The story of Job and the mystery of suffering have puzzled Judaism and Christianity for millennia, but behind These Stone Walls a clue was found in the night sky.
TSW readers, be forewarned. A science post is coming! It won’t be this week; maybe not even next, but it’s coming. Recent months have seen some big developments in the field of planetary science, and I cannot contain myself much longer. Early this year, I wrote a post that began with two paragraphs that I hope will now sound familiar. If not, then feel free to re-read “Science Makes a Case for God and Respect for Life.” That post’s beginning presented me with a tiny clue, something I now have in common with the ancient Biblical protagonist, Job, as he struggled with the mystery of human suffering:
“Staring off into the west one clear night, I spotted something rarely seen through a foggy prison cell window – a faint star. In my 8 x 12 laboratory, in which two people also eat, write, dress and sleep, a towering wall conspires with the glare of prison lights to render the night sky impenetrable. So on that night I stared in wonder at the rare sight of a star. ‘Who are you?’ I asked, and the longer I stared the more my eyes adjusted. I could barely make out another star just to its left, and then a fainter one equidistant to the right. Then my heart beat faster.
“I realized with a jolt that I was looking at Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three stars that depict the belt of the Constellation Orion. Each is 1,400 light years away. I stared in wonder knowing that the light I was seeing from those stars in Orion’s Belt was generated 1,400 years ago.”
Now jump ahead, please, to last week’s post, “For Divine Mercy Stone Walls Do’Not a Prison Make.” which included these two paragraphs:
“For years in prison, like Job on his dung heap, I lobbied God for my freedom, and cursed the corrupt forces that prevented it. I was angry with God for hearing my prayer, but not giving me what I hope for. I have written nice things on These Stone Walls about our lives being a tapestry that we can see only through all the dangling and disjointed threads, but I have not been so good at applying that notion to my prayer to restore my freedom.
“I have been blind, but through Divine Mercy my eyes have slowly opened to a cosmic truth. Had my hope been answered when I prayed for it, someone else’s hope might have been destroyed, and now that I see under just a corner of that veil, I know what I must do.”
This seemed to raise a concern among a few readers. What was I hinting at? What is it that I must now do? I hope this becomes clearer as you read on, but a hint of it is found in God’s reply to Job’s protest that he does not deserve to bear the suffering that was thrust upon him. God’s response to Job reminded me of the night I described above, when after 20 years of unjust imprisonment, I stared out my foggy cell window at a faint star, and not just any of the billions of faint stars that might have shown themselves to me through a fog of dirty windows and a glare of prison lights. Here’s how God answered Job’s protest about suffering:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…. Have you commanded the morning since your days began?…. Have the gates of death been revealed to you or have you seen the gates of darkness?…. Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the belt of Orion?” (Job 38:2-4, 12, 17, 31)
The story of Job and his suffering never intended to explain the why of suffering, or to justify God’s allowance of it. Instead, it probes the depths of faith in the face of human suffering. The great spiritual message of the poetic book of Job does not so much reflect the character of Job, but rather the character of God. In the midst of Job’s suffering and protest: God presents not a defense of why He allows it, but a glimpse of His sovereignty on a cosmic scale. God is much aware of our problem with forces beyond our control, personified by Behemoth and Leviathan, who are, however, constrained by God:
“Then the Lord answered Job [again] out of the whirlwind: ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you will declare to me… Behold Behemoth, which I made as I made you… He is the first of the works of God… Can one take him with hooks or pierce his nose with a snare? Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook…? Can you put a rope in his nose?”
THE PURSUIT OF LEVIATHAN
Alas, no, Job can do none of these things, nor can you nor I. We have no control over the forces of evil, nor can we fully evade them by any means known to us. But we are also not entirely at their mercy. Mercy has only one source, and it is not evil. The point of the story of Job is that God is also profoundly involved in the destiny of man. As popular Catholic Scripture scholar, Scott Hahn put it:
“The Lord… speaks out of a whirlwind, overwhelming Job with a series of rhetorical questions that demonstrate the infinite gulf that exists between God and his creatures. Humbled by the experience, Job acknowledges his error in questioning God. But his demand has been fulfilled. The Almighty has answered.” (Scott Hahn, Editor, Catholic Bible Dictionary, p. 452)
What we suffer is not inflicted by the hands of God, but by the hands of other human beings. God did not violate the Eighth Commandment against false witness to take away my freedom. People did. Greedy people who grasped a scam for money when the times and tides were just right. God did not make excuses for them, underwrite their fraud, and enable it. Men in judicial robes did that. God did not sacrifice priests on the altar of insurance and contingency lawyers. Our spiritual leaders did that. God, who keeps Behemoth and Leviathan at bay will also not compromise the free will of those who turn themselves over to them. He might bring from that evil some grace unforeseen by human eyes, but the God of human history does not inflict us.
But there is also great suffering that comes from the world itself, with no apparent source. Terminal cancer, natural disasters, financial ruin. When they come we pray for deliverance, knowing that deliverance may take the form of the grace needed to endure in faith. We accept that, and pray for one another with that in mind.
Some of our suffering is self-inflicted. Years ago in the mid-1970s when I was in college, I worked part-time as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) in the emergency room of an urban hospital and trauma unit. I remember a man in his fifties being brought in one night near death. As the ER physician tried to insert a breathing tube, I had to unbuckle the man’s farmer jeans. He was 100 pounds overweight, a pack of Camel cigarettes protruded from his breast pocket, and a flask of whiskey in another pocket shattered before I could get to it. One of his distraught daughters standing nearby seemed to know that the odds of surviving his heart failure were slim, and she declared, “How could God do this to us?”
THE GIFT OF A VOICE
In his great book, The One Thing Is Three, cited last week in “For Divine Mercy, Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make,” Father Michael Gaitley addressed at length the part of the human condition we call suffering:
“Why is there evil? Why do we suffer? Here, we come to some of the greatest of the great questions, and definitely the thorniest. In fact, these kinds of questions have produced more atheists than any other. People say, ‘How can there be a good, all-powerful God who allows the innocent to suffer? And, ‘if God is all-powerful, and he loves us, then why does he allow suffering?’ If these questions haven’t occurred to us, it might be because we haven’t yet experienced great suffering.” (p. 265)
Father Gaitley is on to something here. Questions of faith occur to us in the face of suffering, and I find that they take two forms. The first is doubt, about God, about justice, about mercy, about life itself. Sometimes doubt is strong enough to derail faith for years to come, but that merely compounds the tragedy of suffering.
The second response is compassion. Those who have suffered, and have come to terms with its implications for faith, have found in their suffering a gift of sorts. Remember our friend, Wayne, from my recent post, “At Play in the Field of the Lord.” He suffered an unspeakable loss in the murder of his son, and yet here he is, visiting a prison, extending to Pornchai Moontri the healing grace of compassion and the power of forgiveness. See mercytothemax.com. Only suffering can forge such mercy.
It is for this reason that I must call on the Church – and by that I mean not just our bishops and priests, but all of you as well – to resist letting judgment deny and suppress your capacity for mercy. Awhile back, I wrote a post entitled, “If Night Befalls Your Father, You Don’t Discard Him. You Just Don’t!” Well, we do discard our fallen fathers, and it is wrong, and shameful, and deeply hurtful to the life of the Church. Our bishops tell you that it’s done “Pro Bono Ecclesiae,” (“For the Good of the Church”) but that’s true only if we concur that it’s THEIR Church, a Church whose primary Mission is to shelter them from risk retention and from the obligations of fatherhood.
Two readers of These Stone Walls have recently come to me with a problem that makes them ashamed of our Church, and I join them in that shame. A priest, age 75 and both physically and psychologically infirm and disabled, has spent the last dozen years in prison because of a charge of abusing teenagers over thirty years ago. Now he is set to be released, but he has nowhere to go except to a system of urban homeless shelters. Knowing that this will not provide the support and supervision he needs, state officials are now seeking to have him civilly committed to prison because his bishop and diocese have washed their hands of him.
We all know the origins of that term, “Washed their hands of him.” Ironically, one of the people who have taken up the cause of advocacy for this priest is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse for which she has spent a lifetime doubting God before coming to terms with her suffering. Her suffering is lived today in the service of others, and I am very proud of her. She stands as a mirror of our mercy, and she should not stand there alone.
I can only conclude that those who take a harsh, judgmental, and merciless measure of this priest, and find him unworthy of dignity and compassion, are people – some of our bishops and priests among them – who have thus far been spared the torment of real human suffering. I can respond with only one hard-learned truth. If the injustices I have endured do not cause me to raise up my voice in the cause of mercy, then These Stone Walls is not worth reading.
Suffering takes a human toll, but it also empowers, and the first thing it empowers is mercy. So the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” demands an answer. Job got one, and so did I, but it took a long time for the answer to be assimilated into my life of faith.
I looked out my window one night to see Orion’s Belt, and now I bow to the Author of Life who put it there. That is my answer. There is a cause far greater than ourselves, and we – and what we suffer and endure – are instruments in the service of that cause. That cause is Divine Mercy, and the answer to suffering is trust. Great suffering requires great trust, and an acknowledgment of both God’s grace to endure it and our pathetic limits to endure it alone. I unite my suffering to the Cross, the only real meaning in our existence since Eden.
The Prophet Amos, who lived about two centuries after the story of Job came into written form, was aware of the story when he wrote:
“He who created the Pliades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name…” (Amos 5:8)