Conversatio Divina

Part 13 of 18

A Transforming Thorn

Presence, Prayer, and Peace

Keith Meyer

It was one of those days you don’t forget, one of those days where you cry out for a “do over” so that you can rewind your life Back to where it had been. For me, it was the day I met chronic pain for the first time.

The day chronic pain entered my life has now taken an unwelcome and unwanted place in my memory alongside the happiest day: my wedding day, and the birthdays of my children. The 24 hours before it came would be the last pain-free day of my (basically) comfortable forty-five years and the beginning of a new life for me. A violent trespasser, its tortuous presence inhabiting my body, would always accompany my day-to-day experience from then on. I’ve come to call this presence, simply “the pain,” which began with a literal thorn in my flesh.

On that first day, I woke up at 4 am with an intense biting and stabbing sensation, near the back of my head and on the right side of my neck—it felt like someone had stuck a jagged knife in me. I struggled out of bed almost paralyzed by it and barely endured waiting for the local “urgent care center” to open. I told the doctor there that I had not had an accident or fall to account for it. And there was no relief—the pain killers he gave me barely made a difference.

After three months of tests I found out that my body had a congenital disease of the spine that caused disintegration of the soft discs cushioned between vertebrae, coupled with growing clusters of sharp bone spurs that acted like not-so-tiny needles pricking constantly at my nerves. In addition, I had problems with two vertebrae in the middle of my neck that had grown too narrow and were now closing up, combined with a lethal calcification of my spinal cord. The effects of all of this was the beginning of a deadening in the nerves controlling the muscles of my legs, arms and intestinal tract, which would most probably result in a slow process of paralysis of much of my body and its functions. I am a big guy. Within three months my wife could push down my outstretched right arm. I was weakening rapidly.

For those three months constant pain robbed me even of the comfort of sleep and made life almost unbearable. There was no physical therapy for this kind of problem, only surgery—a procedure that lasted eight hours under heavy sedation where the doctor literally broke my neck in order to free up the nerves and spinal cord, and then placed a device termed a ‘halo’ on my head. This halo was a horseshoe shaped metal ring fixed to my head by four spikes set into the bone of my skull and four rods attached to a plastic jacket that went down to my waist, keeping my head, neck and shoulders from moving. I wore this for four months, not being allowed to take it off, even to sleep.

Before my surgery and months in the halo, the doctor had comforted me with the prognosis that after this extreme trial, I would be as good as new. Then he explained the risks of death or paralysis while working on the spinal cord. And, while I survived the surgery and the grueling months in the halo (which were traumatic in themselves), for some reason my nerves and muscles didn’t relax when the halo was removed.

Indeed, my body tightened so much that I lived with a constant, crushing pain all around my head. It felt like a second invisible halo gripping in tighter and tighter. The pain often expanded to include my whole head, neck and back, with waves of near electric stabs shooting into my teeth on my worst days.

From that day I first met this suffering, my life began to lose its color. A sunny, blue sky was filtered through the lens of my agony; instead, I saw a picture that came out like an image accidentally printed without colored ink, filled with brooding shades of gray, black and white. The things that brought me joy—reading a book, listening to music, even the drive home along the beautiful river and woods we live on—were not cooperating anymore as sources of simple pleasure. Worst of all, it shook my confidence in God and I started to live in fear of the future and despair of God’s care for me. Pain and my response to it was powerfully forming me and re-teaching me about life.

What heightened my confusion about all this was the rapturous last six months before “the pain” where God was nearer to me than I had ever known in my life. I felt I had been reaping several years of learning to practice God’s presence and cooperate with him in a daily adventure of whatever opportunity to enjoy him that presented itself, waiting in line at the drug counter became a time to be still before God, taking interruptions to my plans as invitations to a surprise from God. I loved waking up to spend time with a scripture or reading a spiritual classic or studying the life of a Saint, returning to God throughout the day with a thanks or just keeping myself open to his Spirit, and closing the day with a restful examen, ready to do it all over again the next day.

All this had led to my teaching and preaching on spiritual formation and the disciplines, or the good life and how to get there. Much of this was due to having read and been able to be under the winning and warm influence of Dallas Willard. His view of God’s goodness and the good life he wanted for us, the “good news” of life in Jesus and the Kingdom of heaven had captured me.

But in life with pain, questions I had long thought answered for me—questions about God’s goodness, power and gracious involvement with me, my life’s very meaning and the possibility of enjoying it, as well as my own ability to persevere in suffering—were now all open for debate, and often that debate was not a civil one. I shouted a lot; there was even some cursing on my part. In my perception, steely silence was God’s only response. At midlife and with a good career both behind and in front of me, I had often wondered how life could get much better. Now I looked at the possibility of living out my days as a kind of prison sentence in my own torture chamber, my body.

I tried to find some comfort from scripture, turning to a chapter in Job and reading about Job feeling like God had picked him up by the neck and thrown him down on the ground, abandoned and in pain. That didn’t help. I wanted to grab somebody by the throat and ask why my own neck was suddenly my worst enemy.

“The pain” was putting me through a course I had not signed up for but I was learning its dark lessons fast. My dialogues with God throughout the day were being replaced by a sick meditation on my own pain and mutterings to myself about its effects. My prayer life was still one of “practicing the presence,” but now it was the presence of pain instead of the presence of God.

A new and loathsome teacher had taken over my life. My pain muttered to me constantly, suggesting that “God didn’t care about me” or that he even “was punishing me” for some reason. My experiences were quickly convincing me of what was “true” about life, about God. It challenged years of sermons, worship songs and “devotions” and what they had told me. My practice of the presence of pain and my emotions about God began to blind me to the fact that I had a choice in taking the pain out on myself or others, or taking it to Jesus and his cross.

Most disturbingly, the practices transformed me more than anything else were being tried and tested, confronting what I had learned for the last five years about practices of spiritual formation in Jesus. My disciplines were not strong enough for this challenge. Instead, I turned to new disciplines of constantly meditating on my misfortune, nurturing anger and despair. I found myself struggling not to think about how easy it might be to end my life in some way.

Just when the pain was talking the loudest I went to a movie called A Beautiful Mind. It is the story of a brilliant but troubled mathematician who overcame schizophrenia and the voices of imaginary people it produced in his head that were taking him out of what he knew to be reality and estranging him from his loved ones and work. One day he came up with a solution. He would stop talking to these imaginary figures. They could try to engage him but he would simply ignore them and not make himself available to them but redirect his thoughts until these illusions stopped bugging him or their attempts to do so lost their power.

I left the movie in tears. God had spoken to me powerfully. There was an invitation to stop practicing pain’s presence and talk to God about going deeper with Him. Would I be willing to ask him for the ability to not let my thoughts and emotions become captive to the teaching and influence of my pain? Would I believe it possible that God would gift me with a deeper kind of prayerful consciousness than I had ever known, one that had more power over me than the pain did? And could this training produce the kind of atmosphere of peace in my life I once had with God or even a better one with Him?

Before pain had come, I had made some progress in expanding my “quiet time” to include more than just the few minutes or even an hour or more in the morning. I had learned to “pray my day” in the morning and invite God into each appointment, important meeting or decision. I had learned how to deal with temptations of anxious thoughts and anger that could become a slow burning rage of contempt. Pain was a different kind of opponent. I could defeat anger and anxiety by not fueling them and they would disappear—not so with the ever constant and often intensifying experience of unwanted or asked for pain.

But God was now inviting me to trust him with much more of my day, and much more of my mind and heart to defeat this more formidable enemy. God was asking me to allow him to move into the conversation that is always going on in my head about how I feel— as much as possible, with each thought, moment by moment. I had not had this kind of prayer life before “The Pain.” Since my agony was nearly constant, God was inviting me into nearly constant conversation.

In order to help with this I learned a number of short prayers including the “Jesus Prayer.” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have Mercy On Me, A Sinner. Coordinated with my breathing, I could say this prayer whenever my body screamed and ached severely. I also stepped up my “praying of the day” (another way to describe the Divine Office) to include the saying the morning, noon, afternoon and evening offices from Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours.

My goal was to do a lot more talking to God—and letting him talk to me—instead of letting my pain talk and agreeing with what it was saying. In this light, Paul’s admonition to take every thought captive didn’t seem obsessive to me as it once did. His teaching in 2 Corinthians about the pain of life’s thorns and their afflictions became very real to me. I clung to his promise in 2 Corinthians 1:4 that the God of all comfort will comfort us in any and every affliction. I leaned hard on the advice of my spiritual director who quoted Francis DeSales to me: “If God does not take away your pain, he will give you the ability to endure it.”

In studying 2 Corinthians 12:1–10, I found that Paul’s thorn, although unnamed, might have been the social pain of isolation that he felt from the constant challenges to his authority by detractors and defectors, as well as the chronic physical pain from eye trouble or nerve damage sustained from the stoning, flogging and beatings he previously boasted about.The original word for the demon’s torment and part of Paul’s thorn of pain means to literally “beat on the head with a stick.”

Chronic pain has now been with me for ten of my fifty-five years of life, to some degree or another, each and every day. That said, because of my resurrected practice of the presence of God the colors have returned to my world— and they are deeper and more vivid than ever before. My intimacy with God runs deeper, too. I don’t have all the answers for why God allows such things. I do believe that pain was never his goal for us, that He originally created nerve endings for our comfort, so that we can enjoy Him and his creation. Someday, God will remove all of our pain for good. But now I know that if he doesn’t take away our pain, he will meet us in it and give us much more than the ability to just endure. Through my own thorn, God has given me a special ministry to those in constant pain and teach them what I have learned.

My prayer routine not only resulted in my being able to ignore the voice of my pain and hear God’s voice of comfort; it gave me much more. I have been given the ability to bear increasing pain and a trust that God will be there in the future. The pain I am right now experiencing as I write this article would have sent me into the emergency room a few years ago. Although I still am hammered at times in the fight for how I experience my pain, it now is mostly just “there,” sitting alongside my experience of life, and though it hurts, I have learned to go on in spite of it and even flourish.

When I explained this to a therapist friend, she exclaimed, “Keith, you have learned what is termed “mindfulness.” This mindfulness is the ability to be present to what I want to be present to, rather than distracted or, as Paul says, captivated by my thoughts and their attendant feelings.

Another resource and practice that has helped me on my journey is reading the stories of others who have walked this path before me. The book, Sacred Pain, by Ariel Glucklich gave me an understanding of why Christian and other religious saints actually pursued pain in the form of certain types of physical and mental disciplines that reined in their bodies and minds and helped them to transcend their egocentric tendencies and identity. The author concluded that these saints pursued this path of pain because it lead them to the same place that my prayer and pain lead me—an understanding and practice of controlling both their consciousness and focus of attention. They found power over their selfish inclinations and sin so that they could be more open to God and others, in love.

I am grateful now for what I learned from the struggle with pain and what I am continuing to learn. If I were given the choice to relive my life, free from the day, and the many days afterward, that pain became my constant companion, knowing that I would lose the intimacy with God and the practice of His presence, I would say no. I would choose pain and intimacy over comfort and complacency, even knowing the agony to come. Today, I can more clearly trust God that as my pain increases, his grace will too.

Many people deal with constant physical pain, to varying degrees and in varying ways. I believe that the worst part of their (and my) chronic pain is not the physical—it is the spiritual, emotional and relational pain that comes from our fallen, unredeemed ways of dealing with that pain. Indeed, we all experience and employ these fallen ways of coping and controlling our world, whether the sin and suffering we are going through is large or small.

My spiritual formation has been most powerfully shaped in the unwanted discipline of dealing with chronic pain. No book, retreat or exercise has had the effect that living with pain has had on my life. In this suffering, I have discovered that I have had a choice: I can practice the presence of my pain and all the harmful emotional, spiritual and relational effects of it, or I can learn, once again, somehow, to practice God’s presence in the midst of that pain and its suffering so that both my pain and my soul can be transformed. I have come to believe that any pain in our lives, if met with God’s power to form it and us, is the most powerful formation we can have.

What pain do you fight constantly? It may be physical, but it could also be emotional, mental or spiritual. Temptation to any sin is a kind of pain that is frequently a part of our daily journey, and when we give in to that temptation, shame and guilt begin talking to us of our unworthiness and failure. Soon enough, we are despairing ever being able to live the life with God and others that Jesus promises. However, we do have a choice. The same kind of mindful and thought captivating power that helped me to stop engaging my pain and its suggestions, is what we can use on sin and its suggestions. You can mortify sin’s call to you and therefore kill its power over your life.

As I’ve journeyed with pain, I’ve found several exercises particularly helpful. Here’s one to try when you struggle with pain, temptation or sin:

First, think about what sin (or temptation to sin) pains you with its presence. As yourself, do you actively practice that pain? What does it tell you about yourself, God, and your life’s possibilities? Next time you are tempted to sin, or if you have sinned, and this pain attempts to talk you into shame and despair, stand against it with this classical spiritual exercise, called the Jesus Prayer. Be aware, you will need to learn it and practice praying it outside of your immediate fight with sin or pain for this practice to be any good in that fight—we can’t wield a weapon in the heat of battle that we have never used outside of it. Practicing the Jesus Prayer is best done with quiet and time to breathe it in and out. Ask God to enter into this practice, ask Him to grace and empower you to have victory over your particular pain. Memorize these lines: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God. Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Breathe in as you slowly and silently say to yourself the first sentence. Then breathe out slowly and silently say the words of the last sentence. Do this until your focus is on God and something else and the temptation passes.

I have used this to such effect that when I wake up from a nightmare or in fear, I find I am unconsciously praying the prayer, sometimes even verbally. May God bless you with his peace to practice the presence of everything good and all that speaks of His love so that your every thought and feeling is captivated by Him.


Keith Meyer is a writer, speaker, coach of pastors and church retreat leader ( and the author of Whole Life Transformation: Becoming The Change Your Church Needs, IVP Formatio, winner of Leadership Journal’s 2010 Golden Globe award. His latest is Spiritual Rhythms In Community: Being Together in the Presence of God, IVP Formatio, will be released in Spring of 2012.