Transformative Suffering

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


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


Physical Pain Evil Spirit Emotional Pain Spiritual Growth Spiritual Change 
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    Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 124.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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© Michael Stoeber 2005

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  • Michael Stoeber

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