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Catholic Spiritual Direction

How do I deal with pain from the past?

August 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Forgiveness, Fr. Bartunek

Dear Father John, “The truth is that we cannot remain prisoners of the past; people need a sort of ‘healing of the memories’ so that past evils will not come back again.”  My question arises from this quote. HOW, HOW do I make it so that the past evils not come back, when the Hurt is there. The Mistrust is there?

This question is relevant for all of us, because all of have wounds from the past, whether wounds caused by our own sins, or by others whose sins affect us.  Often, a vague understanding of how the healing process happens can cause frustration, and that can distract us from following God’s lead on a day-to-day basis, seriously hindering our spiritual growth.

Standing on the Right Foundation

In the case alluded to by this question, the origin of the past wound seems to with someone else.  The questioner has been hurt and, it seems, betrayed.  That reality is inhibiting them from hoping that the future can ever be truly joyful, healthy, and fruitful.  The pain and the fallout from the past betrayal has created an impenetrably black horizon, or so it seems.

The same experience can result from one’s own sins and betrayals.  Having fallen over and over again, having sinned grievously in relation to a crucial relationship or responsibility, or having culpably missed a God-given opportunity – these failures can sap hope and vitality as much when we commit them as when we suffer them.

In either case, God wants to pierce the dark horizon with his unconquerable light. And he not only wants to, he can. God is both all-good, and all-powerful: “And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it” (John 1:5).  We must consciously return to that conviction of our faith when we run up against this painful situation.  In prayer, we should express our faith in God’s goodness and omnipotence, and we should also express the depths of our sorrow and pain.  Look, for example, at Psalm 32 (for situations in which we are the ones who have failed), or Psalm 22 (for situations in which we are suffering because of the sins of others).  This is the foundation of supernatural hope: We know, by the sure knowledge of faith, that the hurt and mistrust we experience now is, in God’s plan, only a short part of the story, not the end of the story.

Having taken our stand on that foundation, God will usually roll back the darkness in one of two ways.

Two Paths to Heal Past Wounds

First, he can dissipate the darkness directly and quickly.  This happens.  Sometimes he grants an extraordinary grace in which the battered heart is renewed almost as soon as it has been wounded.  A memorable example of this was seen in John Paul II’s visit to the prison cell of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in 1983, almost as soon as he was released from the hospital.  Later, the Pope also greeted and embraced the assassin’s mother.  The common and oppressive – and in this case even justifiable – darkness of anger and vengeance never even had a chance to take root in the pontiff’s heart.  Certainly, John Paul II’s long life of prayer and penance had created a spiritual maturity that allowed God’s grace to act quickly and decisively.  But even for less mature Christians, God in his wisdom sometimes grants quick release from darkness and hurt.

Second, and more frequently, God performs the healing gradually, and he allows us to be active participants in the process.  In this case, the spiritual wound, like a serious physical injury, requires time and treatment.  The treatment takes the form of grace obtained through prayer and the sacraments.  We not only need to ask for God’s healing in prayer, but we need to learn to reflect deeply and meditatively on the example of Christ – this is commonly called mental prayer.  At the same time, we need to approach the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist frequently and with supernatural confidence.

When God chooses to follow this second path, we usually face a couple temptations.  In the first place, we become impatient.  We just want the healing process to be over already!  And secondly, we can begin to rebel against God by refusing the treatment, through giving up on prayer and distancing ourselves from the sacraments.  But if God chooses to lead us along the path of time and treatment, he has his reasons.  He will use that path to heal other wounds too, wounds we don’t even know we have.  He will use it to help us grow in virtues that we don’t even know we need.  Throughout this long and painful journey, in other words, God is coaching us in hidden ways, helping us fulfill the dream for our lives that he has always had, even since before he formed us in the womb.  Along the way, it’s helpful to keep St Peter’s dictum in view: “But one thing, beloved, you must keep in mind, that with the Lord a day counts as a thousand years, and a thousand years count as a day” (2 Peter 3:8).

A Couple Practical Tactics

I can’t finish without mentioning two very practical tactics we can use to cooperate with God’s time and treatment: forgiving and giving.  Forgiveness takes place in the core of our being, in our will.  If someone has wounded us, we forgive them by praying that God absolve them from their sin and lead them to heaven.  If you wish someone would go to hell, you have not forgiven them.  This spiritual forgiveness can coexist with a lot of emotional pain, resentment, and anger.  Those emotions reside in a more superficial part of the soul, and they will gradually diminish, especially if you begin to pray for the person who has offended you.  On the other hand, if it is one’s own sins that are causing the darkness, this “forgiving” step takes the form of accepting God’s forgiveness.  This acceptance takes place at that core of our being, and can also coexist with tricky emotions.  But in our hearts, we know that God’s mercy is infinite, and infinitely capable of forgiving our sins: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

Giving is the second tactic.  It involves focusing our energy on living the here-and-now as God would have us, in spite of the pain, darkness, and interior storms.  Each moment, we know pretty well what God’s will is for us: being faithful to the normal, everyday responsibilities of our lives, whether it’s washing dishes or preparing for a board meeting.  By giving ourselves to these duties with a spirit of faith, and doing so because God wants us to and as God would like us to, we invest less energy in the past, the source of the darkness.  It’s like moving forward under a cloudy sky knowing that the sun is still shining above the clouds.  In other words, we can still make a decent effort to do all the good we can do here-and-now, even if the here-and-now happens to look a bit like a shipwreck.  And doing good is the best way to outsmart evil: “Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good“ (Romans 12:21).

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • LSLinda

    I am dumbfounded by how “spot on” you are with your description of what I’ve been experiencing these past couple of years. The gradual healing has been so gradual that it has been almost imperceptable. It is only in looking back, FAR back to the beginning of the healing journey, that I can see the hand of God at work. Through it all, he has definitely drawn me closer to him. Sadly, it has also pulled me away as my attempts to “deal with it” became sinful as I fell to new temptations. Forgiving the other while accepting God’s mercy and grace to overcome has been a dual task. But through it all, ALWAYS God has been faithful and given me the grace I needed.

  • guest

    Wow! People who know me are going to think I asked this question it hits so close to home!. And it’s very interesting to see that the threads that I clung to as I journeyed (and still journey) beyond that pain are shared here. The grace and commitment of forgiveness, the healing that is found through giving (when you find you have nearly nothing left, give what’s left – that’s where God will step in and provide) and the number one thing I’ve held on to – GOD KEEPS FAITH FOREVER. You can be betrayed by the very people you love, left alone, hurt by those closest to you – but GOD is always there and will never betray you. Instead, He just keeps calling us back and holding us close.

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Amen

  • Anne

    Yes and also spending more time with Jesus after receiving Him in the Holy Eucharist, talking to Him heart to heart and telling Him of our difficulties with forgiving, with loving etc. This is the greatest remedy as well as a good and sincere confession. Also realising that Love and forgiveness do not depend on feelings. They are often an act of the will.

  • guest

    You words are realistic, practical and hopeful. Thank you for this rich advice on how to move forward in the midst of diffucult emotions.

  • $1650412

    In the harder, uglier trials in this life, (being of sort of a morose bent by nature), it has helped me to remember that often I can think of others who have suffered more profound difficulties, tragedies, or offenses and overcome them, than I have- even when the ones I have endured have been very grave. And the questions of whether or not I might ever be happy again, or at peace, or be able to enjoy anything in this life in the midst of the wreckage seem to have the answer “yes!”, because of their witness; and because there is more depth, meaning, and fulfillment to be found in the love of Christ toward us than we might have previously imagined. It helps to hear it from someone who understands though, alot more than just from some random commenter. (And I agree with Father that the more profound the hurt, the longer the recovery time might be- sometimes it takes years.) Sometimes miseries crack us open to reveal a deeper soul cistern within us that Our Lord longs to fill with Himself, His experience, His love, His mercy, and His forgiveness. He works all things to our good, if we persevere.
    I will also throw this out and hope Dan will correct me if it is off the mark–One exercise that helped me with forgiveness (and a craving for revenge/justice, truthfully), was the realization that the best path to justice- would be for anyone who has sinned, to come to know in whatever way God decides is most fruitful for them, the damage they have done to their relationship with Him and to own their own part- however He reveals and uses it most productively-in His passion, blow for blow, stripe for stripe. Whatever refining suffering might be a part of that dynamic (and I feel pretty confident there is a significant amount of suffering alotted to the soul that longs to know and love Jesus and Him Crucified- see St.Paul in Acts of the Apostles) is the right amount. Whatever brings them closest to Him and changes them to be like Him for love of Him. I know it might sound kind of like a twisted, back end way to find comfort in the suffering of another- but it was an idea that helped me to find a path to peace and trust in Christ about justice. I found it very isolating to think that the ones who had behaved hatefully and hurtfully toward me are unlikely to ever feel the same pain they have inflicted upon me or to ever care. But if they come to know and love Christ and draw closer to Him they will no doubt by grace experience some essence of the depth of His forgiveness, mercy, and love through some other form of productive suffering that involves recognition of or accounting for their sins. I could never trust myself to try to exact any ‘pound of flesh’ in recompense from another because I am a wretched sinner and, like my little kids, likely to play an escalating game of injury for injury. If I entrust those who have offended me to Christ- He will do whatever is best for them both by justice and mercy to save their souls- and if I can bring myself to desire that, it is a start. Over time hopefully it translates into a petition for sweetness, gentleness and comfort, in the scouring of their souls- instead of the hope that He use a brillo pad and rubbing alcohol as necessary…;o)

  • Cathy

    This was wonderful! I conquered my past, and look to my future. This is how I felt in my heart to do this. It wasn’t me though, it was my Saviour guiding me all this time. How good He is to me. I love the psalms too, as they are beautiful, and nothing in the Bible is read the same way, it will always change as He is healing your hurts, your sorrows, and your souls!!

  • LizEst

    Thank you, Father John. Another great post.

    …and may I add that besides confession, exposing the angst to your spiritual director may also help. Bringing the situation into the open, into the light of Christ is of tremendous assistance to unmasking the power of evil and rendering it impotent. We are only as sick as our darkest secrets, where the devil does some of his “best” (or worst) work.

    God bless you!

  • Patriciagonzalez

    Dear Father, thank you for these comments, which are especially relevent to my own situation right now. I too (along with many others) have hurt and been hurt — you’ve remnded me that only in God can I find the strength to accept forgiveness and give it. God bless.

  • Ralyge

    It seems that, at times and in more serious instances in which the individual could not progress using the beautiful recommendations above, counseling might be a necessary part of the healing process.

  • Guest

    Thank you Fr. John. My unbearable torture for my past sins ended when I stumbled on this gem “Guard me, O Lord, from brooding over the sins I have committed in the past. Let not my thoughts sink into the mire of my wrongdoing”. That short Prayer ended deep distress about my past life and the confirmation by my Confessor that the past is gone and God no longer remembers it, was like a balm over a hurting, bleeding heart. And he demanded that I immediately begin to forgive myself since God forgave me and forgot that past a long time ago!!!!!! You have confirmed just that in this Article. God bless you

  • Karen Kamphaus

    Fr. John,

    Right now I am experiencing the most difficult pain. I have been wounded terribly by my Pastor, my former Spiritual director. He has spurned me. He said he did not understand my spirituality after 4 yrs. He has broken many confidences, and promises. There is so much more, that I don’t want to get into.
    Our small parish is in danger. There is so much division. My family has been hurt deeply. The wound is fresh, the relentless pain.
    I have forgiven him. He has hurt my soul. I want to run. Get away from the attacks. My son goes to school there. So I am in the line of fire, with no escape. I pray for Fr., but don’t trust him. I have been through much in my life. This is a different kind of pain, an ongoing pain?
    The fire of love within my heart for Jesus remains strong. I feel that this cross is too much. I offer it to Jesus, giving it to Him. Will this heavy cross remain, or will it pass? Will there be scars? I just want to be pure, and holy. This whole ordeal makes me feel sinful and dirty? Even though I did nothing wrong.
    What is the Lord teaching me? Perseverance? I am weak! Help!

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Dear Friend in Christ,

      My apologies for answering a question aimed at Fr. John. He is unavailable at the moment. Your pain is obviously very high. I am very sorry to hear of your suffering. Because of the level of distress you are experiencing it would seem important to take this to another priest for advice and counsel. My instincts tell me that this struggle will take time, prayer, and a great deal of support and insight that we are unable to provide over the impersonal medium of the internet. I too have experienced betrayal by a pastor and spiritual mentor. By God’s mercy, I have also come to a place of complete peace and healing. However, not without a great deal of pain, prayer, and perspective. There is no short-term answer. Christ is and will be with you as you turn to him. One great solace that I have found is in reading the accounts of Saints Teresa of Avila, Faustina, and John of the Cross. Our Lord has promised to be with those who suffer and he knows what it means to be the perfect expression of love among us and to then receive rejection and abuse from those to whom he gave all.

      He is with you.

      Dan

      • faithful123

        Is it possible, what we think is betrayal by those we hold to a higher standard; is JUST THAT… we ourselves put this ‘other human’ like ourselves on such a high pedestal; we feel betrayed if they don’t meet

        up with OUR standards and ways we think they should be.

        While a priest is special, especially while serving on the altar – he has

        all the range of human questioning, confusions, tiredness, and sometimes

        feels betrayed by others he encounters. Sometimes a priest doesn’t

        feel ‘happy’ and ‘holy’ … they struggle also with all the temptations that

        abound around us. Which is why we should pray for them.

        Let us not PUSH our priests too hard. As Mother Theresa said, it’s

        better to understand than be understood.

    • LizEst

      Dear karring57,

      How my heart breaks for you. Betrayal is heart wrenching pain. May I recommend Psalm 55, verses 2-15, 17-24? The Church prays this prayer as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a prayer about betrayal that ends up in trust in the Lord. It gives expression to the pain you are experiencing, a very, very difficult thing. It is a balm for the soul.

  • Maggiecpalmer

    I joined Spiritual Direction a few days ago and was surprised with the first post I received, Dealing with Pain.
    This has been on my mind for years and your information is very helpful.
    Thank you and God bless,

  • Helpourfamilygetback

    I am a sinner that has betrayed my partner repeatedly. She is currently trying to cope with the pain, the let down and the shattering of her dreams. She is a devout Catholic but this dark hour is leaving her faith in tatters.
    She is holding it all back and trying to cope by herself.
    I want her to get back to God.. for only He can give her justice and peace.
    She is confused and wondering why it happened to her. Why God let it happen to her.
    I want to help her. I pray.

  • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

    Learning to forgive myself is one of the greatest difficulties I have had. This article is a lifesaver and I am sure that God meant for me to read this now. For the past few days, I have been guilt-tripped about having deserted Him and prayer life for several years. Just recently I have come home. After going on a retreat, I have a relationship with Him once more. But lately, I have felt burdened by guilt and feel as though all those years have been wasted. Thank you for teaching me that forgiving myself means accepting God’s love and forgiveness. Truly God’s love is the greatest love of all! :)

    • Guest

       I thank God for you Maria.   Yes forgiving oneself is the hardest thing to do.  Just read my response made 9 months ago above. Which past is tormenting you?  God forgot it a long, long time ago!!!!!!!!!

  • stm

    Without pain and trials, depredation would we seek God? I watched an ‘Ignatius Press’ half hour piece – and one of the good Fathers on it said, ‘We are all spiritually bankrupt’, meaning we are equally wretched and without merit, but the immeasurable goodness of the incarnation of God our Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier is ‘our’ goodness, if we seek, ask and knock for Our Redeemer, we will receive.

    St Raphael the Archangel says to Tobias “Because you are pleasing to God, it was necessary that you undergo a trial,” (Tobias 12:13)