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Friendship and Chronic Pain: A Precious Gift

October 7, 2013

The ancients understood that there are different forms of love  and different forms of friendship. For instance, Hippodamos the Pythagorean’s description of friendship made such an impression on the ancient Christian writer Clement of Alexandria that the latter quoted his distinction among friendship approvingly in his own writings. Basically, the ancient philosopher distinguished between three kinds of friendship “That founded on knowledge of the gods, that founded on the gifts of men, and that on the pleasures of animals” (Stromata, book 2, chapter 19). Obviously for the Christian, the most treasured friendship is based not on give and take or having a good time, but on the knowledge of Christ and the quest for virtue. This is the kind of friendship that the Psalmist praises: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.” This type of friendship can also be a great solace and source of strength for those struggling with chronic pain.

In coping with any of life’s difficulties, including chronic pain, the difficulty is made easier with the loving support of a spouse or a trusted friend. Because pain is not only associated with physiological issues, the perception of pain may often be exacerbated when you feel isolated or believe no one understands your pain.  On the other hand, pain may be lessened with the support of a loved one who offers empathy even as Christ in the Gospel was moved to compassion by those who were suffering, spoke to them with kindness, and touched them with His gentle, yet powerful hand. Of course, Christ not only comforted the sick, He also told them to arise and walk.  Friends and family may not be able to perform such a miracle, but they can encourage the sufferer to focus on the helpful interventions mentioned in previous posts rather than allowing conversations and behaviors to concentrate on the pain itself. A virtuous Christian friend will not only show compassion and kindness, but also spur the sufferer on towards ascetic zeal to do whatever can be done to walk in the commandments of Christ. Together, both receive benefit and both will accomplish more than they could ever hope to accomplish alone.

Yet, it takes patience and discernment to discover which interventions and which loved ones are most helpful in coping with chronic pain.  In both instances, a good pragmatic rule of thumb might be to pick those that understand your situation, including your limitations, but also are capable of challenging you to seek behaviors and relationships that encourage growth and healthy movement beyond the feeling of pain and the temptations to despair. Another more spiritual suggestion is to pray, for prayer provides training in patience and discernment, in patience because one forages ahead even in times of dryness and in discernment because one comes into contact with the source of all illumination and light.

Of course, those in a state of chronic pain certainly have prayed for relief and for healing like so many of those suffering in the Gospels did. But, prayer that is simply for God’s mercy in any way that God wishes to shed it upon us can effect an even greater transformation in our lives. And for this purpose, the Jesus Prayer is a perfect intervention. In a previous post, I wrote, “In chapter 3 of my book, entitled, “A Patristic Voyage”, I note, ‘…the remembrance of God may have therapeutic value in modifying dysfunctional schemata by changing a person’s focus and by attracting the power of divine grace.  There is some scientific warrant to this proposition.  McMinn and Campbell note, ‘In an unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stavros (1998) found that meditating on the Jesus prayer for thirty days reduced anxiety, along with depression, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity.’” We’ve already discussed how these factors exacerbate chronic pain . The point here is that the Jesus Prayer can also help in the discernment process and in the struggle to move forward in spite of one’s conditions. A good and trusted friend can also provide encouragement in saying the prayer.

Again, as I wrote earlier, “modern strugglers can overcome both difficult situations and the passionate reactions to those situations by remembrance of God, even as the Fathers, vitally aware of God’s living providence, did of old by making use of the Jesus prayer, the centuries-honored Christian practice of the remembrance of God.  The practitioner concentrates solely on the words of the prayer-“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner” and keeps his heart free of distracting thoughts by focusing on the words.  A consistent and devoted practitioner will find that this is one of the best ways to keep focus on the remembrance of God, regardless of life’s difficulties and circumstances.”

The purification of the passions and the bad thoughts has obvious benefits to those struggling with chronic pain. It opens new horizons and new possibilities in a world that seemed previously so constricted by suffering. Additionally, prayer provides structure to our life that is both supportive and loving. Above all, it brings us into contact with the most perfect Friend a person could ever desire, our Lord Jesus Christ Who looks upon us with tender compassion and calls us to leave aside the nets of our pain in any way we can, so that we might joyfully follow Him.

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