Pleasure and Pain
by Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did"!
And he told them this parable: "There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, 'For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?' He said to him in reply, 'Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down""
At first glance it may seem that pleasure and pain are by nature polar opposites and form the basis of good morality: Avoid pain and seek pleasure. But a close inspection of pleasure and pain experiences reveals mysterious anomalies. Often the choice to pursue unlimited pleasure results in horrible pain. And curiously there is always a definite limit on one's experience of pleasure, but apparently no comparable limit in the experience of pain.
The pains caused by certain pleasures-seeking violations of the Sixth Commandment, for example, a commandment intended to regulate the sexual appetite, are numerous, embarrassing and, as detailed by medical authorities not for the faint of heart. (This makes one wonder why medical professionals are not more vocal in promoting - if not good morality - good health practices that naturally coincide with good morality). Conversely many painful medical procedures are necessary to bring healing and, if not pleasure, at least the absence of pathological pain.
We may be disheartened to realize the experience of pleasure is not only limited, but can easily be diminished. A child gobbling chocolate Easter eggs soon learns to limit his pursuit of pleasure.
There are numerous stories of NFL players, upon winning the Super Bowl, experiencing a depressing sense of emptiness after the game.
Even devoted fans are not satisfied in the moment of victory: During the celebrations they start discussing their teams' chances next year.
(St. Augustine summed up the futility of earthly treasures when he wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee".)
But the experience of pain seems to have not limit, except when brought on by death. Chronic back pain, for example, the result of nerve damage, is greatly feared because of the difficulty in treating neurological breakdown with pain-killing drugs. The pain of heart that comes with the loss of a loved one cannot be wished away. It is no wonder that in the writings of St. Ambrose, death is offered as a gift from God because only death offers ultimate relief from the pain and sorrows of this life.
The meaning of pain and suffering in God's providence is indeed mysterious. But insight can be gained by considering the interplay between God's revelation and human reason. We know from the Book of Wisdom that we were not made by God to suffer and die: "Because God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being, and the creatures of the world are wholesome; there is not a destructive drug among them" (Wis 1:13-14). God is not the author of suffering and death as the Book of Genesis reveals, suffering and death entered the world because of the sin of Adam.
Compounding the original sin of Adam and Eve, we often have our personal sins to blame for our suffering. Before we embark on lives of hedonism, we would do well to call to mind this old homespun insight: God always forgives; man sometimes forgives, nature never forgives. When disease strikes because of sinful behavior in pursuit of worldly pleasures, the pain should remind us we have ourselves to blame, a self-accusation that ought to lead to repentance.
Of course, not all suffering is the result of our personal sins. A good deal of human suffering is completely innocent, or the result of the sins of others. We call to mind starving children and victims of wars, or even the suffering related to a failing body in old age. We must insist God does not delight in our suffering, but in union with the sufferings of Christ our suffering can be used, however mysteriously, for the sanctification of ourselves and others. We take at face value those enigmatic words of St. Paul: "Rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, which is the church" (Col 1:24). The true and tried practice of "offering one's sufferings" is not merely a pious practice; it can be truly heroic.
The memory of Pope John Paul II's unabashed suffering in union with continues to be an inspiration for all of us.
But there is another kind of suffering that is not innocent and is not the result of sinful violations of nature (not all sin has a direct impact in physical health. In this Sunday's Gospel we hear of an atrocity committed by Pontius Pilate against Galileans. Although the details of the murders are not clear, Christ asks, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? by no means." But Christ continues with a revelation about the terrible consequences of our sinful transgressions. He says, "But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did."
The revelation points to the gravity of sin, a gravity that is easy to overlook in our hedonistic culture. A serious reflection on this Sunday's Gospel ought to have a sobering - even chilling - effect on us and ought to fuel our resolve for true repentance for all our sins.
Our rule of life had better not be, "Choose pleasure; avoid pain."
The only rule of life that leads to eternal life is, "Do good; avoid evil."