I am in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Today I sat with my grandmother. She was in her blue chair, the chair she sits in during the day.  The back of her hair is flat from leaning back all day.  She was in pain again, hard to know what the source could be- the cancer, her aching hips?  Watching her gave the expression “a world of pain” new meaning.  And this world of pain she inhabited led her to an almost constant stream of prayer to her god.  She asked her god again and again to take away the pain.  Her fervor would result in a minor bout of exhaustion.  Then she would wake again, feel the deep, sharp ache, and resume her petition.

I do not believe in an all-powerful god that can take the pain away.  If god were in the business of taking away pain, the pharmaceutical industry would not exist.  But I do believe in the god of compassion.  Compassion means literally to suffer with.  This visit to my grandparents has been a time of my own suffering.  I have witnessed by grandfather’s anxiety and powerlessness in being able to soothe his wife of 60 plus years.  I have suffered to hear my grandmother whimper in pain, a woman of great pride, a woman who loved to walk everyday who now cannot lift herself out of the chair.  I have no power to take away anyone’s pain.  But I can bear witness to it, make space for another’s suffering in my heart.  So the power of my grandmother’s prayers may not take the pain away, but it may give a larger container for her grief over a life that is now remarkably different.  Her god may not take the pain away, but she may know that god is suffering with her.*

I ran into the resident social worker in this senior living center.  She had a warm way about her.  I was checking in with her about my grandmother, sharing my analysis, my smart assessment of the emotional states of my grandmother and my grandfather.  Amidst my heady, controlled analysis, I found myself crying.  Why?  Because this social worker (god bless social workers, by the way) saw my own pain, my own suffering as someone who once was a little girl who played hide and seek with her grandmother, who longer for her Grammy’s smell of Gloria Vanderbilt perfume, who relished her Grammy’s fudge (like her Grampy- she never met a dessert she didn’t like!).  This social worker saw me where I was.  Busted.

It is a gift to be seen, to feel someone suffering with, to feel someone else’s compassion.  But it does not take away the pain.

*Note: A theology of suffering can get tricky.  Suffering does not curry favor with the gods.  I believe that our oppression or suffering is not part of some divine schema.  No one deserves bad things.  God does not punish people with cancer, just as Katrina-struck New Orleans was not punished by god for having a gay pride parade.  Bad things happen.  That is life.  It is our responsibility as humans to make meaning out of the questions and challenges of life and believe that we all deserve goodness simply because we are human, because we are the dust of the earth.