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“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.

The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.

Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.

Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.

Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.

Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.

The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.

 

 

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At this time of year, one would expect to read a post about thanksgiving — that is, about giving thanks for the blessings and bounty of one’s life. My contribution is a little different. I am grateful this year for pain; specifically, the pain in my left knee, of which I am reminded every time I cross my legs. I am grateful because this pain reminds me, over and over again, just how harmful, corrosive and painful passing judgment on others can be.

Years ago, I broke my ankle in a dramatic and gymnastically spectacular fall down a short flight of steps. I also injured my opposite knee at the same time. My employer, a generous man who worried about my well-being, sent me to his doctor, a specialist, to make sure my ankle and knee were well attended to.

My husband came along — I couldn’t drive with my cast, and I wanted his loving support (as I do in all matters, great and small). The doctor was polite to my spouse, but downright curt with me. When I described my knee pain, he grabbed the offending joint and wrenched it, hard. I shouted in pain. “Well, you might need surgery for that down the road,” he said.

My ankle had lost a triangular-shaped piece of bone. It still aches terribly in the cold. And my knee still bothers me — not enough to pursue something as radical as surgery, but just enough to remind me about how that doctor treated me. I was mystified by it at the time, and for a long while after. And then it came to me. This was the same doctor that my boss had sent other employees to, only these employees were dear to him for other reasons: Specifically, he was dating them.

What must that doctor have thought of me, sitting on his examination table, holding my husband’s hand? He must have thought me the worst of harlots, the most shameless of hussies. No wonder he was so brusque.

He was dead wrong, of course. I was, and am, an excellent worker, but I am also the most loyal of spouses. Yet in one stroke that doctor judged me guilty and meted out justice in a bedside manner most unbecoming to his profession.

Strangely, I am grateful for the pain left behind because it reminds me what judgment does to others. Judging is hurtful. It is not my place to judge anyone, nor is it theirs to judge me. I also think God gave me this experience for a reason. I can be overly judgmental, pointing fingers mentally at what I perceive as others’ spiritual flaws…without remembering that these flaws are not my business; they are God’s. My responsibility is for my own flaws, to tending my own soul’s garden.

And if I ever need reminding, I can just cross my legs.

Not gonna lie; I’m kind of falling apart right now. I’m beset with a host of physical complaints — too small to dignify by naming, but taken together, quite wearying. And I’m mourning four deaths in seven months, with another looming. I’m tired and sore in spirit and flesh. The up side? I’m ripe for a resurrection, just in time for Easter.

In her book A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes about the voids in our beings, and how they provide God space to work within us. In other words, I may be at my shabbiest now, full of holes, but those very holes give God space to fill me, heal me, work God’s grace within me.

Sure, it would be nice to be wholly holy. But that doesn’t give God any room to maneuver, to effect change. God not only accepts us as ragged and full of holes, God loves us this way. As long as we are open to God’s presence in us, filling and patching and making us new, we have the opportunity for real greatness. And real grace.

So as holey as I feel right now, I know I’m in a good place. In fact, I couldn’t be in a better one. I’m ready for God to enter the voids and to make me whole. There couldn’t be a better time for it. Happy Easter, everyone!

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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