02 August 2017

Contemplative Life and Vulnerability to Pain

[[Dear Sister, I wondered if you feel pain differently because you are a contemplative. I read that one hermit is unaware of most pain unless it becomes really intense and then she comes back to a more physical level of consciousness. The post I read gave the impression that most of the time she is in touch with God but not with the temporal. She said, [[The pain has to be enough, or coupled with such as red-pink streak going up foot from pinkish-red toe, to be enough to bring me back to more physical awareness. And, perhaps this is true, also, for bringing my mind to more conscious awareness of spiritual readings. I'm finding my mind is away, possibly close in with God, but I don't know for sure, of course. It flies from my willed awareness or forced consciousness; the thoughts become whatever God weaves within.]] Do persons of prayer feel pain less? Do you?]]

LOL! Interesting question. I'm pretty sure I experience pain the same as anyone else. I deal with chronic pain, but I do that the way most people do --- medically. I try to pray through this specific kind of pain, but generally it is too distracting so I medicate as necessary and meditate as possible. Other kinds of pain (psychic, emotional), of course, are something that can only be lived through with prayer --- no medication is possible or desirable. I think it is possible that contemplatives are actually more sensitive to these kinds of pain --- after all, they are not numb to them but vulnerable.  But what you cite raises serious questions regarding self-care and attentiveness; I wonder how appropriate it is to be so wrapped up in what one describes as some sort of non-temporal "God-consciousness" that one is generally unaware of infections, injuries, etc. Beyond this I wonder at the phrases "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness". It sounds like the writer is setting up some sort of human will versus will of God calculus or something where being in touch with God means being unaware of oneself and the needs of one's body. These ideas seem to me to be antithetical to a healthy contemplative life.

It may well be that someone's prayer life allows them to move more easily through pain and to function more freely in spite of it, but what is being described here is the presence of recognizable and, one assumes, preventable infection in one's foot for instance. No contemplative I know would EVER suggest their awareness of God or the presence of God's life and love within them detracts from the critical or essential attentiveness to reality which is part of the very definition of contemplative life. Just the opposite in fact. Contemplatives honor God and the life God has given to and entrusted them with. They, especially when they are Christian, approach reality from an incarnational perspective. They know that we are "temples of the Holy Spirit" and members of the very Body of Christ. They see the everyday, supposedly mundane as sacramental and thus, essentially sacred, and they take what care they can and must do to honor this foundational truth of creation.

It is pretty well known that throughout its history Christianity has sometimes fallen prey to an unhealthy dualism rooted in misreadings of texts that speak of detachment or despising the "things of the world" or the Pauline contrast between a body of flesh and one of Spirit. The passage you cite reminds me of some of these misreadings. Especially it reminds me that when Paul speaks of being "in the flesh" or refers to the "flesh body," he is speaking of the whole person under the sway of sin; when he speaks of being in the Spirit or refers to the "spiritual body," he is speaking of the whole person under the power of the Spirit of God. Similarly it reminds me of the piece I wrote a while back looking at the spiritual life as the life we each live under the power of the Holy Spirit. (cf., What Spirituality really Means) More specifically, it is the embodied human life we live in and through the dynamism of the Spirit of God whenever we focus on the vulnerability to Love-in-Act this involves.

In my own experience there have been times when contemplative prayer has involved occasional periods of "raptness" where I am not aware of sensations in my body and where I may even have ceased to breath for periods of time. BUT apart from these very rare "experiences" this same prayer has made me more capable of genuinely incarnational life. Many of us may have reasons which detract from this ability to live a healthy incarnation or embodiment of the Spirit of God, but the life of prayer is not one of these. Instead a healthy contemplative prayer life counters and helps heal those things which may prevent healthy embodiedness.

 One final comment on the passage you have cited. As I noted above, I am concerned with the reference to "willed awareness" and "forced consciousness" which supposedly gives way to "whatever God 'weaves within"'. Attentiveness is a central characteristic of contemplative life, but so are awareness and consciousness. These are "the way we are in the world"; they are part of what contemplative life witnesses to. In contemplative life we attend to reality; we are aware of and consciously honor reality. We are empowered by God for this. While prayer is certainly the work of God within us it is the work/dynamism which illuminates and sharpens, makes whole, empathetic, and compassionate. It is the Spirit of life and love, truth and beauty, the flame of light and comfort which thus becomes the source and ground of genuine rest (Sabbath) and "at-home-ness" (eternal life). The Divine life is the Spirit within us which does not supplant our intellects or consciousness and awareness but instead perfects them.

To float through life in some sort of dissociative state is simply incompatible with contemplative and especially with eremitical life. (Such states may actually represent part of what the NT refers to as "hardness of heart" --- something I am hoping to write further about soon.) Times of genuine prayer which take us up or carry us away from more "everyday" consciousness and awareness are wonderful and are to be honored, but generally speaking these also serve to transform the way we see things so that all reality is transfigured through it. This may mean an increased experience of pain because it will ALWAYS mean an increased vulnerability to reality --- just as it did with Jesus and his own life, passion, and death. Contemplative life is vulnerable life and vulnerable life is obedient life which is responsive to the whole of creation, including the dimensions of sin and death still at work in reality. We must be wary of labeling forms of dissociation (which need not be pathological) "ecstasy", "rapture," or Christian detachment.