"Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." - Rumi

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sacred Pain - A Book Review

by Galina Krasskova

First published in 2001, Ariel Glucklich’s book Sacred Pain seeks to explore the elusive and universal nature of pain and its use, across cultures, as a religious tool. Specifically, Glucklich focuses on one theme: “the effect of ritual pain on consciousness and identity” (Glucklich: 8). By delving into the twin fields of psychology and neurology, Glucklich examines the idea that pain, utilized effectively, has the potential to transform suffering into a positive religious experience. Drawing heavily on the work of William James, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, and a broad platform of other theorists, he challenges the medical concept of pain as pathology and instead proposes a multi-faceted model that includes juridical, medical, magical, and psycho-tropic filters through which pain can be effectively and productively processed.

The author is clearly intrigued by the problem of pain and this creates a book that is, paradoxically, at once both insightful and limited in its approach. His emphasis is primarily on pain as an embodied experience, one uniting physical and emotional, cultural and social modes of affect. Glucklich consistently returns to the inherently physical nature of pain, continually redefining his questions to ferret out the effect of consciously applied pain on the self, personal identity, and religious life.

He begins his analysis by breaking the current theories of pain into four broad categories: theological (or normative), critical, descriptive and reductive. (Glucklich: 31), which he then chooses to dissect, pointing out the strengths and faults of each. By focusing on pain’s effects, its neurology and psychology, he attempts to avoid reductive criticism that he believes while the most thorough of the four categories, is ultimately ineffective in unpacking the “wealth of pain types being reduced” (Glucklich: 32).

It is here that Glucklich offers a refreshing criticism of Elaine Scarry’s earlier work, The Body in Pain, in which she states that pain is beyond the articulation of language, that it is only the very instruments that cause pain, which give pain its shape and embodied meaning. He points out that her work focused almost exclusively on victims of torture, which is a utilization of pain that is far removed from the work of, as Glucklich notes, the ascetic or mystic. While Glucklich does discuss the Inquisition and its use of torture, he does so (excessively to this author’s mind) specifically to illustrate the relationship between pain and political power. In fact, Glucklich takes the opposite position from Scarry, arguing that pain can have immense psychological, emotional and above all, spiritual meaning for those who consciously inflict it upon themselves as a spiritual discipline.

The primary disciplinary criticism that shapes this book is that of psychoanalytic theory. Freud figures prominently in his analysis, though he does not agree with what he describes as Freud’s view of pain as “monolithic and intrinsically aversive or punitive” (Glucklich: 87). Instead, he often uses Freudian theory as a theoretical springboard into his own examination of pain through the lens of biochemistry. In fact, Glucklich’s primary window into the nature of pain is through the field of psychoanalysis, behavioral studies, and pure biological science.

His is a phenomenological study of pain and the symbols, metaphors and ritual surrounding its application. He painstakingly examines the contributions of Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, Heinz Kohut, to name but a few of the psychological theorists whose work forms the crux of his arguments. His evaluative discourse spans the gamut of cases, from the medieval mystic engaging in body-punishing ascetic techniques to the teen age girl, a product of modernity, who cuts herself with razors to process her inner turmoil. Glucklich utilizes modern neurology and biochemistry to understand how pain changes the body, and what effect these changes might have on the mind, emotions, and personality – the psychological matrix—of the person suffering.

Essentially, he posits that when a person is being physically hurt in a sustained way, the first thing that happens is raw pain, and usually a good deal of it. It takes some time for that to change. Which chemicals eventually engage, and how much of these chemicals the body produces, varies depending on each individual’s biochemistry and, surprisingly, the attention they focus on their hurt as well as the purpose they ascribe to it.

Ongoing, noticeable pain can affect one’s concentration and one’s attention to such a degree that it causes the body to release painkillers that will work to mitigate the pain. The major factor in this physiological process is the release of opiate-like endorphins, but this is by no means the only factor. Lesser chemicals calm, soothe, and create a certain amount of mild hallucinations. At this point, the subject might still technically be in pain, but they simply may not care nearly as much. Glucklich also painstakingly discusses the various spiritual meanings that those in pain often ascribe to their condition, even or perhaps most especially, when the pain is beyond their control (for instance, he points to Therese of Lisieux finding meaning her physical frailness and illness by sacrificing that pain in imitatio of her deity).

Unfortunately, while the author acknowledges that pain can be an important spiritual tool, his extensive focus on the neurological effects of pain to the exclusion of the particularities of its actual practice in the end, leaves the reader with a theory of pain that is, in its own way, as equally reductive as the theories Glucklich wishes to challenge. He never really moves beyond the physicality of pain and its biochemistry to delve into the viscera of its modern day usage as a sacred tool. While he does quote extensive accounts of pain in its conscious application, many of these accounts are second hand, or drawn from saints’ hagiographies, a point that I shall return to below. The one exception to this is the Native American Sun Dance, which is explored at some length with at least one modern practitioner’s experience as a Sun-dancer being quoted, but Glucklich doesn’t really move beyond the minutiae of the embodiment of pain, i. e. the practices that evoke it and the gestures it evokes, into its spiritual meaning.

He spends an excessive amount of time wrestling with the idea that pain can be “good” when the overall thesis of his book would be better served by a concerted study of the positive results of its use. While he does delve briefly into the ‘good’ pain that an athlete might experience or the way in which a soldier might process pain on the battlefield, his preoccupation with the biochemistry of pain leaves the reader lacking a personal voice and insight into its use (Glucklich: 88). While he does consciously recognize that pain can be used as a valuable spiritual tool, he dances around the psychological reality of pain as a transformative tool, remaining caught up in the inherent difficult that, essentially, pain hurts while at the same time, trying to convince his readers that despite this, it can be useful (Glucklich: 43).

Additionally, despite Glucklich’s criticism of Freudian theory, his overall argument is somewhat weakened by his subtle yet consistent conflating of the use of pain as a spiritual tool with psychological masochism. While he doesn’t pathologize masochism, this categorization colors his approach to the utilization of pain in a sacred context, perhaps contributing to some of the issues noted above.

I believe that the arguments rendered in Sacred Pain could have been immeasurably strengthened by the addition of interviews and first person accounts gleaned from modern practitioners of pain based spirituality. There is a growing sub-culture in both the occult community and, more importantly for the purpose of this review, various Neo-Paganisms in which pain has regained its position as a tool of the sacred. Termed ‘ordeal work’ by those who utilize pain and its ritual application in this manner, certain (albeit fringe) groups within Neo-Pagan and, to some extent, Reconstructionist Pagan religions are consciously adapting techniques as divergent as fasting, flogging, ritual cutting, branding, scarification, hook suspensions, and painful and often violent ordeals as part of their spiritual practices with the often stated goal of making themselves more receptive to their Gods. Published through Asphodel Press, the year 2005 even saw the first publication of a book of collected essays on Paganism and ordeal work titled Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and the Ordeal Path.

While still not commonly accepted by the majority of Pagans, this sub-culture is growing and in doing so, impacting the evolution of this body of religions as a whole. Similar practices exist in other living traditions too, such as Hinduism where we have pain based offering rituals like Kavadi. Glucklich mentions this ritual, but doesn’t seek out actual practitioners; in fact, Sacred Pain focuses almost exclusively on Western religious traditions. Furthermore, the use of pain in mainstream religions like Christianity, particularly Catholicism has never ceased. In places like Spain and Latin America, one might even say it is flourishing as evidenced by practices such as crawling to religious shrines over long distances on one’s knees, or re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion complete with nails, or the processions of flagellants that can be seen at certain sacred feast days in Spain. Glucklich need not have turned to the Neo-Pagan community. His work remains solely in the realm of the theoretical when it could have been strengthened by incorporating material that would have added an equally extensive grounding in the practical. This, to my mind, is the primary weakness of Sacred Pain: it reads as though the use of pain in the context of spirituality is a thing of the past, when in reality, it has in no way been lost, even if the overall context has been altered by modernity.

Where Glucklich truly shines is in his evaluation of the effect the rise of the medical profession and the discovery of anesthetics had on Western culture’s approach to pain. He specifically notes that the pain is strictly a problem of modernity:

"With the invention of anesthetics pain became strictly a medical problem and a matter that pertains to the body rather than the entire person. The individual in pain evolved into a patient…this replaced the pre-modern person in pain, who was first and foremost a member of a true community, and whose pain meant something far more significant than tissue damage (Glucklich: 177)."

While acknowledging the achievements of nineteenth century medicine in putting an end to what he terms the ‘gruesome and frightful aspects of pre-modern healing,’ Glucklich at the same time credits the rise of both the medical profession as a whole and its use of anesthetics in general with reducing pain from a spiritual discipline to pathology, thus placing the conscious embodiment of pain firmly within its historical context (ibid).

This chapter offers a fascinating study of the medical, ethical, and at times theological arguments that followed the introduction of anesthetics into general use. This wide distribution of anesthetics allowed the average person a conscious choice in whether or not to suffer pain during medical procedures and illness. A psychology of pain quickly followed that categorized anyone choosing to remain in pain rather than avail themselves of the new ‘miracle’ drugs, as abnormal. It was a small leap from abnormal to mentally ill (Glucklich: 195).

By mid-century, as Glucklich notes, there was a deep divide between illness and religion in which “pain had lost its religious connotations” (Glucklich: 196). This coincided with the rise of the medical hysteric and scientific positivism. Essentially as the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment social changes altered the status of religion, it also altered the status of pain. The result has been that Western society as a whole, according to Glucklich, has lost its “capacity to understand why and how pain would be valuable for mystics, members of religious communities, and perhaps humanity as a whole” (Glucklich: 201).

Glucklich offers a theoretical validation of pain that seeks to explain, if not restore, pain to its place as a useful psychological, emotional and above all spiritual tool. His analysis of pain through the tools of psychoanalytic theory, history, and biochemistry is relatively thorough and very thought provoking. While his book fails to take into account the use of pain in contemporary living religious traditions, it does provide a fascinating look at the ways in which pain renders a person vulnerable, has the potential to affect them on a long-term scale emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually as well as the ways in which it has been used throughout the history of religious practice as a tool of transformation.


Glucklich, Ariel, (2001). Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Kaldera, Raven, (2005). Dark Moon Rising: Pagan BDSM and Ordeal Work. MA: Asphodel Press.


  1. I haven't read Scarry yet, though she's on my proposed dissertation bibliography. (Really looking forward to next semester's class on sacrifice.) I'm suprised she's not pulling Proudfoot in here, though -- he addresses the whole ineffable aspect of religious experience by noting that even if we _feel_ something is indescribable, our only (expressible) access to it is via language. I'm going to have to pick at this. (After finals, book chapter, writing workshop, comps...)

  2. i'm actually not a fan of Scarry's work. She simply does not comprehend the nature of pain. Glucklich doesn't really engage that point in "Sacred Pain,' but if you read "Formations of the Secular" by Talal Asad, he dismisses her conclusions with a neatness that I envy and then goes on to talk about pain and personal agency in a way that I find particularly relevant for ordeal workers or those involved in BDSM.

  3. What class are you taking on sacrifice? We should talk. A huge part of my own research (and classes) have dealt with that topic. email me off list.