I have spent significant time in my pastoral role understanding what it means to suffer. Much of what I learned is found in the book The American Book of Living and Dying Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain.
Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
We often use the words interchangeably. The ancients knew the distinction between these two concepts.
Pain is the hard truth of disease, old age, and dying; however, our response to pain - called suffering, is subjective.
Though the sufferer may not agree, it is often a choice. It is a human capacity to tolerate or even consciously bear painful realities.
· Parents will choose to suffer for the good of their children.
· Soldiers endure hardship and suffering for their country.
· People will suffer through exercise or diet regimes to reverse heart disease.
The unique capacity for a human being to choose, rather than to avoid suffering for the sake of another is the true meaning of compassion.
Spiritual suffering is a significant challenge today.
Spiritual suffering is subjective and need not be destructive. Many people come to recognize times of suffering and illness as opportunities to get to know their soul.
Suffering does not have to end in hopelessness. Healing is always possible.
Spiritual Pain calls for diagnosis and sometimes intervention.
Words that signal inner (spiritual) pain include:
How do we diagnose spiritual pain?
· By asking courageous questions
· By assisting to identify deep spiritual wounds
It takes both intuition and courage to ask what is going on beneath the skin of things.
Diagnosing pain is about holy listening rather than compulsive fixing. At some level, the patient already knows the cause of their spiritual pain. It's our job to listen deeply and help articulate what may be happening within.
Responding to Spiritual Pain
Spiritual pain needs to be received, listened to, and heard. There is no pill or quick fix. It requires a witness.
Fintan, an itinerant Celtic monk's wisdom is this "may you have the commitment to heal what has hurt you, to allow it to come close to you and in the end, to become one with you".