Thursday, March 01, 2012

Column: Praying in Pain

Times are difficult in the local Church of Philadelphia. Schools are closing and being reorganized, parishes will close, there are financial difficulties. There is scandal. Times are difficult for family and friends. A friend's husband will die, tonight, or perhaps tomorrow. My brother has lost his job.

In the months after Tom died, I found an odd sort of comfort in this passage from Habakkuk, which appears regularly as one of the canticles of Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. I wanted to be able to hope, I wanted to be able to have such faith. I had the desire for the desire. But I prayed in pain. Years later, the passage returned to played a role in my experience of the Spiritual Exercises, prompted in no little part by an excerpt my director gave me from Dean Brackley SJ's book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, and has become a place of prayer that I return to regularly.

For another take on prayer and pain, particularly in Lent, I highly recommend Matt Spott SJ's thought provoking piece on the Jesuit Post: Spiritual Painkillers. His piece reminded me of a snippet from Walter Brueggemann's little book: Praying the Psalms, where he wryly observes that we often strive for a “cool, detached serenity” in prayer. (Full disclosure, Matt made the Exercises at Gloucester at the same time I did!)

Our own pain can strip us of our dignity, of our focus. It can distract us from we conceive of as prayer, a time with God that is serene and well collected. It can strip from us even the desire for the desire to pray. Yet this plaintive exultation of Habakkuk's reminds me that even when I cannot see the triumph in travail, nor even bear to think about the possibility, trial and exultation remain mysteriously intertwined, and that whatever I bring before God, in whatever state I am, is prayer.

(You can listen to Paul Campbell SJ's short and vibrant reflection on desiring the desire, part of Loyola Press' Lenten Retreat series here.)

This column appeared in the March 2012 edition of the Catholic Standard & Times.

For though the fig tree blossom not nor fruit be on the vines, though the yield of the olive fail and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God. — Habakkuk 3:17-18

The trumpet soared, the organ thundered, my voice echoed off the ceiling in the packed church “joyfully sing out all you lands!” as I led the psalm on Christmas morning. The whole of Christendom rejoiced in the Lord and exulted in our salvation at God’s hand.

But even as I sang of joy and comfort and peace, I hurt. Every breath, every step, even my bow before the tabernacle as I crossed to the ambo was a source of unremitting pain. To kneel, to stand, to sit, to move to prayer, was an act of endurance, not an occasion for rejoicing.

To be frank, the pain that insinuated its way into my prayer a few months ago was more than physical. The words which once moved effortlessly from heart to lips at Mass, tangled on my tongue. It was like learning to waltz again, except instead of relentlessly counting one-two-three under my breath as my partner twirls me round, I was mentally chanting “And with your spirit.” as the priest carried the book of the Gospels to the ambo.

Even now the hinges on which my prayer turns each day, Morning and Evening Prayer, rasp at my serenity as I hold out the intentions of family members who have lost jobs, of friends who are grieving, and of a local Church tried by difficulties secular and spiritual. In the midst of all this pain, distress and disruption, how can I — how can anyone — rejoice in the Lord?

The prophet Habakkuk, trembling at the difficulties he sees ahead, pleads not for relief, but brashly insists he will still rejoice no matter what comes: Though the fig tree blossom not…yet will I exult in my God. It’s an almost unimaginable faith. Yet underneath the almost swaggering surety of this prayer, I sense uncertainty. For at the head of the text is placed the note: “sung to a plaintive tune.” I wonder if the prophet struggled as I do, with the mystery of exultation and travail inextricably intertwined. Is Habakkuk’s prayer as much a plea for assurance as it is a declaration of faith?

Thomas Moore, in
Care of the Soul, suggests that just as our modern scientific selves seek the one magic bullet that will cure our illness, we want events to speak in a single voice. Exult in this moment. Mourn in that. He urges us to read difficulties as we do poetry, to listen for a multitude of meanings that can continue to enfold us and unfold for us. Endure and exult. Rejoice and mourn. Stumble and stride forth. One reading does not overwrite another; the meanings interpenetrate, weaving into an intricate and mysterious whole.

Mysteries by their nature do not have a resolution. There is no simple salve I can apply to my raw prayer. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, prayed to learn how Jesus met suffering, His own and that of others, desiring most of all to know “how You supported the extreme pain of the cross, including the abandonment of Your Father.”

I suspect that some things can only be learned in the doing. I learn to pray with certainty in the face of tribulation, by praying as Habakkuk did, with certainty. I learn to pray with pain by praying in pain, by praying within the space that Jesus holds open for us, arms outstretched between heaven and earth. I reach as He did for the familiar words of the Psalms:
Into your hands I commend my spirit. I sing exultantly, I sing in hope and with certainty, but in a plaintive key.

Teach me how to be compassionate to the suffering, to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the lepers; show me how you revealed your deepest emotions, as when you shed tears, or when you felt sorrow and anguish to the point of sweating blood and needed an angel to console you. Above all, I want to learn how you supported the extreme pain of the cross, including the abandonment of your Father.
— Pedro Arrupe SJ from Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits


  1. Wonderful piece.

  2. I have some studentswho havehad troubled years. They are wearing their angst proudly. I believe in a God that wants us to be aware of joy no matter what pain was heavy in our heart the previous moment. Surely not easy. But surely what I hope to do