Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding.
— Proverbs 3:5-6
These are not easy times. Every day we open our eyes to a world of bad news, a struggle for survival, and apocalyptic expectations. Mid-century-style Stalinism is taking over Russia, the Seventh Century is taking over the Middle East. War is raging in Ukraine, tanks and rockets, my people are killing my people, bloodied doctors operate in the ruins of post-War architecture, and no one seems to notice the surreality of it all.
These are difficult times. The euro is deflating, and the booming U.S. economy is raising completely non-living wages to a slightly larger but still non-living wage. A brutal, relentless winter has worn us out, drained our resources, and buried our fragile hopes under mountains of snow so gigantic that we wonder if it hasn’t crushed them now to death. And we wonder if winter will ever end. If the cold will ever let go. If spring will ever come. Today, on March 15th, it is snowing outside my window. It’s been a particularly bad winter for me, filled with grief, worry, and pain, with more certain to come, and it left me here, in the middle of Lent, exhausted and dispirited like a beached whale, frozen to the bone and aching.
There are two seemingly competing ideas in Christianity of what it means to find ourselves in this emotional darkness. St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that we go through periods in our lives of closeness to God and distance from God, of feeling euphoric and feeling despondent, respectively. The ups and downs, so to speaks. He called these periods “consolation” and “desolation.” No one is exempt, not even the saints, and Ignatius thought it important in the times of desolation to hold on to the memories of the good times, not to make major decisions, to pray and to wait for euphoria to return. He thought, in essence, that consolation was real communion with God, and desolation, a passing phase.
I was nurtured by the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus into Ignatian spirituality; I tend to think in Ignatian terms, and they often help me. But a little while ago another wise friend, a Benedictine Sister, wrote to me in a letter something like this: Remember, she said in response to my outpouring of grief, that it is when we feel most abandoned that God is closest and most intimately present to us.
I was surprised by the impact her one sentence had on me. I can’t say I feel abandoned by God, but most of you know what it is like to be sliding into the depth of life’s dark pit: we may know it too shall pass, but it is cold here and heavy, and the world is rushing by too fast to hold on to anything steady. Of course, the idea that God is near in the dark is not new. Who doesn’t know the famous poem by Mary Stevenson, “Footprints in the Sand,” where she looks back on her life and sees it traced by two sets of footprints: hers and the Lord’s? Except in the times of trial and anguish there is one set of footprints, and the poet is bothered: Why would the Lord have abandoned her when she needed Him most? No, the Lord replies. This “is when I carried you.”
This simple theology is rooted in multiple biblical texts and church traditions, and its pervasiveness is perfectly understandable: We need it. But beautiful or not, the question remains: Is it wishful thinking? At least the Ignatian model rests on concrete experience and common sense, and comes with a set of instructions that match more or less what you’ll hear in therapy. And the “footprints” model… Well, it rests on faith and hindsight. On the times when we cross a chasm and look back and realize we could not have done it on our own, and so coming to the next chasm we believe, we can almost hear the sound of Someone’s wings underneath.
Early in the Lenten season we hear a reading from the book of Job. It is not a book we often read in church, and I think you’ll all agree that’s a good thing. Briefly, God makes a bet with ha-Satan (at the time an argumentative member of God’s court) that His righteous servant Job would not lose his faith even if fortune turned against him, and so Satan proceeds to take away everything Job has and loves one by one: his house and possessions, his flocks, his children, and finally his health. The book is most explicitly about theodicy (the problem of God’s justice in the face of earthly suffering), so the baffled Job tries to make sense of what befell him. His wife wishes him dead, and his friends judge him for they-know-not-what: if God is punishing him, he must have done wrong. Eventually Job declares himself just and God unjust and demands answers, so God pours from a storm upon his head a series of grand, awe-inducing rhetorical questions that boil down to one obvious message: “You do not understand God, this world, or the big plan, so shut up and stop asking stupid questions.” Then Job repents of his impunity, and God restores to him everything he’s lost.
Between Job’s oozing sores, his yelling at God, and everyone he knows turning their backs on him, most of the book is not uplifting reading. And yet, as I was listening to a passage this time, it began to dawn on me why we read it at the start of Lent. And what my Benedictine sister was saying to me in her letter. And what God, in chapters 38 through 41, was saying to Job.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me if you understand. …
Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
Lent is supposed to be the time of introspection. Rooted, as is most of our liturgical year, in the natural cycle, it starts in a cold and dark season—a long, hard climb to the resurrection of spring. From the point of view of Christian theology, you might say Job was going through his own foreshadowing of Lent when he was forced by the unfathomable heavenly cycles into a time of pain, loss, self-denial, and self-questioning. He just didn’t know it would lead to rebirth and communion with God. He didn’t have the word for Easter. But he did, walking then crawling his long road through the Lent of his life, the same thing we do now—every year at this time, and whenever we find ourselves in the dark and the cold, climbing toward some light of hope and triumph over death: Job prayed.
Read the book, and you will find it. It’s a long book, but it is filled—if you think of prayer as being with, asking, talking to, thinking about, figuring out, longing for, deepening connection with God—with prayer of every kind. There’s angry prayer, desperate prayer, prayer of thanksgiving and of inquiry, prayer of supplication, ecstatic prayer. Job wails to the heavens, Job digs into himself. He upturns and reevaluates everything he knows, thinks he knows, feels, and thinks he feels. In the longest, darkest, most catastrophic stretch of his life, he does nothing but pray and listens to no voice but his own and God’s. This even gets him in trouble with the other actors in the book. But in the darkest time, when the world is rushing by too fast to hold on to and nothing is steady under his feet, Job is looking for God and God alone. And this is when he finds Him.
I’ve written about the book of Job before and may again, as an academic and fully aware that Job never existed, but not today. Today, with a force that surprises even me, I am held together by the thought that Job found God in the midst of his worst and darkest hell. And I remember that five years ago, so did I. It is when we feel most abandoned, my friend wrote, that God is closest and most intimately present to us.
So let’s say we come truly to believe that and hear His voice. Then what?
The book of Job is kind of funny about that. It says we get no easy answers, and then it gives Job an easy fix. I think…well, we all know better than to count on an easy fix, don’t we?
The end of the book of Job says that we don’t understand. It’s been traditional to take it as a discouragement of questioning, too: There’s no use demanding explanations of God’s plan because we cannot understand it. When we are in the dark and cold, the comfort is to know that there’s a reason, that God is near, and that all will be well on some larger cosmic scale.
I believe in the larger cosmic scale, too. And that there’s a reason. And that as much as we can understand, we will not fathom the whole of this Reality, not ever, not until at the end of Time we with the rest of the temporal universe merge back into Eternity of God and become completely and indistinguishably One. But I question, and I think there’s use in questioning, and I look at Job and see the use right there. If he didn’t spend his days and nights throwing up his anguish to the heavens, accusing God and demanding answers, if he didn’t make waves in the universe—if he didn’t wade through the current of Creation to higher ground but given up and sat complacent in one place, drowning in grief and pus—would he have arrived to his place of revelation? Heard the Voice? Three chapters of God’s own awe-inducing questions? I doubt it.
I don’t believe in easy answers—or any sure answers when it comes to the nature of Reality, or even human nature. I do believe in questions. It is precisely because we cannot fathom the whole of reality and its workings that all our insights will be essentially questions, always. It is not what answers the questions demand that defines our knowledge of God, it is what meaning our questions bring us. Read those chapters from the book of Job: Job’s questions in chapter 31—that’s introspection; God’s questions in 38 and on—that’s revelation. Questions can be answers too.
And here, in the dark place that is Lent—Lent of the year or Lent of life—is what I think we’re here for: to bring, formulate, and ask our questions, maybe again and again. To listen to them and find what they mean to us, because with questions, we bring the meaning with us when we ask. That too is introspection. And here in the dark place, God is nearer, it appears, than our own jugular veins. God is listening. God’s voice is asking the questions.
What comes next, I imagine, is up to us. But we know one thing: There comes Easter.