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Pain Is Not Metaphysically Basic

God has taken upon himself all of the pain that bedevils the human condition: physical, psychological, and spiritual.

Detail from "Calvary" (1500-08) by Matthias Grünewald [WikiArt.org]

I write these words on Holy Thursday, as the Christian world enters into the holiest and most spiritually intense time of the year. The long season of Lent has prepared us to delve once more into the mystery of the dying and rising of the Lord Jesus. As I have been contemplating the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, my mind has turned, again and again, to the brute fact of pain. Perhaps this was conditioned by a recent conversation I had with Jordan Peterson, who commented that pain is somehow metaphysically basic. What he meant was that even the most skeptical philosopher would have to admit the existence of pain and would have to deal with it. Try as we might to flee from the world of matter, our bodies and our minds simply will not permit us to set aside the fact and the problem of suffering.

Everyone suffers and at a variety of levels. Babies suffer from hunger and thirst, and their piercing cries remind us of it. We all experience cuts, blisters, bruises, broken bones, infections, rashes, and bleeding. If we live long enough, we develop cancers; our arteries clog up and we suffer heart attacks and strokes. Many of us have spent substantial time in hospitals, where we languished in bed, unable to function. Innumerable people live their lives now in chronic pain, with no real hope of a cure. And as I compose these words, thousands of people around the world are dying, gasping for their last breaths.

But pain is by no means restricted to the physical dimension. In many ways, psychological suffering is more acute, more terrible, than bodily pain. Even little children experience isolation and the fear of abandonment. From the time we are small, we know what it is like to feel rejection and humiliation. A tremendous psychological suffering arises from loneliness, and I have experienced this a number of times in my life, particularly when I started at a new school in a city I did not know. Commencing one’s day and having no realistic prospect of human connection is just hellish. And practically everyone has had the dreadful experience of losing a loved one. When the realization sinks in that this person, who is so important to you, has simply disappeared from this world, you enter a realm of darkness unlike any other. And who can forget the dreadful texture of the feeling of being betrayed? When someone that you were convinced was a friend, utterly on your side, turns on you, you feel as though the foundation of your life has given way.

But we haven’t looked all the way to the bottom of the well of suffering, for there is also what I might call existential pain. This is the suffering that arises from the loss of meaning and purpose. Someone might be physically fine and even psychologically balanced but might at the same time be laboring under the weight of despair. Jean-Paul Sartre’s adage “la vie est absurd” (life is absurd) or Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead” expresses this state of mind. Having surveyed these various levels of pain, we sense the deep truth in the Buddhist conviction that “all life is suffering.”

Now I want to take one more important step. There is a very tight connection between pain and sin. Most of the harm that we intentionally do to other people is prompted by suffering. In order to avoid it, avenge it, or preempt it, we will inflict it upon others. And this is the leitmotif of much of the dark and roiled story of humankind. To bring it down to earth, just consider how you behave toward others when you are in great pain.

My gentle reader is probably wondering by now why I have been dwelling so insistently on these dark truths. The reason is simple. During the holiest time of the year, the Church places before us an image of a man experiencing practically every kind of pain. The Roman cross was perhaps the most wickedly clever instrument of torture ever devised. The person whose infinitely bad fortune it was to hang from it died very slowly of asphyxiation and exsanguination, even as he writhed in literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) pain.

That’s how Jesus died: at the limit of physical suffering, covered in bruises and lacerations, his bones broken and dislocated. But more than this, he died in equally excruciating psychological distress. His closest friends had abandoned, betrayed, or denied him; passersby were laughing at him and spitting on him; the authorities, both religious and political, were mocking and taunting him. And dare I say, he was also in the grip of something like existential suffering. The awful cry, “God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” could only have come from a sense of distance from the source of meaning.

However, the one who hung upon that terrible cross was not just a man; he was God as well. And this truth is the hinge upon which the Paschal Mystery turns. God has taken upon himself all of the pain that bedevils the human condition: physical, psychological, and spiritual. God goes into the darkest places that we inhabit. God experiences the brute metaphysical fact of suffering in all of its dimensions. And this means that pain does not have the final word! This means that pain has been enveloped in the divine mercy. And this implies, finally, that sin has been dealt with. Once we understand that God’s love is more powerful than suffering, we have lost, at least in principle, the motivation to sin.

These wonderful Easter days teach us that pain, in point of fact, is not metaphysically basic. The divine mercy is metaphysically basic. And in that is our salvation.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 154 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

13 Comments

  1. Bishop Robert Barron…”That’s how Jesus died: at the limit of physical suffering, covered in bruises and lacerations, his bones broken and dislocated.” No bones were broken…very important detail.

    • I,too, was perplexed by Bishop Barron’s statement that Jesus’ bones were broken.He is the true, Paschal lamb; pure, undefiled, in whom no bone has been broken. Would love an explanation from Bishop Barron.

    • The idea that Jesus takes on the “pain” of the human race is a theological novelty. What he takes on is our sin. That’s why we call it the “atonement” instead of the “empathy”.
      Barron is freelancing, as usual.

  2. I see someone else caught the too obvious mistake (especially for a Catholic Bishop and lauded theologian) of lamenting The Christ’s “broken bones” as part of Jesus’ tortuous suffering and death.
    A death preceded by the greatest torture and suffering possible, in which Christ truly was completely “poured out” for the expiation of our sin.

    This mistake is no minor detail. But it is an indication of the sloppiness of much of the “New Theology”, which often fails to take much prophetic Truth into account, while getting carried away with one’s own “deep insight” into the things of God.

    As a not-so-holy Catholic layman, I long for teachers who live within The Spirit and The Word as they teach the Holy Catholic Faith.

  3. I,too, was perplexed by Bishop Barron’s statement that Jesus’ bones were broken.He is the true, Paschal lamb; pure, undefiled, in whom no bone has been broken. Would love an explanation from Bishop Barron.

  4. The First Principle of all existence perfect in good perfect in beauty perfect in happiness doesn’t experience pain. He permits it or inflicts it. Bishop Barron gives the rationale for pain we all suffer. He acknowledges something different to which I am inclined than what theologians have held. That God cannot suffer. That was limited to his human nature. There is a mystery here we can never fully fathom in Christ’s act of reconciliation suffering the price paid. That miracle of love is deeply embedded in the mystery of two natures of the one person that speaks the unspeakable beyond the intellect to the human heart.

  5. Even when it comes to Good Friday…a Catholic Bishop, a “theologian” is almost unable to utter the word “sin” or “original sin” or “injustice” or “pride.”

    Apparently “neurotic pride” (a major motive for sudden, reactive homicides) has been replaced by “pain.”

    “God has taken upon himself all of the pain that bedevils the human condition: physical, psychological, and spiritual. God goes into the darkest places that we inhabit. God experiences the brute metaphysical fact of suffering in all of its dimensions. And this means that pain does not have the final word! This means that pain has been enveloped in the divine mercy. And this implies, finally, that sin has been dealt with. Once we understand that God’s love is more powerful than suffering, we have lost, at least in principle, the motivation to sin.”

    The last two sentences of this? Yes, it’s about “getting it ” when it comes to the “metaphysically basic” not a conversion dependent on Grace…at least “in principle?”

    Along with the scandal in the Church, is it any wonder the number of millennials rejecting religious labels is increasing? Despite these attempts to be more “relatable?” We reject our own “labels.”

    How merciful is God if Christian “salvation” is a love “more powerful than suffering” in a world still filled with suffering and the Buddhist truth that “life is suffering?” But is this really what “salvation” is…with “sin” absolved, solved, sin “that has been dealt with” (sounds like a phrase frequently used at Chanceries across the country) by implication? Or is this a form of “salvation” more palatable to the Jungian inspired Jordan Pederson and his fans?

    After reading the above quoted paragraph, I neither look to Bishop Barron (nor Jordan Pederson) for any “explanations” or clarifications.

    The word “forgiven” does not appear once in this essay.

  6. Regarding the statement of the broken bones, I was amazed at the first paragraph where Bishop Barron infers that he wrote the piece in one day, Holy Thursday. I think the fault isn’t that he made a careless theological error but that he didn’t take the time to sufficiently review and edit his work.

  7. Spelling correction of my previous post: Jordan “Peterson” not “Pederson.”

    And one more comment: the book Reality by Garrigou-Lagrange. I recommend it. We have lost the Augustinian component of the Thomistic synthesis big time.

  8. May I suggest reading the chapters of Guardini’s masterpiece “The Lord” recalling our Blessed Lord and Saviour’s suffering and death, especially page 400. STAT CRUX dum volvitur orbis.

  9. The Head does not separate Himself from His members. “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to Me.” It is we who divorce Him from His Body.

  10. I found this reflection by Bishop Barron to be quite beautiful.

    In the spirit of Holy Thursday, I will pass over the broken bones commentary on the Bishop’s article. Quite enough has been said.The subject of pain and suffering is vast and I restrict myself to a few small comments.

    In his Apostolic Letter (Master of Faith) which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of St John of the Cross; Saint John Paul II listed a range of human suffering: hunger, war, injustice, solitude, lack of meaning in life, sorrowful knowledge of sin and the seeming absence of God. He said that for the believer these might be called ‘a night of faith’. Not every experience of human suffering is a dark night of faith in the way John of the Cross teaches but Saint John Paul is saying these painful human experiences have the potential to be a night of faith. For it to be a night of faith it must involve a inflow of God’s grace at some point for the suffering person.

    Bishop Barron implies that human suffering is not merely a place which Jesus has ‘cured’ from a safe distance, but also a place to which He has been. In this thinking, he is aligned with St John of the Cross. Jesus on the cross offers a home for every person’s suffering and invites every Christian to permit Him to work out His dying and rising in the particularities of the believer’s life.

    The idea that Jesus takes on the pain of the human race can hardly be regarded as a theological novelty.

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