When you pray, mental and physical changes occur that help you cope with pain.
When my husband died, one of the most frequent comments I heard was, “At least he’s not in pain anymore.” I knew the words were meant to be reassuring, but they weren’t. They implied that pain was to be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of one’s life.
Pain is a universal experience. Whether it is the temporary hurt of a broken ankle or something more permanent like arthritis, every single human being suffers it at some point in their lives. There is no such thing as a pain-free life this side of heaven. It can be physical, mental, or spiritual, and despite the best work of our health-care providers, it will always be present to some degree.
Focus on the Positive
If we accept the idea that pain and suffering are part of this life, how do we stay positive? How do we enjoy the good and not let pain sour our moods and relationships? In his article “Transforming Our Pain,” Richard Rohr, OFM, writes, “If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it—usually to those closest to us.” How do we keep pain from becoming our life’s focus? Being a Christian adds an extra dimension, for Jesus invites us to take up our crosses and follow him.
First, we need to remember that pain is not a punishment from God. It might be the result of our own bad choices or sins—but it is not something he intentionally inflicts.
Allowing pain is not the same as causing pain, and we are not victims of God’s intentional wrath. He works in and through this imperfect world and can bring good out of even the worst suffering and tragedy.
The second thing to remember is that our pain has meaning. As Catholics, we believe in the concept of redemptive suffering: We can offer up our pain for the benefit of our own souls or someone else’s. We are already forgiven for our sins—Jesus made sure of that when he died on the cross—but our pain can be an offering that relieves some of sin’s consequences. As a child, when I complained about anything, my mom was quick to say, “Offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory.” Our suffering also teaches us to be compassionate and understanding with other people; we learn to help others as we have been helped.
Prayer Is Your Support
Prayer is a great ally in living with pain. Often our prayers are those of supplication (“Please, dear God, make my pain go away”) or intercession (“Please, dear God, make my daughter’s pain go away”). Even if our prayer doesn’t bring about a cure, it still has benefits. It changes our perspective and makes us humble. It slows heart rate and breathing and brings about a calm peacefulness.
Once we accept that pain is not punishment and that it can have purpose, we are free to speak openly in our prayers. We can vent our fury, our frustration, our fixation.
As we share with the One who can take it, our hearts become open to his grace at work within us, and through that grace we feel his presence. In his letter to the people of Genoa on the first anniversary of the deadly Morandi bridge collapse, Pope Francis wrote, “God’s answer to our pain is a closeness, a presence that accompanies us, that never leaves us alone.”
One of the frustrations of chronic pain is the feeling that no one understands. No one else realizes how hard it is to get out of bed in the morning without piercing back pain, to walk without wincing, to be unable to wash your own hair or brush your teeth because your shoulder hurts too much. In prayer, God’s grace reassures us that we are understood, our suffering is seen, our distress recognized.
Putting Pain In Perspective
In the practice of prayer we can also use three of pain’s greatest enemies: acceptance, distraction, and gratitude. How do we simultaneously accept our pain and distract ourselves from it? Aren’t they opposites? And how can we express gratitude for anything when all we can think about is how much pain we are in?
By acceptance, I do not mean the victimized sense of, “Woe is me.” Instead, I mean the acceptance with which Jesus prayed: “Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will” (Mk 14:36). Scientific research has repeatedly verified that people who accept unpleasant symptoms and emotions without judgment do better with everyday stressors. Trying to ignore pain or feelings can allow them to fester and eventually explode.
By distraction, I do not mean using drugs or alcohol or other forms of release, but rather resisting the temptation to allow pain to be the primary focus. In this world, good and bad go hand in hand: The pain of childbirth accompanies the joy of a baby. The flowers of spring bloom even as thunderstorms rage around them. With practice, we can focus on the good without ignoring the bad.
Finally, by gratitude, I mean awareness and appreciation of the gifts I have been given. We all have talents, relationships, and blessings. We can refuse to be like Eve, who was fixated on the apple she couldn’t have. We can choose to be delighted with the other delicious fruits available instead.
So how does all this work in daily life? Here is a practical example of a pain relief prayer meditation that includes acceptance, distraction, and gratitude. You may not be able to do every component, depending on your underlying health issues, so please adapt as needed.
Step One: Opening
- Start by making the sign of the cross.
- Sit in the most comfortable way you can, perhaps with feet on the ground and hands in prayer position.
- Take a deep breath in for a count of six. Hold it for a count of two, breathe out for a count of six, then hold for a count of two.
- As you focus on your breath, ask the Holy Spirit to fill you with his presence. Repeat the cycle two or three more times or until you begin to feel able to concentrate on the prayer.
Step Two: Acceptance
Pray these words: Dear Lord, help me accept your will and trust that you want only the best for me. Help me remember you can bring good out of anything. Let me believe that your purpose is good.
- Look around the room for three things that are white. White is the color of the Resurrection. Remind yourself that Jesus has already defeated pain and death, so you don’t have to. You are more than your pain.
- Look around the room for three things that are blue. Blue is the color of our Blessed Mother. Remind yourself that Mary suffered, too, and graciously accepted all God asked her to do for his glory. You have purpose in this life.
- Look around the room for three things that are red. Red is the color of blood. Remind yourself that Jesus suffered pain and humiliation and understands your own.
- Look around the room for three things that are green. Green is the color of spring and new beginnings. Let yourself embrace a new attitude of grace that allows you to join your suffering to Jesus’. You can live a life filled with joy.
Step Three: Distraction
Pray these words: Dear Lord, help me remember that I am not my pain; I am a child of God—loved, gifted, welcomed, wanted.
- Concentrate on what you feel besides your pain.
- Press your feet into the ground or floor. Feel them support you.
- Notice the place in which you sit—a soft cushion or a hard chair? Does it touch your back too? What other parts of your body feel supported?
- Can you feel your clothes around your waist or at your neck?
- Find the air on your skin. Is it the chill of the air conditioner or the warmth of the sun?
- Notice everything you can in this moment—except your pain.
Step Four: Gratitude
Pray these words: Dear Lord, I am grateful for my body and my life. It isn’t perfect, but I know that one day in heaven it will be.
- Look around the room again and thank God for the eyes that let you see. Relish for a few moments the most beautiful thing in your field of vision.
- Identify any noise in the background. Make note of your favorite sound and enjoy it before you move on. Thank God that you have ears to hear.
- Search for any smells in the room. If there are any, breathe them in deeply. If there aren’t, inhale deeply anyway. Thank God for the breath that sustains you. Let your breath flow for a few seconds, slow deep breaths in and slow deep breaths out. As you do, once again picture the Holy Spirit filling you with each breath.
Step Five: Closing
Pray these words: Dear Lord, I know that you love me. I accept the cross you have asked me to carry. I don’t like it, and I don’t want it, but I will do it. I will use it to bring you glory and am forever grateful that you are at my side. Yes, Lord, I am yours. Amen.
- Make the sign of the cross.
- When you finish, you will feel simultaneously relaxed and energized. Let this meditation be a reminder that there is no perfect life. We will all have pain, some more than others, but God will never leave us to suffer it alone. He is always there to help carry the burden.
When Someone You Love Is in Pain
It’s hard when someone you love is in pain. He or she can be irritable and short-tempered. What to do?
Listen. No judgments, no comments, no suggestions, no taking it personally. Let your person vent his or her anger and frustration. Sometimes simply unloading eases pain. Don’t absorb it; let it bounce off you. Try not to respond to negative with negative.
Help. Not just an offer, but an action. If the trash needs to go to the recycling center or the dishwasher needs unloading, simply do it. I promise no one will be offended, and even if they offer a protest, it will be half-hearted.
Accept. People with certain conditions such as fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome look perfectly healthy, so it’s hard to understand how much they are hurting. If they say they are in pain, believe them. They are not being lazy or dumping on you; let go of anger, guilt, and blame.
Balance. Yes, you should listen to your loved one, but be sure you share your feelings too. Use “I statements” (“I feel. . .”) and avoid accusatory comments. Being a caregiver is an exhausting role, and you can’t take care of someone else if you aren’t taking care of yourself first. Be sure you get enough sleep, exercise, and time alone.
Learn. Educate yourself about the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Knowledge is power, and you can be an advocate for your loved one.
Look for Positives. There is joy to be found even in the midst of pain: flowers blooming, glowing sunsets, kind gestures, a gentle touch. Gently calling them to attention can help widen your loved one’s perspective.
When to Get Help
Most episodes of minor pain resolve on their own within three months. Chronic pain doesn’t go away. There is no promise of future relief, like a cut that heals over time or appendicitis that gets better after surgery. So how do you know when you need help?
Any pain that is sudden and severe requires medical evaluation. Some types of pain are more dangerous than others: Stiff neck, severe headache, pain with numbness or weakness, chest pain, or severe injury are all potentially life-threatening and need prompt attention.
Chronic pain can vary in degree from mild and easily ignored to severe and unrelenting. It is unrealistic to expect complete relief, but a reasonable goal is being able to take care of yourself and fulfill your daily responsibilities. It’s important to work with your doctor to find treatments that are not only effective but also safe for long-term use. When your pain is affecting your life, it’s time to get help.