For reasons not worth getting into, there are times when my entire body is just one big ball of pain, where every inch of me aches. Usually it has to do with an incoming storm, or a weather system that is passing nearby.
It happened tonight. We had a beautifully warm day, and I had no idea what the weather reports were saying, but I should have known we were due for rain because by suppertime I was almost blind from pain. After putting the dishes away I hit the sack, hoping an hour’s nap would help. As I only take analgesics when I need to leave the house and can’t be going out in public all twisted up, I hadn’t thought to take anything.
It hurt to lie down, and took a while to find a comfortable position; I ended up propped up on pillows, but sort of turned caddy-corner and facing the crucifix in our bedroom.
“Oy, I hurt,” I thought; then I looked at Jesus in his suffering and considered how every cell in his body must have been screaming with pain – or perhaps by that time, as he hung on the cross, he was so dehydrated, and his nervous system so hyper-stimulated that he’d moved into the sort of dazed numbness that results from transcendent pain. “How You suffered,” I thought; I remembered Colossians 1:24:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church;
Pondering the crucifix I wondered, “what could possibly be ‘lacking’…” and I heroically counted my own pain as “nothing much” in the face of all that. For about twenty seconds. Then I started whining, again.
No kidding, I was hurting.
But I realized that just laying about in pain was silly and wasteful; it went against everything the good nuns and my own mother and granny had ever taught me about pain and suffering. In my head I heard Sr. Mary Gemma telling us children, “when you are in pain, when you are disappointed, when your feelings have been hurt, offer these things up to the Lord and ask him to use your pain – that He join it to His own pain on the cross, for the good of others. Offer it as penance for your own sins, or the sins of those who cannot or will not do penance for themselves.”
“Penance” has gotten a rather bad rap over the last 30-40 years, largely because it was taught to too many in the language of “punishment” rather than of virtue, offering and peace.
So, why not, penance? Why not take some of one’s suffering and – rather than popping a pill – endure it for a bit; live with it, and in it, and DO something with it; make it worthwhile instead of meaningless.
So, I offered it up. I asked the Lord to accept the pain in my toes and use it to bless those who are poor and in need of clothing, shoes, food and a roof – or who simply need a way to cook a meal without getting raped or murdered.
I asked Him to take the pain in my feet and use it to bless those essential, undernoticed people who spent so much time on their feet serving others – cops, nurses, food workers, teachers. I asked Him to take the pain in my ankles and use it to bless the men and women who stand a watch at home and abroad, the people they protect and the people they guard.
My knees – sometimes the knees wake me up in the middle of the night from pain – I offered the pain in my knees for those who suffer through long nights, either from insomnia, loneliness, social or family affliction; for “the night people” on the streets who live their lives in the bleakest hours, because they perhaps feel like they have no better choices, or because they do not feel like they “belong” to the day.
I offered the pain in my hip joints for those who have difficulty walking or are immobile or paralyzed, and for those who carry young children on their hips – for women in those difficult last months of pregnancy. For those trying to get pregnant, or grieving a loss. For those who have destroyed their pregnancies.
The pain in my spine was offered up for my nation and our allies – the imperfect (and stricken) “backbones” of liberty and human creativity and drive; my shoulders for our leadership, where many prayers are needed. The pain in my neck: for people of goodwill, whether “secular” or “religious” and for churchworkers and volunteers who – for all of their human imperfections – do so much that is good for the rest of us, and whose necks have often seen the blade for their efforts.
I offered all of the pain, in penance – for reparation and blessing – and it felt so good, and so right, to be able to make some use of it by connecting myself to the pain of others and to Christ’s pain. Better than just laying there like broccoli.
When I had finished the prayer, I took out my rosary, and began The Sorrowful Mysteries that chronicle Christ’s Passion. As is my custom, I went to the Cloud of Witnesses, and invited some into my prayer – Cardinal O’ Connor, Fr. Solanus Casey. Pierre Toussaint. Fr. Neuhaus, Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pope John Paul II, Bl Elizabeth of the Trinity. St. Teresa of Avila. Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, and many other favorite saints and holy men and women. I asked them to pray for my intentions with me, and allow me to – in our joined prayers – pray for their intentions, as well – to pray for those who had already asked those saints for prayer.
It’s a whole big world of prayer – outside of time and space – when you engage that Cloud.
Because I was feeling – finally – a bit relaxed, I asked them to complete the rosary for me if I couldn’t make it.
Sleep did come; I was gone by the end of the second mystery. I hope they finished it without me. I think they did.
And when I woke up, I felt so much better. In every way.
Prayer. Penance. They help with the pain.
UPDATE: Our curmudgeonly friend, Francis over at Eternity Road has a really excellent exposition on suffering, mindfulness and using faith in difficult times. Reading him it occurs to me that we really do need to stay conversant in faith and prayer for those dark days. Let us waste no time, but get practicing.
Also, Danielle Bean asks, how is your Lent going?
Amy Welborn on coming out of the dark and into the light
Speaking of penance: Deacon Greg looks at all-night-confession in NYC.