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Transformative Suffering

  • Michael Stoeber
Chapter
Part of the Library of Philosophy and Religion book series

Abstract

Writing in a very general way, Dorothee Soelle argues that humanity ‘learns through suffering …, experiences change, is directed towards wisdom’.1 In such a view, suffering is understood in terms of the positive role it might play in one’s life. That is to say, it serves a purpose, has a goal, can be understood in terms of some better end towards which it contributes. This is a very old and traditional religious response to the problem of suffering. We find it, for example, in The Letter to the Hebrews, where the writer admonishes his audience to remember and honour the suffering that Jesus endured for humanity. They are told to regard their own trials as a moral training and spiritual discipline that is lovingly permitted by God for their sake:

Endure your trials as ‘discipline’; God treats you as children. For what ‘child’ is there whose parent does not discipline? … [Our earthly parents] disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but God does so for our benefit, in order that we might share his holiness.

At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed. (Hebrews 12: 7–13)2

Keywords

Physical Pain Evil Spirit Emotional Pain Spiritual Growth Spiritual Change 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 124.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Pamela A. Smith surveys writing by Elaine Scarry, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Edith Barfoot, Daniel Liderbach, and others, on the apparent correspondences between suffering and creativity. She notes, for example, that Paul Tournier ‘insists that suffering can be “the occasion” which “gives rise” to suffering’ (p. 184). Also, George Pickering observes how ‘illness thus seems, in certain creative personalities, to have abetted their creative impulses in some causal way — and so to have been integral to their creativity’ (p. 164). Pamela A. Smith, ‘Chronic Pain and Creative Possibility: A Psychological Phenomenon Confronts Theologies of Suffering’, in Maureen A. Tilley and Susan A. Ross (eds), Broken and Whole: Essays on Religion and the Body (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995);Google Scholar
  3. Paul Tournier, Creative Suffering, trans. Edwin Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1982);Google Scholar
  4. George Pickering, Creative Malady: Illness in the Lives and Minds of Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    For studies concerning the various possible phenomena and contexts that cause suffering see, for example, Soelle, Suffering, Asenath Petri, Individuality in Pain and Suffering, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978),Google Scholar
  6. and Eric J. Cassel, ‘The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine’, New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 306 (1982), 639–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. edn (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), p. 318. The distinction between physical and psychic pain that I am making here is outlined by Hick on pp. 292–320. See a similar definition explored by Eric J. Cassel, in ‘The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine’, especially p. 641.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    For two helpful overviews and analyses of various definitions of spirituality, see Walter Principe, ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’, Studies in Religion, Vol. 12, (1983), 127–41,Google Scholar
  9. and Sandra M. Schneiders, ‘Spirituality in the Academy’, Theological Studies, Vol. 50 (1989), 676–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 8.
    See Lawrence S. Cunningham and Keith J. Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 5–28, which focuses upon specifically ‘Christian’ elements in defining spirituality. A Christian spirituality is a Christ-centred spirituality that includes both transcendent and immanent senses of a Trinitarian God. The Christian life-orientation involves the ideas of a graced conversion and vocation of discipleship that embraces the whole of the person, focuses on community and history, and finds its spiritual nourishment in various practices, with emphasis on eucharistic sharing.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Depending on the region of habitation, dialect, and/or anthropologist in question, the Bushmen are called a variety of different names. Common names are the ‘Kung’, ‘Basarwa’, ‘Kua’, and ‘San’ people. For an interesting and scholarly account of essential attitudes, beliefs, and practices of the Kua, including comparative analyses of these with other groups of Bushmen, see Carlos Valiente-Noailles, The Kua: Life and Soul of the Central Kalahari Bushmen (Rotterdam: A. A. Balkema, 1993). For the Kung and other groups of Bushmen, the traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle is presently under intense pressures from agricultural expansion into their traditional lands and the decline of game. Attempts at integration into western economic and industrialized modes of living and working have led to conditions of poverty, unemployment, racial persecution, and alcoholism. Although there is some resistance to integration, it appears doubtful that the Kung will be able to continue many of their traditional ways of life. See for example, ‘Botswana Is Pressing Bushmen to Leave Reserve’, The New York Times (14 July 1996) I, 3; 1, and ‘The Bushmen’s Advocate’, The Washington Post (18 December 1995) D, 1; 4.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Richard Katz, Boiling Energy: Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 45.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    Kilton Stewart, Pygmies and Dream Giants (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975), pp. 46, 47.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    Contemporary demonology tends to distinguish between various levels or degrees of spirit contact: terms such as ‘obsession’, ‘oppression’, ‘infesta-tion’, and ‘affliction’ indicate different stages, where a person is affected in various ways and degrees by an evil spirit. ‘Possession’ marks a complete infiltration and domination of the personality by a spirit. Regarding its current popularity, Michael Cuneo estimates conservatively that ‘there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today [in the United States], and quite possibly two or three times this many.’ Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 209.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    See, for example, M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983)Google Scholar
  16. and Donald Evans, Spirituality and Human Nature (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993). Also, the theme is developed in even more controversial ways throughout many of the works of Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov. A brief example is ‘Unwanted Guests’, in Life Force, Vol. 5 of Complete Works (Fréjus, France: Prosveta, 1993), pp. 153–68.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Morton T. Kelsey, Healing and Christianity: In Ancient Thought and Modern Times (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 294.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Cuneo, American Exorcism, p. 162. See also p. 152. Cuneo’s book is an informative and entertaining overview of the belief in and practice of demonic and satanic exorcisms and deliverances. It includes reference to a variety of Christian denominations from over the last 50 years or so. Although its style and tone are rather informal and conversational, the book is an impressive contemporary history and cultural commentary on the phenomena. Other influential and controversial books on the subject are: Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil (New York: Reader’s Digest/Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976);Google Scholar
  19. Francis McNutt, Healing (Altamonte Springs, FL: Creation House, 1988); M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie. See Cuneo also for various other relevant sources.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    See, for example, Larry Dossy, ‘The Return of Prayer’, Alternative Therapies, Vol. 3, No. 6 (November 1997), 10–17, 113–20. In this article Dossy clarifies various methodological considerations and theoretical issues related to prayer. He acknowledges the significance of ‘empathy, caring, and compassion’ (p. 113) in intercessory prayer and he cites a number of studies and sources which support the efficacy of healing prayer and distant mental intentionality.Google Scholar
  21. Perhaps most significant is the collection he cites by Daniel J. Benor, Healing Research, Vols 1–4 (Munich, Germany: Helix, 1993).Google Scholar
  22. 21.
    Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein, 3rd rev. edn, Vol. 3 of The Collected Works of Edith Stein (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1989), pp. 11, 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    John E. Nelson, Healing the Split: Integrating Spirit into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill, rev. ed (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994), p. 386.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, 4th edn (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), pp. 81, 80.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 115. Frankl’s sufferings became challenges for him to explore and confirm the psycho-dynamics of the human spirit within conditions of extreme deprivation. His struggles to find meaning in his suffering are the foundation of the psychoanalytic school of ‘logotherapy’. Following the War, Frankl goes on further to develop and practice a theory of psychology around what he claims is a fundamental human drive for meaning. Frankl had formally articulated this view of logotherapy before the War, by 1937, and it had originated in the mid 1920s. In Man’s Search for Meaning (written originally in 1946 as Was nicht in meinen Büchern steht) he refers to his concentration camp experiences to illustrate logotherapy and to justify its claims. Some critics argue that Frankl’s work is perverse in the way that it misrepresents the destructive nature of the Holocaust. Supporting and extending the scathing criticisms by Lawrence Langer, Timothy Pytell writes that ‘Frankl’s emphasis on stoic and heroic suffering in effect obscures the nihilistic evil of the Holocaust. In order to still the pain of loss and guilt, he constructed a narrative of meaning.’ See Timothy E. Pytell, ‘Redeeming the Unredeemable: Auschwitz and Man’s Search for Meaning’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 17 (2003), 90–1, 103;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. and Lawrence Langer, ‘The Literature of Auschwitz’, in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, ed. Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press and the US Holocaust Museum, 1994). My thanks to Jeanette Unger, for bringing these sources to my attention. Despite these concerns, Frankl would no doubt argue that at least some of his suffering in Auschwitz contributed positively to his own spiritual life-orientation and his later professional work. I suspect the difficulties and controversies surrounding Frankl’s views arise from the fact that he does not acknowledge the reality of destructive suffering alongside that of trans-formative suffering. He did not know how to fit destructive suffering within his theological and psychological frameworks. Therefore in his writings he cannot really respond effectively and compassionately to the many victims who are destroyed by their suffering in the camps. See Chapter 4, which focuses on destructive suffering.Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), pp. 68–9.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ibid., p. 125. Also, Jane Mary Zwerner observes: ‘Suffering instructs and transforms for it confronts persons with their limitations and dependencies upon God and other persons. Many insights, for example, patience, tolerance, compassion and mercy, are most truly revealed within the context of great personal loss.’ ‘The Discovery of Christian Meaning in Suffering: Transformation and Solidarity’, Evil and the Response of World Religion, ed. William Cenkner (St Paul, MI: Paragon House, 1997), p. 49. See also Eric J. Cassel’s exploration of various positive effects of certain kinds of suffering in ‘The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine’, especially 643–4; and for a recent psychological exploration of ‘the effect of ritual pain on consciousness and identity’, see Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 8.Google Scholar
  29. 31.
    Oliver Davies, A Theology of Compassion: Metaphysics of Difference and the Renewal of Tradition (Cambridge, MA: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), p. 18,Google Scholar
  30. in reference to Martha Nussbaum, ‘Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion’, Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 13 (1996), 27–58. Drawing on Aristotle, Nussbaum also argues that in order for one to feel compassion towards another person the suffering of that person needs to be significant and not trivial, the person who is suffering cannot be regarded as primarily culpable and blamed for the suffering, and one needs to be able to imagine oneself suffering in similar circumstances (pp. 31–8). Davies focuses more in his book on the dynamics of compassion for the agent, rather than its effect on the receiver. He wants to show how compassion reveals the dynamics ‘of consciousness itself, and thus provides a resource for articulating a new language of being’ (p. 20). His book is a creative exploration of the theological significance of this ‘language of being,’ as it is revealed through the structure of compassion. In introductory summary he writes: ‘The assumption of another’s suffering as one’s own entails a radical decentring of the self, and a putting at risk of the self, in the free re-enactment of the dispossessed state of those who suffer. Compassion is the recognition of the otherness of the other, as an otherness which stands beyond our own world, beyond our own constructions of otherness even. But it is also the discovery of our own nature, as a horizon of subjectivity which is foundationally ordered to the world of another’s experience… It is here then, in the dispossessive act whereby the self assumes the burdens of the other, and thus accepts the surplus of its own identity, that we should recognise the veiled presence of being’ (p. 17). I am focusing more in my book on how the structure of compassion reveals a shared intimacy with the sufferer and provides an active healing power of love.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 33.
    Donald Evans writes: ‘A few years ago at a theological conference I heard a paper in which a scholar said something like this, “And St Paul, following the traditional metaphor already used by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, spoke of a spirit of love dwelling in the heart.” As I heard these words I wanted to jump to my feet and protest: “Surely it’s possible that St Paul spoke of a spirit of love dwelling in the heart because that’s where he experienced it — as countless others have in many different religious traditions. It’s no metaphor, it’s a literal truth.”’ ‘Can Philosophers Limit What Mystics Can Do? A Critique of Steven Katz’, Religious Studies, 25 (1989), 59.Google Scholar
  32. 34.
    Developing out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, chakras are thought to be vortices of psychic and spiritual forces of the subtle body that are normally unconscious and constricted or knotted within the human person. Through appropriate religious practices and surrender, they can be opened, expanded, and integrated with the physical body, thus bringing to consciousness the energies, emotions, abilities, knowledge, and spiritual realities associated with them. They are located around the following areas of the physical body: the base of the spine, pelvis, naval, heart, larynx, and the centres of the lower forehead and the crown at the top of the head (though the crown centre is not traditionally regarded as a chakra because it is located above the body). Hindu and Christian theories of these energy centres or chakras help in understanding the possible spiritual dynamics of compassion and also in interpreting the healing dynamics of the Kung people described in this chapter. A vividly illustrated introduction to the chakras is Ajit Mookerjee, Kundalini: The Arousal of the Inner Energy (Rochester, NY: Destiny Books, 1991). The clearest and most rigorous account that I have read is the early twentieth-century work of Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon). See The Serpent Power, 9th edn (New York: Dover, 1974) and Introduction to Tantra Śāstra, 4th edn (Madras: Ganesh, 1963).Google Scholar
  33. 35.
    This anonymous Christian Hermeticist draws the chakras into his spirituality in qualified ways, stressing the penultimate significance of the heart centre in Christian spirituality. Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert A. Powell (Rockport MA: Element, 1985), p. 227.Google Scholar
  34. 36.
    Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung, ed. Amiela Jaffe, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 134.Google Scholar
  35. 37.
    Kelsey, Healing and Christianity, p. 57. Kelsey points out that almost one-fifth of the Gospel narratives pertain to the healing activities of Jesus (p. 54). John P. Meier notes that in the Gospel of Mark the reference to miracles constitutes 31 per cent of the total 666 verses and 47 per cent of the public ministry narrative. This is a great deal of attention given to the subject. Maier discusses how favourably this material fares under the analysis of contemporary biblical criticism, providing strong support for the historical authenticity of at least a significant number of healing miracles. These criteria include: multiple attestation from various sources and forms; coherence and consistency in description and interpretation; dissimilarity to miracle narratives from other sources; embarrassment about what was being said about Jesus; and the depth of detail that is given surrounding various events. In light of the textual evidence, especially on the support of the criteria of multiple attestation and coherence, Meier concludes that it is a ‘historical fact that Jesus performed extraordinary deeds deemed by himself and others to be miracles’. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. II, Mentor, Message, and Miracle (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, 1994), pp. 619, 630.Google Scholar
  36. 38.
    Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), p. xiv. As quoted in Nelson, Healing the Split, pp. 394–5.Google Scholar
  37. 39.
    Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Toronto: Image Books, Doubleday, 1979), pp. 82–3. This book is a popular pastoral exploration of the theme of the wounded healer in Christian theology.Google Scholar

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© Michael Stoeber 2005

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