For almost five years now (since I was a young 74), I have entertained a friend who entered my life unexpectedly: daily physical pain. I am a diabetic, which is not painful in itself, but I eventually developed a condition known as neuropathy. In my case it causes continual pain in the bottom of my feet and up into my legs. Recently the pain has even traveled up into my neck. For this pain, called diabetic neuropathy, there is presently no cure. But I am now trying a new medication with hopes that it will relieve the pain.
Prior to the onset of neuropathy, walking was my primary form of exercise; I walked at least two or three miles a day, and often much more than that. Neuropathy has increasingly slowed me down. Now, on a good day, I force myself to walk no farther than two blocks from where I live and back again.
There are times, though, when I am tempted to call my residence and ask that someone come to get me.
Despite that painful exercise, I am happy and grateful that at least I can still walk. Others with chronic pain—and I count many friends among them—are not as lucky as I am. To relieve my pain, I have only to sit down. But standing, walking, anything on my feet causes pain.
What’s very odd is that while I pray often, it is generally for other people’s cures; somehow I do not ask God to cure me of neuropathy or diabetes. Most people are aware that they do not pray while they are in pain; real pain (like that from kidney stones and gout, for example) absorbs all one’s attention. But with my condition—even amid pain—I am prompted to pray. Whenever pain subsides, the prompt is still there, to raise the mind and heart to God.
I do not share the view of those who want to enter into a debate with God over how an all-loving God can allow someone, particularly a person of prayer, to be in pain. I accept pain as part of the human condition. It has something to teach me: God is speaking to me through pain. And in this human condition I want to use every opportunity to get in touch with God and tell God that I am grateful for the pains I experience as an opportunity to talk to God.
“But, God, do not let the pain be so excruciating that I think only of that and cannot think of you.”
“Give me a chance, God, to find you in the midst of my pain.”
“Help me, God, to grow in love; to find your love overwhelming me while I bear this human frailty.”
Perhaps the reason I do not pray to be relieved of my particular pain is that I need to pray more for relief from the psychological effects of pain than from pain itself. And those are many, personal and oppressive.
As I age and the neuropathy worsens, I am held back from so many activities I once engaged in, walking being the primary one. Today it is difficult to take a shower without sitting on a stool under the shower to wash my feet. I am slower in dressing myself. Climbing stairs, unloading the dishwasher, loading the clothes washer or dryer, all now require extra effort.
In other words, pain is controlling my life. I don’t want it to do so; in fact, I resent it. And unless I pray about it, I get angry.
So my prayer is growing old with me, telling me to talk to God about patience, about understanding what is going on in my body as opposed to what is going on in the world about me: I am getting slower; the world is getting faster. And as a consequence I am discovering new aspects of God that I had never appreciated before.
God is timeless; so is my pain. It is just a part of me, as God now is just a part of me. My pain is God with me. In a chair, in bed, at meals, at devotions, in temptations God is as present to me as the pain is. It is not measured by yesterday or tomorrow but only by now. The pain is here now; God is here now.
Despite pain, I am experiencing joy. If that is so, I am experiencing God. I am delighted to wake up in the morning, to have another day to experience God in joy. The simplest things—the weather, the barren trees of winter, the sports scores, reading, staying in touch with families and friends—all give me joy. In all I find a taste of God. Yes, it is tough to grow old; but I have found joy that I did not know in my youth.
So pain is with me; God is with me; the Cross has new meaning in my life. What will the future bring? I do not know. What I pray for is that as the pain increases, my joy with God will increase until it reaches its full measure: to rest in God.