Praying in Pain
I had the happy circumstance of spending a whole week in Rome recently. I like good food and beautiful churches, and there was a lot of both to be enjoyed. I had some rigatoni with pesto that I will never forget. I also had a prayer experience I will never forget.
It became clear after just a day or two of visiting Roman churches that martyrs play a major role in forming the spirituality of that city. Peter and Paul most famously died there because of their faith, but there were so many other martyrs with churches built in their honor. Clement, Cecelia, Sebastian, Agnes, Lawrence, Agatha, to name a few. Their ability to withstand suffering and death rather than compromise their integrity by denying their faith stands as a witness around every corner, it seems.
One special house of prayer invited people who were up for it an opportunity to share a little pain of their own. Inside the church are the “Scala Santa” or “Holy Steps,” which Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena brought back from Jerusalem with the claim that these were steps leading to the place where Jesus encountered Pontius Pilate during his trial. The marble steps are now covered with wood to protect them from people walking on them. However, people do not walk up these twenty-eight steps; rather, they go up them on their knees.
I don’t think that God wants me to feel pain, and I think that I can pray anywhere in the world and be heard just as well as any other place. So, I was not prone to perform this act of piety. Yet, I had two thoughts that urged me onward: I am a pilgrim and pilgrims go to strange places and do strange things, and I remembered the cliché, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So, down on my knees I went.
The pain wasn’t as bad, I’m sure, as what Sebastian felt from the arrows that pierced his side, but I have to say it hurt a lot. My intention was to say a prayer for someone on each of the twenty-eight steps, stating the intention to God and then saying an “Our Father” or a “Hail, Mary.” About eight steps up, I didn’t know if I could go on. But at that point there were not only six or so people in front of me but about that number behind me as well. I took strength from their company. I also found that the pain was more tolerable if I distributed my weight across the tendon below my knee cap and not just on the top knobby part of my shin. Finding no shortage of people to pray for also seemed to ease the pain. A final strategy to endure was looking at the large scene of Jesus’ crucifixion at the top of the stairs. After my twenty-eighth prayer, I rose, with a cold sweat and knees a bit wobbly, affected.
Unpacking that experience, I wrote in my journal that night, “I almost hate to admit it, but that was an important prayer experience that I will not forget. The pain and effort created an intensity that opened me to feel deeper compassion for the suffering of others, gratitude for having a God who suffered on the cross, and my own desire to be consoled by this crucified God.”
I don’t plan on making this a regular habit on my stairs at home, and I really don’t encourage anyone to inflict pain on themselves for any reason. Still, this experience leads me to the conviction that in this culture of ours that is so skilled at avoiding pain, we should also be aware of the positive role that pain and struggle can have in our lives. I advise this: When you are hurting, pray for an end to your own pain and the pain that exists everywhere in the world. Pray that people who have the power to end the pain of others do so. Pray for your family, your friends, and for all who need your prayers, those you like and those you don’t, especially those who are hurting. Pray for yourself, that you will grow in freedom to serve the world generously, even when it hurts. And, if you are Christian, pray that your pain will draw you more deeply into the life of the Crucified and Risen One.