Monday, October 26, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part II: Pain

Before I get to my mistake, I want to get to one thing I'm finding was true. We found that one of the principal joys/graces of the camino was connecting with other pilgrims. We were all together the body of Christ on the road, sharing the joys (wine!) and pains (back-ache!) of incarnation with each other. Similarly, I suspect that pilgrims for centuries have sought contact with the holy--to touch the holy, one way or another. It might be finally coming to view "the bones of St. James," (or at least the box said to contain them,) by a process of walking that entailed imitatio Christi at least in the painfulness of the walking. (I hope that for many, the incarnate joys--wine! A tasty bocadilla!--were also understood to be part of imitatio Christi.) They were on the road with Christ, on the road to Christ (or at least to one of his pals,)imitating Christ. And one's sins, well, they drop away like the tiredness and the blisters as they heal.

However, on to my mistake. I underestimated the pain. I can admit only in retrospect (on the trail only after it was better,) that it shook me. I understand myself as strong--and I still think I am--but it really hurt, especially the first week or so, after the halcyon first day. I was surprised. I was comforted, in part, but the evident pain of my fellow pilgrims. Not schadenfreude, but solidarity.

I think the pain was important, but I'm still not sure how. In immersion experiences and service learning, pain is never intrinsic to the process. Exertion may or may not be part of the process--but it is not important. Social dislocation, yes, and we had some of that, though perhaps not as much as participants in a well-run immersion. Service learning often takes us out of our "comfort zone," likewise, but it is not painful, at least not physically.

One more similarity, though. Contemporary "immersers" of course also seek to be the body of Christ, but we do so not by imitation in suffering but by the practice of solidarity. We seek to be attentive to the body of Christ in the populations we visit (service is not intrinsic, and may be inimical to an immersion experience.) We seek to form some kind of connection in basic humanity. We did so on the camino in the solidarity of the limping--and even then, as Marty noted, hierarchies emerged--perhaps another echo of original sin.

There's more to the pain than its capacity to draw us together. Indeed, the first effect of pain is to threaten to isolate us each in our own bodies, as the painful part commands more and more attention. To a person with a bad tooth-ache, the world becomes that small but hugely painful spot. Depression and loneliness can do the same. Perhaps it is the vulnerability, but, more so, perhaps it is the self-doubt that is important, and then the key question--can I share my self-doubt with my fellows? (Medication for depression is said to dull the pain enough that the sufferer can begin to engage the world again.) Pain can also be a physically liminal experience that draws us to the edges of our capacities, to see if we're faithful enough to the journey and patient enough with ourselves to continue on at whatever pace we can, with whatever aids of Advil, good wine, and conversation are needed. After all, I think that all God really asks of us is to try to keep on, even if we have to stop for a while (like Eric the Lame did,) or if we go on but slowly, slowly. And when the pain eases, and we are strong again, that we be gentle with those who still suffer, because they are our community, too. "My father was a slave in Egypt."

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