The Gospel for this week (John 11:1-45) shows Martha, a dear friend of Jesus, in great pain. Her brother Lazarus has just died and she holds Jesus accountable. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Still, she trusts that He can make it right. “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus listens to her pain and allows Martha to experience her own suffering. He doesn’t discount or dismiss her feelings. Her faith is rewarded and her brother is brought back to life.
Today, I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Mark Stelzer, S.T.D. preach on the topic of pain and the spiritual life. He began his homily by stating that “pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth.” That can be a very hard statement to accept.
Fr. Mark acknowledged that we all experience pain of various forms in our lives. The sources of our pain are many: the absence of what we most desire, the end of a friendship or a romantic relationship, the loss of someone we love through death, illness, addiction, or unemployment. Yet, we have been taught from a young age to avoid it as much as possible. Our first inclination is usually to run from pain. If we can’t remove the source of the pain, we seek distractions. We do whatever we can not to think about it. We can also turn to more destructive means of coping such as drugs or alcohol.
When we are in pain, we often get angry – at others, at ourselves, and at God. Then we feel guilty for being angry. This is a no-win situation. In addition, if we do not pay attention to our pain and process it, it will always resurface. “What we don’t resolve, we only repeat.”
Fr. Mark asked us to take a different approach with our pain. What if instead of running from our pain, we paid attention to it? What if we listened to our pain “to know what God is saying to us?” What if we acknowledged that our pain, whatever its source, is not the final word? What if we trusted that even in the midst of our pain, God loves us and is working in us?
Christian writer Anthony Destefano also emphasizes the important role pain plays in our spiritual life. In “The Invisible World,” Destefano states that “the main reason God permits suffering is because he knows He can change it – somehow, in some way – into a greater good.” In suffering, we have the opportunity to die to ourselves. “The old self has to be willing to give way to the new self.” It is in the moments of the deepest pain that we grow and mature as human beings, but to do that we have to be willing to face the pain and experience it. We can’t run.
Destefano continues, “When Christ used suffering to save the world, he transformed it into a weapon to combat evil. It’s because Christ united himself to our suffering that we can now unite our suffering to him and use it to help others.” He encourages us to offer our suffering up in order to help others.
No one enjoys pain, but it has an important role to play in our spiritual development. If we ignore or bury the pain, we will never reap the benefit of it. St. Faustina once wrote: “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” (Diary, 1804) We need to trust that our pain and suffering has value and serves a higher purpose even when we don’t understand.