Prayer Penance and Pain – UPDATED

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.

In Hard Times, Give More
The Pope, the Word, and the World

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Barbara

    I am preparing to go to Mass. Thank you, A. Next time I am in pain, I will offer it for you.

    Additional alliterating in p, this post was perfect.

  • Kathy

    What a beautiful post! You helped so many people with your suffering, instead of letting it go to waste as most of us do. It reminds me of the good nuns who taught us in elementary school that suffering (of any kind) is “an opportunity to grow in grace. Will you choose to use it or waste it?” Thank you for using yours.

  • saveliberty

    I agree with everything Kathy says, and she said it far better than I could have done.

  • Ruth H

    I am not Catholic so I have never thought of my pain along those lines, but I have lain awake in pain and thought of all my forbears who were probably prone to the same diseases and had nothing to ease their suffering but the scriptures. I don’t think I would have lasted two weeks on those ships that came over to America. I feel so imcompetent in my illnesses yet I know they had the same because so many are genetic. They must have been much more stoic than I. And of course, many died much younger. I am 72, they didn’t live that long. I have modern medicine and surgeries to supply my miracles, and modern medicine is a miracle, another gift from God.

  • kuvasz

    Dear Miss A,

    Another foot of beautiful prose.


  • DaveW

    What a wonderful post.

    Hopefully soon I will be developing the ability to think this way when pain and anguish comes. This truly is the right thing to do.

  • Wild Bill

    Thanks you for reminding us of the beauty of “offering it up”. I learned it four years ago when I was in the hospital suffering from radiation pulmonitis. I was praying to be relieved of the pain and heard very distinctly, “Don’t pray against the pain – pray with it.” So certain of the reality of it, I immediately agreed and began asking Jesus to add my pain to his. Suddenly, I had the image of my pain lifting from my body like smoke and rising to God. And I knew that beginning that moment, things that were going badly in other places immediately started going right – a doctor was getting through traffic to an emergency surgery, machinery that kept people well began working properly, and so on. I had never been so certain of the efficacy of my prayers. Now I welcome the pains that come my way because I can be so confident that they have purpose and are useful to my Jesus, whose love grows in me every day.

    Now I can add to it your lesson on plugging into the communion of saints. That’s a valuable lesson. Thanks for that too.


  • antyjax

    I was feeling a little sorry for myself this morning, but your wonderful post gave me the slap upside the head I needed. My problems are but minor irritations when compared to real pain and suffering. Thank you for the attitude check, I will now have a positive and fruitful day.

  • Hantchu

    Catholics aren’t the only ones who “offer up” pain. As a pediatric nurse, it seems the natural response, especially when so many of my patients get such a disproportionate share of pain. I mean, I feel SILLY complaining about my wrenched knee when I think of some of the tortures my “chronic kids” go through on a regular basis.

    Somewhere, all this DOES count for something.

  • Piano Girl

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post…it’s a big help to me today.

    I loved seeing the links for these two charities…especially with Darfur, I’d hear of the horrible living conditions but didn’t have a clue as to how I could do anything to help. I will add both of these to my “charity gift rotations”. Who knew that something so simple as a solar cooker could help these women so much? I’m going to send the info to my circle of friends.

  • dellbabe68

    Well that was a good way to channel your pain! I’m sorry you’re in so much pain, though.
    Thanks, as usual, for the thoughtful post. :o

  • joeh

    Being male, I suspect my agony over a hangnail would be rated a nine and The Anchoress would label hers a 6. God knew this when exiting the garden he gave women the task of childbirth and men the task of gathering and providing.

    When the nuns and my grandma told me to offer it up, they did not have a taker on that plan. Not me folks, it is pure moaning for all who are near. That to me is what make Christ God. I need no other proof. Most would have stopped in the garden when sweat turned to blood. That is shown again in the fact that when our Lord came out to check on the apostles, his most trusted few, to see if they were keeping watch, they were sleeping. While obviously Christ was in deep distress, I think they drifted off again.

    I once had some minor pain in my knee and dispite years of training from the good sisters, that day my butt was on the pew resting while kneeling. I think that is why i found the Little Flower so inspiring for she gave me what became my own version of the little way. In pain I do very little and depend on our Lord for everything. I also found reading about groaning our prayers helpful while in pain but mine are more like moaning prayers.

    Every woman in my life, my grandma, my mom, and my wife have been great at suffering in silence. My wife falters when she is really feeling bad and hears me moan so she has not quite reached that perfected level my mom practiced so perfectly. I will try to work with her a little more.

    [Someday I will write about what an awful patient my hubby is. He is so bad that he makes me giggle, even though I know he is suffering. Admin]

  • Aunty Franny

    2 things:
    Now THIS is the type of almsgiving I will use this Lent! I find it easy to give money and harder to offer the pain. I live with pain and so have offered it to God through the Immaculate Heart of Mary and therefore know that its offered whether I remember to do it or not. But, its Lent. I want to be more mindful. I like this and your teethgrinding agony was something I could really relate to. However, using it one aching part at a time was brilliant. The Holy Spirit is awake in you.
    Second, I like to think of that Cloud of Witnesses also enveloping you and cuddling and comforting you. You give so much comfort to us out ‘here’ in readershipville that knowing the Saints and Angels are hovering around you and ministering to you helps me now that I know you get such physical challenges.
    God love you for sharing from your abundance of suffering as well as your abundance of writing skills. Both, I assure you, are deeply appreciated.
    Peace and restful sleep will be my prayers for you.

  • jakewashere

    One of the things that makes it so hard for me to handle the compossibility of God’s existence and human suffering (yes, that five-dollar word up there is real) is that so much suffering is unnecessary. Bad things happen every day to people who don’t deserve it. Take the least of examples: in our current economic environment, a lot of people who did nothing wrong, and had no ability to predict what was going to happen to them, are about to get it in the neck… if not in some worse places I could name.

    All these hell-born things, circumstances that encircle and entrap the innocent and the guilty alike. It makes me HOPE that God has a plan, because it means that there’s a reason for it all, even if we can’t see it.

    But until then, all I can say it that it seems hellishly unfair.

    “Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Gen 18:25

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  • Anonymous

    “But I realized that just laying about in pain was silly and wasteful…”

    I hope you meant “lying about.” If you were “laying about,” I want pictures of the swath of destruction!