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Posted January 24, 2006

Book: Living Through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness
Author: Kristin M. Swenson
Baylor University Press, 2006, pp. 273

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

In Living Through Pain, Kristin Swenson charts the multifaceted personal and social problems caused by chronic pain. This book also surveys professional efforts to mitigate and manage pain. Because the experience of pain involves all aspects of a person – body, mind, spirit and community – Swenson consults an ancient resource for wisdom, perspective, an insight. Her close reading of selected psalms from the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that the challenge of living through pain is timeless. Living Through Pain chronicles how these ancient texts offer a vocabulary and grammar for understanding and expressing the contemporary experience of pain. Pain is a universal experience, and this book invites readers to consider more fully what is involved in the process of healing.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The psalmists do not assume that their faith will spare them pain; rather, out of their faith, they tell an ongoing process of integrating oneself and one’s pain into a life fully lived. In many cases, the psalmists express a sense of hope and relief but say nothing of cure. Although several tell of God’s attention and concern for the person suffering, they do not presume that God will take away the pain. Neither, however, do the psalmists suffer in silence; on the contrary, these psalms are themselves the speech of persons in pain who want relief. They consider that relief, however, in terms of presence and attention (God’s and others’) and suggest that also in the telling itself there is relief.

This book concerns pain, not simply as an object of intellectual scrutiny, but as a visceral experience that is at once both difficult to tell and demands a hearing. The ancient, biblical collection of psalms includes the voices of people speaking out of this experience in a variety of ways. Asking about pain and listening to the candid manner in which these ancient poets tell their stories gives us occasion to reflect on our own experiences of pain. It enriches our vocabulary and grammar for the expression and management of pain in an effort to live through pain, not simply to endure it or even to live in spite of it, but to live as a whole person even in the midst of pain.

By wrapping the pain into one’s whole life, the pain itself is transformed. Meditating on such a possibility, Rachel Naomi Remen tells us the process that yields an oyster’s pearl. Although its shell protects an oyster’s soft and tender body, its life requires that the oyster make itself vulnerable to injury and pain. It must open its shell to breathe, so sometimes a grain of sand gets inside. “Such grains of sand cause pain,” Remen observes, “but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this [...] But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to pain.” We cannot live fully without risking the pain of injury and loss. Our challenge, then, is tenderly and patiently to wrap the pain into a life made richer and more beautiful not for the pain itself but for the process of our response to it.

Table of Contents:

1. Problems with pain
2. The hermeneutics of pain
3. Pain and the psalms, beyond the medicine cabinet
4. On whose account, this pain and its relief? (Psalm 69)
5. From justified pain to self-justification (Psalm 38)
6. Finally darkness (Psalm 88)
7. Shared treasure from a lonely journey (Psalm 22)
8. Moving pain out of the Center (Psalm 6)
9. Meanwhile tghe world goes on (Psalm 102)