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.)
Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.
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.
Friday, November 24, 2006
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
“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
“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.