Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Poena Damni

It's been an odd and agitated month of ups and downs. I had a strange dream last night; it wasn't a nightmare really, but it was extremely painful. I'm half-worried that I may have had a minor heart-attack in my sleep (or maybe it was just a bad cramp from my mattress, lol).

But in the dream I started out very confident that I could undergo martyrdom, but then they began to actually crucify me, except it was just on sort of a board rather than a cross, and I lay on the board and they put one nail through my left hand and one directly through my heart. That didn't hurt so much, and I thought "Okay, I can do this," but then as soon as they started lifting the board vertically and my weight thus started being placed on the nails, the one in my heart started to just burn like no pain I'd ever felt before.

Actually, I think that it was up to me to lift myself vertically, and so it became a question of will power, it turned out I was in control of the whole thing. I tried a few times (I don't really know how it would have worked physically) to will myself upright with the board, but as soon as any of my weight started being supported by the nail in my chest I would give up and fall back down.

I've often thought that if pain was inflicted on me outside my control this would be not as bad as having to make a choice, because in the former case there is nothing you can do except go along with it passively (maybe even able to dissociate from your own body), whereas the latter requires a fortitude I don't always have and an active presence of mind that would seem to make the whole thing worse. However, in this case I thought to myself "This would be terrible even if it were just happening to me involuntarily, because the pain of even putting a little bit of weight on the nail is awful. I'm glad I can choose not to go through with this, I don't know how Christ did it for three hours!" And I started panicking terribly about pain, realized I couldn't force it on myself, and removed myself from the board and ran off weeping feeling very much humbled.

I woke up feeling very much resolved to try to abstain from sin, realizing that every time I sinned, I (from the eternal perspective of God) increased the pain I caused Christ on the cross, that His sufferings were so much greater than I could even willingly stand for a few seconds, that His pain was increased for every sin committed or to-be-committed in history, and that this idea that I would do that to Him whom I love was terrifying (and all the more terrifying "knowing" that it's probable I will again.)

And yet I say it wasn't a nightmare because, I suppose, in a nightmare I'm always running from something awful I expect to be coming (but never usually does). In this case, besides the moment of panic anticipating what it would be like if I were to actually hang there with my full weight for hours, I would not say fear was the dominant experience in this dream, but rather pain (physical pain) because the pain was already there (and fear is, as I said, more an anticipation). So when I woke, there was no lingering panic or anything like that as is characteristic of a nightmare (and as awful as the pain was, I still think fear is worse.)

Nevertheless, this all got me thinking of something else I've been pondering a lot lately which is the real nature of pain and loss, and being proud of my own resilience and ability to, with the help of friends, get up again and be proactive and enjoy life once more so quickly even in the face of loss or grief or disappointed desires. I've been thinking lately something along the lines of that the experience of sadness or deprivation being selfish and even infantile, because there are so many good things in the world that, even if one good thing is taken away from us, there is no reason we can't enjoy so many others unless we have idolatrously placed our Last End in a specific one. People who complain about being deprived of one good (even if it is something like food, or sleep, or a loved one) seem to be ignoring the fact that our wills can rest in any Good, and that even if we are denied something we want, there are a billion other desirable things and experiences in the world and reasons to keep on fighting.

At the same time, pain clearly has a "positive" reality subjectively. Aquinas says about pain and sorrow that they are unlike desire inasmuch as desire is about being drawn toward a good not yet obtained, but that pain and sorrow about positively fleeing away from the absence of a good, and absence constructed by perception as a positive presence (although evil is only ever, really, a mere absence). I'm not sure if this means anything practically in terms of being able to "think our way out" of sadness or pain in all cases. Invariably, even if I rest my will in moving towards some other good, I will still be naturally inclined flee from, in another aspect, the absence of the good of bodily health (ie, the subjective experience of physical pain, nausea, etc). And that's simply how we're designed for self-preservation (and why we need the virtue of fortitude for when the greater and more holistic good demands giving up self-preservation).

However, it would seem that other absences are more acquired than natural (ie, I won't grieve over the loss of someone I never even knew) and that, thus, deconstructing the pain of flight from these absences might be easier. The lack of certain material possessions, or certain goods I've trumped up in my own head...will only cause me to be sad or unhappy as long as I remain attached to the constructions of their absence as a positive evil, or refuse to place my desire in something else that is good and present and obtainable. And if (assuming no sin) I refuse to place it in something else (whether temporarily or permanently), it must mean the love for that thing is still worth even the pain of continued unfulfillment as regards it specifically (in regards to God in the life of the Saints, this may refer to the so-called "dark nights" where positive consolation is removed).

And even those evils that are naturally repugnant (like hunger or thirst or physical pain and what they signify) will not outlast the body. In fact, the only absence, the only lack, the only loss we really have to worry about is the poeni damni, the pain of the total loss of God in Hell, as the Catholic Encyclopedia describes:
The poena damni, or pain of loss, consists in the loss of the beatific vision and in so complete a separation of all the powers of the soul from God that it cannot find in Him even the least peace and rest. It is accompanied by the loss of all supernatural gifts, e.g. the loss of faith. The characters impressed by the sacraments alone remain to the greater confusion of the bearer. The pain of loss is not the mere absence of superior bliss, but it is also a most intense positive pain. The utter void of the soul made for the enjoyment of infinite truth and infinite goodness causes the reprobate immeasurable anguish. Their consciousness that God, on Whom they entirely depend, is their enemy forever is overwhelming. Their consciousness of having by their own deliberate folly forfeited the highest blessings for transitory and delusive pleasures humiliates and depresses them beyond measure. The desire for happiness inherent in their very nature, wholly unsatisfied and no longer able to find any compensation for the loss of God in delusive pleasure, renders them utterly miserable. Moreover, they are well aware that God is infinitely happy, and hence their hatred and their impotent desire to injure Him fills them with extreme bitterness. And the same is true with regard to their hatred of all the friends of God who enjoy the bliss of heaven. The pain of loss is the very core of eternal punishment. If the damned beheld God face to face, hell itself, notwithstanding its fire, would be a kind of heaven. Had they but some union with God even if not precisely the union of the beatific vision, hell would no longer be hell, but a kind of purgatory. And yet the pain of loss is but the natural consequence of that aversion from God which lies in the nature of every mortal sin.
Only this is inherently naturally unbearable. Every other sort of absence should be bearable, and indeed even in the abstract good, if we could rest our wills in even one little crumb or fragment of goodness. And, as long as we live, there is good all around us! Every rock and tree and sound is a good. Complaining because we are merely less happy than before (but still happy), that we have simply less good (but still plenty of good)...strikes me as rather ungrateful to God and spoilt (even though I know I do it all the time). The only truly repugnant evil is Hell. Our souls, in this life, are never filled with infinite Good (as they only can be in heaven), and yet the presence of even just some good is enough to make us relatively happy (though never, ultimately, to satisfy us).

So no matter what sort of pain I may be in, next time I find myself on a cross, I need to remember that if I can look down and see even one good thing, even if it is merely the experiential knowledge of the shape of one little pebble, they still haven't really taken anything essential to my happiness away from me, I still have some good, and any real and rightly ordered good, however small, can be a "ladder to heaven," as it were, a source of happiness and desirabilty as a starting point by which to orient my will on the trajectory to The Good.


Mike L. said...

Pretty cool dreams about Jesus!

However, it's kind of hard for me to accept your analysis of human pain and loss so offhandedly. It sounds too much like Liebniz's "best of all possible worlds" argument - very mechanical and uncompassionate to the diversity of human experience.

1. Not everyone has the religious conviction or tough-enough skin so as to always say "I'm going to lift myself up by my own bootstraps!" each time that they experience a loss. However noble and praiseworthy that is, many people are genuinely hit pretty low by their losses.

2. Some people really do have good reasons for grieving and it is pretty insensitive and selfish to say to them that they're selfish or spoiled for feeling loss for a relative good. Imagine yourself telling this to a widow who just lost her husband. Mentioning "relative goods" and the "poena damni" might not be such a good idea.

3. Personal and psychological problems excuse people from a judgement about their mood or character. It's really not their fault for feeling low. You can't tell them that their choices are the reason for the chemical imbalance in their brain, or that focusing on a single good such as "God" will fix it (often it only worstens it). Those are two separate categories.

4. We are conditioned by our culture and our own 'high-life' experiences to say "you should have been working harder", when we really don't know the other person's background or struggle.

5. As you mention, people get up through the heartfelt compassion and generosity of others. This should be the constant role of society - a fraternal framework that helps people in their greatest need (not shuns them for making mistakes). This reflects God's nature, reaching out to others with unconditional love even when everyone else has abandoned them. In return, people deeply love their nation/city/country, etc.

I know that you just meant this as a personal reflection, but I thought you might like to consider a few more points in your ponderings.

A Sinner said...

Thank you! All good points.

I don't think I'm really saying that it works like this in practice. Obviously, my whole point is that it doesn't usually, and I'm wondering why. Why should "less good" in life be perceived as a positive evil (if there is still some good?) Why should "less happy" equal sad if there is still some happiness??

The "selfish" and "spoilt" remarks were really directed at MYSELF, or for readers to direct at themselves. I certainly wouldn't tell this to someone ELSE who was grieving, but it is something for us to consider when we're happy (so we'll be armed with it when we do have a loss).

I do know that one characteristics of the Saints was their joy. If they had their sufferings, it wasn't so much the set-backs they suffered, but the "dark nights" of withdrawal of the perceptible consolation of the one thing that IS essential to our happiness which IS God.

The martyrs went off singing jubilantly to their martyrdoms, and most Saints, when someone died, seemed to say "Thy will be done," or "they've gone off to meet their maker" and just accepted everything under Providence and for the good of the whole, even if it meant their own partial subjective good had to decrease.

I wouldn't condemn people for not being at that stage (or I'd condemn myself), but Christian perfection does seem to involve mourning only over sin, and a joyful resignation towards everything else. I shouldn't complain about not having it all, or even as much as I used to, if I still have something.

Michael said...

The answer to your question "why" is that the experience of loss (say of a relative good) is a lot deeper for some people than simply their own personal fulfillment. Sometimes it directly affects other people around them who totally depend on them for their care or who have put hopes in that person to succeed in some way, or the loss directly touches a person's entire outlook upon life existentially (such as when Job loses everything even though he is trying to lead a just life) -- the REAL "dark night".

I don't think that there is a more religious (or even logical) explanation. I think that it is purely experiential and the more one suffers (justly or unjustly), the more he is able to understand and sympathize with the feeling of loss or pain, even though there are plenty of other goods to rejoice in.