Sarah Coakley Interview on Pain and Spiritual Transformation

As part of her work editing Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, Sarah Coakley gave an interview for ABC’s Radio National. While they have a partial transcript there, I decided to listen to the full mp3 myself and transcribe some of the other potent bits. On second thought, I really should just transcribe the full 40-minute interview, but for now, here they are for digestion (with time markers):

“Pain and suffering are often kept separate in our language, but actually they are acutely entangled, for reasons I’ve outlined, and different kinds of pain are subject to different sorts of interpretive or ritual or meditative amelioration or transformation. Some may not be capable of that.  In extreme cases of torture, for instance, agonizing pain that obliterates thought and language, then I think we’re at a place in which we move beyond what can easily be dealt with by interpretation.” (3:58)

“The imposition of pain has been a feature of the use of a penance for instance in the monastic tradition in Christianity, but is rather frowned upon nowadays and not without good reason I think, because that suggests a kind of manipulative use of pain for religious purposes.” (5:36)

“And then the interesting question is-is this pain that I have either in my body or my soul, or in both, something that is part of the divine plan for me? How do I respond to it? How could it perhaps be something which is a means of proceeding through to a deeper closeness to God in Christ? And in the case of some of the most exalted literature of mystical theology, especially that of the 16th century Carmelites, there is very subtle and rich reflection on how different kinds of pain may be significant for spiritual advance ultimately towards union with Christ.” (6:10)

“What’s very distinctive about John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, is that they see an unbroken intimacy with Christ, as something that can happen to at least to a few specially chosen people, in this life. And it can be an unbroken union, which once achieved, one doesn’t fall away from.” (7:27)

“It is an eroticism that arises out of long years of purgation and transformation of the physiological life to be in accordance with the spiritual.” (8:25)

“It is a spiritual wound, yes, and it bespeaks that utter unification of the soul with the what you might call the redemptive project of Christ which includes suffering as well as redemption and transformation. So it is not technically an obliteration of pain, spiritual and physiological, but it is its utter transformation because of its binding of itself in oneness with Christ’s redemptive life.” (9:10)

“But rather, because her [Teresa of Avila’s] body has become more used to this intimacy with Christ, it is a state of unbreakable closeness to Christ when Christ is being let into the innermost part of the self, the interior castle.” (10:48)

“In the night of sense, what is happening is that the spiritual feeling of dis-ease is actually God weaning you from needing to have nice feelings while you’re praying to a stage in which you are willing to wait on God in silence and relative sensual discomfort whilst your senses are being trained to be in alignment with your spirit. That’s the first stage, the stage of arid contemplation in which all delight is taken away from you in order that your senses be purged from delight in experiences in order to delight in God.” (15:48)

“Unless we have a sure spiritual guide, someone who can discern the signs, it is very difficult to know at any given time whether the pains that we feel really are purgative and transformative, or whether they are signs that we are off the road. And that’s part of the mystery of what one is undertaking, one can’t manipulate this in a way that has complete control precisely because one is handing over control by progressive degrees to God.” (17:32)

“Not seen simply as things that may ameliorate our sense of affliction immediately, but undertakings which are transformative in themselves because they draw us closer to God. They’re not tools that we can manipulate, but they are means to a possible transformation of consciousness and even physiological awareness.” (19:53)

“The point is that it’s so completely infused with the intimacy and presence of Christ that its distress is transfigured.” (21:10)

“Because there are ways of thinking about, positioning oneself in relationship to Christ’s suffering which can be, given the way that John and Teresa speak of … a wound that is the result of the divine cauterization of our human pain, into which as it were Christ is fully inserted in union, you see them as the most amazing, paradoxical combination of intense pain and pure delight and transformation. A secularized culture can probably only hear this as S&M, which it most certainly is not.” (21:55)

“But if you look at the great religious traditions, such as the Carmelites in the Christian tradition, you’ll see that tackling that question is completely impossible unless one tackles that deeper and profounder question of how the very self, body and soul, is being transformed in its response to pain.” (25:49)

“Because they’re able to distinguish between pains that indicate to us that something is awry, whether physiologically or spiritually, and pains which are a sign actually of our being stretched and purged and transformed, in order to arrive eventually at the ultimate spiritual goal, whatever that is in the particular religious traditions.” (30:23)

“But at the end of the day, those mystical theologians like the Carmelites are willing to say, ‘Only the pain that is the sign of complete union with the Christ who redemptively suffers for the world is a good in itself.’ And even then, it is only a good because it’s partaking in Christ’s actually leading people into a place of healing.” (30:55)

“We place ourselves at the disposal of divine intervention, healing and we also help each other in this by various practices of combined rituals. But I don’t think we can ever actually predict the outcome.” (32:08)

“Whatever God gives one in this life as a baptized person, that process of transformation is always on offer. If pain and grief come, then one must take it first and foremost as at least the possibility and opportunity of such transformation.” (34:19)

“When people have a meaning system that involves eschatological verification, that is, someone who believes that the meaning of life will be discovered after death, then as they approach death, they realise that this isn’t just going to be a snuffing out, it’s some kind of passage which is of extraordinary spiritual significance, and therefore sometimes they may undergo more suffering because of the significance they impart to this.” (38:15)


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