Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pain and Prayer

“On a scale from one to ten,” asked the nurse as she peered at me over her reading glasses. “How would you rate your pain?” This question became routine during my four-day stint in the hospital and continued through my four-day assignment to rehab. Sometimes I wondered if the staff was more interested in checking off the little box on the computer screen than really being concerned about the level of my pain.

I had received bi-lateral knee replacement surgery and after the nerve blocks wore off, I was in extreme pain. I knew beyond a doubt what a “10” was on the pain scale. There was a ten-hour period of time during which I was consumed by that pain. I could think of nothing else. Somehow I was able to fall in and out of sleep which helped the time go by. It still seemed like an eternity.

I regularly teach a course on dealing with suffering and loss. I have listened to many stories of emotional and spiritual pain as a spiritual director. I took one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) during my seminary studies and volunteered as a hospital chaplain for several years. I have been in and around pain on various levels, and am considered an expert by some on dealing with suffering, pain and loss.

It is easy to study pain and suffering and responses to them. There are hundreds if not thousands of books that help one minister to others in pain, or to help one deal with one’s own pain. Most books consider prayer one of the most important elements in dealing with suffering and pain. Prayer can appear in many forms.

During the period of my most debilitating pain, I couldn’t recall any of these healing prayers for myself. I had several visitors that evening, and their “loving presence” was the last thing I desired. I was totally focused on the pain I was feeling. Conversation couldn’t distract me; I couldn’t focus on responses. I was a sniveling mass of self-pity, absorbed in my own little world. I probably would have kicked out the chaplain had he/she come for a visit and a prayer.

At some point during that period of intense pain, as I drifted in and out of sleep in the middle of the night, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I felt a presence standing behind me for a very brief moment. This presence was not a bright presence, but a reassuring one. It was almost as if this presence was praying for what I myself couldn’t. Romans 8:26: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” The pain did not go away, but somehow, I felt like I could bear it.

My level “10” pain lasted for a relatively short period of time. I cannot imagine how people who experience chronic pain at this high level can cope over an extended period. Platitudes about prayer and presence learned in CPE and through my course on suffering didn’t provide much solace for me. Sometimes pain is so overpowering there is no energy for uttering anything but groans.  Yet, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in those resources on prayer for sufferers. I will now need to weigh them against my own personal experience.

“On a scale from one to ten,” the nurse asked. “How would you rate your pain?” I think I have learned how to answer that question, even if it only represents a check on the computer screen.

There should be a scale on which to rate one’s receptivity to giving and receiving prayer as well. At the extreme end, where pain is the highest and prayer is the most needed yet the hardest to utter, we can only hope for a tap on the shoulder.


  1. I asked that question of my patients all the time and the answers I get sometimes make me wonder....
    As a child I suffered quite a bit from tooth aches. I remember trying to think about other things and to pray. That did not work, the pain was all-consuming..., so it is not really helpful to tell someone to "just pray" .

    1. Dear Therese, thank you for your comments and perspective. Pain saps energy for doing anything. I do believe we can accept and feel the prayer of others, but our own prayers are choked by the "all-consuming" nature of pain.