Prayer and Pain – A 1500 Year-Old Mystery

Dr. Sue Sheridan, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, sheds light on how monks prayed 1500 years ago through studying horrific bone warping at an excavation site.

Prayer & Pain - A 1500 Year-Old Mystery

Video Transcript:


Science is a way of knowing. But the questions that I ask are formed by my culture. The answers that I come up with also they have to always be regarded within the context from which they arise. I didn’t fully appreciate this until we started working on the Monastic Collection.

There’s a monastic group from Jerusalem that dates back to about 1500 years ago. And when we started to remove portions of individuals’ bones they were all mixed together. Of individuals from the tombs, we realized that they had some extraordinary pathologies of the lower limb. Their knees were just in horrific shape. They had toes that were fused together, etc. This is called eburnation, and so it’s this whole area right here. So what happened here is the cartilage that covers the bottom part of the knee has been worn away. All the cartilage that was on the surface of the knee is gone, too. And so the bone is literally rubbing on bone.

As we continued to do the excavation, it became very clear that we had a fantastic biomechanical model of excessive kneeling. No idea why. The bones don’t tell you that. They just show you that they’re doing this. And it wasn’t until we started working with theologians and were able to look at the liturgical record that we recognized it was because they were doing a couple – most likely because – they were doing of hundred genuine reflections a day. There was nothing that these monks did that wasn’t painful. The pathologies were so bad. They were so severe. And so they couldn’t have sat, stood, laid down, nothing that they did – wasn’t – didn’t hurt them. That pain would’ve started long before they got to the point that I’m seeing them now. So they knew something; they were doing something that was causing them pain and they kept doing it. And so, I recognize that you can begin to look at questions that I would have not really considered previous to that. What does suffering mean? Um, what does pious pain mean? Um, why would you continue to engage in a behavior that was causing you excruciating pain?


La ciencia es una manera de conocer. Pero las preguntas que hago se forman por mi cultura. Las respuestas que obtengo también tienen que considerarse dentro del contexto en el que surgen. Yo no me di cuenta de esto hasta que comencé a trabajar con la Monastic Collection.

Hay un grupo de monjes de Jerusalén que se remonta a hace 1500 años. Y cuando comenzamos a quitar partes de huesos individuales, estaban todos mezclados. De individuos de las tumbas, nos dimos cuenta de que tenían patologías increíbles en los miembros inferiores. Las rodillas estaban un estado terrible. Tenían dedos fusionados, etcétera. Esto se llama eburnación, y así es toda esa zona. Lo que sucedió es que el cartílago que cubre la parte inferior de la rodilla se gastó. Todo el cartílago que estaba en la superficie de la rodilla ya no está. Entonces el hueso choca contra hueso.

Mientras continuábamos la excavación, se hizo evidente que teníamos un modelo biomecánico excelente de personas que se arrodillaban mucho. Ni idea por qué. Los huesos no muestran eso. Solo muestran que eso es lo que hacían. Y fue cuando comenzamos a trabajar con teólogos y pudimos ver los registros litúrgicos que descubrimos que sucedía eso seguramente porque hacían un par de cientos de genuflexiones por día. No había nada que los monjes hicieran que no fuera doloroso. Las patologías eran tan terribles, tan severas. Se sentaban, se paraban, se acostaban, todo  lo que hacían les dolía. El dolor debió haber empezado mucho antes del punto que vemos aquí. Ellos sabían, ellos hacían algo que les causaba dolor pero seguían haciéndolo. Y así, vemos que podemos hacer preguntas que antes realmente no había considerado. ¿Qué significa el sufrimiento? ¿Por qué continuar con un comportamiento si causa dolor intenso?

Dr. Sue Sheridan, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, sheds light on how monks prayed 1500 years ago through studying horrific bone warping at an excavation site. Working with theologians, Dr. Sheridan was able to piece together the incredible lengths these monks went through to pray, and the intense pain they must have been in to do so.

Featured Scholar:

Dr. Susan G. Sheridan is an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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