In the current literature on the connections between science and religion, it is rare to find a discussion of pain. Cosmology, mathematical chaos theory, the anthropic principle, neurotheology, and love are among topics commonly treated. Ariel Glucklich has thus broken fresh ground in Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, which examines the positive role of pain across religious traditions.
But Glucklich, who teaches in the Theology Department at Georgetown, is much more than a deeply thoughtful student of world religions; he is equally fluent in the myriad scientific concepts and theories of pain prevalent today, most of which engage the neurosciences and psychiatry. Above all, he forces the reader to set aside the too easy assumption that pain is always a problem, and that it has no respectable place in the spiritual life. As he acknowledges, his book “is an unusual work in assuming that pain has served humanity in a variety of constructive religious and social ways.”
Who has not at some point asked why it is that innumerable religious rituals involve inflicting intentional pain through forms of self–flagellation, barefoot pilgrimages, extreme fasting, sleepless nights in prayer vigils, piercing the body, wearing coarse and irritating garments, and the like? Witnesses from St. Anthony of the Desert to St. Francis of Assisi testify that intense spiritual and religious life may conflict with contemporary ideals of good health, comfort, and prosperity.
In a remarkably lucid opening chapter on “Religious Ways of Hurting,” Glucklich subjects the concept of theodicy—the attempt to explain how a good and all–powerful God could allow pain to occur in human experience—to scrutiny. The author explains how various religious “models” of pain typically treat it less as a problem than as a solution—especially when it is intentional—and rarely equate it with suffering in any simple way. In the juridical model, for example, the martyr and ascetic may regard their painful experience as serving a divine purpose, giving rise to a “strange insensitivity to pain” as a means to divine insight and hidden truth. In this view, pain is less punishment than a test that leads to gnosis or wisdom. In the medical model, pain is “true medicine for the soul” while the military outlook treats it as “a weapon by means of which the body is subdued.” In other words, bodily pain can be viewed as a force that purifies the soul.
After presenting an array of such interpretive models of pain, Glucklich turns to the domain of neuroscience, which teaches that “certain levels of pain possess analgesic qualities and can even induce euphoric states of mind.” These states of mind are associated with the release of endogenous opioids (the endorphins) in the brain, as well as with other biochemical events that provide a firm scientific basis for religious rituals that require a painful rite of passage to a new self. Avoiding any single and inevitably reductive analysis, Glucklich explains why it is that pain is used and even welcomed in the history of religions. There are, it seems, empirical grounds for the classically religious assertion that pain—and perhaps especially self–inflicted pain—“fails to alienate the true lovers of God,” and can even be a direct path to knowledge or experience of God.
The author fully realizes that self–inflicted pain is today usually interpreted as a form of psychopathology. But within the mystical context, “pain unmakes the profane world with its corporeal attachments and leads the mystics away from the body to self–transcendence.” Glucklich contends that such meaningful pain and discipline elevates the individual into a world of deeper human community. Here pain is even blotted out—for example, via a process in the brain known as “gate–control” that profoundly alters biochemistry and consciousness. In an erudite scientific overview, the author shows how “intentionally painful manipulations of the body could lead to states of self–transcendence or effacement.”
Later chapters take up psychological models of sacred pain and self–transformation, and even the tortures of the Inquisition, in which forced pain was, regrettably, viewed as redemptive. Glucklich is especially adept at handling the modern era of anesthetics, when pain came to be seen strictly as a medical problem to be overcome by the application of chemicals such as ether and chloroform. While this nineteenth–century application was heralded by many, it was also an issue of intense ethical debate among doctors, primarily because the wider culture still held pain to be beneficial in certain respects. As the author laments, “We have lost our capacity to understand why and how pain would be valuable for mystics, members of religious communities, and perhaps humanity as a whole. The role of pain, before it was displaced, was rich and nuanced, and ultimately situated persons within broader social and religious contexts.” Glucklich hopes that his work “may help explain how a life can be painful and meaningful at the same time. Perhaps, in a minor way, understanding can then filter downward and help separate pain from suffering.”
Sacred Pain will undoubtedly be a jolting and discomforting book for anyone who assumes that spirituality and religion are entirely consistent with modern medical values. Historians of religion have long taken note of the ubiquitous presence of intentionally painful rituals and practices, and even made this a central heuristic key to understanding religious experiences. Whether we are considering some of the excruciating rites of passage among Native Americans, or the Muslim who walks for weeks on pilgrimage to Mecca with bloodied bare feet, something here runs against the grain of what we normally consider to be normal and healthy. The tendency to pathologize such actions is well documented, and as Glucklich acknowledges, the line between religious experience and psychopathology can be fuzzy. Yet in light of the time–honored place of sacred pain in the religions of the world, as well as the insights of neuroscientific approaches to understanding pain, he urges us not to be dismissive.
The book is not without flaws. For one thing, Glucklich might have made some important theological distinctions. In Christianity, for example, the redemptive pain that sets the cosmos in balance is uniquely the province of Christ, who alone was perfect and who alone could indemnify or atone for the sins of the world. Moreover, Glucklich could have offered some insights into the complex balance between sacred pain and the stewardship responsibilities that religious traditions assert with respect to the gift of the body. Duties of self–care mitigate the extent of self–inflicted pain. What is the relationship, for instance, between the proscription against suicide and the phenomenon of sacred pain? Where do various traditions draw the line on self–inflicted pain, and why?
Yet overall the book succeeds in making a new place in our consciousness for sacred pain. I once encountered a devout Catholic woman who refused all pain medication despite her painful tumor. The health care professionals frantically called in a psychiatrist to declare her mentally incompetent—at which point pain care could be imposed. Fortunately, the psychiatrist involved respected the woman’s faith, and, after a careful interview, concluded that she was in her right mind. The woman died after a long and painful battle with cancer, yet she remained prayerful and spiritually focused throughout her ordeal. Indeed, she seemed remarkably placid and peaceful. She did not cry, and she remained kind and generous until the end. Glucklich helps us to appreciate the legitimacy of such experiences. Pain cannot necessarily be equated with suffering, and for some it can even have redemptive value.
Sacred Pain also underscores how the ability to control pain medically has created a culture in which the experience of pain is judged to be unacceptable and, when completely unavoidable, unambiguously tragic. Our pursuit of sensate pleasure and our utilitarian demand for comfort have become quite absolute, removing us far from the values of an earlier time, when divine hopes helped people to navigate the experience of pain. The idea that freedom from all pain and discomfort is the only acceptable way to live has made us less sensitive to the realities of chronic pain in the lives of many, and less able to accept the fact that painful lives can also be good ones. We have, apparently, become less able to deal creatively with the physical and psychological experiences of pain that are coeval with the frailties of human existence.
Thus it is that suicide becomes an easy alternative to a life that falls short of the ideal of complete sensate comfort. It is now judged by many to be “merciful” to assist a person in pain to end his own life. Human dignity thus comes to be contingent on being pain free. Certainly where pain leads to suffering, the advent of modern pain medications is to be welcomed wholeheartedly. Yet Glucklich helps us to see what we have lost through all of our substantial gains.
Sacred Pain succeeds not only because of the immense and careful scholarship it displays, but also because it establishes a creative dialogue between science and religion on a question of enduring, and today largely forgotten, importance. Most of all, the book invites its readers to appreciate that pain need not be meaningless.
Stephen G. Post teaches in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University.