Weeks ago, I hurt my back. Really hurt my back. I was bending over to pick up my toddler when CRACK! (don’t worry, the crack was felt more than heard). I couldn’t move! I couldn’t straighten my back, couldn’t veer to either side–I felt every bit like an old lady shuffling her way to sit down on the couch. I had been having vague lower back pain for a few days already but this, this was something else. It was debilitating.
I went to see an orthopedic surgeon just to be sure it wasn’t a more serious kind of injury. I was describing the circumstances of how the pain started when he interjected, “A toddler would be a 2-year-old?” “Correct, but I also have a 5-month-old baby,” volunteering what I deemed relevant information. “So you have 2 kids?” “Oh no, we have a 5-year-old, a toddler, and a baby.” The doctor smiled and said, “Okay, we’re good then. We already know why you hurt your back.”
And I broke my back again just thinking about it.
He gave me a prescription to help with the pain, but told me the only real cure was adequate rest. And with a pain this intense, I really didn’t have any other choice. For a week, I had to stay in bed, usually in 1 of only 2 positions I could tolerate. Once, I thought I could last a milk pumping session seated on a chair with no back support. After only about 5 minutes, I had to stop. Hands shaking, and all color drained from my face, I slowly made my way back to the bed. This seemed worse than childbirth, if you can believe it.
I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get up from bed (the only way to get up was to literally roll out), I couldn’t go downstairs to eat, I couldn’t take care of my kids. I couldn’t write a post, I couldn’t read the Bible, I couldn’t pray. There was only pain, excruciating pain.
For as long as I can remember, I’d always hear about saints who offered up their pain/suffering to God, sharing in the Cross of Christ. As a child, I never really understood what that meant. How could my suffering contribute to salvation, my own, much less that of others in the world, of the souls in Purgatory?
In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church. – Colossians 1:24
I do not have the wisdom nor the theological formation to explain the salvific meaning of human suffering for you here. I tried reading Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (catchy title, right?), but I’ll be honest–the length, and the subject matter being what it is, well, I was cross-eyed just a few paragraphs into it. (I’m sure it is a beautiful and inspiring document, and I hope that I will have the patience and grace to read and study it one day).
But if I learned anything from my back injury, it is this: that pain (in this case, physical pain, but any other kind of pain should have the same effect) kills the soul. When the pain is so immense, there doesn’t seem to be anything bigger, anything other, than the pain. The temptation (if it is impossible to escape it) is to let it completely take over–making us forget our manners, our standards of propriety, our sense of hope. Never judge a person in pain for being rude–I’ve met many a Jekyll transform into Hyde all because of pain.
Hence, overcoming the temptation to “lose it” becomes such a saintly endeavor. I was fortunate enough to have met such a saint. Sr. Paulina, an Augustinian nun and former teacher of my mom, had metastatic cancer. She was given pain relievers for the constant pain she was feeling in her abdomen, but would only take them when she was expecting friends to visit, so she could afford to entertain them with a smile. But on all other days, she chose to feel the pain, that she may have something to offer to her Beloved.
Going beyond the pain, seeing beyond the pain, can be very difficult. So when we are able, (with God’s grace, no doubt), to lift ourselves up to pray, to remember who we are, to still think of others more than ourselves, and to believe that God is bigger, and deeper, and stronger than the pain…that has just got to be something of value, right? And to “offer up” this valuable gift to Heaven for the conversion of souls, for the transformation of our hearts, would this not please Him Who suffered and died for the sake of us all?