19 June 2009

"Who, if I cried out. . .?"

12th Sunday OT: Job 38.1, 8-11; 2 Cor 5.14-17; Mark 4.35-41
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Aquinas Institute of Theology, St Louis, MO

However wise his heart, Job stands before the glory of God and pitches one question after another to his creator. Anguish and hope race one another on the battlefield of his confusion and despair, and all his suffering explodes into a single, bellowed question: “Why?!” Why have I lost? Why am I in pain? Why have those I love most been made to suffer? We may ask along with Job, “I stand under the weight of my cross, trusting that it will not break my back so long as Christ is with me, but why must its load fall so heavily on my family, friends, and neighbors?” Surely it is enough that I labor in hope against the inevitable scores of loss and retreat. Surely my eager willingness to play this game, to fight this battle is proof enough that living well with God is worth the effort. And even as we protest against the cosmic injustice of death and desolation, we know that all of our complaints, all our questions, all our doubts are dissolved on the Cross, dispersed by iron nails, and exhausted not by a cry of “Why?” but by a bloodied surrender, by sacrificial forgiveness. Do we as children of the Father suffer well? What does it take to transform the anguish of our losses, our retreats into joy?

In the first elegy of his Dunio Elegies, the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke asks, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?” Against the background noise of stars giving birth and dying away, against the din of whole galaxies colliding in the void, who “up there” can hear our questions? Who would glance our way? For that matter, who cares enough to bend an ear? Knowing the odds, Rilke notes the smallness of his cry, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in its overwhelming existence.” In the face of such superabundant Being, do we dare protest our suffering? Do we risk annihilation for the small pleasure of complaint? The risk of asking any question is that the answer itself will be an occasion of suffering. He writes, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” Why? Because “every angel is terrifying.”

Let’s risk the questions and pray that the answering angels are not so beautiful: do we as children of the Father suffer well? What does it take to transform the anguish of our losses, our retreats into joy? First, there is suffering and then there is suffering well. That we will know pain and loss is as inevitable as the tides. So long as we live, we will feel the cuts, the bruises, the breaks. We will mourn and count our defeats. We will betray and be betrayed; sell into slavery and be sold. We will grow bent, blind, deaf, and addled. We will hear NO when YES is the only way to flourish, or to survive. And we will endure injustice, refused our rightful due for no other reason than that someone more powerful, more prominent wants what is ours. Despite our protests, despite our righteous cries, that we will suffer is a cosmic given. There is no question about this. The question for the Father’s children is: will we suffer well? And if we long to suffer well, how do we do it? How do we transform our anguish into joy?

Out of the storm God answers Job: “Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb […]?” Who made the sea? Who fashioned the tides? Who said to the raging waters, “Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!” At the beginning of everything, who was it that took nothing, and with a word, made it all? Including you. Job dared his questions and his answering angel terrified him with the beauty of this truth: you are a creature, a being fashioned from dust and breathed into life. That you exist at all is a gift. Especially loved though you are, before you ever existed there was light and darkness. There was birth and death. There were stars and planets and animals on the land and in the sea and birds in the air and plants by the billions in uncountable varieties. Especially loved though you are, you have come late to this creation, be humble and know your place in the order of things, trusting always that I AM is with you.

In the midst of a violent storm all their own, and like Job, fearful of chance and accident, the disciples cry out to the Lord for rescue: "’Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’" Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!" The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, "’Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?’" Jesus is not telling them that their faith alone could calm a violent storm. He is not rebuking them for their failure to wield a magical power. Rather he’s telling them that their lack of faith is the source of their terror. The violent storm they have failed to calm is the tempest found in every faithless heart. With the storm calmed “they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "’Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?’" He is the one who breathed a word over nothing at all and brought everything into being. He is the one who is with us always.

When the violent storms of sickness and mourning crash against our vulnerable bodies, we cannot be faulted for wondering why we are being made to suffer so. As rational creatures gifted with compassion, we naturally question the accidental nature of creation and wonder why it could not have been made differently. When we ask “why?” we want to know the cause of, the reason for. And even though we know that our bodies randomly break down, that our machines often fail, that our loves sometimes go unreturned, we desire purpose; we desire a rationale. To say that this or that disaster was accidental is not enough. It is too much to believe that we suffer by probability, by random chance. It is too much to have our doubts dismissed as wishful thinking. So, we ask why, and we expect an answer. And while we wait, we hope that our answering angel is not too beautiful to bear.

Paul does not answer us. Instead, he teaches us a awesome truth: “[…] whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” As creatures of dust and divine love destined to be dust again, we live and move and have our being in a newer creation, a newer cosmic order that sets chance and suffering and death against our Father’s promise of eternal life. In the order of things we sit above the angels as sons and daughters of the King, heirs to His dominion. We are wholly loved by Love Himself, created and re-created in His Divine Word, Christ Jesus. When we suffer, we suffer best when we faithfully set our pain and loss among the promises already fulfilled by the dying and rising again of our Lord.

God answered Job by showing him the whirling universe in all its created glory, the material expression of His divine majesty. What pain or loss would not be blinded by His light? As creatures remade in Christ, can we experience a loss that was not offered in sacrifice on the altar of the Cross? Is there a way for us to suffer that Christ himself has not redeemed into joy? Our faith in the Father’s promises is not a talisman that protects us from the vagaries of daily living. Our faith gives suffering a purpose beyond the aches and hurts that come with being embodied souls. With Christ we have died already. And with Christ we will rise again. No loss, no pain, no retreat can stand against a ever living joy. In all humility, suffer. But suffer well, knowing that you are a new creation in Christ Jesus.


  1. Anonymous9:55 PM

    Thank you. God needed me to hear that.

  2. Me too. God bless you, Father.

  3. I've been through much, Father. I was molested as a child, have died twice, been paralyzed,lost my Dad to a car accident 4 years ago, and lost all material goods a few times. Yet, through it all, God has been there for me. I trust him, yet, from time to time, still ask why of some things. I still remember the man who said to Jesus, "Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief!" Sometimes, I am that man. Thank you, Father. Your council is needed.

  4. Anonymous3:30 PM

    don't see the point in only some people suffering. Let's face it, not everyone suffers in this life.

    billiam - wow. i've been through a lot also. Don't see the point in it which is making think twice about this God thing.

    Not Hopeful

  5. Anon.,

    I've been reluctant to post anything substantial on the God/pain/suffering question b/c so much of what is written is hooey.

    Basically, the classical answer is the one I think bears the greatest weight:

    As creatures, we can either be free and risk pain or we can be robots and never feel pain.

    "Suffering" is HOW we choose to experience the pain of loss, injury, etc. We can choose to despair or rejoice or wallow in it or ignore it...