayer.) These wounds, sacred though they are, transformative though they are both for ourselves and for those whom we bear in our hearts in prayer, are real wounds. St. Francis bled: try as he might, he could not conceal his wounds from his brothers; those of us who have not travelled so far as our Brother Francis will still bear the marks of our prayer in tears, in vulnerabilities, in “sensitivities” that some will not understand.
If we cannot conceal these marks that prayer leaves on us, what are we to do with them? How are we to live in the world? As Tertiaries, we are to live according to the Principles of the Third Order which state: “When Saint Francis encouraged the formation of The Third Order he recognised that many are called to serve God in the spirit of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in everyday life (rather than in a literal acceptance of these principles as in the vows of the Brothers and Sisters of the First and Second Orders). The Rule of The Third Order is intended to enable the duties and conditions of daily living to be carried out in this spirit.”
I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps one of the tasks of my remaining years may be, if it doesn't sound too vaulting an ambition, to try and work it out; and maybe this blog is at least the beginning of a place to share that process, if God allows.
Pray for me!