Autumn 1990, Vol.42 No. 3, pp. 209-216.

Nathan R. Kollar:
      Toward a Spirituality of Pain

Pain sacramentalizes the significant changes encountered in human life, thereby bringing forth a spirituality of survival and representation.

Dr. Kollar is Professor of Religious Studies at St. John Fisher College and Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. His most recent book is Songs of Suffering (Winston/Harper and Row, 1983).

We know that all creation has been groaning in agony together until now.
- Rom 8:22

NO sane person desires pain, yet we cannot do without pain. Pain can turn us into mock images of ourselves, yet we need the warning signs of pain to prevent us from further harm to ourself. No one lives without some pain. Many, especially the frail elderly, live a life of incarnate pain. Until this century people had no choice about how much and how long they had to endure pain. Today, in the industrialized West, we do have a choice because we have developed a significant amount of pain control. Our Christian traditions and spiritualities come from a time when there were few choices about pain. These spiritualities took for granted not only that we could not do without pain but that we could do nothing about the pain we experienced except pray. Is it possible today to have a pain-free spirituality? Must our spirituality generally choose pain over non-pain? What is the role of pain in our spiritual life? How do we deal with expected as well as unexpected pain? Before answering these questions we must recognize the nature of pain.


Pain is more than a physical reaction to a physical stimulus. It is the body's response to our involvement with significant change. The change may be physical -- a rampaging cancer or stubbed toe; emotional -- an inability to love or be loved; social -- a sense of alienation from one's friends; mental -- an inability to understand what is happening.

Pain is the way our body warns us that significant change is occurring. We know that this change may be for the better a new tooth, friend, involvement, idea; or for the worse -- our last tooth, the death of a dear friend, or an idea resulting in the destruction of the environment. Pain is never neutral. It announces the advent of the good and/or the bad. Sometimes it is not a clear declarative announcement but a question that leaves us burdened with the anxiety of not knowing what is happening.

Contemporary pain control focuses on acute pain. Acute pain occurs in short bursts, its end expected. We have developed many ways to control it. Chronic pain, however, is only now gaining attention as the battle against acute pain is being won. Chronic pain is predictable, extended, and many times debilitating. It is arthritic pain, sinus pain, and pain associated with certain seasons or situations. Just as acute pain dominated the past, chronic pain dominates the present. But pain, whether acute or chronic, is dependent upon our social and personal environment. We respond to pain differently depending upon our past experience with it. If, as a child, for instance, we were encouraged to elaborate on our pain and consequently, become the center of attention, as an adult we will probably talk more about our pain and seek out those who will listen and respond.

If, on the other hand, our pain was cared for while we were expected to continue with our daily tasks, we will accept most ordinary pain as part of our life style. It is also well recognized that people in different cultures experience pain differently. Pain, then, has its own language. And, as with any language, it differs as to who is speaking and what language is spoken.


A language is real only when it is spoken and heard, not in a dictionary or grammar book. A language is more than spoken and heard words; it is also the gestures of face, hands, and body. Languages are bridges which bind speakers and listeners together in shared meaning and belonging. Sacraments and language have much in common. They express a complex reality in a very condensed fashion while initiating a new dynamic into their surrounding environment.

When we speak we express our "selves." But "self" is never simple. We have a past, a present and a future resulting from a confluence of other pasts, presents, and futures. When we speak, our words do not hang there in the air, without effect. No, they encounter those around us -- to be experienced anew by the listeners. The sacrament of baptism is much the same as our words.

Baptism is a combination of words, people, music, and pouring water. It links Christians of the past, present, and future. Yet it results in specific changes among everyone present. In the language of the medieval texts, it causes what it signifies. Pain is a sacrament -- a sensible reality expressing and causing something unique, a bridge between change and our conscious self. Pain sacramentalizes significant change in self, society, and world.

The change is evident when we know the cause of the pain. For example, the pain -ouch!- occurs because of the change my finger's cut; the hunger pain occurs because I have no food (change: money to buy food to no money to buy food); the pain of alienation happens because I am not accepted where I work (change: accepted where I work to not accepted). The sacramentalization of pain is more difficult to sense as the cause becomes more unknown. We may be pain-filled, and know that change is occurring, but not know the specificity of change. Thus pain is the sacrament of change which is many times unknown.

When the cause is unknown we face pain as mysterious, A awesome, and overwhelming. Pain without a known cause plunges us deep into fear of the future and binds us to an eternal quest to resolve both cause and fear. In such an experience, pain touches the sacred which is also both fearful and attractive. Whenever we touch the sacred we realize our limitation. Alone we stretch out our hands to gain balance. But balance can come only by grasping the hands of those around us. Bound to them we can face that which is overpowering us. No matter how modern we are, unknown pain touches the primitive within -- we howl and beat the air in our vain attempt to control what is essentially uncontrollable.

In "unknown" pain we sense change but not direction. We know that change can be for good or ill. Unknown pain leaves the direction of change unknown. But so does known pain. The example of the tooth makes my point: a new tooth may come out for the young child but it may be lodged at the wrong angle or in such a way that thirty years later it wears the tooth next to it, thus causing undue decay. Some known pain, with seemingly devastating consequences, results in re-directing one's life -- a young man who is hurt in such a way that he can never play football, now gives more time to academics and goes on to be a famous teacher. We may think we know the direction and intensity of the change announced by pain, but we can never be completely sure of the direction.

Pain in the abstract, however, is never the sacrament. Painfilled people are: many elderly people filled with pain throughout the day and into the night; people who pain without end. These are the sacraments, and their pain is never ending -- it is always sacramenting. As sacrament and sacramenting the person expresses and bridges the worlds of change and consciousness as they respond to and are responded to as human beings. It is in these responses that we witness choice, love, justice, meaning, belonging, and a spirituality of pain.


We human beings are complex realities. Because we are complex, we experience freedom. We can never be reduced to one causality, one reason why we act or do not act. We face choice in all of our complexity and all the complexity of choosing. We experience pain with this same complexity. Pain is only one aspect of our life and our living, no matter how overwhelming it may be at times. Pain is the physical aspect of our life. The change that it marks is part of a larger whole -- the whole of suffering.

Suffering is a way of experiencing ourselves and our world. "Suffering is the painful consciousness of that within our world which is not what we expect it to be."(1) The human person manifests him or herself in many ways: physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Human pain is the physical marker of that suffering. Pain is always part of suffering but it is never equal to suffering because it is possible to accept a certain level of pain in order to reduce one's or society's suffering. A person in great pain, for instance, may be willing to put up with the pain in order to talk to those around them; or, a football player may endure great pain in order to score a touchdown; or, a parent to care for his or her children. Pain is not always equal to suffering but when suffering is present so is pain. Our choice of pain is tied up with our choice of suffering. Sometimes we face the pain of a situation in order to reduce the suffering present in it.


A pain-free spirituality is impossible. As long as we are humans we will experience pain. Any spirituality which offers an escape from pain is offering an escape from our humanity and its responsibilities. This does not mean that we should accept or live with all pain. Bad pain is bad pain. To suggest that it is not bad is to close our eyes to social and personal evil. The pain of rape, of cancer, of malnutrition is wrong. To suggest that it is somehow good, some type of lemon from which the sufferers are to make lemonade, is to close our eyes to evil. To suggest that we accept these and similar pains as gifts from God is to make both God and the recipient into masochists. Bad pain, evil pain must be dealt with as we deal with any evil.

The role of pain in one's spirituality is both a question of choice and of representation. Let us first look at our possible choice of pain. The answers to the following questions aid in that choice.

Pain is many times associated with the suffering involved in rebuilding the human family. Does our pain-filled life form, or deform, community?

Does our pain-filled suffering improve our ability to live creatively with ambiguity, uncertainty, even chaos? After all, these are parts of life, so we must be able to live and work in their midst even though there are no criteria for judging with certainty that we are responding properly to them.

Does our choice contribute to our growth in the Spirit?

Does the choice result in a growth of love that is self-giving?

Does the choice result in a deeper awareness of God's presence in our own life and the life of the world? After all, ours is a suffering God and the world does groan in agony awaiting its completion.

Does the pain-filled suffering give promise of reaching its goal? Pain-filled suffering without a goal would be a life without a goal or direction. If we are not aware of the Christ-omega in our life, our pain loses its humanity.

Is our acceptance of pain-filled suffering faithful to gospel values and historical realities, for instance, the gospel value of justice for all and the historical realities of the Christian tradition to help the needy?

Are we willing to abandon our pain-filled suffering and what causes it? If the original reasons for accepting the pain into our life are not present, we must be willing to move on if we can.


Sometimes we have no choice; perhaps, chronic pain is our life or nothing can be done about the causes of pain. We can only be pain-filled. We cannot do anything about the pain. But who we are is very important. We are the body of Christ, dying and resurrecting to final glory when all will be in all.

The unity of this body is such that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and the suffering of all is part of each. The one who is in pain is so because of our ignorance, our inability to know what to do. His or her pain represents our lack of knowledge or unwillingness to fund the necessary research. The one who is in pain is so because the whole world must change for life to be born anew. The one who is in pain is so because .... because we do not always know!

Pain is ultimately mystery. Suffering is ultimately mysterious. We are in pain. We share the pain of others knowing that we can never feel his or her pain. We encounter pain and touch faithfulness and faithlessness. Pain can destroy humans. Pain can destroy everything good. Those living a life of unchosen pain represent the mystery of life in general and each of us in particular as they daily attempt to survive as human beings. Their spirituality of pain is a spirituality of survival.

A spirituality of survival is one of hope to lessen the pain, the plea for sensitivity to what pain is doing to them, and to know they are still loved no matter how the pain transfigures them. A spirituality of survival is a spirituality of representation: a representation of our changing world, our inability or unwillingness to deal with the forces of change causing this pain, our unproductive love and concern.

When we speak of one who represents us we usually think of someone who does something "for" us, or acts "instead of" us. This view is not entirely correct. If we look at Christ, who ,,us. the representative of humanity, we can see the perfect exam ple of what representation is. Christ in his life, death and resurrection was not someone separate from the community of humanity, but what Christ did had a basic effect upon humanity as a whole. Christ was all of us in some mysterious way. In other words he did not so much act for the community or instead of the community but was the community acting.

As with Christ so too it is with individual Christians and the Christian community, Christ's body. The principle of representation is applicable among them too. Anyone who takes seriously Jesus' concept of "neighbor" must see in this concept the individual as a basic representative of Christ and in turn of the Christian community. Specifically it is Christ who suffers in us and for us in the process of resurrecting and changing this entire universe -- groaning in agony for change.

1. Nathan Kollar, Songs of Suffering (Minneapolis, MN: Winston, 1982), p. 81.