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Pain and Suffering: The Catholic Perspective

Maryanne Chrisant, MD
Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital
Hollywood, FL, USA

My friend, Vincent, has asked me to expound a bit on Pain and Suffering. While having witnessed much pain and suffering, as a pediatric transplant and heart failure physician, my life has been blessed with little, or perhaps this is only my perception. How my perception has come to be shaped is a matter of perspective, and I can write freely from my perspective. But I'd like to explore further and invite you to explore with me. For the next few months I hope to change the position of my gnomon, and recast the viewpoint of pain and suffering from other religious and a-religious perspectives. Irrespective of the viewpoint, we can likely agree on a definition: pain is an objective experience; suffering describes an element of human reaction.

My view is rooted in Catholicism. The Catholic version of pain and suffering is linked to the crucifixion ("Summum Dolores" or ultimate pain) and finally earning that perfect sacrifice of the crucifixion in order to experience the resurrection and salvation. The learned scholars and dilettantes within the church write about the experience of pain and suffering as a means to eventually acquiring hope, improving the depth of faith, and growing closer to God. It's a personal journey toward a greater union with the divine, an opportunity for spiritual growth. Healing, and remediation of pain, can be possible through prayer, and if not granted, the absence must be accepted with faith equal to rejoicing in its remedy, as God's will.

Though the Catholic doctrine is rooted in my childhood I find this perspective dystonic. It's hard to swallow. Why do my patients have to suffer? What makes a perfectly normal child suddenly experience cardiovascular collapse with an EF of <20%, needing resuscitation and MCS? What are his parents thinking when they assign their trust to me, to care for their child? Whose pain and suffering is greater: the child's or the parents'?

I daily reframe pain and suffering as an opportunity to provide others with relief, respite, succor. Is it personal, personally spiritual or a daily wrestle with a demon (or angel)? Why do what I do, why do any of us do what we do, over and over again, providing temporary succor? Death always wins. I'm left with more questions than answers.

St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, gifted us with his breath-holding and perspective-changing drawing of Christ on the cross, viewed from above, so contrary to the typical portrayal.

His writings of the Ascent of Mount Carmel provide direction that the circuitous way up to the "Iuge Convivium," the continual feast of the soul is surrounded by charity, science, enjoyments, security, glory, knowledge, honor, but the most direct path is "nada." Nothing. Nothing that we as humans can possibly relate to with ease. Nothing known to us. Nothing familiar. Nothing easy. We must carry nothing. We must divest from everything, to have nothing, in order to be open to the divine.

We get this innately as humans, I think. Some sparked chemical connection back in the limbic system tells us that enjoyment and other earthly metrics of success are ephemeral. There's more to life than just, well, life. This realization isn't easy. It's pain and suffering of the spiritual order. But, once we achieve this divestment of earthly delights (physical, mental, philosophical, spiritual), we can achieve the ultimate peak.

I'm not sure how this keeps me motivated every day, or even if it does. Many days my motivation comes from a much simpler place: to do good work, care for my patients as best I can, pay my bills, and care for my family. My personal experiences with pain, suffering and loss are pallid in comparison to the experiences of the patients and families I treat. I don't know that my own journey down the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Suffering) is made less dolorous by the knowledge that the path is leading me to deeper faith or deeper union with God. Once again, more questions than answers, though possibly another mile marker on the road to enlightened thought? Writers, much more worthy of the title than I, have expounded for volumes on these questions.

Next month we'll explore another view of pain and suffering. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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