By David Lichter
Over 40 years ago, the day before I left for my 30-day Ignatian retreat, I visited my aunt, Sr. Joannella, SSND, who was suffering from a painful cancer. She said that day, “David, I am going to offer up my pain for you this next month, as you make this retreat.” I carried that commitment with me. I was the purpose for her pain during that personally and spiritually challenging time. When I visited her after the retreat, she was still grimacing, but now with a perplexing frown as well. “What was going on these past weeks, David! I never experienced so much pain!”
She died not many days after that final visit, but the experience was profound for me, not so much because I felt her presence, but because I was touched and strengthened by the purposefulness of her pain.
This issue of Vision addresses pain in all forms and how our spiritual care profession provides support and resources to those in pain. We can look many places for definitions, such as the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, which defines pain as a state in which someone experiences and reports severe discomfort or an uncomfortable sensation. Most include descriptors of an unpleasant sensory experience. Yet it’s more than a sensation or awareness of some physical discomfort, as it includes a perception or interpretation of the discomfort, as well as some emotional content — thus, on a scale of one to ten, how bad is it?
I appreciated Chapter 23 in the Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. “Suffering,” written by Betty Ferrell and Catherine Del Ferraro, provides ten tenets of suffering, with number nine being, “Suffering is not synonymous with pain, but is closely associated with it. Physical pain is closely related to psychological, social, and spiritual distress. Pain that persists without meaning becomes suffering.” Pain seems to have an inextricable link to suffering, as we are creatures of meaning, and we find ourselves interpreting both the cause and meaning of pain. Where did this come from? How will I handle it? How will I bear it?
One research article, “The Meaning of Healing: Transcending Suffering,” by Thomas R. Egnew, was very enlightening. Although it attempted to find “repeatable actions that reliably assist physicians to promote holistic healing,” the study concluded, “Healing is an intensely personal, subjective experience involving a reconciliation of the meaning an individual ascribes to distressing events with his or her perception of wholeness as a person.” (Italics mine.) Isn’t that a wonderful description? The meaning I am giving to this “distressing event” or this pain is being reconciled with my perception of the wholeness of my person.
I thought the final description of the above study so well captured spiritual care, no matter who is providing it: “Healing may be operationally defined as the personal experience of the transcendence of suffering. Physicians can enhance their abilities as healers by recognizing, diagnosing, minimizing, and relieving suffering, as well as helping patients transcend suffering.”
“Transcendence of suffering” doesn’t imply some otherworldly experience, but accompanying the one in pain as he or she reconciles this pain with and puts into the context of the totality of who she or he is, thus making healing possible. My aunt was a woman of God who experienced all of life in the totality of her religious call. I believe she “transcended” pain and suffering that month. As much as she experienced pain, she also experienced healing, as her purpose for pain that month was intimately connected with Jesus’ battle with and for me, and my own spiritual battles of resisting his love and forgiveness.
In some ways, she came first to mind when I read Pope Francis’ 2016 World Day of the Sick message: “Illness, above all grave illness, always places human existence in crisis and brings with it questions that dig deep. Our first response may at times be one of rebellion: Why has this happened to me? We can feel desperate, thinking that all is lost, that things no longer have meaning. … In these situations, faith in God is on the one hand tested, yet at the same time can reveal all of its positive resources. Not because faith makes illness, pain, or the questions which they raise, disappear, but because it offers a key by which we can discover the deepest meaning of what we are experiencing; a key that helps us to see how illness can be the way to draw nearer to Jesus who walks at our side, weighed down by the Cross. And this key is given to us by Mary, our Mother, who has known this way at first hand.”
Much pain can be medically treated. Palliative care can offer physical comfort. But as that is being offered, it’s never an isolated treatment. As the research shows, we live in the fragile and tenuous reconciling movement where each person seeks to place that pain in his or her own perception of purposefulness, making healing possible even in the enduring reality of pain. What a sacred place to be.