Saturday, February 16, 2013

Postcards from the Exercises: Inflicting Sensible Pain

I'm retracing the Spiritual Exercises in an adapted form (though I think you could argue that the Exercises are always adapted) using the materials posted at The Ignatian Adventure and writing weekly reflections on my experience for's DotMagis blog. I joked with the editor of that series that I felt like I was sending her weekly postcards from my trip with Ignatius.  Since I have more to say than fit on those virtual postcards....

There was a compelling conversation at People for Others a few weeks back on this paragraph from the Spiritual Exercises, which appears in the instructions for the First Week (which I've just finished):  The third kind of penance is to chastise body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities. [85.3, Louis J. Puhl's translation; David Fleming's is less stark and, to my ear at least, more nuanced.]

In Ignatius' time this would have seemed a far less shocking passage than it is today.  Extreme austerities, even if not practiced by the bulk of Christians, certainly featured prominently in the hagiographies of the saints, particularly the mystics.  The broader cultural context, too, is very different.  I suspect that what someone living in the 16th century might have considered an ordinary annoyance, we might consider an unacceptable penance.

When I taught the course on contemplation in the West a couple of years back, we read some of these contemporary accounts, as well as some present day scholarly analysis (a fascinating paper on The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism by Maureen Flynn still sticks in my mind).

By sensible pain, Ignatius meant merely (!) a penance you can feel.  I've been thinking about a slightly different sort of "sensible pain" these last few weeks as I work to rehab my ankle.  My physical therapist explained carefully to me at our first meeting that physical therapy would not be pain free.  If I wasn't hurting a bit, it wasn't working.   She was also clear that what she was after was sensible pain: not so much that it kept me from doing the exercises prescribed, nor so little that I wasn't gaining range of motion or strength.

So these days I hurt a bit all the time (though I should say I'm very glad to trade some pain for losing the boot and increased mobility), and at times more than a bit.  In The Body's Poetic of Illness Thomas Moore suggests that science seeks (desires) a single reading of phenomena but that poetry acknowledges a multiplicity of meanings can be held within a single text.  Why not then read our illnesses and injuries as having layers of meaning, physical and metaphysical? Is there a spiritual subtext to be uncovered in my sensibly inflicted pain?  Is it one I'm willing to read?


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  2. Around the time that I had major surgery for breast cancer, an article appeared in the NYT in which the physician author argued that we have unrealistic expectations about the processes needed to rid our bodies of disease or heal them from injury. We expect the hospital to be something akin to a spa. (I admit it; I would have much preferred a spa to a surgical suite.) But if we want to be whole again (or, if not whole, at least functional), then the infliction of pain is highly probable.

    This should not be read to say that I am in favor of intentionally inflicted medieval practices of physical injury for spiritual gain. But to endure unwanted physical pain for the purpose of healing does have its spiritual counterpart. Sometimes, anyway

    1. A spa would definitely have been better than your experience!

      I think in this I subscribe to the theory that God uses it all, pain (physical or metaphysical) included, but I wouldn't deliberately seek it out. As BBT says, enough comes her way without needing to hunt up extra.

  3. Fear of pain is good and bad. And not simple. Thanks for getting my mind going in many a direction.

  4. Modern people see thier bodies as "reality," and soul and spirit are "out there" somewhere. So physical pain is real and believeable and valuable, a common currency. For a modern person to take on a Real pain for the sake of wifty, otherworldly, highly personal "spiritual" purposes does not make much sense to us.
    Maybe physical pain and disease was much more common to medieval people. Religion and spirit were certainly more commonly practiced and believed-in... perhaps that is why the two were more interchangeable. Physical pain could gain you spiritual merit... and since pain was so common, it was an agreeable way to make sense of otherwise senseless suffering. IMHO.

  5. And then there's the question of "redemptive" suffering, in the sense that our physical suffering may somehow add to the redemptive work of Jesus through our union with HIm. I have read some about this, but do not find myself "believing" it deeply and personally. What about y'all? What do you think?