Richard Rohr: Transforming Pain

All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit itusually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.

Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!

We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.

As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.

Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Searching for Meaning

Rabbi Harold Kushner explained in his foreword to Man’s Search for Meaning:

The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. . . .

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

.. June 15, 1941: For a moment yesterday I thought I couldn’t go on living, that I needed help. Life and suffering had lost their meaning for me; I felt I was about to collapse under a tremendous weight. . . . I said that I confronted the “suffering of mankind” . . . but that was not really what it was. Rather I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield. [2]

This is what it means to hold the contradictions and the pain of the world, as we do in contemplation. Hillesum accepted her destiny. She believed, as I do, that we are called to be both the agony and the ecstasy of God—for the life of the world. For me, to be a Christian means to accept that battlefield, to accept and to somehow participate in the mystery of death and resurrection in oneself and in the universe. It is a process of “oneing” with Foundational Reality, which some call at-one-ment.

Social psychologist Diarmuid O’Murchu writes:

Creation cannot survive, and less so thrive, without its dark side. There is a quality of destruction, decay, and death that is essential to creation’s flourishing. . . . And the consequence of this destructive dimension is what we call evil, pain, and suffering. Obviously, I am not suggesting fatalistic acquiescence. Indeed, I am arguing for the very opposite: an enduring sense of hope, which it seems to me is not possible without first coming to terms with . . . the great paradox. It is . . . the unfolding cycle of birth-death-rebirth. And it transpires all over creation, on the macro and micro scales alike. [3]

Yes, I know, sisters and brothers, suffering is and will always be a mystery, maybe the major mystery.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Persecuted for My Sake

Today Óscar Romero (1917–1980) will be named a saint by the Catholic Church. As Archbishop of San Salvador for the last four years of his life, Romero was a strong, public voice for the many voiceless and anonymous poor of El Salvador and Latin America. When he preached in the cathedral on Sunday mornings, I’m told that the streets were empty and all the radios where on full volume, to hear truth and sanity in an insane and corrupt world.

Here is a man who suffered with and for those who suffered. His loving heart shines through clearly in his homilies:

The shepherd must be where the suffering is. [1]

My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated.  [2]

A Gospel that doesn’t take into account the rights of human beings, a Christianity that doesn’t make a positive contribution to the history of the world, is not the authentic doctrine of Christ, but rather simply an instrument of power. We . . . don’t want to be a plaything of the worldly powers, rather we want to be the Church that carries the authentic, courageous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when it might become necessary to die like he did, on a cross. [3]

In his homily on March 23, 1980, the day before he was murdered, Romero addressed the Salvadoran military directly:

Brothers, we are part of the same people. You are killing your own brother and sister peasants and when you are faced with an order to kill given by a man, the law of God must prevail; the law that says: Thou shalt not kill. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. And it is time that you recover your consciences. . . . In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise up to heaven each day more tumultuously, I plead with you, I pray you, I order you, in the name of God: Stop the repression! [4]

The next day, following his sermon, a U.S.-supported government hit squad shot him through his heart as he stood at the altar.

Only a few weeks earlier, Romero had said:

I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility. . . . A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish. [5]

The World Is Our Field of Practice: Angel Kyodo Williams

for us to transform as a society, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed as individuals. And for us to be transformed as individuals, we have to allow for the incompleteness of any of our truths and a real forgiveness for the complexity of human beings and what we’re trapped inside of, so that we’re both able to respond to the oppression, the aggression that we’re confronted with, but we’re able to do that with a deep and abiding sense of “and there are people, human beings, that are at the other end of that baton, that stick, that policy, that are also trapped in something. They’re also trapped in a suffering.” And for sure, we can witness that there are ways in which they’re benefiting from it, but there’s also ways, if one trusts the human heart, that they must be suffering. And holding that at the core of who you are when responding to things, I think, is the way — the only way we really have forward; to not just replicate systems of oppression for the sake of our own cause.

.. And so even our sense of what pains us and what makes us feel shame, feel guilt, feel awkwardness, feel put-upon by people, feel disempowered, has to do with the external information and cues that we have received. And they’re moving at an incredible rate of speed. And, for the most part, we almost never get the opportunity to observe them and sort through them — kind of like that drawer that collects everything in your house.

MS. TIPPETT: I have a few of those.

REV. WILLIAMS: Yeah, where you say, “Oh, but wait a minute, someone lived in this house before me,” in essence. “And some of that stuff is not mine. Actually, this is not mine. That’s my mom’s. This is not mine; that’s the inheritance of white supremacy,” or, “That’s the inheritance of generations of oppression and marginalization that subjects me to habitually feeling less-than, even if the current situation has no intent to make me feel that way.” And we have no real way of being able to discern what is mine, what is yours, what are we holding collectively, what have I inherited, what have I taken on as a measure of protection, of a way to cope at some point in my life or past lives, that I no longer need?

.. because what we first are confronted with is just the assault of the amount of thoughts and the mixed messages that just inhabit our body and our mind and our experience on an ongoing basis — that when we sit, the first thing we’re met with is not quiet or calm or peace. The first thing we’re met with is, “Oh, my God. Who is in here, and why won’t they shut up? How do I get them to stop?” And not only is something and someone and everyone speaking to me, it’s mixed messages. Things don’t agree with each other. I don’t agree with my own truth. I’m having arguments in here that are not my arguments, they are someone else’s arguments. They’re my parents’ arguments.

Sitting lets us just, first of all, recognize that we are this massive collection of thoughts and experiences and sensations that are moving at the speed of light and that we never get a chance to just be still and pause and look at them, just for what they are, and then slowly to sort out our own voice from the rest of the thoughts, emotions, the interpretations, the habits, the momentums that are just trying to overwhelm us at any given moment.

And when I say “trying to overwhelm us,” that’s really a key thing to understand, because that means that there’s an “us.” There’s a core and deep and abiding “us” that is being overwhelmed by something that’s actually not us. And when we become aware of it, we’re like: “Oh, I actually have some choice here.”

.. I had to bring into the language of my perception of the world; and that love was not to be limited to my bedroom or my family and just people that I thought that I liked; that what I was doing in the past and what we often do and what our culture calls us to do is to use love to be a quantifier of “Do I have a preference for you?” [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: That’s really well put.

REV. WILLIAMS: “Am I aligned and in agreement and affinity? Are you reflecting back at me what I want to be reflected back at me? And if you are, and if you are enhancing my idea of myself, [laughs] then I love you.” And bell opened up the idea that that was a very limited way of understanding — and she still does — that that’s a limited way of understanding love.

The way that I think of love most often, these days, is that love is space.

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more about that. What do you mean?

REV. WILLIAMS: It is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that that is love. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have hopes or wishes that things are changed or shifted, but that to come from a place of love is to be in acceptance of what is, even in the face of moving it towards something that is more whole, more just, more spacious for all of us. It’s bigness. It’s allowance. It’s flexibility. It’s saying the thing that we talked about earlier, of “Oh, those police officers are trapped inside of a system, as well. They are subject to an enormous amount of suffering, as well.

I think that those things are missed when we shortcut talking about King, or we shortcut talking about Gandhi, or we shortcut talking about what Aung San Suu Kyi was doing at some point. We leave out the aspects of their underlying motivation for moving things, and we make it about policies and advocacy, when really it is about expanding our capacity for love, as a species.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s so interesting, to just focus on that word, “movement” — because again, if we just take a reality base, you don’t move people by hating them or criticizing them. And you don’t always move people by loving them, but you don’t have a chance of doing it with the other tools. But I’m also thinking so hard at the moment — you’re right, we haven’t even seen this aspect of that history, even the history that’s not so long ago. I sometimes have this feeling that we are only now growing into, for many reasons, the aspect of consciousness here, what you’re talking about — the real human work, without which those political changes are fragile.

.. REV. WILLIAMS: We’re at this unique time. I’m surprised, actually, that more people aren’t talking about it. I think I may have glimpsed an article that I disciplined myself to not read. But we are at a time, so incredibly unique in human history, where there is a meaningful number of us that are not driven by mere survival, and we are not defined by the work that we do or the place from which we come. We are able to be transient. We can move around places. We can create meaning out of things and ways of being and work that we choose to do. And we can recreate it, over and over again. We’re not defined by where we are or what we do. We can make meaning out of it, but we are not defined by it in a way that former cultures and societies that were limited in transportation and had a necessity to be able to put food on the table, and so we farmed, and so we did a whole bunch of things that were about fundamental necessities.

.. MS. TIPPETT: You just inherited identities from — all kinds of identities from your kin.

REV. WILLIAMS: And they’re inherited. That’s exactly right, which is part of our great conflict in this country right now. We are running into the conflict between people that inhabit an inherited identity with the place that they are — coal-mining country, and the work that they do as a result of the place that they are — up against people that have values and ways of perceiving the world that have shifted because they are not identified by their place and the work that they do in the same way that location and a fixed place tells you who you are and how you be in the world.

And that conflict, and the values that come from those two disparate locations, is the conflict that we are up against right now — in this country, in particular, but also in other places in the world.

MS. TIPPETT: All over, yeah. It’s global.

REV. WILLIAMS: We are in this amazing moment of evolving, where the values of some of us are evolving at rates that are faster than can be taken in and integrated for peoples that are oriented by place and the work that they’ve inherited as a result of where they are.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and who are in survival mode.

REV. WILLIAMS: And who are in survival mode as a result of that, and so our values and what’s acceptable to us — enough of us — is shifting at a pace that is just outside of some of our ability to even take in. And the problem is — that’s always been true, but the problem is, now we have a meaningful number, a substantive number of people that have those rapidly evolving values in confrontation with people that are, understandably, still working with the location-, survival-based orientation. This means a lot of things for us. This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. There are many of us that can afford, literally, to be OK with people that are really, really different. In fact, we can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished, because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness.

Our own identities have evolved in such a way that, because we’re not merely trying to survive — I’m not saying we’re not trying to pay our rent and everything, but because we’re not identified with merely trying to survive, our sense of survival, our sense of thriving is embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness and increasing allowance for more and more difference that is in direct conflict with people that are in a space-time continuum that is still place-based, survival-based, get-food-on-the-table-based. “If I don’t cut off the top of this mountain, where will I go? If those people are not beneath me, how will I know my own value?” Et cetera, et cetera.

.. It is part of it, to go through the fits and the denial. There’s a death happening. There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. The willingness to be in denial is dying in a meaningful number of us, the tipping point. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift. And then what I feel like people are at now is, “No, no, bring it on. I have to face it; we have to face it.” We have to face it; I also think, what people know is that, short of a nuclear war, we’ll survive it.