The Ethos of Suffering

In “’Mildred, is it Fun to Be a Cripple?’ The Culture of Suffering in Mid-Twentieth Century American Catholicism,”[1] Robert Orsi describes the perverse Catholic association of sickness with spiritual glory: “Physical distress of all sorts, from conditions like cerebral palsy to the unexpected agonies of accidents and illness, was understood by American Catholics in the middle years of the last century as an individual’s main opportunity for spiritual growth” (Orsi, 21). Indeed, for these Catholics physical suffering was the means by which one might encounter the transcendent in a most tangible way: “Pain had the character of sacrament, offering the sufferer a uniquely immediate and intimate experience of Jesus’ presence” (Orsi, 22).  Rather than viewing pain and suffering as necessary evils with no productive value, that is to say purely as sources of interference with respect to humankind’s general quest to achieve and surpass, these Catholics effectively redefined the experience of physical suffering as spiritually meaningful, and as such they made the sick worthy of the utmost respect and admiration.

According to this Catholic ethos of suffering, pain always had a purpose, even for those who did not suffer. Through a convenient mechanism of spiritual transferability, healthy devotees had to ability to tap into the spiritual draw of the sick and handicapped without themselves having to undergo the same degree of physical suffering. The bodies of the sick were understood as “conduits of communications and benefits from heaven to earth” (Orsi, 29), acting as vast storehouses of spiritual power that could subsequently be reacquired by the healthy in a “redistributive economy of distress” (Orsi, 29). Furthermore, from this American Catholic perspective the understanding of sick bodies as spiritual repositories had the effect of granting spiritual relevance to otherwise “bitter” and “whining” sick people, as they were sometimes referred to in devotional literature. By way of this Catholic ethos of suffering, the sick and handicapped were granted a moral standing and social status that might not otherwise have been accessible to them : “the notion of sickness as a source of spiritual energy for the whole church recast the uselessness and isolation of sickness into participation and belonging” (Orsi, 33).

But the assignment of this spiritual status to the sick did not happen by accident. As Orsi explains, the Catholic devotional “discourse of the holy cripple” (Orsi, 44), whereby the sick and handicapped were understood to be closer to heaven by virtue of their infirm physical status, was immediately traceable to the existence of specific power relations between healthy (and thus powerful) Catholic devotees and their physically disadvantaged counterparts. Through the mechanism of this unique religious discourse, the healthy used their power to instil a specific knowledge within the framework of the Catholic tradition regarding the spiritual role and status of the sick and handicapped: “The power of those of us who could walk out the door over those who could not was evident in the fact that we were the ones defining – and limiting – their inner lives for them. Their holiness was the practice of our power” (Orsi, 43). Furthermore, as if to enhance and reinforce this exercise of power, the Catholic devotional ethos of suffering employed Jesus’ own suffering as a means to impose silence among the sick and handicapped despite the strenuousness of their suffering and the discomfort of their predicament: “The ethos confronted the sick with an image of the suffering Christ and then, in a perverse inverted Christology, told them that this image mocked any suffering of theirs: Did Jesus ask for a pillow on the Cross?” (Orsi, 38).

But if Jesus did not ask for a pillow on the Cross, it is probably because a pillow would not have done him much good up there. Still, the American Catholic ethos of the “unfortunate fortune” lent a helpful sense of spiritual meaning to those who needed it most, the sufferers. For the devout, the most perplexing matter was perhaps not so much the experience of suffering itself, but rather the daunting search for an ultimate reason or justification for such suffering. What good, the sick and the healthy alike might ask, does suffering accomplish in exchange for the physical and emotional expenditure it imposes on the body and the mind? Pain surely cannot be a one-way street, so how are we to understand the good that must necessarily return from it in the opposite direction?

[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s