From William Cavanaugh’s superb Torture and Eucharist:
The Christian economy of pain, therefore, overcomes the strict incommunicability of pain on which torture relies. Torture is so useful for isolating individuals in a society from one another in large part because of the inability of people to share pain. Pain is incommunicable beyond the limits of the body, and the sufferer must suffer alone. Christians, nevertheless, make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted together into one body.
I am reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’ remarks on the subject of pain and medical ethics. Hauerwas observes the profoundly alienating character of pain, recognizing that, even when we successfully develop a narrative within which our pain is accommodated, this narrative will tend to separate us from others, as it can’t easily be shared. He challenges any approach to medicine that regards it as primarily being about cures, claiming that medicine is primarily about the commitment to be present with those in pain.
Without these habits of presence with those in pain ‘the world of the ill cannot help but become a separate world both for the ill and for those who care for them.’ Hauerwas argues that medicine as the practice of presence is only possible for a particular type of community, and that it is in the life of the Church, a community formed by God’s presence with us in our sin and pain, that such a practice can be formed. ‘Only a people trained in remembering, and remembering as a communal act, their sins and pains can offer a paradigm for sustaining across time a painful memory that it acts to heal rather than to divide.’ Illness and pain come as strangers in our midst. Only a community that has learnt how not to fear the stranger (and we can become strangers to ourselves through illness), through God’s presence with us, can truly practice this presence with others.
Our ability to be present to the sick, to encounter Christ in the one alienated from us by pain, may thus be a test of the degree to which we truly belong to this ‘Christian economy of pain’. It is here that the gospel of health and wealth can most radically jar with the message of Christ. If all of the above is correct, should not our visitation of the sick be seen as a deeply theological practice, a practice that is more than an expression of mere generic charity, but something that should be marked out as distinctively Christian in its character. Can a Church that is not present to the sick be truly Christian? To the extent that my life is insulated from the pain of others, can I call myself a Christian?