The Pain Barrier
by Fr. Jack McArdle
The wall of pain is something that all long distance runners are familiar with. If the marathon is 26 miles long, then, at about 12 miles into it I will hit that pain barrier, and find it really painful to continue. If I were not a trained runner, I could easily drop out at this stage. Because of my training and experience, however, I expect this to happen, and I know that, by just keeping going, the pain will pass, and I will get what is called my 'second wind'. This would be the drop-out point for the novice.
This pain barrier is not confined to long-distance running; it is part of almost everything we undertake in life. There comes a point in whatever I'm doing when the going gets tough, and the temptation to quit becomes quite strong. A recovering alcoholic, with twenty years of contented sobriety behind him will tell you all about the wall of pain, when they very nearly gave up, and stopped trying. Ask any married couple about wakening up some morning, wondering what on earth they've got themselves into!
Once again, here is where the quitters quit, because no one told them that this time was bound to arrive, sooner or later. The trained runner, who knows what to expect, can deal with this pain, and will finish the race much fresher than back at that particular part of the race. There is something here for all of us to take on board, if we are to continue on our road back to the Garden. We will all experience those times, when, no matter what I have heard about Jesus, and how much I have experienced his loving care, I will be tempted to give in, to compromise, to go for the quick-fix, to risk throwing it all away.
"Have you not learnt anything from the stadium? Many run, but only one gets the prize. Run, therefore, intending to win, as athletes who impose upon themselves a rigorous discipline. Yet for them the wreath is of laurels that wither, while for us, it does not wither. So, then, I run knowing where I go. I box, but not aimlessly in the air. I punish my body, and control it, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be rejected." (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
In earlier chapters I spoke about the daily dying, the splinters, that are all part of the cross I am asked to carry as part of my life as a Christian. If this came easily and naturally to me there would be very little dying involved. There is a cost in Pentecost. 'Happy are they who dream dreams, and are prepared to pay the price to make those dreams come true' is a statement attributed to Cardinal Suenens. The secret of keeping going is to have some goal in mind, and to keep that before me at all times.
"What a crowd of innumerable witnesses surround us! So let us get rid of every encumbrance, and especially of sin, to persevere in running the race marked out before us. Let us look to Jesus the founder of our faith, who will bring it to completion. For the sake of the joy reserved for him, he endured the cross, scorning the shame, and then sat at the right of the throne of God. Think of Jesus who suffered so many contradictions from evil people, and you will not be discouraged or grow weary."(Heb. 12:1-3).
If I keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, I will find what it takes to face up to the pain of following him. Peter stepped out over the side of the boat, and, while he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus he could walk on water. As soon as he took his eyes off Jesus, he became conscious of the wind and the waves, he lost his nerve, and began to sink (Mt. 14:22-31).
There were times when Jesus hit this pain barrier, and I'm sure, as he prayed all alone on the mountain at night, his soul suffered great anguish. We see a glimpse of this in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39-44). Once Jesus put his hand to the plough, there was no going back (Lk. 9:62). He had set his mind on a mission, and he would not let up until that mission was complete. Doing what the Father asked of him was the great driving force in his life.
A group of people set off to climb a mountain. When they get to the foot of the mountain, one section of the group is already tired, and decide not to travel any further. Half-way up the mountain, another section is so touched by the beautiful scenery, that they decide to pitch camp there, have a picnic, and not go any further. The remaining group were very aware that they set out to climb this mountain, and that is what they did.
At the beginning of a marathon everybody runs well, and there's a great air of rivalry and competition in the air. However, it stands to reason that, if I don't finish the race, I don't stand a chance of being reckoned among the winners. It is only they who persevere to the end who will be saved. I wouldn't pretend to have any great insights into this, but I sometimes think that we can stop too soon in our prayers, and our endeavours to do the good.
I'm not particularly hung up on Novenas, if it means that our prayers will be answered only after nine days, and not any sooner. On the other hand, I sometimes think of Mary trying to keep those apostles in that Upper Room for nine days! When nothing was happening after a few days, Peter probably wanted to go home! Thomas wanted proof that something was going to happen, or he, too, was quitting! However, the Spirit did come, and he came because he was expected. Mary knew that the Spirit would come, no matter how long they had to wait.
I could be praying for something, and the Lord intends giving it to me; but he wants me to grow in trust and confidence, so he may delay in answering, just to see if I continue to pray, and to expect my prayers to be answered. There were times in the gospels where he appeared to be in no hurry to act on something that looked really urgent to others. He knew Lazarus was dying, but he continued what he was doing, and, in the meantime, Lazarus had died (Jn. 11:14). Martha had a mild reprimand for him when she said "Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (Jn. 11:21) It was obvious that Jesus knew what he was doing, and why he did it. He was pushing their credulity a little bit, just to strengthen their faith in him. I can well imagine how I could just give up praying for something after a few days, and, for all I know, the Lord intended answering my prayer the very next day! I dropped out of the race within sight of the winning post.
In all my reckoning about changing practices, patterns of behaviour, and developing prayer structures and proper living, I must take into account the very simple fact that a time will come when my good resolves of now will be severely tested. Like the Hebrews in the desert, I may yearn to return to the flesh-pots of Egypt. "It happened that when Pharoah sent the people away, God did not lead them through the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God thought that the people might lose heart if they were faced with the prospect of a battle, and would return to Egypt." (Ex. 13:17) "The Israelites saw the Egyptians marching after them: Pharoah was drawing near. They were terrified and cried out to Yahweh ''Were there no tombs in Egypt? Why have you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done by bringing us out of Egypt. Isn't this what we said when we were in Egypt: Let work for the Egyptians. Far better to serve Egypt than to die in the desert.'"(Ex. 14:10-12).
It is easy to be good on the generalities. I can fully agree that I should give more time to prayer, to charitable works, to visiting the sick. The real test of that goodwill, however, is my willingness to mediate that down to the specific. When am I going to pray? Where am I going to pray? How am I going to pray? What back-up do I have on those days when that specific time-slot is not available for prayer? There are many serious questions to be honestly answered before I am ready to embark on any such endeavours.
I remember some years ago in school, when the new first years began at the beginning of the school-year. They nearly all joined the photography club, the drama group, the outdoor adventure group. Within a month more than half of them had disappeared! By the end of the first term, we were lucky if 20% of them remained. Once the winter weather set in the Outdoor Adventure club ceased to be as attractive as it had seemed! When new films had to be paid for out of limited pocket-money, or dramatics meant staying in after school ended, the interest in this activities took a drastic toll on the numbers!
If I might coin a word here, I would use the word stickability. This is possible only when I am deeply aware of the source of my strength. We are in a constant state of change and evolution. Human nature is not a constant. Only Jesus is the same yesterday, today and always (Heb. 13:8). Without his accompaniment, I am likely to grind to a halt, and end up sitting on the road, going nowhere. The Christian way is about being led, and about being accompanied.
The young parents are out for a walk with their toddler on a Sunday morning. The child toddles on ahead of them. Now and then he is fascinated by the contents of a shop window. The parents give him time to take in what is seen, but, because of a time factor, they may urge him to continue walking. This time he runs on ahead of them, and there is a dangerous intersection coming up, which occasion yet another intervention from them. Then again, as they walk along, he is lagging behind, and, when they look back, they discover that he is sitting on the footpath, and has discovered that he can actually scrape any amount of dirt and clay from between the kerb stones! This calls for another intervention, and they're on the road again. After a while, Junior gives up! He's tired, so he just plops himself down on the footpath and is going no further. The parents just pick him up, pop him in the stroller, and continue their walk. If I'm to walk with Jesus, I cannot either run on ahead (into tomorrow's worries), or lag behind (in yesterday's guilt).
Jesus will accompany me through every pain barrier if I am prepared to walk with him. I cannot teach a man to walk who won't let go of his crutch; nor can I teach a person to swim who refuses to let go of the bar on the side of the pool.
I mentioned earlier that having a definite goal in sight is a great help in my struggles to get anywhere in life. I know someone deliberately buys clothes that are too small, so that it provides a target to work towards when the diet begins! Looking at those clothes each day serves as a daily reminder that, if you ever want to wear these clothes, then you know what to do! I must depend, of course, on the Spirit in this whole area of self-motivation. The Spirit reminds us, when we risk losing the vision. The Spirit is a Comforter when the going gets tough.
The apostles were weak human beings, and living with Jesus for three years, listening to him, and watching him in action did very little to change their human condition. It was only after Pentecost that they were set on fire, and went out that door, ready to witness to Jesus all the way to death, if that's what it took. Nothing could ever be the same again, once the Spirit came. I wrote about this earlier in a chapter called Popeye's Spinach. I refer to it here again in the context of that 'stickability' I spoke of earlier. By myself, I just cannot have any kind of reliable predictability.
Human nature is very volatile and fickle. Health, age, living conditions, etc., can change the way I see things. Even if the Lord has, on occasions, to pick me up and pop me in the buggy, I'll ask for that, if I really want to keep going. Again and again, I repeat my goodwill, hopes, expectations, and good intentions to the Lord. I honestly believe that, when he sees that the sincerity is really there in my heart, that he will see me through, and I'll arrive safe and well back in that Garden.
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