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Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

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Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

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For most people, pain is something to be avoided: it is a sign that something is wrong and that something needs to be fixed. But for a few people, at least some times, pain is something sought after. There are even religious reasons to seek pain and discomfort. But why would people do this? Are they insane, or do they know something the rest of us don’t?


Title: Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul
Author: Ariel Glucklich
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195169433

•  Comparative study - many religions discussed
•  Explores why and how religion can use pain positively
•  Touches on many issues regarding religious experiences

•  Topic is very complex

•  Tries to answer the question of why people hurt themselves for religious reasons
•  Explores alternative ways to interpret pain and suffering
•  Shows the use of pain in religions all over the world


Book Review

It can’t be enough to simply assume that whoever values “sacred pain” is insane - there must be a reason for this. It wouldn’t appear in religious traditions all over the world if it did not serve some perceived need on the part of so many different people.

We today have trouble understanding why some people would actually seek out painful experiences because today pain has been “medicalized.” We view pain almost exclusively in terms of harm to our bodies and as a warning that something is wrong. But there are still a few remnants of the idea that pain can be good - for example, in athletic competitions (“no pain, no gain”) and some initiation rites.

Religious pain can occur in a wide variety of contexts: ascetic disciplines, martyrdoms, initiatory ordeals, rites of passage, the training of shamans, traditional forms of healing such as exorcism, contests, the installation of kings, rites of mourning, pilgrimages, vows, and some celebrations.

But these are not the same as models of pain. A “model” of pain is a way to explain why the pain is important and what function it serves. It is through these models that normally disintegrative pain becomes integrative. Glucklich discusses a couple of different models of religious pain.

One common model is judicial, in which the pain is experienced as a sort of debt or damage owed to others like God or the community. The pain is, then, a form of just punishment. Even people today who suffer sometimes wonder if they are being punished for something and if they really deserve their pain. Some Christians have believed that their suffering in this world serves as way to “save up” and avoid the pain of hell.

Another model of pain is military, in which the body is perceived as an enemy against which spirits wage war. So long as the body suffers, it is also losing its war and the soul is more likely to be saved. A third model is magical in nature. Pain transforms the person, taking them to a higher spiritual plane and purifying them.

Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body
Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

Common to all of the different models of pain is that it can be communicated. A religious community is a necessary place where the pain, and more importantly the meaning of the pain, can be shared. Indeed, if it were not possible to share the experience, its religious nature may be non-existent:

    It is inconceivable that the suffering of Christ on the cross, or that the astounding martyrdom of the saints, or for that matter Rabbi Akiva or Al-Hallaj, would mean anything to anyone unless pain was intrinsically shareable.

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