Prayer and Pain
October 4 marked the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. One of the themes of Francis’ spirituality is suffering and prayer; and there were three types of suffering in his life. The first was the extreme physical penitence he deliberately pursued. He was an habitual wearer of a hair shirt, his fasting was extreme, and the places in which he chose to live were often devoid of any physical comfort. His fasts were extraordinary, and he would often stay awake all night in prayer, often outside. In this he has much in common with other mystics – St Seraphim of Sarov, for example, or St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
The second type of suffering came with physical aliments. Francis endured terrible pain and discomfort with his eyes – discomfort that persuaded him to undergo the insertion of red-hot needles as a treatment. The third kind of suffering was that which came as a gift from the Lord in the form of the stigmata. Francis is not alone in bearing the wounds of the Passion; but in Francis’ case the wounds were open wounds (not painful marks or bruises) and remained even on his body in death.
In the month that we also celebrate St Luke – and reflect on the healing ministry of the Church – we have cause to take stock of our own attitude to suffering in all its forms: physical, mental, and spiritual. The witness of Francis reminds us that suffering is integral to Christian spirituality, and the Communion of Saints holds countless witnesses of the grace given when suffering is taken up into the life of self-giving to God and neighbour.
As the example of Francis shows, suffering can come in the natural course of life or by Divine intervention. For him, as for so many others, there is no real difference in attitude to the suffering. Francis sought a physical trial, and endured physical pain believing that it would open to him the incomparable richness of God’s grace. We see this in the writings of St Paul, who could list a whole series of physical trials (2 Cor 11.16ff), and also describe his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12.7). He also alludes to an experience that some have interpreted as stigmata: “the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6.7). It is Paul who explains that the Lord revealed to him “that my grace is sufficient in your weakness”, therefore he is able to conclude “when I am weak then I am strong” (2 Cor 12.9,10).
It is here that we touch the heart of the spiritual wisdom of the Faith in its approach to suffering. To ‘offer my body to be burnt without love is nothing worth’ (1 Cor 13.3): it is love that gives meaning in suffering. The three kinds of suffering in the life of Francis were woven into a pattern of loving response to Him who “endured the cross” (Heb 12.2). His fasting and penitence were a response to love, and in the pain of his eyes he relied on the grace of God – with Paul he understood it to be “completing in my own body the suffering of Christ” (Col 1.24). The stigmata were a sign to Francis – and a witness to each of us – that suffering in any of its expressions cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House