Hold Your Pains Lightly

Over the past few years, an idea that has come to mean a lot to me is to hold things with an open hand, or to hold things lightly. I first learned this piece of wisdom from a friend back in Victoria in the context of ownership and possessions and the general spirit of acquisitiveness our consumerist society promotes. It’s certainly not a bad thing have possessions, as long as we hold them lightly, with an open hand rather than with a clenched fist. Things will come into our lives and they will go, whether through loss, through theft, through breakage, or through wearing out. If we can’t accept them with that knowledge in our hearts, then they will come to possess us. I quickly applied this idea to our opinions and beliefs too. So much of the nastiness of our present discourse is because people take a ‘clenched fist’ approach to what they think about the world. It makes conversation and bridging differences next to impossible. And so, I’ve found the idea of holding onto things lightly very helpful over the years. With this in mind, I was delighted to find another application of the concept in Julian of Norwich’s writings: namely that we should hold onto our pains lightly too.

Julian came to this insight within the context of the fifteenth of her sixteen visions, which she describes as follows:

And in this time I saw a body lying on the earth, which appeared oppressive and fearsome and without shape and form, as if it were a devouring pit of stinking mud; and suddenly out of this body there sprang a most beautiful creature, a little child, fully shaped and formed, swift and lively and whiter than the lily, which quickly glided up to heaven. … And I thought: In this body there remains none of this child’s beauty, and in this child there remains none of the body’s foulness. It is most blessed for man to be taken from pain, more than for pain to be taken from man; for if pain be taken from us, it may return. Therefore this is a supreme comfort and a blessed contemplation for a longing soul, that we shall be taken from pain. (Ch 64)*

At first glance it might appear that Julian has fallen into the dualist trap that has been so tempting for mystics over the centuries, seeing matter and embodiment as bad and the realm of the spirit as good. After all, she describes the body she sees as “oppressive and fearsome,” and like “a devouring pit of stinking mud.” And then from this disgusting morass emerges “a most beautiful creature … swift and lively … which quickly glided up to heaven.” This is hardly a ringing endorsement of embodied life! But I think there’s good reason to say she’s doing something a bit different from the dualistic denial of embodied goodness here. For this creature it is still described as being embodied in some way, being “fully shaped and formed.” And her point is not to describe the pure spirit’s escape from the prison of the body, but of the true self’s final removal from pain. So the focus is not on physical existence generally, but on the problem of pain specifically, which she has previously described as being to some extent synonymous with the problem of sin. She concludes that this vision of humanity being removed from pain is better than one of pain being removed from humanity, for in this life, any pain relief is temporary.

As she reflects on this, she’s struck by how minor and temporary the condition of pain seems to her in comparison to the state of freedom. Just as she has previously been overwhelmed by the bigness of God’s love in comparison to the smallness of sin, so now does she see how the wonder and beauty of our future state of painlessness is in comparison to the struggle and slog of existence in this world. And if this is true, then it means that we shouldn’t take our pain and suffering too seriously:

It is God’s will that we accept his commands and his consolations as generously and as fully as we are able; and he also wants us to accept our tarrying and our suffering as lightly as we are able, and to count them as nothing. For the more lightly that we accept them, the less importance we ascribe to them because of our love, the less pain shall we experience from them and the more thanks and reward shall we have for them. (Ch 64)

Now, I think we need to be careful in how we apply this teaching. It cannot be denied that for a very long time, Christianity has on the whole used its teaching on heaven and our ultimate and eternal union with God as an excuse for minimizing and even justifying and perpetuating sinful structures and systems here on earth. And we need to ensure that we don’t do that, and always pray in both our words and our actions for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” Where we see pain, we are called to alleviate it. Where we see injustice, we are called to rectify it. Full stop; no exceptions, no excuses. However, it remains that we are never going to get there on this earth. Pain and suffering and injustice will always be with us, no matter how valiantly we try to fight them. And this is where Julian’s teaching can be helpful and true. Inasmuch as pain is inevitable in this life, we are free to choose how we relate to it, whether we hold onto it tightly, with clench fist, and turn it into a badge of honour, an identity, or, whether we instead hold onto it lightly, with an open hand, understanding that ‘this too shall pass’. As she concludes, “the less importance we ascribe to them because of our love, the less pain we shall experience from them.”

On a personal note, I can relate to this. The more I focus on the many disappointments of my past, my dissatisfaction with my present, and my anxieties for the future, the more strongly I hold onto them and identify with them, the greater hold they have on me. I have, in the past, lost whole weeks to the complete anguish of this kind of mucky mental and spiritual state. (Which, as it happens, also increases my physical aches and pains!) But when I’m focused on the right things, the very same set of data — those same disappointments and losses, dissatisfaction and anxieties — lose their grip on me and I can live contentedly and meaningfully in my good-enough life, secure in God’s love. Thankfully, as I’ve matured and gained more perspective and strategies, this is where I live now most of the time. But, Julian’s words — and the way they connected with how I’ve talked about other areas of life for some time now — were a beautiful reminder for me today of this truth. God is love and so, without minimizing the real impacts our experiences of pain and suffering have on our lives, we can hold them — just as much as our possessions or opinions — with an open hand. Thanks be to God!


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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