Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Holy Innocents – Part I

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." (Matthew 2:16-18)

My youngest foster-brother was born into hell. I remember him a tiny baby nursing, so sick at a few months old he could hardly breathe, stuffing marshmallows in his mouth as one of my foster sisters and I wheeled him down the street on his first birthday. And I remember my foster father spanking him at a few months later because he didn’t want to wear the red corduroy pants, the ugly marks left when his hands and legs were slapped because he reached for something fragile, or spilled his milk, or did not want to be changed, his horrible cries of pain.

By three, he delighted in hitting me with his large plastic train. When I hid behind the rocker, my foster father would pull it away so he could get to me: he was just a baby. He couldn’t hurt me. Why was I making such a fuss? His mother died when he was three and a half; he did not understand. Neither did he understand why it was wrong to chase me, towel in one hand a butcher’s knife in the other, so that he could make the “blood streamed banner” he sang about in the children’s choir. But then he also didn’t understand the beatings, the incessant flow of verbal abuse, the locks on the food cupboards and refrigerator, the neglect, or any of the other indignities and offenses that filled his life. He was just a baby, born into a house filled with furious rage and only I knew to weep for him when I wasn’t fleeing him. When he was seven or so, I told my foster siblings that I was afraid of what he would grow up to be if something wasn’t done about his father.

He was nine when I left and still very much a baby, teased by his siblings and foster siblings for being fat, for being stupid, for being a virgin. But his face had passed from the sweetness of babyhood to a permanent state of confusion and of something else, something scary. He doted on the fish in the pond and pulled salamanders from under it to dissect on the kitchen table while they were still alive. Package after package of salt disappeared and we discovered he was using it to melt snails. One afternoon, I came upon him trying to chop off my dog’s tail. He seemed to enjoy killing and maiming; the adults were amused by it. Later I learned that as he entered his teen years, he had become increasingly angry. At fifteen, the last child in that house, he stabbed his father over and over and over, continued stabbing him after he was dead.

Often, we want to demand that God intervene – just in this one instance. He should prevent, should somehow fix things so that children have an opportunity to grow up before being attacked by the horrors of this world. How can he possibly allow little children to be scandalized, to have their consciences offended, to suffer the sharp swords of Herod’s soldiers? But all that is only distraction from the real question: Why doesn’t God protect little children from us?

We are Herod. We are his soldiers. We hurt children, abuse them, kill them. We ignore their cries, their pleas for help, their needs. We may harangue God, may insist he is callous and hateful, but our tirades only serve to distract us from the crimes we commit against babies, against children, against little helpless people who cannot understand the hells we make for them.

Freedom is a terrible gift: We are free to choose to be made like God, free to try to be gods. When we try to be gods, we cut ourselves off from God and become diabolic, create parodies of hell, destroy those we should love and protect. And God does not undo our choices: if freedom is to be free, consequences must be real. When we choose to destroy, there will be victims and children make excellent ones: it is so easy to impose our will on them, so easy to destroy them.

Abusers do not admit that they are destroying children. They are teaching them, correcting them, giving children what they need, what they deserve, what they are asking for. Fond of quoting scripture, my foster father, a Southern Baptist minister, had often repeated, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

I was not surprised to hear that my foster brother had killed his father. He did what he was taught to do. And I do not know if at that moment, my fifteen year-old foster brother was free to choose or if his pain overwhelmed him and all he could do was lash out in an attempt to end it. But I do pray that he and my foster siblings and all victims of abuse will choose to depart from our training, will choose to seek healing. And I pray for my continued healing. We can set up our own hells but they will be no better and can be much worse than the hells others created for us. We can become Herod or we can be like St. Joseph and our Blessed Mother – destroy or love and protect ourselves and the children God brings into our lives. We could not choose then. Though it is painful and heartbreaking, we can now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Matthew died half an hour before I met him. As we entered the hospice, a nurse met Sr. Josephine and me and asked that we go and pray over his body. I do not like dead bodies but I felt the familiar intense tingling that told me this was important so I followed the sister to the small back room where he lay.

As we walked along, the nurse told us a little about him. Drugs had ruled most of Matthew's brief life; he was about thirty. Just before Halloween, he had taken an overdose; no one knew if it was accidental. Matthew had been in a coma for about a month. His brain still functioned but medical science knew no way to wake him. His older brother had died of AIDS in this same hospice a year earlier and when the doctors determined that death was certain, Matthew’s family had arranged for their younger son to die also in this familiar place. Half an hour after his arrival, while the nurses were still settling him, Matthew died.

The nurse opened the door and we breathed in sweetness. A clear, high, just within range of hearing chorus filled the room with a song of joy. Peace welcomed us into its richness. Heaven was rejoicing here in this room, invited us to add our voices to its song.

“Can you hear it?” I asked Sr. Josephine. “Yes,” she replied as she opened her prayer book to the prayers for the dead. I followed suit and our prayers joined the song:

“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Matthew. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.” (from the Book of Common Prayer)*

Whatever dissipations he had indulged in, whatever sufferings and torments he and life had heaped upon his soul, something had happened to Matthew while he lay in coma. I believe some cleansing, some healing, some radical change had come into the young man whose body lay on the bed. And now, in this place that should have been so terribly sad, heaven sang Alleluia.

This was almost too rich for human presence. I was nearly exhausted with wonder and was glad when we fell into silence. It was very good to be here but I could not stay very long. The experience was too big. Actually, I was too little. I wanted to leap into a grande jetes. I wanted to sit quietly and let it encompass me. Sr. Josephine sent me out of the room; tears began to flow as soon as I closed the door.

The operation of heaven in this young man’s life, its condescension were overwhelming. I wondered if Matthew had been like a broken limb that must be immobilized in order to heal. I wondered that God would do it, would immobilize this little lost sheep who must have been filled with terror, unable to seek healing without enormous help. I believed that God would do anything to find us, knew that heaven rejoices when we are found, but I had never seen it like this before.

The risk that heaven took was heart breaking. What if even a coma had not been enough? What if the suffering he had undergone during these past weeks had not led to this?

Yet now heaven sang Alleluia. What should have been an occasion of great sadness was a time of immense gratitude and joy.

* I was a member of the Anglican Communion at the time and was discerning whether I had a vocation. Though the community was mostly contemplative and becoming more and more so, the hospice was their one external ministry.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Two nights ago I lay awake after I had said my prayers and read enough to be nice and drowsy. Sleep would not come. I was not hungry. I was neither too hot nor too cold. There was nothing preying on my mind. I had taken my medication and my vitamins. It was none of the usual culprits. The air in the apartment was extremely dry, it recently became cold enough in New York for the heat to come on. The pain in my sinuses was terrible but surely it would not keep me awake. I lay awake in the dark wondering why sleep eluded me and fussing at God.

In my study, two doors away, the humidifier I use in the winter was out ready to be filled when the air became dry. But I was too tired and decided to do it another night. Then I remembered the trivia quiz that I must submit before the end of the day. Since forfeiting was unacceptable, I got up, went into my study, booted my laptop and completed the quiz. I decided I was much too tired to carry the humidifier down the hall to the kitchen and went back to bed. A while later I got up, passed my study and continued on to the bathroom but decided I was just too tired to deal with the humidifier. Finally, about a quarter of two, I decided I would not sleep, got up and filled the humidifier. Over the next hour and a half, as I waited for the pain to subside, I told God that I am exceedingly stupid, that I might have been asleep already, that lack of sleep meant the next day would be awful. Finally I said, “You know what the problem is, don’t you? I’m in rebellion against you.”

It’s true. I am in rebellion against God though my actions don’t look or feel like rebellion. I’m certainly not doing anything as horrid as Lucifer did (whatever it was) to be thrown out of heaven. My actions can’t be as bad as Eve’s or Adam’s. Most people probably would not consider them rebellious at all. But I can’t escape the truth. In its tiny little way, my rebellion is absolutely real.

I was angry that night. I have lived with illness much of my life but until four or five years ago, I could usually ignore it. Now I can’t. And sometimes, much of the time, I just want it not to be real, not to be in my life. Certainly pain and fatigue and feeling like crap are no fun. But what I really hate is all the work. I don’t want to wake an hour early to take the one prescription that will only fit into my schedule at that time. I don’t like that I must be closely attentive to my diet to be certain that I get enough protein. I don’t want to need to remember to remove my contacts as soon as I get home and use eye drops. I don’t want to have so many medical appointments. There is a long list of things I don’t want to do and that night, filling that humidifier was just another thing on the list and the list was just too long.

My rebellion isn’t limited to an occasional humidifier incident or skipped pill. I rebel every single day, sometimes many times a day. It’s so easy for me to begin reading a book because I don’t feel like getting dressed in the morning. I will ignore a necessary task because I’m just not in the mood. I will even put off buying something I need, even food, because I’d rather watch reruns of (the original) Star Trek than go to the store. Reality is often not to my liking.

There’s something petty and inept about my rebelling. Big rebelliousness would require an awful lot of work and I’m much too lazy. Perhaps if there was a lot of unguarded money lying about or if it was easier to remember to hate or if I didn’t get distracted when devising interesting things to do to the people who annoy me or if I could think of how to kill someone without becoming utterly disgusted and knew how to dispose of the body effectively, I might do something really spectacular. But I’m usually limited to some sort of pout.

My rebellion is effective though. I excel at exacerbating my sufferings, even at creating suffering. I’ve missed many nights of sleep because I was pouting at God. I’ve been cold and hungry and had really gloomy days because I refused to do something that I felt I shouldn’t have to do anyway. As a teenager, I ignored increasing pain in my foot until the injury was so bad I was forced to give up ballet because I didn't want anything to interfere with my dancing. (I’ve been rebelling since I was a child.) And because I had better things to do, I ignored my worsening health for months until my skin was literally breaking apart because of malabsorption and my oxygen intake was down to 29% of normal. Certainly others are affected, perhaps more than I know, but I always, always hurt myself, sometimes very badly.

And I have absolutely no excuse. My life has been very difficult but God has cared for me, has been a palpable presence to me as long as I can remember. In fact, I have absolutely no memory of a time without him. I have been without people, I have never been without God. Even before I had language to express it I knew, people might do horrible things to me but that wasn’t God’s fault, wasn’t God’s desire. My life is evidence that God is trustworthy, evidence that he loves me. I know I am very, very fortunate. I have what I need. I have enough: a humidifier, food, medication, clothing, some of the best doctors around, a job with excellent health benefits, even an alarm clock that reliably wakes me so that I can take the first pill of the day. All I must do is toss out my list and use what God has provided.

There is only one reason I rebel, I want to be exempt from living in this broken, sinful world. I want the world to be as I think it should be. I want to be as I think I should be, as I know I should be, something greater, something not limited by all the silliness of this reality. I am aware of an immense desire to be free from the discomforts and restrictions of life on earth. I am Eve’s daughter; I even want God to be as I think he should be. Chances are I would have listened to the serpent too even though I love God. But I don’t love him enough so that I consistently obey his command to love as I have been loved, even when I am the person I should be loving, even when I know the cost of disobeying him is suffering.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses – Part III

In the book of Job, Satan is depicted as an accuser who insists that Job only loves God because God has blessed him. He desires to prove his point by harming Job, first destroying all that he has including his children and then, when Job’s response fails to fulfill Satan’s expectations, by afflicting him with noisome boils all over his body. It is a cruel stroke. Not only does Satan deprive Job of his health but also of his community.

Job contains an excellent snapshot of Satan: always looking for evil in God’s creation, looking for evil in us, desiring to harm us in any way he can, out to separate us from ourselves, from community, from God. The ancients Israelites accurately depicted Satan then and he hasn’t changed.

He was calm. Concerned for me. Concerned for marmar. He waved us back but his focus was on them. I have no auditory memory of his last words but I understood their meaning then as I do now: ‘You needn’t do this thing.’ They had choice. They behaved as if there were no possibilities. Like Adam and Eve, they had suppressed God’s voice until there was no memory of that which would have caused them to laugh at themselves in disbelief or bawl because they contemplated committing such horrors. So they followed even when they were led away from being human.

If we have enough courage to examine suffering closely, we will find “hatred for God and his kingdom.” (1) We will find Satan – not as a curiosity, nor as a convenient name for evil, nor as a metaphor for the process of maturation in which we separate from our parents and become autonomous, but as an actual being. Paul’s principalities and powers and “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (2) are not just bad feelings and inclinations. We are involved in something more than a psychological exercise. We are involved in a real fight with real casualties.

We don’t want to believe in the existence of Satan. He’s something out of a past we think best left behind, a past full of unimaginable ignorance. We are convinced ignorance saw demonic possession where there was only illness, saw the devil in normal behaviour, saw the wiles of Satan instead of the backwardness of society. Today we are wise. We have explained the devil away. And though we have learned much through science and through psychology and medicine, if we are honest, we know we have not been able to rid ourselves of Satan. We hear his voice insisting we can do quite well without God. Satan’s power is not the brilliant spectacle depicted in horror films or in science fiction and fantasy. He is a being with a seductive voice who lured our first parents into disobeying God and today is still “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” (3) We are his prey. We are the casualties.

Since our first parents listened to him, we have been prone to give credence to that voice sounding in our hearts and, through the voice of a stranger, the voice of a loved one, in our ears. His promise to us is the same as it was to them. We are to be like God knowing good and evil. Satan seeks to frighten us, mislead us, entice us into joining his rebellion not for our good, and certainly not so that we can be free from the shackles of ignorance and superstition. In a hideous parody of God’s ultimate plan for us, we are to be free to hate and destroy, to enslave others, to be enslaved, to be so familiar with evil that we hate good – we are to be free to be like Satan.

We play into Satan hands by convincing ourselves that he is merely a figment of our imaginations. In truth, we have been born into a war zone where we are “obliged to wrestle constantly if [we] are to cling to what is good.” (4) But if we will not even admit his existence, his battle is won. We are like the dwarves in the C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle sitting impotently in the darkness. We can only fight him if we will acknowledge his existence and seek help. At times I wonder what might have happened if our first parents had told the serpent they’d get back to him after their stroll with God. (5) How might the story have been different for all of creation? We cannot know but we do know that through heeding Satan’s enticement to disobey, they lost humanity’s original holiness and justice and now, against Satan, the strongest of us is less powerful than a newborn fighting an adult. Alone we can never hope to withstand him.

The scandal of Christianity is that God has not treated us at all as we did him. Though we chose to rebel, God has chosen to enter the war and fight for us not as supreme commander transmitting orders from a safe, distant place but as one of us, subject to the same battles that beset each of us each day. He enters into the fray against the forces that seek to destroy us and is betrayed and executed as an enemy of the people; he is the supreme casualty. The story should end there and if you or I were the author, it would. But where we would end, God makes a new beginning. Though war rages, the outcome is sure, God will win. He has neutralized the enemy’s best weapon: fear of death. And by becoming man, “by taking [our] manhood into God,” (6) he has made it possible for us to participate in his victory if we will turn away from that insidious voice, if we reject Satan’s ‘freedom’ and instead be set free to be fully human, to grow into God’s image and likeness, to love him so much that even the wiles of the devil can only make us more like him.

I sat on the floor in the church between the coffins – one for grandpére, one for Ti. The adults cried but I did not understand why. Lying there crumpled against the wall, he had not been unhappy, had not been in pain. He had been concerned for me, for marmar, for them. I could recall his face. And even now, he was more calm, more still, more full of peace, more my grandpére.

1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 395
2. Ephesians 6:12
3. 1 Peter 5:8
4. Gaudium et Spes
5. Genesis 3:8
6. The Athanasian Creed

Monday, November 27, 2006


Upon reflection and consultation, I decided to split my original posting of Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses - Part II into at least two posts.

Also, I've turned off the word verification feature. It's terribly annoying. Assuming there is no onslaught of advertisements, it will stay off. (It truly is terribly annoying.)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses - Part II

The sufferings and tragedies that befall every living being may be nothing to "God," but they are ne plus ultra to the experiencing individual. And though "God" could presumably cause us to forget them utterly in that fabled Heaven, even he cannot cause them to not have happened! They are not illusory; they happen--and they are unrecissible [sic], even for "God."(1)

The story of Job is ancient, predates the account we have of Abraham by hundreds of years. It is a sophisticated book, a retelling of an ancient tale and related poetry that was specifically structured for a Hebrew audience. The Hebrew author probably added the introduction and conclusion as well as Elihu’s speeches. But the original core material is contemporaneous with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both are concerned with basic human desires: Gilgamesh with the escaping death and building something that will exist after it, Job with loss and suffering.

Losing a child and certainly all of his children would have been an immense tragedy for an Israelite. So the deaths of Job’s ten children would have precisely expressed the overwhelming loss that Job suffers. Yet, as the story progresses, only once does Job mention his dead children: "Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; …when my children were about me…” (2) When Job is restored, his children are not mentioned at all which, from a literary perspective, is not surprising. The Hebrew author was writing a story that ended ‘happily ever after’. Just as her dead mother is not mentioned as Cinderella rides off with the prince, Job’s dead children are not mentioned as part of his restoration. Doing so would cast a pall on the happy ending.

But for us, Job is more than just a story in the Bible. His dead children cannot be forgotten. Their unremarked deaths are horrifying. They are like an accident in the road. We must look. We point to them as if to say, ‘Didn’t you forget something important God?’ We have a sneaking suspicion, even a firm conviction, that if God is all good, all love Job’s restoration would not have included ten replacement children, but the resurrection of the ten who cannot be replaced.

For years I begged God to return my parents. I pleaded, even raged at him. It was impossible to accept their deaths, utterly impossible. I became like Sarah Crewe in Shirley Temple’s version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s, A Little Princess: I did everything I knew, followed every suggestion, every shadow, spent more money than I had. They must be alive. They simply must. When I found them, everything would finally be alright again. All my work, all my suffering would result in restoration. I found blank, empty death. But I was not empty. I was filled with a liquid heartache that had only increased with the effort I expended in wishing them alive, a heartache that was always on the verge of spilling forth. How could I possibly live with such loss? How I could possibly live without my marmar and papa?

I did my best to accept that their deaths were in service of freedom. That they had been an opportunity for those who killed them to choose life rather than take it. That choices are real and so the bullets which killed them must also be real. That even my suffering as a consequence of others’ actions must be real. But my losses were too heavy, absolutely unbearable. And what of my marmar and papa? What did they lose? How badly did they suffer?

One night I dreamt that I walked down a road. Marmar held my left hand and papa my right. Angels surrounded us, two on the left, two on the right, two in front and two behind. I knew that it had always been this way. I knew marmar and papa had never left me, that I had never been alone. I knew that they are alright, that they have not been forgotten.

To the Hebrew author, Job’s dead children were a literary device who could be used to convey something to his audience and then discarded. But we can’t discard them and neither can God. He does not unmake their deaths. That would trivialize their final action. Though they did not choose to die, death was still their final action and it had great value: it began the process of grief that led Job to confront God face to face. Job’s children participate in his transformation and, though the author forgets, God remembers them. More to the point, he remembers us and those we lose; he knows how heavy our losses are.

The Christian claim is that Christ died and, because he is God, rose again from the dead. Because he is also man, we participate in his death and resurrection; through Christ, we are God’s adopted heirs. Death can no longer hold us: if we will follow the method he has given us, death, though not stripped of pain and suffering, is simply a doorway that leads to our inheritance. The emphasis is nearly always on us, on how Christ made it possible for us to become like him, to become more than dust, to do more than return to dust, but we spend little time remembering God’s losses.

How was it for God when our first parents chose to disobey him? When they chose death? What is it like for him when we continue to reject him? We know he loves us and longs for us so much he constricted himself into human flesh and came to be with us but what was taking flesh like for God? What was it like for the Father as he watched his Son die? How was it for God to somehow abandon himself?

If we imagine that God does not understand our losses or forgets them or trivializes them, then we must also imagine he trivializes his own. If he is cold to us, he must be cold to himself. Yet Christmas is heralded by angels and astronomical wonders. Good Friday witnesses an eclipse, earthquakes, opened graves, the tearing of the Temple veil. God marks events in his Son’s incarnation and he marks them in our lives. There is no coldness in God, not towards his Son, not towards us. But if he is to honour our freedom, he cannot unmake the consequences of our choices without making freedom meaningless, without making our lives just a film to be edited at a whim - even when they break our hearts, even when they cost us our lives.

The dream brought me a great deal of peace, was one of many gifts that made it possible to accept, to heal, to work towards truly living happily ever after. And though a story, Job could die satisfied even after losing ten children. Not because he had ten more, but because he had seen and spoken to God. And once you’ve seen him you know, he does everything to heal and restore us except violate the very thing that makes us like him, our freedom - even when it breaks his heart, even when it is at the cost of his life.

1. Everybody’s Favourite Victim,Comment #52, The Raving Atheist
2. Job 1:2-5

Friday, November 17, 2006

Those Damnably Inconvenient Corpses - Part I

“Why?! Why did you –” I could not finish the sentence, could not let myself say those words. So instead, “Why did I have to see it?! Why?!” That expressed it, or at least enough of it. My next words came out in a wild, shrill crescendo of rage: “How could you have done that to me?! How could you?! How?!”

For days I had exuded searing misery. I cried at home, on the train, as I walked down the street, even at work in a very conservative, very correct law firm. My office was also the document repository for a mega-litigation but I emitted such pain that my co-workers sent lower level employees who knocked timidly and only when absolutely necessary. Occasionally I would hear, “Are you alright?” as I opened the door just enough to pass out what was required. But mostly they simply took what I proffered without comment.

Mine was an ancient pain beyond utterance and I could not have said whether I was angry or sad or filled with hate. And until now words had not come along with the tears only pain. But when words did come it did not surprise me that rage accompanied them. That too was ancient. In this time of looking into the past, of accepting that what was there was part and parcel of me and could no longer be ignored, rage had finally been given safe passage and was quite pleased to emerge whenever necessary.

I have no memory of a time when God was not a palpable presence in my life and I had become accustomed to his voice: a soft absolute certainty within the ears of my heart that I usually understood without words. But this afternoon a voice rang clearly and though my physical ears could not hear it, that voice filled my cavernous office: “Your grandfather’s life was worth no more to me than the lives of those who killed him. Your parent’s lives were worth no more to me than the lives of those who killed them. Your life is worth no more to me than the life of every other person I have created.”

In that moment I saw again the scene that had been replaying itself in my mind for years, the scene that had finally left me overflowing with misery. Two men in fatigue green uniforms faced grandpére separated from him by his desk. Marmar and I stood across the room, perhaps five feet away. I was about three. Even though it was all excruciatingly familiar, there was something new this time. Usually I saw it from the height of a three year old. With the confused lack of knowledge of a three year old. Experienced the numbing shock as a three year old. But this time my perspective was different. This time I observed from outside, from another height, another place.

The commander spoke. The other soldier took a gun from his holster. I knew what the gun held, knew its contents were real, that they must be real, that it was fitting for them to be real. I watched him level the gun at grandpére and waited in an eternal instant; I knew I watched choice. And when the soldier moved his finger and grandpére was thrown against the wall I heard myself moan in agony not because grandpére was dead, not even because I had seen it, but because of their choices.

The most important people in the room that day were those soldiers and years later I finally saw it. But at the same moment the ugly hatred that had filled my soul, that I had suppressed when it longed to demand of God why he had let my grandpére die began to well up inside me once again: What those soldiers had done to me was all that mattered. What they deserved for hurting me, for hurting him, that’s what counted. (I could feel my face pouting.) Yet I was curious: I wondered how they had felt. I asked God if they had had children, had had little girls like me. If they would want their children to see such a horror. I wanted to know what had happened to them: If they had found healing, had sought forgiveness. God did not answer. The ugly hatred tugged at my attention but I wanted to know. It was intolerable that they should carry that ugliness forever, intolerable that they should never be free of it. I heard myself asking God to please make them whole.

That request opened a new flood of tears but not tears of misery, nor of rage, nor of hatred. Now I cried because something hard and painful had been pulverized and was being washed from my heart. I cried because I realized that my beloved grandpére had loved those who had killed him. I cried because I was worth no more than anyone else. And I cried because I realized that God had offered me choice and showed me that I could love the unlovable.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Everybody’s Favourite Victim

“God was unjust to Job. His faithfulness and piety deserved better treatment,” proclaimed the professor of a course I was taking in literary depictions of justice. I was shocked and totally disagreed but at seventeen I had no words to help me express my dissent only the absolute conviction that God is never unjust and that the professor was missing something of vital importance. Of course most people would agree with my professor. Job suffered terribly. God gives Satan permission to harm Job and even admits that Satan "moved [God] against him, to destroy him without cause." So it should all be very simple. On this occasion, God must be unjust.

I first read the book of Job when I was five and was chiefly struck by the image of a dirty old man, clothed in rags, smelly, probably drunk (I’d already read about Noah), perched atop a pile of ashes scraping giant boils. A gruesome image. Over the next ten or twelve years, I read Job again, two or three times, and while the gruesome image remained, by nine, I realized his ‘friends’ were blaming him and wondered fearfully if they were right. By fourteen I was impressed but puzzled by God’s response – he never answers Job’s demands and accusations. Then there was the course when I was a sophomore in college which signaled the start of another eight years of pondering Job, of trying to understand God’s justice. On perhaps the twelfth reading I noticed for the first time a phrase I’d missed in the past. Sitting on his ashes after a seven day silent watch, Job curses his very existence in frustration and rage ending, “…the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.” But what had Job feared? He had had everything. I went back to the beginning and paid very close attention. As I walked alongside Job in my imagination, I saw him making continual sacrifices just in case. His was the behaviour of a frightened man, of appeasement – Job seeks to avoid God. In his speeches, Job expresses his feelings about God in language that is at first reminiscent of Psalm 8 but quickly moves to a place of terror and darkness: “What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him, dost visit him every morning, and test him every moment? How long wilt thou not look away from me …thou watcher of men?”

For Job, God is cruel and exacting, lying in wait for him to err, lying in wait to punish him with His terrible glance. This had not been discussed in that course on justice. In fact, no one – not my foster-father (a Southern-Baptist minister), not the priests and nuns who had catechized me, not even my old Testament professor – ever mentioned how Job feels about God. They focused on Job’s sufferings but failed to look at his actual relationship with God, a relationship in which he seeks to remain safely in one corner and to keep God safely in another. They did not see that Job’s sufferings begin long before Satan “move[s] [God] …to destroy him without cause." To worship God in an attempt to keep him far away is to suffer horribly.

And it’s not that Job has done anything wrong. “There is none like him on the earth.” He is “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” In the midst of his fear, Job has done something very right. We would reward him. God does. He takes Job from an existence of anxious watching and waiting and sets his path through true suffering.

Before Satan is allowed to touch him, Job’s sufferings are of his own devising, they are the product of his convictions about God. But true suffering, increasing suffering, and in particular, suffering through his friends’ ‘consoling’ speeches, causes a gradual change in Job who at first speaks in platitudes about God, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." Eventually though, he begins to speak to God: demanding that God look away, insisting he is right even though God prove him wrong, proclaiming his conviction that he has an Redeemer, an advocate, someone who will take his part and that no matter what, he himself will see God face to face. And finally, the man who intensely desired God to stop looking at him recalls the time before he lost everything: “Oh, that I were as in the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me” and demands: “let the Almighty answer me!” Suffering has stripped Job down to his intense need for God to respond, to hear God’s voice.

And God speaks saying, This is what I have done, Job, where were you? Without answering any of the demands and accusations on Job’s list, God answers everything. His presence, his voice, his attention, his self revelation – God himself is Job’s answer. I imagine the anxious man filled with awe and wonder, laughing at himself and capering for joy as he says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” He must have flung the dust and ashes on which he had sat in the air for joy: how could he have known that God was really like this, that God would really answer him?

We are often like Job. We look on suffering as if it is the worse thing that can happen to us but fail to see that sometimes there is nothing else that will break down the stony walls we erect around our hearts, the adamant convictions that separate us from God. He made us to fit into and participate in the love that has always flowed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we are such terribly wounded people that we run from him as though he really is a hateful, cruel enemy. Yet we always run with hunger in our hearts, wanting him to see us, starving to know that he is watching. We will always be young children longing to call out, “Watch me! Watch me!” as we pedal our tricycles around the yard for the twentieth time in half an hour. God knows the hunger in our hearts whether or not we declare it. He sees us, not from high up in heaven, not from a far corner, not even through the kitchen window as he finishes the washing up, but right here, right now – we always have God’s undivided attention.

And sometimes that hurts – horribly. But the alternative is to have our way. And our way is filled with precise tallies of what we have lost and what we are owed, with minute detail of exactly how God is supposed to be. How tragic it would be if He gave in to us. Thank goodness God is not as we want him to be. Even when it means excruciating suffering, he knows how to give us the ability to relinquish our ash heaps and give up the bittersweet agony of being victims of his wrath; God always has far more for us than we can include on our lists. He has freedom and victory for each one of us – which is another thing that is so often missed, the end of the story, the victory.

Something radical happens to Job. He is given restoration and then some. His family and friends return: his community is restored. When Job prays for the three friends who came to “console” him he becomes the instrument of their restorations; sacrificing just in case another sinned becomes prayer for the real transgressions of his friends, prayer that acomplishes the mission God has given him. Job even becomes frivolous: at a time when daughters inherited only if there were no sons, Job shares his wealth among his sons and his beautiful daughters. Where once he was frightened and constrained, he is free to act outside the social boundaries, free to delight in the gifts God has given him.

Ultimately, we don’t understand God’s justice. It's not at all like ours. It doesn’t give us what we deserve. His justice gives extravagance, an abundance. And to call God unjust because he leads us through suffering is always to miss something vital. Often it is to miss that God has chosen to be not only a “watcher of men” but a participant in our lives so that real suffering will lead us to real joy.