Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Facing the Danger of Looking Inward

The inward journey is not, as the text of Job illustrates, without its own dangers.

For Job, at the end of the second chapter, the first such danger that he encounters is this: Even as he comes to see himself more clearly, he becomes increasingly unrecognizable to those who are closest to him. Soon after Satan strikes "Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head," (v. 7) his wife comes to him and says "'Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!'" (v. 9) Job, however, remains faithful to the journey he has begun: "'You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips." (v. 10)

Writing in about the fifth century, the Christian priest, Hesychius of Jerusalem, in one of his homilies on Job offers the following reflection on the brief exchange between Job and his wife:

Now, since the betrayer [i.e., Satan] had been defeated in every battle, had failed in all his attempts, had been hindered in all his hunts, had been deprived of all his schemes, and all his traps had been broken, after destroying Job's wreath, after the death of his numerous children, after ripping Job's body with his blows, at last, and in the betrayer's opinion, most compelling resource, he leads his wife against Job. ("Homilies on Job," 4.2.9, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 13)
The more I make the inward journey, the more I allow myself to feel the grief that is symptomatic of my love of the gift over the Giver, the more I realize that I have confused myself with my possessions, my accomplishments, and ultimately my own egocentric desires.

I cannot judge Job's wife harshly. As with his friends (vv. 11-13), Job's wife does "not recognize him." (v. 12) Just as he is becoming clear to himself, Job becomes a cipher to those closest to him. And why not? They know only the mask, the false self, which Job projected to the world. Having themselves not yet turned inward, they see only Job's loss, his suffering, but not his purification, not his gain in self-knowledge and peace. Truth be told, even though he does "not sin with his lips," at this point Job is still a cipher to himself.

One of the great dangers of turning inward is the temptation is to abandon our journey rather than face the rejection of those closest to us. Abandoning the journey means that, like Job's wife and friends, giving I instead give myself over to a despair born of untransformed grief. Seeing but not understanding her husband's transformation, Job's wife can only say, "Curse God and die." Job's friends, "Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite," are all likewise undone by their grief. The appearance of Job in the first moments of his new birth strikes them dumb; all they can do is weep with grief at the loss of the man they knew. And Job must face the temptation to join in their untransformed grief and forgo a life of compassion and forgiveness.

In the first moments of my inward turn, the burden of grief that can so overwhelm me that I simply give up. The sign that I have given up is that I see my suffering is purely external. Forsaking the inward journey mean that I see my grief not as it is, rooted not an inordinate attachment to my own ego, but rather to the circumstances in which I find myself. "If only," I tell myself, "my life had been different."

Job faces this temptation in chapter three. Mindful of all that he has lost, mindful of his alienation from his wife and friends, "Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth." (v. 1) Quickly, Job's curse takes on a life of its own as it passes from personal to cosmological (vv. 4-9). Nevertheless, he is still able to again considers himself:

"Why did I not die at birth?
Why did I not perish when I came from the womb?

Why did the knees receive me?
Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? (vv. 11-12)
Thinking about his own life in light of these larger, cosmological issues, inspires Job to think more deeply about his life. But now cosmology must become anthropology and he realizes that his is the lot of all humanity, "kings and counselors" (v. 14), "princes" (v. 15), "infants" (v. 16), the "wicked" (v. 17), "prisoners" (v. 18), the "small and the great . . . and the slave." (v. 19) It is at this moment that we see the beginning of the real fruit in Job's (and our own) inward turn— compassion and forgiveness.

Job understands (as I still must) the terrible mystery of creation. Nothing and no one is ontologically necessary. That all is a gift is true enough. But to the one who would control life rather than receive it thankful as a gift from the Divine Giver, this realization is a frightening. The choice is clear; I succeed on God's terms or fail on my own. Or, as St Gregory the Great has it,

Those who are endued with might in love of their Maker are those who are strengthened in the love of God as the object of their desire. Yet they become in the same degree powerless in their own strength. The more strongly they long for the things eternal, the more they are disenchanted with earthly objects. The failure of their self-assertive strength is wholesome. ("Morals on the Book of Job," quoted in ACCS¸ vol VI, p. 18)
Job's struggle, the struggle of his friends and family with him, is that they do not—at least in the first moments of his revelation—recognize the real Job. They failed to do so because they were attached to the facsimile of the true man within. Like Job I must first face my own inordinate attachments if my grief and despair are to be transformed.

Job struggle is part and parcel of the journey of not only the Great Fast, but the whole of the Christian life. Like Job I must confront the gratuitous, but not capricious, character of all creation including my own life. Again this is an inward journey and it is only by turning first turning inward that, by God's grace and my own effort, I am able to "transform . . . very evil habits into virtue." (Gregory the Great, "Morals on the Book of Job," quoted in ACCS¸ vol VI, p. 14)

As I said above, this transformation, should it come at all, bears the fruit of a life of compassion and forgiveness. Why do I say this? It is only when I am mindful of my own weakness, I can have compassion for my neighbor in his weakness and so extend forgiveness to him. This neither Job's wife nor friends were able to do for him—they could not forgive his weakness because they had no compassion having not accepted their own poverty before God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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