Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Joy in Pain Part 1

There seem to be conflicting views in the world on suffering and pain, and I have to say from my personal experience that the two most amazing, joyful days in my life were also the two most excruciatingly painful days of my life - and considering I have chronic kidneys stones, that's saying something!

In the summer of 2005 I was blessed to be a chaperone on a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi, Italy and Cologne, Germany for World Youth Day, but before I can talk about the pilgrimage I have to back up a little. In April of that year I had moved in to a new aprtment. Due to problems with my right foot, I carried all the "heavy stuff" on my left side, and started to experience some pain in my left hip. I didn't think much of it until I noticed that trying to baby my left hip and my right foot was causing my right hip to jump on the pain wagon. Finally, around the 4th of July, the pain became so severe that I had to go to the doctor. When the nurse called my name to go back to the exam room and saw how I was walking she offerred me a wheelchair. To give you an idea of how bad the pain was, my blood pressure - normally 80s/40s - 90s/50s - was 112/96 (or somewhere therabouts). The pain was so bad that even with 1,000 mg of Vicodin and 500 mg of Naproxen (my prescribed dosages) I was in so much pain I couldn't sleep, I could barely move, and all I really could do was cry... this moment in life was just one month away from a two week pilgrimage. And what do you do on a pilgrimage? Aside from praying of course - you WALK! (By the way, the diagnosis was bursitis.)

So August rolls around - I have a large backpack with everything I'm going to need for two weeks (including Bible, journal, and rosary supplies) that I have to carry myself, 3 different prescriptions for the pain and inflamation, and on that ubiquitous pain scale of 1 - 10 I was vacillating up and down, but never actually pain free. And my companions on the journey? A group of healthy, energetic high school students. Now, don't get the wrong idea - pain and I were no strangers; I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 19, and let's not forget those kidney stones, and I had been introduced to the concept of "offering up" pain by a seminarian from my dioces while at WYD in 2002 - but pain wasn't my friend, and I was more than a little concerned about my ability to keep up with the group walking around Rome, Assisi, and Cologne.

So, we then spent 8 hours on a cramped flight to London, then another few hours on a cramped flight to Rome, then a couple days walking at a fast clip around different parts of Rome. By the time a bus dropped us off in Assisi I was exhausted, and the pain... well, let's just say it wasn't taking a separate vaction. After unloading our bags and dropping them in our rooms, what do you suppose we did? If you supposed "walk somewhere" then you supposed right. And if you've never been to Assisi let me inform you that it is not flat. Think lots of up and down, (think San Francisco, but, you know, older :), think uneven cobblestone streets, stairs, hills, and narrow roads. Think, in my case, pain. Then.... Glory and Praise! Mass.

St. Stephen's Basilica was a small building that would fit in one of the unloading bays of the warehouse next to my office. It was a stone walled, stone floored ancient edifice with beautiful acoustics - and solid wood kneelers. During Father's homily he talked about what it means to be on a pilgrimage, and how we take steps along the journey. That particluar word "steps" stuck in my head, until later, during some part of the Mass during which I was experiencing great difficulty remaining standing (and didn't want to kneel on those solid wood kneelers) that word "steps" rolled around and around and around in my mind. In those moments, Father's homily about our steps, my awareness of offering up suffering, and the knowledge that there was over a week of "steps" left to make combined to become an offering to the Lord that every step I took would be an offering for the conversion of souls, in particular those of my family. I was still exhausted and in pain - but now the pain and exhaustion had purpose.

I remember falling asleep shortly after my head hit the pillow that night, and I remember waking up cranky. Very cranky. I rolled off the bed and mentally catalogued every ache, every sore muscle, and especially the sharp shearing pains stabbing through my hips and down my legs. After shuffling slowly toward the bathroom I stopped at the end of the bed and supported myself on the footboard as I rested, scowling and glaring at the expanse of floor separating me from bathroom. Sitting back down was not an option - that bathroom and I had a very important appointment! I thought to myself, looking down at my traiterous body, which shuffled heel to arch (the heel of my leading foot didn't even make it as far as the toes of the other foot) that with my teensy-tiny range of motion it was going to take me a hundred searingly painful steps to get to the bathroom.

And there was that word again. Steps. In an instant my fury, frustration, and self-pity were erased and replaced with the purest, most undistracted joy I had ever experienced. Steps! Every step is a prayer and offerring for the conversion of my families' souls! What would normally take me three or four unmindful, careless strides to accomplish was now going to take many, many careful, mindful, prayerful steps! Suddenly and without any forced intent I was thanking God for my pain, thanking Him for the bursitis, and most of all thanking Him for His Presence with me, and for making me mindful of Him, His promises, and my offerring.

I can't tell you which Basilicas we saw in which order (though I can see them all as clearly in my mind as if I had snapped a photo), I can't tell you which way to turn on any given road to get yourself to this, that, or the other location in the city, I can't tell you what Father's homily was about on our second day in Assisi. I can tell you I have never experienced such joy and pleasure in my life as I did those two days in Assisi, offerring up my pain for the conversion of souls and thanking God for my pain out of a thankful, joyful heart, and not just an obedient one.

In the last years of Pope John Paul the Great's papacy I heard many people ask why he didn't just step aside so someone younger and healthier could do the job. It was, they said, impossible for anyone to do anything worthwhile or effective in his condition. What I realized is that the world does not know that pain and suffering are not punishment, are not weakness, are not defects or shortcomings. Rather, pain, sufferring, sorrow... are Joy, Grace, and the Peace that the world cannot give. Pain and sufferring, like "all things" for "those who love God and are called accoring to His purpose", can be good.

Pax, Bonum, et Gaudium
Peace, Good, and Joy!


  1. Wow. thanks so much for writing this!

  2. Very interesting, I did quite enjoy this, though I confess to skimming it as I am in a hurry, but I wanted to comment and commend you on this blog. I am also reminded of St. Seraphim's words to those who asked him why he carried a bag of heavy stones on his back, when he was obviously in enough pain and agony with his health: "O my dear brother/sister, I am merely troubling he who troubles me!" He speaks of this as his way of mocking Satan, since Satan may be able to cause us pain (see Job) but he cannot keep us from joy and peace.

    Dominus tecum, in nomine Deum nostrum Iesu Christi.

    joseph +

  3. Thank you for sharing St. Seraphim's teaching. I know of him from a "Praying with Icons" class, but am not very familiar with him. "Troubling he who troubles me"... that has given me something to think about, you may even have turned my 2 part blog into a 3 part blog!