Spiritual Painkillers

by | Feb 28, 2012 | Blogs

I suspect that most families, going to the same doctor for years, get to know their family physician well.  I’d be willing to bet that it’s a little less common for families to get to know their orthopedic surgeon, but, as it turns out, my family does.

Maybe the Spotts family is just particularly breakable, but over the last decade or so, one particular orthopedic surgeon has had the somewhat dubious distinction of seeing (and fixing) five of the six members of my immediate family.  It’s made for a string of surgeries that has him a family favorite.  My own experiences with the Spotts-family-surgeon largely stems from lingering sports injuries to my knee.

After one of these major knee surgeries the doctor asked me what I was doing to manage the pain. “Advil,” I replied.  And what sort of activities am I doing on the knee?  “Running!” I cheerfully replied.  “I’d like to run a half-marathon.”

I wish I could remember the doctor’s exact quote, but I can assure you that it involved a raised eyebrow and words that went a little something like this: “When I put that knee back together, I didn’t exactly have a half-marathon in mind.  Painkillers are supposed to help you manage the pain so you can live your life, not so you can ignore the pain and hurt yourself!”

Of course, he was right.  Within a short few years, my idiotic combination of bravado and ibuprofen wasn’t enough to keep me mobile, and I was forced to stop running.


At its very best, prayer is a dizzyingly authentic experience in which God comes to know us in all our beauty and all our messiness while we, in turn, come to know God.  Sometimes, however, I’m scared of that kind of authenticity.

I’m terrified of what might happen if I talk to God about my worries and doubts, what might happen if God takes a good look at the places in my heart where I’m sinful, broken, imperfect.  I’m much more comfortable going to God as some kind of spiritual superhero, bravely meditating on all sorts of spiritual truths in comfortably abstract ways.  I like to pray with Jesus the healer of bodies and souls – as long as it’s not my own woundedness that Jesus has to touch and heal.  I like to pray with Jesus asking the disciples, “what are you looking for?” as long as it doesn’t mean having to reveal my own needs and wants, my own deepest desires. You get the idea, when I put on my prayer-cape in that spiritual phone booth my prayer can start to look a lot like a painkiller.

Under the right (or wrong?) conditions, even prayer itself can be a way to keep God away from those places of deepest need.

People enter Lent in all sorts of different ways, and that’s exactly how it should be.  One way that I plan to enter into this Lent is to try to lay off the spiritual anaesthetics, to let myself notice the places of my life that I’d rather not talk about with God.  And when I do, I suspect that God will respond as God usually does, the way God addresses all of creation:

It is good.


Matt Spotts, SJ

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