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

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


Honora said...

Thank you for loving Him enough to trust Him, for trusting Him enough to love Him, and to help make Him loved.

Mahsheed said...

Lovely post! I look forward to reading Part III.

Peter Kreeft suggests that merely being acknowledged by God is reward enough for Job (and by extension for all of us) and the only thing that can truly make us happy, because we were created to seek God and rest in Him.

Carrien said...

Amen. I couldn't agree more with you final paragraph.