June 15, 2016

Pain, Mysticism, and St. Paul

Did some reading of St. Paul biography titled “In the Steps of Paul” and came across the paragraph below and thought: “Yes, yes!” The paragraph is fascinating because it highlights the oddity of someone receiving supernatural visions and yet being, paradoxically, more focused on the “mundane” everydayness:
“The knowledge that the purely sensory limitations of the physical body had been outdistanced for a moment, just long enough to permit the visionary (like Paul) to know reality. Those who have voyaged outside the small world of the senses are, strangely enough, often intensely practical in achievement. St. Paul is an outstanding instance, and so are St. Bernard, St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila.”
They sweat the small stuff even after seeing the big stuff, perhaps proving the big stuff is the small stuff. It always impresses me, that St. Paul, after receiving that vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, ended up living another 30 years with all sorts of “major inconveniences” like shipwrecks, floggings, prison time, near stonings. You'd think he'd say to God, “Lord I know you can snap your fingers and make this obstacle go away, make me to spend my time more effectively for you than here in prison or deal with a ship wreck. Are you still with me?”. There's the sense that if someone has visions you'd think they'd feel …entitled? Or at least having direct experience of God's help they would expect it repeatedly.

The book goes on:
"It seems to me that one of the first things we have to realize about St. Paul is that from the moment of his conversion he became one of those saints who, in the words of Evelyn Underhill in her book Mysticism, possessed a 'triumphing force' over which circumstances had no power. 'The incessant production of good works seems indeed to be the object of that Spirit,' writes the author of Mysticism. 'We see St. Paul abruptly enslaved by the First and Only Fair, not hiding himself to enjoy the vision of Reality, but going out single-handed to organize the Catholic Church. We ask how it was possible for an obscure Roman citizen, without money, influence, or good health, to lay these colossal foundations: and he answers 'Not I, but Christ in me.'”
Coincidentally, came across this from a completely secular writer in a book trying to describe the Greek notion of beauty, talking about how pain seems relative:
“In his recent book, A Cultural History of Pain, Javier Moscoso raises the question of how we identify pain in someone else…We might rely on familiar manifestations of pain such as a contorted expression or cries of anguish (in pictures, the mouth shaped so as to suggest a scream), but what if the posture and appearance of what we take to be the victim of torment are or seem to be perfectly serene, as is the case, to be the victim of torment are or seem to be perfectly serene, as is the case, for instance, in numerous images of Christian martyrdom, from Christ himself onward? Various documentary accounts affirm that the faith of some saints was so strong that they did not feel the pain inflicted on them; other accounts make it clear that pain was indeed experienced but was welcomed as essential to penitence, and so again it was in some form transcended or at least different from the way we habitually think of pain as necessarily producing aversion.”

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