Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 9

Physical Suffering: a Passive Spiritual Discipline

Sara Carrara Di Fuccia

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.”

–Dallas Willard

01.  Introduction

I am a survivor of complex trauma. Complex trauma is prolonged trauma that begins in early childhood and prevents normal attachment and development. After 15 years of therapy and other treatment modalities, my symptoms are manageable and do not meet the criteria for the diagnosis of a psychological disorder. Now, as a trauma survivor and woman in ministry, I choose to share my story and use the knowledge I have gained to help other leaders.

Trauma (especially complex trauma) survivors often wrestle with shame-based questions like, “Is my pain my fault?” “Am I being punished?” and “What can I do to fix it?” These questions can cause perpetual anxiety and compulsive behavior.

In my case, I spent the better part of 20 years trying to earn God’s presence in my life by eradicating shame with perfectionism and performance in ministry. It wasn’t until I stepped away from pastoring in a toxic ministry culture and faced my unresolved trauma head on that I began to learn that God’s presence is a gift to be received.

Throughout my ministry, I have always practiced and espoused active spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, study, and service as a way to connect with God and others. However, with a perspective colored by complex trauma, these disciplines actually triggered my compulsion to earn God’s presence. After I stepped off my ministry platform, I found that more passive spiritual disciplines like silence, solitude, stillness, and, in my case, physical suffering arrested my compulsivity to perform and enabled me to receive God’s unconditional love.

02.  Bitter: Critical Care

Last November, I penned this in my journal, “My whole body aches. My stomach has been cramping. I have constant migraines. I don’t know what’s wrong. God, help me.” By the end of December the pain in my abdomen was so bad I was crawling on all fours to the front door for my husband to take me to the emergency room. There, they found two large abscesses and a perforation in my colon due to diverticulitis. Needless to say, with stool spewing throughout my entire digestive system, my body was in sepsis, and I was admitted to the critical care unit and scheduled for emergency surgery.

When I woke up from surgery, I found myself wired with various heart monitors, an NG tube down my nose to my stomach, a PICC line in my arm, an oxygen mask, a catheter, a drain on either side of my waist, a wound vac machine connected to my abdomen, and at least three other IV’s. My surgeon explained that the damage to my organs was so extensive he had to cut me open with an incision from my navel to my pelvic bone. Then, he removed my sigmoid colon and performed a colostomy. The colostomy would give my digestive system time to heal, but it also meant I would have to hide a colostomy bag under my clothing for the next six months to a year.

However, the colostomy bag was the least of my concerns. I was barely conscious for the next week, and in so much pain the week after that I wondered if I would live to see another day beyond the hospital walls. In the blink of an eye, my only window to the outside world and the life I once knew as a hiker, traveler, and newly certified yoga instructor was Channel 2 on the TV that played a loop of nature scenes from the National Parks.

03.  Sweet: Healed Perspective

It has been seven months since I was released from the hospital. As I contemplate what I have learned from my experience in the hospital, three nights that were especially “sweet” come to mind.

  1. The night I learned suffering does not mean God has abandoned me or is punishing me.
    The doctors restricted me from eating or drinking for eight days. Trying to speak left me breathless, and my mouth was so dry it felt like it had razor blades in it. I had two cups on the table next to my bed; one to hydrate my mouth with water and the other to spit the water back out.One night, I laid in bed exhausted from having to hydrate my mouth for only a few minutes of relief. I longed for a mother to comfort me. Images of my loved ones flashed through my mind. My will was so broken, and I never felt so alone. I wondered, “Did I do something wrong to deserve this? Why can’t I hear you, God?”The pain began to close in on me, and panic flooded my heart. I groaned loudly, “God, help me!” Just then, I remembered Jesus on the cross who said, “I thirst” and “God, why have you forsaken me?” I imagined the hours of pain he endured, the torn flesh on his side, how he struggled to breathe and speak, and the sting of abandonment he must have felt after Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, and most of his loved ones leaving him to suffer alone on the cross (Luke 23:49, John 19:25).In that moment, I understood that even when I can’t feel or hear God in my physical or emotional pain, he will not abandon me, and suffering does not mean God is punishing me. Like Julian of Norwich said on her sickbed, “But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
  2. The night I redefined greatness.
    During another sleepless night, my nurse, Perrin, came in to check on me. She gently washed my body, adjusted the pillows behind my head, emptied the bags of fluid draining from my body, and tucked me in with fresh warm blankets. Then, she asked, “Is there anything else I can do to help you feel more comfortable, Sara?” Without thinking I replied, “Am I going to die?” She reached out, grabbed my hand in hers and said, “You’re very sick, but we will get through this together.”Perrin’s tender touch, patient help, and empathetic words gave me the strength to get through another night. It drew such a stark contrast to the years I spent working to accomplish great things for God. It made me wonder how much of it actually made a difference. The pressure to perform certainly almost killed me. Yet, in the depths of my vulnerability all I really needed was a hand to hold. I thought, “Maybe that’s all anyone needs.” Suddenly, I saw my future in the light of Jesus’ greatest commandments; to love God with my whole heart, and to love my neighbor as myself. And, that was enough.
  3. The night I learned to listen and be kind to my body.
    The hospital bed was equipped to measure my body weight each day. It had only been a week, and I gained 40 pounds from the fluid they were pumping into my body.That night, at about 2AM, I couldn’t sleep because the bloating made me feel like I was going to explode or throw up. I was so uncomfortable. Tears began to stream down my face. As I thought about my cramped and bloated, poked and prodded, severed and sutured, hungry and thirsty body an overwhelming sense of compassion came over me. “My poor body,” I thought, “It has been through so much.”Just then, snapshots of times my body suffered significant pain and injury throughout my life flashed through my mind. Each time, I ignored or pushed through the pain. Either there was no one there to help or I felt I had to carry on playing sports or working a job. I also recalled the harsh diets and rigid expectations I had for working out in my teens and 20’s. Deep remorse begged the questions, “Why have I been so unkind to my body? Why haven’t I listened to its needs when it was in pain?” As I contemplated those questions, I became aware of how God, in his loving kindness, designed my body to tell me when something is wrong, and to heal itself if I was willing to listen to its needs.

The passive spiritual discipline of physical suffering has taught me to be a better listener to God and to my needs. Because my body was created by God, I can trust the inherent wisdom of the body. If I sense physical pain or tension, I consider it an invitation from God to listen to what he is saying to me through my body.

Physical suffering has also ordered my life around the grace and kindness of God. I am kind to my body now with my diet, exercise, and rest. And, just as Christ understood that his physical suffering had nothing to do with the love and presence of the Father in his life, I can trust my suffering is not punishment and God will not abandon me (John 13:3).

This awareness has shifted my perspective away from what God expects me to do to earn his presence and kindness to being more present with and loving to others; which truly is the “greatest” thing we can do for God (Matthew 22:37-39).

In just a few days I will have my colostomy reversal surgery; which I hope will bookend a very painful chapter of my life. Yet, if it were not for this experience, perhaps I would not have been so inclined to dive deep into exploring how traumatic stress affects the body, how to reduce inflammation in the body, and how to connect with God in a way that feels safe and lifegiving.

To that end, I have benefited greatly from reading authors who had profound encounters with God in times of physical suffering like Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence discourages the practice of the spiritual disciplines as a means of earning God’s approval or blessings. And, in their best selling books, Gabor Maté and Bessel Van Der Kolk share ground-breaking research that links chronic stress caused by repressed emotions (unresolved trauma) to physical illnesses like auto-immune diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and cancer.

Through these books and my experience in the hospital, it seems God has led me to incorporate new spiritual practices into my life like lectio of the body, meditation on Christ’s suffering, and stillness. Whatever the outcome of my surgery next week, I am grateful for the way the last seven months have brought order, connection, and peace into my life.

04.  Suggested Reading

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love.

Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God.

Gabor Maté. When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.

Bessel Van Der Kolk. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

05.  Suggested Practices

  1. Lectio of the Body. Like the Lectio Divina, the purpose of Lectio of the Body is to listen to the presence of God reflected in the body with the “ear of your heart.” As one observes and contemplates the way the body functions, many truths about the character of God, his wisdom, and guidance are revealed.
  2. Meditation on Christ’s Suffering. Throughout the life of Christ, he endured physical and emotional suffering caused by the Church, family, and his disciples. When imagining how Jesus must have felt such profound empathy can flood one’s heart from the heart of God. Then, we can come to understand we are not alone and we are loved in our pain.
  3. Stillness. Being still in a safe, soothing, and beautiful environment can help the body regulate the nervous system and the mind connect with God. When physically still, painful emotions, awareness of physical pain, and deep-rooted questions can begin to surface. Therefore, stillness is best practiced in combination with lectio of the body, and being still only so long as it is tolerable and helpful.


Sara Carrara Di Fuccia is an ordained minister turned Storyteller and Leadership Recovery Coach. She holds an MA in Practical Theology, MA in Human Services Counseling, and a BS in Education. She is a credentialed Leadership Coach and is a certified 500HR yoga instructor. Sara and her husband have been married for 17 years. Together, they are launching Platform to Table, a 501(c)(3) trauma-informed ministry for Christian leaders. Contact: |