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No easy comfort as the dentist drills on

22 November 2013

Paul Bayes on the problem of pain

Seeing in the Dark: Pastoral perspectives on suffering from the Christian spiritual tradition
Christopher Chapman
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT544 )

THIS book examines human suffering and difficulty by drawing on the experience of Christian spiritual writers from the past - among them Julian of Norwich, Hadewijch, St Ignatius Loyola, St John of the Cross, and Simone Weil. I was glad to connect or reconnect with them.

Christopher Chapman is a wise and experienced guide, who rightly reminds us that life is not to be potted or boxed by explanations, but is sometimes glorious, sometimes agonising, and usually bewildering. We badly need to hear this in an age desperate for easy answers.

All the same, his book seemed to me to veer too far to one end of the Lewis scale of books on suffering. Lewis is C. S. Lewis, and the scale runs from POP to AGO.

At one end, POP: The Problem of Pain, written in 1940 to help people suffering in a time of war, and calmly analysing hurt in general. Example: "The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say 'My tooth is aching,' than to say 'My heart is broken.'"

At the other end, AGO: A Grief Observed, written in 1961 to help no one but Lewis himself after his wife had died, and brutally sharing how it feels to be hurting in particular. Examples: "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." "It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on."

Seeing in the Dark veers towards POP. In it, the pain of others is presented so that through that pain we might draw closer to God, or draw others closer. For Chapman is a spiritual director, and we are told that his book intends to be a resource for directors as well as a companion for those in difficulty. In the end, for me, it was the first but not the second.

I would gladly have bought this book in order to help the hurting. But, as I looked to it for Christ's light in my own darkness, my own contingency and mortality, I found myself unmoved; cocooned in the exalted language that seems to mark books on direction ("The changing seasons bid us to befriend waiting"); and intrigued by the occasional flash of frustration in Chapman with his tradition ("I am not thinking of a Christian heaven - whatever that might be"). In the end, it was remote from the drill that drills on.

The Rt Revd Paul Bayes is the Bishop of Hertford.

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