Spiritual Direction: Sometimes Spiritual Life Can Be a Pain

Spiritual Direction: Sometimes Spiritual Life Can Be a Pain June 22, 2021

Spiritual Direction: Sometimes Spiritual Life Can Be a Pain

Sometimes Spiritual Life Can Be a Pain

Many of us assume spiritual life is about the thoughts we think or the emotions we feel. We live as if spiritual life lives in our heads or in our hearts. It can be tempting for us to try to ignore how spiritual life is incarnate throughout the rest of our bodies. We forget how spiritual life can live in our pain.

Some of us are experiencing spiritual life as a sense of fatigue. The stresses and difficulties of the last year and a half have left us exhausted. It may be a challenge for us to live our everyday lives without taking naps. We feel worn down by the challenges we face and the questions with which we struggle.We are tired not only physically, but spiritually as well.

Others of us are more frenetic than exhausted. We believe we need to take on every opportunity which presents itself, every possible task which comes our way. Some of us believe we are responsible to work as hard as we can for as long as we can to earn deeper spiritual life. Our understanding of spiritual life threatens to burn us out and drain away the life of our spiritual life.

I also know people who sometimes experience spiritual life as specific pain in particular parts of their bodies. Some of them recognize certain sensations as spiritual life prompting them in personal ways.

There are people who develop aches in particular parts of their heads when they struggle with spiritual truths. Some people get tingling sensations on their skin when they sense they are acting in spiritual ways.

It is like when we think we following spiritual leading in our thoughts or feel we are at peace in our emotions. Spiritual life in our bodies communicates its presence.

Where Do We Experience the Pain of Spiritual Life?

I know people who seem to give the impression spiritual life is nothing but blissful comfort and joy.

My experience of spiritual life is different. Spiritual life has lessons to change how we experience our lives, deep truths, inspiring examples. It can touch our most excruciating pain and indescribable anguish.

Spiritual life can find and fill us in our most challenging, painful moments. When loss or abandonment breaks our hearts, when illness or injury torments our bodies, when we cannot understand.

Our lives are lived with painful moments. Spiritual life blankets us when we suffer in the death of those closest to us, who have inspired us. It keeps us breathing when we are not certain we can continue. Spiritual life fills us in the face of injustice, of fear, of despair, of physical and emotional and spiritual pain. When our own pain makes us want to surrender, or we are sharing it with people on the other side of the world.

We may experience pain as an enemy, something we work hard to avoid whenever we can. No one wants to do something painful. We struggle against it and its effect on us. When we are in pain, all we want is to feel better again.

There are deep lessons for us in the pain we experience. It shows us deeply uncomfortable truths. Like a young child learning not to touch a hot stove, it teaches us what we do not want to do. As we struggle and fight against pain, we come to see when, and how, to stop struggling.

The people I know who feel the most pain show me how to close my eyes and find spiritual life in its midst.

Learning the Spiritual Lessons of Pain

I do not seek opportunities to experience pain. We try to avoid it, to postpone learning the lessons it has for us.

If anything, most of us would like to find ways to live our lives free of pain. It is not because we do not value the wisdom it has to teach us, but because we fear its power to make us uncomfortable. Many of us would like to protect our lives, and those of the people we love, from pain.

Some of us have done everything we could to keep it out of our homes for a year and a half. We will do whatever we can to keep ourselves and the people we love safe from it.

Others of us have traveled to other places and countries, even around the world, to help people who are in pain. There is no spiritual reason for us to look for ways to experience pain. When we see people in pain, anywhere, we do what we can to relieve it.

Are we able to learn the lessons pain has for us without needing to actually experience it? Can we listen to the wisdom of pain we have not lived ourselves?

Listening to the Wisdom of Our Pain

The main thing I want from the pain I experience is for it to end. It is not a concept or an emotion for me, it is something I want to go away.

I do not really believe in making friends with my pain or embracing it. The primary lesson it teaches me is my life is not in my control. I just want it to go away so I can get back to living the way I want to live.

Pain has a very effective way of showing me I need to change. I tend to be focused and stubborn, and it is one of the few things which gets me to start doing something different.

Spiritual life works to get our attention through our thinking and our emotions.

Like a child learning not to touch a hot stove, it might take spiritual pain to teach us to change. The more we learn to listen and practice being open, the more willing we become to embrace change.

When will we experience the pain of spiritual life today?

How can we open ourselves to listen to the wisdom of our pain this week?

[Image by drweisgerber]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is and his email address is

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