Pain, Suffering, Joy

“Call me when you can,” read the text. Coming from a light hearted, deeply faithful friend who was 24 weeks pregnant with her first baby, I didn’t know if it was an “emergency” or a chance to talk again about her faith, new marriage, or the baby. Alas, she had given birth…at 24 weeks. There was nothing anyone could have done differently, but this would obviously involve pain and suffering, one way or another.

The 24 week old baby initially had a unilateral grade 2 hemorrhage in his brain. All looked positive in the first 48 hours, though there were bumps. Eventually, the prematurity of the baby’s brain proved too much, and the hemorrhage progressed. I flew home early and was privileged to be at the bedside with the young couple during these tender and heart-wrenching moments. We hugged, words did not suffice, pain was everywhere. And then he suffered no more.

How might you and I help another person in such situations? What is the meaning of pain? How do we understand pain and get through it ourselves? I won’t pretend to know the answers, but we learn a lot from others response to suffering, most notably Christ’s. All the Saints talk about the benefits of pain: joining in with Christ in His Passion. So many people are there to walk with Christ in the glory of His resurrection, yet so few embrace walking with Him in the agony of the garden and on to Golgotha. Will you be called there? Yes, you will. We all are. What is your response going to be? Will it be one of anger or one of asking, “Why?” Padre Pio says, “The habit of asking ‘why’ has ruined the world.” Rather than ask this unanswerable question, let us try to help each other think of the splinter (no matter its size) as a gift that must not be returned.

When pain is unbearable, are we called to “embrace” the situation or is it more of an attitude of “surrender”? I think it is really both, varying in degree according to time and individual faith. Teresa of Avila says we are called in response to any trial to live the heroic virtues of responding “promptly, easily, joyously, regardless of difficulty, and consistently.” I find most people look at me in disbelief when they hear this, so let me address this difficult topic through the words of the father of a patient of mine who died of leukemia in her 20s. “Pain is the ultimate truth serum. It removes all the noise and excuses.  Pain and suffering will not be denied as it makes you see your relationship with Him for what it really is. When we ask ‘why,’ we struggle with ourselves and our logic. When we ask that question, we have not submitted enough. If we keep peeling back the onion we ultimately arrive at faith. Intense pain is an immediate fork in the road. Does the individual lean in to Him with the faith He wants of us, or do we ask, question, curse and even deny His existence? That is a question of faith. The faith component cannot be overstated. It is our armor in times great emotional, and even physical, harm.”

CS Lewis wrote, “The human spirit will not even begin to surrender self-will as long as all is well.” Further, in The Problem of Pain, he famously advises, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain.” Thus, our self-sufficiency must be disrupted, even in our favorite and most honest and giving friend…misfortune must fall. This is NOT to say that God chooses these events, such as the premature birth of my friend’s baby. “Why THIS pain or THAT event?” Here we will be left with unanswerable and frustrating dead-ends, which is precisely why Padre Pio admonishes so resolutely our asking in the first place.

And remember…it is not suffering itself that is good, but how the suffering affects us and our relationship to Jesus, others, and self that will be good. This order is key: Jesus, Others, Yourself spells JOY. The RESPONSE to suffering, if dealt with first and foremost by entering more deeply into your loving relationship with Jesus, allowing that to spill over to Others around you, and then lastly focusing the lens on Yourself, then JOY will result. The reverse order is what CS Lewis famously found himself doing in trying to deal with the death of his wife. This is nicely recounted in “A Grief Observed.” While we can eventually get through pain and grief to the other side of understanding and peace, this reverse path (Y-O-J) is much more arduous and lengthy.

“There’s a woman who is embroidering. Her son, seated on a low stool, sees her work, but in reverse. He sees the knots of the embroidery, the tangled threads. He says, ‘Mother, what are you doing? I can’t make out what you are doing!’ Then the mother lowers the embroidery hoop and shows the good part of the work. Each color is in place and the various threads form a harmonious design. So, we see the reverse side of the embroidery because we are seated on the low stool.” –Padre Pio

To be sure, we are looking at the embroidery of life from our low stool, through a narrow lens, which often doesn’t make sense. It is our duty through faith to trust that a view from the tall stool with a more comprehensive vantage point will afford us the chance to understand the beauty. Through the pain, you and I are certainly weaving our path with the Almighty. We don’t want to sacrifice missing even one messy, tangled thread or knot. Those are the essence of our path to eternal oneness with Christ, sitting next to His mother, our Mother, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Father…

So remember the simple 4-command tool offered by Mother Petrozzi, Founder Comunita Cenacola, “Be Silent, Swallow, Suffer, then Smile.”

Wesley Ely, MD, MPH
Vanderbilt University
President, Nashville Guild, Catholic Medical Association

P.S. The baby’s name was Ryan Murphy, and his initials were REM. The mom said, “I guess he is just too small.” Later, with a tiny amount of distance, she told me, “REM is good sleep, and thinking about Ryan in eternal ‘good’ sleep with our Lord brings me peace.” I reminded her, too, that REM made great music. And then there is the person of the same name who was the creator of Glee…Glee, Music, and Sleep…we will think of these things for this Innocent, on His journey to God and JOY.


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