Cover image for Sacred pain : hurting the body for the sake of the soul
Sacred pain : hurting the body for the sake of the soul
Glucklich, Ariel.
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Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, [2001]

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278 pages ; 24 cm
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1460 Lexile.
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BL627.5 .G58 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Why would anyone seek out the very experience the rest of us most wish to avoid? Why would religious worshipers flog or crucify themselves, sleep on spikes, hang suspended by their flesh, or walk for miles through scorching deserts with bare and bloodied feet? In this insightful new book, Ariel Glucklich argues that the experience of ritual pain, far from being a form of a madness or superstition, contains a hidden rationality and can bring about a profound transformation of the consciousness and identity of the spiritual seeker. Steering a coursebetween purely cultural and purely biological explanations, Glucklich approaches sacred pain from the perspective of the practitioner to fully examine the psychological and spiritual effects of self-hurting. He discusses the scientific understanding of pain, drawing on research in fields such asneuropsychology and neurology. He also ranges over a broad spectrum of historical and cultural contexts, showing the many ways mystics, saints, pilgrims, mourners, shamans, Taoists, Muslims, Hindus, Native Americans, and indeed members of virtually every religion have used pain to achieve a greateridentification with God. He examines how pain has served as a punishment for sin, a cure for disease, a weapon against the body and its desires, or a means by which the ego may be transcended and spiritual sickness healed. "When pain transgresses the limits," the Muslim mystic Mizra Asadullah Ghalibis quoted as saying, "it becomes medicine." Based on extensive research and written with both empathy and critical insight, Sacred Pain explores the uncharted inner terrain of self-hurting and reveals how meaningful suffering has been used to heal the human spirit.

Author Notes

Ariel Glucklich is Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Why do mystics and devout laypeople in many different religious traditions glorify physical pain, some going so far as to ritually mutilate themselves in the name of the divine? In this erudite and wide-ranging study, Glucklich, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, offers a compelling explanation. Drawing on the fields of psychology, neurophysiology and religious studies, he observes that pain "the most familiar and universal aspect of all human experiences" affects both the body and the mind. Pain triggers an altered state of consciousness in which one's sense of self is diminished, creating an absence that can make way for a new and affirming presence. "The task of sacred pain," Glucklich writes, "is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious-psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence." Although this state of transcendence exists across cultures, the way in which the experience is interpreted is culturally specific. To demonstrate this, Glucklich draws upon a wide range of examples, from the tortures of the Inquisition to Native American trials of endurance. He concludes by exploring what we may have lost with the development of medical anesthetics. This fascinating, closely argued study suggests that, in religion as in sports, there is no gain without pain. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Why do people seek out or endure intense physical pain in the name of religion? This question was posed to Glucklich (theology, Georgetown Univ.) by a friend, and this book is his answer. Steering clear of easy or reductive answers such as lunacy and superstition, Glucklich delves deeply into the various fields (psychology, physiology, philosophy, history, theology) that one must investigate to respond. He focuses on the effect of pain on the self and sense of identity and examines the various meanings pain can have for the individual, in contrast to the modern view of pain as an enemy and unquestionably undesirable. As he states, "Only religious language can describe how `bad' pain becomes `good' pain, though it is not only religion that brings about this transformation." This demanding book does justice to the complexity of its subject as Glucklich masterfully leads the reader through all the diverse paths that connect with the central topic. He is a skilled writer who presents complicated material well without sacrificing meaning or nuance. Highly recommended for academic libraries. Stephen Joseph, Butler Cty. Community Coll., PA Halpern, Baruch. David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Religious Ways of Hurting The following are self-evident: Spilling a few drops of hot tea on your wrist will make you cringe; when your dentist's probe finds the cavity in your tooth your whole body contracts. You may rest assured that an ancient Egyptian would have felt the same way, as would a Siberian Russian today. Pain is the most familiar and universal aspect of all human experiences, and it binds us with many animals as well. The American Medical Association (and the International Association for the Study of Pain) defines pain somewhat redundantly as an unpleasant sensation related to tissue damage. However, nearly everyone recognizes it for a wholly undesirable sensation that seems to be localized in a definite part of the body.     Despite being so obvious, so intimately bound in our bodies as a noxious feeling, pain remains conceptually elusive. To begin with, pain must be distinguished from suffering; it is a type of sensation usually--though not necessarily--associated with tissue damage. Though unpleasant--to say the least--by definition, pain is a sensation that is tangled with mental and even cultural experiences. As such it has been pursued and glorified throughout history, and not only by clinical masochists. Suffering, in contrast, is not a sensation but an emotional and evaluative reaction to any number of causes, some entirely painless. The loss of a child, for instance, is a cause of deep suffering and sorrow, but not pain. We regard such suffering as painful in a derivative, even metaphorical sense. On that distinction Montaigne wrote, "The types of sufferings which simply afflict us by tormenting our soul are much less distressful to me than they are to most other men: ... but truly basic, corporeal suffering, I experience fully." In fact, one may go so far as to say that pain can be the solution to suffering, a psychological analgesic that removes anxiety, guilt, and even depression.     Discourses on pain, around the world and throughout history, have been pervasive and oblique at the same time. It is difficult to imagine ancient medicine, in Greece, India, or anywhere else, without the need to overcome pain. And yet most premodern systems of medicine touch the subject of pain in a roundabout manner. Similarly, it is hard to imagine ancient jurisprudence without pain: the pain of the crime-victim and the pain inflicted by the law to put things right. And yet, here too, even the most vivid descriptions of gruesome mutilations and executions seem to treat the body of the prisoner as an insentient object. Pain, of course, also figures in military affairs. The side that wins is usually the one that can sustain the highest level or the most extensive amount of pain and continue to fight. One needs to read between the lines of medical, juridical, and military documents to discover the pain that permeates these domains of human activity. And yet, surprisingly, all three areas have left a profound mark on the way pain is conceptualized, perhaps even experienced, within the literature that eventually comes to describe pain explicitly.     This is the literature that may cautiously be called "religious": scriptures, sermons and teachings, biographies and writings of mystics and saints, monastic guides, theologies, myths, and even rituals. These writings frequently discuss pain in detail, but often in a paradoxical and counterintuitive fashion. The modern reader expects, as a matter of common sense, that religious literature would insist that pain is a cause of suffering, the "problem of pain" in the words of C. S. Lewis's famous book. In the Christian and Jewish traditions of the West, the book of Job seems to epitomize how religion treats, how in fact it ought to treat, the problem of pain. The book is an unfulfilled theodicy, a problem of evil. But its inconclusive lesson is acceptable to us because we have come to believe that the only true solution to pain is medical. Religion may explore the mental terrain of pained anguish (as Job certainly does) but the solution proper is just around the corner.     But the book of Job is hardly representative of religious literature on the subject of pain. Casting a very wide net and looking at dozens of references to pain, I have found that, in fact, religious literature around the world is far richer and more ambiguous in its evaluation and even description of pain. Pain is frequently not a problem at all, but rather a solution! The contexts in which pain is discussed are impressive. There are ascetic disciplines, martyrdoms, initiatory ordeals and rites of passage, training of shamans, traditional forms of healing such as exorcism; there are contests, installations of kings, rites of mourning, pilgrimages, vows, and even celebrations. For some reason or reasons--these will be the heart of this book--the most highly revered religious documents (taken in the broad sense) around the world have often treated pain not as an "unwanted guest" but as a useful and important sensation worthy of understanding and cultivating.     In this chapter I shall look at major ways of describing and evaluating pain in religious literature around the world. The survey will reveal a remarkable depth and subtlety in the manner of using pain, and in the way pain has been situated in the religious imagination of humankind. The richness of the data resolves itself into a definite number of patterns--I call them "models." There seems to be a limited repertoire of imaginative resources for describing pain and for evaluating its role in life. This may not surprise biologists who insist that pain is an organic feature of the species, but it would surprise psychologists and cultural theorists who feel that descriptions of pain are always cultural constructions subject to the vicissitudes of historical circumstances. At any rate, the models of pain I will discuss are juridical (punitive, business law, law of evidence--including tests and gnostic models), medical (curative, preventive), military, athletic, magical (alchemical, purifying), educational, shared (communal, vicarious, sacrificial, imitation of a god and social bonding), and psychotropic. These are not areas of life in which one finds instances of pain. Rather, these are the ways in which a pain is characterized and perhaps even experienced. For instance, one may suffer intense chronic backaches and come to feel that the pain is punitive, that it is due to some evil one has committed. That would be a juridical way of conceptualizing and experiencing the hurting body. The McGill Pain Questionnaire, which will be discussed in a number of places in this book, contains evaluative terms from which pain patients select to describe their pain as perhaps punitive, vengeful, or some other judgment. Its assumption is that pain is frequently accompanied by an emotional or intellectual judgment. In the literature that I will survey, such judgments seem to be essential to the way pain is perceived. For example: One day Gabriel appeared and said, "O Prophet of God, leave the mosque (and go) to Batha' in Mecca, that you may see one of your companions who is honored by the seven heavens and the earth." The Prophet went out and saw a man, naked, rolling in the dust and rebuking his soul. In that heat of Mecca, which melts lead, he rolled among the stones, saying, "O soul taste this punishment, and wait for the punishment of Hell! O soul, at night you are a fallen carcass, and by day you go about idly; like the beasts of burden, you do nothing but eat and drink." The Prophet summoned him and asked, "What is this?" He replied, "My soul had prevailed over me." The Prophet said, "Receive then the good tidings that Heaven's doors have been opened, and the angels of the seven heavens glory in you." Then he told the Companions, "Let whoever desires God's mercy touch this man and ask for his prayers." They all went and entreated him to pray for them. In this instance taken from medieval Islam, the pain of rolling on an extremely hot surface is characterized as a form of punishment, "earned" by a sense of moral outrage at one's spiritual failings. Of course, the models I have listed are only heuristic devices. Many expressions of pain communicate in a polyvalent or ambiguous way, the boundaries between models may be fuzzy, or a pain may be articulated in one way but function in another. For instance, penitential pain tends to be conceived in a juridical manner, but it may be imagined positively within initiatory ordeals for specialized societies.     Cultural theorists will be quick to argue that a broadly comparative collection of material based on "models" makes no sense. After all, the material is not the spontaneous grunting, moaning, or crying of specific individuals in pain. Rather, it is a collection of discourses about pain, literary representations authored within specific cultural contexts. Pain discourse represents embodied experience--sensation as well as its emotional/evaluative aspects--and is consequently a social and cultural construction, regardless of the biology of the pain. We may be even more specific on this point and follow the theorists who have set the agenda for the cultural construction of embodiment over the last couple of decades, namely Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. Their theories require that pain discourse reflect the way cultures "construct" the individual as a self and as a member of a community. It is not possible for individuals or cultures to talk about pain without simultaneously expressing social relations of power and the ideologies that contain them. This situates pain in a specific time and place. The notion of transcultural models eviscerates the very heart of what is essential in pain discourse--namely, its participation in the unique dialectic between culture and individual experience.     Cultural constructionists, as such theorists are sometimes called, are correct of course, up to a point. Embodied experience, including pain and its representation, are a mix of biological facts and cultural consciousness (metaphors, emotions, attitudes). The problem, and they are sharply aware of it, is precisely how this mix works, and how scholarship may combine objective description with subjective experience. As we shall see in a later chapter, this is the struggle behind the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, and perhaps an inevitable consequence of a lingering struggle with positivism, which has dominated Anglo-American material sciences. Be that as it may, the cultural construction of pain experience, and the rejection of transcultural models, is based on a top-down view of the culture-body dialectic. There is much to say on behalf of the other perspective--the bottom up. As Roselyne Rey puts it: All the same, despite its many individual, social, and cultural characteristics, pain is not an historical subject in the same sense as fear, or hell, or purgatory. Pain is based on an anatomical and physiological foundation, and if there is one experience where the human condition's universality and the species' biological unity is manifest, pain is certainly it. The point is not to substitute biological description and analysis for cultural interpretation. Instead, the agenda for this book is to explore with some precision that fuzzy area where culture meets biology. This is the place where sensation becomes representation, and conversely consciousness is experienced somatically--in the body. I thus agree with Rey's own agenda, which is to find "how do these sensations convert into perceptions and how do they reach our awareness" (the bottom-up agenda), but I shall also keep an eye on the reverse point of view.     This bifocal perspective is more consistent with the richness and ambiguities of the models than either the biological or the cultural reductions. For instance, some cultural theorists insist that subjectivity is an internalization of power relations, and the models of pain should reflect that one-directional flow. Pain narratives record the development of moral agency, for instance, when they uncover the guilty conscience of the victim, who has now internalized society's aggression and turned it on himself. Foucault's work on the confession and on punishment--the "technology of self"--is a famous example of such theorizing. But in fact, the survey of pain discourses reveals a wide range of images and values, many of which project the very opposite evaluation of pain. An obvious example is pain as medicine.     The transcultural models are not designed to produce cultural-comparative knowledge about diverse traditions in search of universal symbolic ideas. This is not an exercise in the comparative religion of pain. Instead I am looking at the very possibility of representation, at the simple fact that pain can actually be articulated as an experience despite being a "body feeling." This requires that I move beneath the models to the origins in experience and in language of how the body feels when "it" feels pain. That mechanism--the phenomenological construction of pain--is universal, though it operates in culturally constrained spaces. Discovering it requires that we suspend the culturally specific, for the time being, and operate in a comparative fashion. It will be possible to see, after the discussion of the models, that the phenomenological construction is binary, and as such it is a suitable way of discussing the dialectic of culture and biology, or mind and body. Models of Pain The discussion of models will be simply descriptive. Although the collection of material is already a selective and therefore interpretive act, I will postpone the temptation to reduce the data to psychology or theology. Nietzsche famously refused to do this; his descriptions were already literary in their interpretive passion. On the self-hurting of ascetics, for instance, he wrote that they "inflict as much pain on themselves as they possibly can out of pleasure in inflicting pain--which is probably their only pleasure." This reads very well, and the pseudo-paradox, hardly masking the writer's contempt, has inspired a vast amount of writing, especially in France, on transgression. But of course, the pronouncement is both too quick and off the mark. Juridical Models Narratives and discourses about pain that describe it in terms taken from the world of jurisprudence are included in this model. The clearest is pain as punishment, an obvious feature considering the very etymology of the word. But pain may also be described as a debt or damages owed, and it may also be related to laws of evidence when it is linked to methods of eliciting truth. This model accounts for a large percentage of the cases found in religious literature, and many pain patients still use it today.     Within this model, pain is described as a punishment by some personal agency (God, Satan, demons) or by some impersonal mechanism such as karma. The punishment may be perceived as just, as we saw in the case of the man who rolled in the heat of Mecca, or it may be entirely unwarranted and tragic. Such of course is the case of Job who flails at God in pained rage at what he knows to be injustice, or the cry of Prometheus, who rightly calls Zeus a tyrant: "This is a tyrant's deed; this is unlovely, a thing done by a tyrant's private laws." Among the three Western monotheistic religions, due to the legacy of Adam and Eve, punitive pain is endemic: "To the woman He said: `I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.'" This constitutional sentiment, if taken seriously, situates the pain of parturition in a moral universe in which pain is not meaningless, or even merely biological. It is the automatic moral consequence in an iron logic of action and reward.     But the suffering blamed on Adam's misconduct is far more general: "In Adam's fall sinn'd we all: human life became penal and the world hostile." Punishment, fortunately, is not the same as vengeance; it has the advantage of removing guilt. Or else, it covers the shame and regret of having done wrong, and more importantly, pacifies the anxiety over an indefinite mechanism of justice waiting to pounce. Thus, to be punished, or to punish oneself, may be a good idea. Ascetics and monks have often conceptualized their pain as a punitive but preemptive measure: How much better is it, writes Thomas à Kempis, to suffer in this world than to save the accumulated "matter" of sin for the fire of purgatory. Henry Suso amplifies this sentiment to explain the extravagance of his own self-punishment: "Brother, it is necessary for thee to be punished in this life or in purgatory: but incomparably more severe will be the penalty of purgatory than any in this life. Behold, thy soul is in thy hands. Choose therefore for thyself whether to be sufficiently punished in this life according to canonical or authentic penances, or to await purgatory." The pains of monastic discipline are "enjoyed," in Nietzsche's scornful term, because they remove something more hurtful--the fear of the afterlife. Such a pain may, in fact, hurt hardly at all, if such a thing is possible. Some martyrs may have experienced their last pains in a surprisingly analgesic manner due to the way they evaluated their pain. St. Peter Balsam had the presence of mind to debate his own torture with the emperor Severus, who was attempting to cajole the Christian into sacrificing to the state gods. Severus, on hearing these words, ordered him to be stretched upon the rack, and whilst he was suspended said to him scoffingly, "What say you now, Peter; do you begin to know what the rack is? Are you willing to sacrifice?" Peter answered, "Tear me with hooks, and talk not of my sacrificing to your devils; I have already told you, that I will sacrifice only to that God for whom I suffer." ... The spectators, seeing the martyr's blood running down in streams, cried out to him, "Obey the emperor! Sacrifice, and rescue yourself from these torments!" Peter replied: "Do you call these torments? I feel no pain: but this I know that if I be not faithful to my God I must expect real pain, such as cannot be conceived." There is no "transgressive masochism" here, though perhaps the bravado of a man who is confident that his body's sensations belong in a larger and more powerful context. So the paradox Nietzsche had discovered, the counterpleasure, is actually a different paradox, a more puzzling one. On the one hand, the martyr and the ascetic regard pain as the phenomenal face of a divine mechanism--retributive and just, while on the other hand, their certainty produces a strange insensitivity to pain. This is true not just for martyrs (with their anesthetizing adrenal rush) but for patients as well. An ascetic named Stephanus was suffering from cancer under the care of a physician. "`While his members were being cut away like locks of hair, he showed no sign whatsoever of pain, thanks to the superiority of his spiritual preparation.' Stephanus explained to his visitors that `it may well be that my members deserve punishment and it would be better to pay the penalty here than after I have left the arena.'"     Juridical pain straddles the boundary between lex talionis and law of debts in a variety of cultures, from Judaism and Greece to Hindu versions of karma. The difference between pain as punishment and an exchange of debts involves the legal distinction, which became important in ancient Greece, between owing to a private party and being accountable to society as a whole. The strongest Jewish instance of this distinction may be found in the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) liturgy with its notion of redemption as exchange ( pidyon ) or a debt. Pope John Paul II, in that same 1984 address quoted in the Introduction, states that those who wish to enter the kingdom of Christ must suffer: "Through their suffering they, in a sense, pay back the boundless price of our redemption." Here pain does not act by removing a certainty of culpability--in phenomenal terms, the sense of moral guilt. Instead it restores a balance, either in terms of psychic processes or in the cosmos. For Plato suffering pain can be punitive in such a beneficial way. Pain (as punishment) restores order in the soul, which is not about a subjective sense of guilt but more of a medical conception of balance. Still, it also prevents eternal torments in Tartarus. The juridical model conceived as repayment of damages or debts plays out with either a magical or a sacrificial mechanism that guarantees the efficacy of the exchange. This principle also seems at work in the acts of self-torture performed as vrat (vow) in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds. The accused man's pain will keep him out of prison or healthy. Perhaps behind this is a sociological force, which anthropologists have called "prestation" but whose mechanism is most interesting when considered psychologically. The certainty of automatic or built-in reciprocity seems to be very pervasive, sometimes burdensome as well. In the subtle wryness of Hobbes: "To have received from one, to whom we think our selves equall, greater benefits than there is hope to requite, disposeth to counterfeit love; but really secret hatred; and puts a man into the estate of a desperate debtor, than in declining the sight of his creditor, tacitely wishes him there, where he might never see him more. For benefits oblige; and obligation is thraldome; and unrequitable obligation, perpetual thraldome, which is to one equall, hatefull." To turn away from such obligations leads to the depth of shame, to have oneself irrevocably shown up.     Finally, the juridical model of pain also branches off into the law of evidence, where pain acts as an instrument for obtaining truth from reluctant witnesses or from the accused. This principle operates not just in cases of ordeals or religious inquisitions, as one might expect, but also in the cases of asceticism and initiatory ordeals. However, the dominant sphere of influence, as we can see in the case of ordeal by fire in India, is the revelation of hidden truth wrested by means of pain. In ancient India, for instance (as in England and most of Europe), ordeals were regarded as uncanny methods for establishing legal facts in the absence of reliable witnesses. Ordeals acted as a method of invoking divine insight in order to discover a hidden truth, and pain somehow pointed at this thruth. The following is a brief summary of the fire ordeal in medieval India: (Continues...) Excerpted from Sacred Pain by ARIEL GLUCKLICH. Copyright © 2001 by Ariel Glucklich. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 3
1 Religious Ways of Hurtingp. 11
2 Pain and Transcendence: The Neurological Groundsp. 40
3 The Psychology and Communication of Painp. 63
4 Self and Sacrifice: A Psychology of Sacred Painp. 78
5 Ghost Trauma: Changing Identity through Painp. 106
6 The Emotions of Passagep. 129
7 The Tortures of the Inquisition and the Invention of Modern Guiltp. 153
8 Anesthetics and the End of "Good Pain"p. 179
Conclusionp. 206
Notesp. 213
Selected Bibliographyp. 249
Indexp. 269