By Kathy Ponce
When I was around 10 years old, I dreaded going to the dentist. My mom would call for me after school, and the two of us would walk the three or four blocks to the dentist’s office, where I would wait, terrified that I might have a cavity. On those visits when I did need drilling done, I’d say to myself, “O Jesus, you suffered and died on the cross for me. The least I could do for you is to offer up these few minutes of pain.”
While my prayer as a 10-year-old helped me to bear the discomfort more easily, as an adult, “offering it up” does not fit with my theological understanding. But by substituting “opening it up” (to God) for “offering it up”, we are inviting a Voice beyond our own to speak to us in times of pain and suffering. Sometimes we, as humans, are able to do that. Sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we hear that Voice, sometimes we don’t.
The sisters at my elementary school told us many stories about self-flagellation by certain saints, and about those who actually prayed for pain so that they could be more like Jesus. As a child, this sounded pretty noble. As I grew older, I realized that as we go about our lives, doing what we can to help the people we meet during our years on earth, no one needs to ask God for pain to mortify the flesh. There is plenty of pain to go around.
As chaplains we almost daily encounter care recipients who seek an answer or explanation from God. They ask the big WHY question: “Why is God doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this?” I’m often reminded of a John Callahan cartoon in which a guy on the beach has tripped on his way back from the refreshment stand, spilling snow cones and shakes and hot dogs onto the sand. The caption reads, “How could a loving God allow a thing like this to happen?”
But the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters that we chaplains encounter in our ministry is often gut-wrenching, and gives us pause as we hear their stories. Our hearts go out to them. We know, however, that at times of great pain, we (all of us) tend to regress a bit. The ways that we rationalize or try to understand discomfort when we are healthy just don’t work when we are overtaken by pain and distress, whether it is physical, mental or spiritual. We, as humans who trust in a loving God, easily resort to “the big Why.”
Over the years, our Roman Catholic tradition has posited many reasons for pain: God is testing us “like gold through fire.” We are earning “time off” from purgatory. Free will and resultant bad choices are responsible for pain. God doesn’t allow pain and suffering unless some greater good can come from it. Our pain can become redemptive if we unite it with the suffering of Christ and “offer it up.” God wants to increase our trust in him. Pain and suffering are the work of Satan. The more we suffer, the greater will be our heavenly reward. Jesus suffered and he was God’s only Son. (To that, I’ve heard patients respond that Jesus only hung for three hours, while they’ve been crucified by physical pain and suffering for weeks, months or years!)
Similarly, religious traditions far older than Roman Catholicism have promoted reasons for suffering or suggestions that help to make pain more bearable: Suffering is due to bad karma from past lives. Pain in the present incarnation ensures a happier reincarnation in the future. God will punish the unjust. God suffers with those in pain (Harold Kushner).
But for all those explanations, none of us has ever truly understood why there is human pain. (Adam eating the apple and being thrown out of Paradise just doesn’t cut it for most thinking adults.) Sure, sometimes pain is a natural consequence of not having taken good care of oneself, or engaging in dangerous sports, or taking unnecessary risks, but often, there seems to be no explanation.
Viktor Frankl has sometimes been credited with having said, “Between stimulus (pain) and response (suffering) there is a space. In this space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies freedom.” As chaplains, we often want to work within this space. That is not always possible, especially if care recipients are experiencing acute pain or acute suffering. Many chaplains have a personal theory about pain and suffering — but we find that patients don’t really want an explanation. They want help for their pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, and they want some comfort in their suffering. There are so many adjunctive techniques that we chaplains can use in trying to ease our care recipients’ discomfort in addition to standard medical practices: guided imagery and other relaxation techniques, music, cognitive re-structuring, forms of therapeutic touch, and meditation, among others.
Our most special skill and gift as chaplains, however, remains our ability to accompany patients in their pain. Particularly in the frantic world of modern medical care, where every health professional has a particular function and limited time, presence with and listening to one who is suffering is a gift that is uniquely the chaplain’s. It can never be underrated. My favorite definition of a chaplain is that, when every other caregiver runs out of the room because it is nearly unbearable to witness such physical, emotional or spiritual suffering, a chaplain will stay, offering presence and support borne of loving and being loved by God and sharing a common humanity during a time when another person often feels alone and abandoned.
In the act of accompanying another, we are in a tiny way modeling Christ’s promise in the Gospel of Matthew: “I will be with you until the end of the age.” Presence/accompaniment has always been and remains a very worthy gift for all of us who are chaplains to share. It is perhaps the gift that is most needed in an often impersonal and unresponsive world.
Kathy Ponce, BCC, is an adjunct instructor at Loyola University in Chicago.