The Holiness of Pain

A few weeks ago I was getting dressed for the day. I put on nice pants, a nice shirt, a vest. I tied my tie.

But it was all black.

A good friend of ours had unexpectedly passed away. The funeral was going to be in the middle of the afternoon, in the midst of the workday. So while I don't normally dress up for work, this day I did. Because I was dressing to go the memorial service.

And as I was dressing up I pondered the holiness of pain.

As I've written about before and discuss at great length in Unclean, the psychologist Richard Shweder has suggested that three main moral codes regulate human experience. One of these codes is the divinity code which is experienced as movement up and down a vertical dimension. As we move higher on this dimension we experience sacredness and holiness. As we move lower on this dimension we experience degradation and defilement.

Dress, as I've also written about before, is affected by the divinity code. Specifically, we try to dress in a way that is commensurate with the sacredness, honor, respect or holiness of the situation. Dress is a form of showing respect and meeting expectations of dignity and decorum.

And even secular people recognize this sacred hierarchy. Even secular people dress up for funerals. Which is interesting. The world is still very much enchanted, with certain places and occasions higher on the divinity dimension. And funerals are one of those locations.


As I tied my tie that morning I thought about the post I wrote about visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the memorial that honors and remembers those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. In that post I'd noted how loss had made that ground sacred and holy. There I wouldn't have felt comfortable spitting on the ground or littering. The place was holy because of the amount of suffering that occurred there. And I think something similar is going on with funerals. Human pain and loss creates a sacred space. And so we dress up.

Suffering becomes the territory we call holy ground.

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15 thoughts on “The Holiness of Pain”

  1. I always thought the wearing of black for funerals was an etiquette thing until my mother died.  It was literally all I could wear and seeing bright colors sort of hurt.  There was something so soothing and sacred about the absence of color, and I felt clearly that it honored the space created, as you say, by our suffering.  

  2. Do we make suffering holy ground to attempt to remove it from ourselves or put it on another plane, or is it the emotional recognition that even when I descend to the abyss, You are there.  In this world most fully there, or how we warped creatures can best perceive divinity.

  3. My husband and I lost our only child in March of '11 and there is something about pain that scrubs away the grime of the world and cuts through the frivolous - to make us solemn - to get us to think about what is important - the basics. Sacredness is one of those things that endures when everything else has been taken away.

  4. I'm afraid that in the UK "sacred space" is undergoing a make-over, as more and more people attending funerals -- more precisely, Christianly speaking, services of death and resurrection -- are dressing down, wearing quotidian clothing, even bright colours (if the deceased was a football fanatic, perhaps club shirts or scarves) for the "celebration" ("We don't want it to be a sad occasion").  I take this to be (at least partly), psychologically, a sartorial expression of denial and, culturally, an expression of the virtual displacement of the gospel narrative of the crucified and risen One by the narrative of the apotheosis of the individual.  There are other indicators -- e.g., banal poetry, personalised music, the marginalisation of the minister by the monopolisation of the eulogy by family and friends, the request that at the crematorium the coffin remain on the plynth... 

    O tempora! O mores!  A combination of theological acuity and firmnesss, pastoral sensitivity and understanding, and, faute de mieux, a willingness to compromise is now required equipment for any minister of this critical occasional office.  

  5. Reminds me of this article which came out just the other day

    Gary Y

  6. "Suffering becomes the territory we call holy ground." -> Perhaps this process is mediated by the fact that suffering forces us to confront the existence of evil in the world. If God's law is truly "written on our hearts" as Romans 2 points out, the recognition of evil should prick our souls to examine the nature of perfection in contrast with the suffering we face, and thus making the territory holy ground.

  7. In reply to Andrew T --

    From Thomas G. Long's excellent Accompanying Them with Singing -- The Christian Funeral (2009), I gather that the church in the US is also having to respond to a cultural shift (see especially chapter 4: "Whatever Happened to the Christian Funeral?").

  8. I think that the practice of having a minister do funerals is one of the most shockingly strange things this culture does.

    I say this as someone who was a very young minister, miles away from being the wisest, the most compassionate, or the most social person in the community. And yet they wanted me to speak at the death of this person, when almost everyone in the room knew more about her than I did.

    Either this was one of the stupidest mistakes they had ever made, or else it said something very very wise about a grieving family's desire to lean on the sanctity of my role in that community (not my qualifications as an individual), and about a grieving family's decision to lean on a public expression of Gospel (not their interest, as individuals, in piety or in theology).

    Peace to those of you who know far more about grief than I do, the hard way.

  9. A few weeks ago, the people in my Sunday School asked to talk about how grief and loss fit within our day-to-day spirituality. I decided to take a meditative approach to the subject, rather than a critical/instructional one. We spent about a half hour reflecting on the pain of the two poetic voices in Lamentations, looking at a crucifix, and considering Jesus' teachings about the "blessings" that fall on those who are in pain. Things were oddly somber at the end, yet I think we were all impressed by the ways God can be present in and near loss, grief, and pain.

  10. Thanks Dr. Beck I very much appreciate this.  I think that places (and things) can become holy too, that we can make them holy, though I can’t say exactly how.  Sacramentally? Magically? (though, for now, it usually involves some kind of suffering).  I wrote awhile back about the ‘Stone of Anointing’ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  It’s the place where the body of Jesus was prepared for burial.  Many, if not most who come through the doors are brought to tears and will kneel down, kiss the stone, lay their hands upon it.  Many people come in desperation and prayer looking for miracles and healing.  I brought home crucifixes and pieces of cloth that I laid on the stone and used them when praying for the suffering of family.  I have witnessed many times for hours as innumerable pilgrims made these same gestures.  Over the centuries those tears and kisses have actually worn that stone down.  I mostly agree with Aquinas that evil is a lack, an absence, a void, but in this case I think that what is missing is what makes that stone holy, even if it isn’t the actual stone that Jesus was laid on.  Obliged.    


  11. You're right. It was so much better when we could torture and castrate the Kenyan Mau-Mau, or mow down unarmed protesters in Jallianwala  Bagh...

  12. Hi Richard! I would love to hear your thoughts on the potential of funerals to provide another "regulative ritual" of disgust. Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene, the majority of the funerals that I have attended I have experienced as a "denial of death" and a flight into the temptation towards a strong dualism (immortal soul vs. mortal body with identity residing within the "immortal" aspect) That is, most of the funerals have in some way said something like this, "We shouldn't be sad because so-and-so died, but we should be rejoicing because so-and-so is walking with their Lord today on streets of gold." So my experience has been that these types of funerals seem to function as a type of "purity collapse" because we are confronted with death and loss (which immediately brings our own death anxiety/mortality into awareness) and the temptation has been to deal with that through a focus on the vertical/divine/holy dimension which flees from the earthly/bodily.

    What I am now thinking about is a) how does one balance at funerals an authentic type of "hope" that God will not forget them (as well as the "sacredness" of suffering and the embodied existence of this person's life) without fleeing into a strong dualism and b) might this encourage us to begin to think about funerals as another "regulating ritual" of disgust?

    Just a couple of thoughts that I had after reading Unclean in conjunction with this post. Thanks for the way you have stretched my imagination! We are looking forward to having you here at SNU in the Spring!


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