Yesterday’s Q&A after coffee hour with Metropolitan Jonah combined with my intense reading of Ruth has made me want to explore painful emotional responses, aka, psychic pain (also known as mental pain, emotional pain, social pain, spiritual or soul pain, or suffering. It is sometimes also called psychalgia. [from wikipedia]) I say intense reading of Ruth because in order to get into a book, I have to very closely relate and sympathize with the main character. This seems to happen most easily with 19th Century literature. The British may be somewhat off in their theology, but I cannot ignore how I’m wired, whether it be by nature or nurture. I think there is much to redeem about this literature anyway, evidenced by the monk telling the novice to read David Copperfield, because if you don’t have a handle on Christianity 101, you are not ready for hesychasm.
Metropolitan Jonah talked about how sins and passions are means we use to console ourselves from psychic pain (my paraphrase). He said this pain is caused mainly by resentment and anger. In order to deal with it, if one is ready, you have to look to the original source of the pain, then divide away the other person’s sin to be forgiven, and find your own. It was sort of a short answer, and now that I’ve had a day to think about it, I am wondering if some of the pain is just from the wound, causing an existential state that is there even if one has dealt with the cause. But certainly the original cause must be dealt with.
*spoiler alert for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth)*
Ruth is an “at risk” teen who falls in love with a thoughtless young man. He convinces her to run off with him when she seems to have no other recourse. It is more like the path of least resistance when she was too weak to resist more. Eventually he tires of her and abandons her. She runs after his coach to no avail and almost kills herself in her extreme despondency. There are several other people who have let her down up to this point, but one very nice Dissenting pastor, who was vacationing there, takes her in to live with himself and his sister and their maid. Shortly thereafter they discover she is pregnant and decide to pretend she is a widow to protect her child’s social standing.
Ruth is very humbled by her new situation, to say the least, and devotes herself wholeheartedly to repentance. But about 8 years later she accidentally comes back into contact with her former lover. Mrs. Gaskell is very adept in laying the groundwork for this very emotional scene. Ruth felt forced into meeting him after he discovered the truth about their child, and she only agrees to meet him privately out of fear that he will take her son away. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t make him into a total villain, though in his thoughtlessness he did make it seem that he was threatening her. He really wasn’t, and ends up asking her to marry him, but she’s in such a panicked state by this point that she responds in vehement anger about if he were the last man on earth and so forth. He leaves her alone.
I will say that I find it puzzling when these patronizing characters offer Ruth and the minister money or other charity, and they refuse it. It seems like these patronizers are doing the right thing, and almost like Ruth & c. are being proud to not accept. I wonder if Mrs. Gaskell is very sensitive, as a minister’s wife herself, to the concept of being bought off by parishioners who are jockeying for position with their donations. She will not compromise for them.
I’ll skip to the end now and mention Mr. Benson’s (the minister) anger when he ends up confronting Ruth’s child’s father and is glad he has no claim on the child. While I’ll not argue with keeping distance from patronizing, thoughtless, selfish people who do not seem to want to find fault with themselves, the emotional reaction, resulting from the psychic pain of being traumatized by them seems like an intermediary response, and not a concluding climax, which it was in this book. It reminds me of how Meggy, in Thorn Birds, finally tells off Luke: “And futhermore, you can’t make love worth toffee!” It was cathartic when I read it as a young woman, but now, years after my divorce, I want something more than a big tell-off. That is just revenge. I’m rejecting you instead of you rejecting me.
Again, I’m not advocating acceptance as the answer. I’m not ready for that and am not convinced of the need for it. I can’t judge whether Mr. Bellingham would have been saved by being included in raising his son, or if he would have brought more harm than good. If you balk at the idea, I don’t think it should be forced on you out of false guilt or an overactive sense of obligation. But balking is usually the result of pain.
Let’s take a burn as an example, since it shares the connotation. In general, close contact with fire should be avoided. If someone has had a bad burn, maybe by accidentally burning their own house down, they may have a panicked reaction if they see a match. I won’t say it’s totally PTSD, because the heat from just a match may actually hurt sensitive scars. But what if their lifestyle includes lighting matches? They will need to face their pain, and learn to find a way to deal with matches. They may find a way of protecting their scars so that it doesn’t hurt, but what if they can’t? What if it hurts every time? It isn’t even the same match that did the initial damage. They can forgive the match manufacturer and even the perpetrating match itself, and not want to ruin their reputation, tell them off, or even discourage others from using them. But at the same time, I think the person wants others to know that it hurts them every day when they use a match. Every single live long day. They can tell themselves not to react. They can stop their hesitation. They may even keep it burning as long as they can, even after their candle is lit, just to prove something to themselves. “I’m not going to let the pain control me.” But it still is. No matter what. Whether one chooses never to light a match again, or if one decides to set the world record for how long they can hold the short little things, their pain is still controlling them.
So, what if all God has to work with is a reaction-to-pain controlled person? What if he can use this reaction? Or we can, rather, or together, etc. The pain can be a call to prayer. It is much easier to use it to trigger a consoling sin, but we can probably train ourselves to seek God instead. Relief with sinful habits is not only more easily obtained, but indulging in them also provides quicker fixes. Additionally, just as in exercise when it takes more and more repetitions to get one’s heart-rate up, so also in prayer, it takes more and more prayer to achieve an ease of the pain that used to take just a momentary turning to God.