A scholarly examination of the effect of ritual pain on human consciousness and identity.
Glucklich (The Sense of Adharma, not reviewed, etc.), associate professor of theology at Georgetown, was prompted to explore the subject when an atheist friend and chronic pain sufferer ridiculed rituals of self-inflicted pain, asking “Why would anyone in his right mind do this?” Pain can be a good thing, Glucklich responds, transforming one’s identity and strengthening one’s bond with God. Sacred pain, he explains, can transform destructive suffering into a positive religious-psychological experience: under the stress of pain, it seems, the central nervous system reacts in a way that reduces the individual’s sense of self, opening the path to new perceptions. Glucklich looks at how pain has been described and evaluated in religious literature around the world, discussing it within the context of rituals of possession and exorcism, rites of passage and initiation, and the tortures and executions of the Inquisition. (A word of warning: Some of these passages are decidedly unpleasant to read.) Our understanding of the constructive value of pain, he argues, has been hampered by the medicalization of pain. With the invention of anesthesia in the 19th century, pain came to be viewed as a medical problem and, as its neurological mechanisms have become better understood, its spiritual and religious aspects have been overlooked. Glucklich calls for a broadening of the perception of pain as a mere biomedical phenomenon to the view that it can be “a medicine, a test, a rite of passage, or an alchemical agent of inner transformation.”
Glucklich’s thesis is not easy to accept, and his presentation of it is, for the general reader, made more difficult by his frequent use of the special terminology of neuropsychology, psychoanalytic theory, philosophy, and theology.