The “Stewardship of Pain”
Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book, Wounded Healer, gave me my first clue. I found myself fascinated by his concept of “hospitality.” Hospitality is, he suggests, “a central attitude of the minister who wants to make his own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing.”Nouwen, 90. Without exception, those in whom I had experienced this sense of hospitality had at some point experienced a profound loss or some period of deep crisis. I did not always know the details of their lives, but the sense of shared experience would be strong. They had offered me a place along the way, a safe haven where I might rest and discover the presence of the Great Healer. Yet not everyone who lives through some sort of difficulty can offer that powerful combination of safety, hope, and challenge.
A number of years ago, I was hurrying to make dinner. I chopped the vegetables and tore lettuce for salad. Unthinking, I swept the trimmings into the garbage. My daughter, the gardener, was distressed. The trimmings were not garbage, she reminded me. They were the stuff of precious compost. How would I ever grow a good garden if I persisted in throwing away just what I needed to enrich the soil? She was absolutely right. Just so, the parts of our lives that we would hurriedly discard, the pain we would deem garbage, is exactly what can become the compost that enriches the soil of our lives.
More elegantly, Frederick Buechner speaks of the “stewardship of our pain.”Frederick Buechner, “The Stewardship of Pain.” 30 Good Minutes, The Chicago Sunday Evening Club, program 3416, aired January 27, 1991, accessed March 8, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73hdH1_z2ps There are many things we can do with our pain, he suggests. “The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened, because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.” We can use our pain to gain sympathy or use it as an excuse. We can become embittered by it or trapped in it. All of these, he tells us, are ways of burying the pain, and if we choose to do so, we will find we have buried our life right alongside it. “If the life is buried, if the pain is somehow covered over and forgotten, instead of growing, you shrink. You become less; you become diminished.”
Buechner suggests there is another way. We can embrace the pain as Christ embraced the cross and find “that out of the greatest pain, endured in love and faithfulness, comes the greatest beauty and our greatest hope.”Buechner, “The Stewardship of Pain.”
When it is properly stewarded, pain stretches our souls, expanding them beyond the limits we ever thought possible. But while our wounds remain raw and weeping, our anguish fills the space, and we have no room to welcome others. Before we can offer a place along the way to others, we need to clear away our own clutter. This may require some courage. Facing our own pain is daunting, but when we determine to open our wounds to the Great Healer, the resources we need are supplied. These may take the form of helpful friendships or skilled caregivers, such as a spiritual director, a pastor, or a counselor. Inevitably, there will be much prayer and reflection involved in the process, and the Scriptures will be a precious guide.
As we offer up our own wounds to Christ and they begin to heal, we find the pain receding, but the space it once occupied does not disappear. Our souls have grown wider and deeper and fuller. The edges are more flexible and accommodating. The space that was once dark and filled with fear has been rebuilt; now it has windows open to the light, and the fresh air of the Spirit blows through. In the space where pain once ruled, we are now able to offer a place where there is warmth and safety and hope, a place where others, whether shattered by living or pregnant with doubt and possibility, may rest and recover. We offer a place where they may find enough safety to hope for healing themselves.
The memory of the pain remains, though. It does not disappear, nor should it. Now it lives in a corner, like precious ointment in an alabaster jar. From time to time, as we welcome a guest, we find it helpful to remove the lid of the jar to release its fragrance into the room. The fragrance reminds us of our own time of despair and healing, and from this memory comes both compassion for the other’s pain and the confidence that healing is possible. The fragrance graces the guest as well. She may not recognise the delicate scent, but its comfort will be expressed.
From time to time, we may even need to break the alabaster jar open and anoint the feet of our guest with our own tears. These tears are not for our own pain, of course. They are the embodiment of the love of a God who chose to suffer with his creatures rather than be separated from them.
I have a very clear recollection of sharing a deep and throbbing memory that had remained unspoken for years. I looked up, frozen by my shame and embarrassment, to find my host’s eyes shining with unshed tears. Someone dared to be touched by my pain, to stand at the foot of my personal cross, and the terrible loneliness I had lived with melted away. In that silent moment, my host embodied God’s love for me, and I began to hope that healing was possible.