On Transformation

Spirituality can easily be misused and abused. A strong temptation can exist to “spiritualize” away real pain and suffering. I have been that person who is more comfortable spouting spiritual cliches than really listening to another share a personal story of pain and struggle. Emotional dissociation masquerades as transcendence, and intellectualization as spiritual wisdom. Unfortunately it is possible to engage in apparently spiritual practices to avoid facing unhealed hurts and necessary struggles. Instead of increasing our capacity for turning towards life, dysfunctional spirituality turns us away—from our world, from our bodies, from our problems, from here and now. We escape, avoid, deny, and pretend, all in the name of God. This is without a doubt one of the worst forms of spirituality.

The story of Jesus challenges all forms of spiritual bypassing. For even the resurrected Christ displays the signs of his suffering. Though dramatically transfigured, his body remains marked with his wounds. His transformation has a history.

Spiritual bypassing can be so seductive because we often want to be resurrected and transformed without having to experience significant suffering or loss. We want peace without pain, joy without sorrow, life without death, heaven without earth. We want an easy way to change and growth—not the way of the cross. We may believe once we’ve truly “arrived” our life will be pain-free. Yet Christ reveals that the pathway to deep transformation is found in radically accepting all of life, including suffering, struggles, and loss. It is by descending that he ascends. And by embracing even death itself, he becomes fully alive.

Most of the time I am terrified of accepting pain and loss. Doing so disturbs me to my core. But spirituality, at its best, knows true healing and growth are found in moving through pain, not around it. The central image of change in Christian spirituality, celebrated every Easter, is death and resurrection—in that order. Here we behold the mystery of Christ.

On Pain

Pain and suffering are inevitable.  The Buddha teaches that “life is suffering.”  I do not get to choose whether or not I will experience pain and suffering.  What I do get to choose is how I will respond.  Will I allow myself to be overwhelmed and crushed by it, becoming closed off and bitter and resentful?  Or will I allow suffering to transform me and enlarge my capacity for openly accepting all of life?  This is my choice.  This is your choice.

The passion story of Jesus Christ is a story about this choice we all face.  It is a story about one of the most profound existential dilemmas of human life.  Jesus was a man acquainted with extreme pain and sorrow.  Opposed by the religious and political powers of his day.  Betrayed with a kiss and abandoned by his closest friends.  Falsely accused and sentenced to a shameful death.  Publicly humiliated, tortured, and crucified.  Stripped naked and forsaken by the Source of Life itself.  A more emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually traumatic experience could hardly be imagined.

If anyone had good reasons to become bitter and resentful towards Being, it was Jesus Christ.  But rather than be filled with bitterness and resentment, rather than see himself as a helpless victim of evil forces, Christ voluntarily accepts suffering and death.  Though he himself is blameless and innocent, he willingly bears the sins of the world.  Hanging from a cross, Jesus pleads “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” even as his executioners divide up his clothing.

Bloodied and broken, on the threshold of death.  But still undefeated.  No matter what the world does to him, it cannot extinguish his will to love.  By intentionally accepting suffering, sin, and death with boundless compassion, Christ overcomes it all, emptying evil of its power over him.

Here I am today, faced with the same choice.  How will I respond to pain and suffering?  Will I turn away from pain, trying to avoid it, perhaps with the help of analgesic addictions or excuses or distractions or delusions?  Or will I turn towards pain, ever so slowly if necessary, to face it, to accept it, without resisting any of its burden?  Accepting your pain may be the most courageous thing you do in your entire life.  This does not involve deriving pleasure from pain.  It is not some form of masochism in disguise.  It is simply accepting all of life.  The promise of following the pathway of Christ is by voluntarily moving through suffering we may also experience our greatest healing and transformation.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple,” says Jesus, “must take up their cross daily and follow me.”