Friday, March 06, 2009

The Mystery of Purification

Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole.
(Job 5.17-18, NKJV)
Eliphaz's response to Job highlights the struggles that are inherent in the first moment of my inward turn. Let me explain.

He argues that if Job is truly an innocent of any wrong doing he would not suffer. As he says to Job (4.12, LXX), "if there had been any truth in your words, none of these evil would have befallen you." In other words: Those innocent of sin do not suffer (4.7, LXX), since Job is suffering he must be guilty of sin.

St Gregory the Great rejects this line of reasoning. He sees in Eliphaz and the other "friends of blessed Job," the image of the "heretics," of those "the evil ones" who "are as much to blame in their admonitions as they are immoderate in their condemnations." For the Pope of Old Rome both experience and Scripture testify to the fact that the innocent and the righteous do suffer and suffer often. He goes further and says that

They, then, are genuinely righteous who produce the love of the heavenly country to meet all the ills of the present life. For all who fear enduring ills in this life are clearly not righteous people. They have forgotten they suffer for the sake of eternal blessings.

Turning explicitly to Eliphaz, Gregory explores why it is that this friend of Job "does not take into account [why it is that] either the righteous are cut off or that the innocent perish here." The saint argues that this memory lapses reflects an even more profound lapse: "For people often serve God not in the hope of heavenly glory but an earthly recompense." He continues that as does Eliphaz, many "make a fiction in their own head of that which they are seeking. Thinking themselves to be instructors in preaching earthly immunity, they show by all their pains what is the thing they love." ("Morals on Job," 5.34, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 22)

Reading through Job, I am struck that—for the second time—Eliphaz is overwhelmed by Job's situation. Just as at the end of chapter 2, he and his friends are struck dumb in the face of Job's suffer (2.18), so too Eliphaz begins his admonish by acknowledging his poverty in the face of Job's sorrow: "Have you been often spoken to in distress? But who can endure the force if your words?" Though Job's circumstances are more than he can endure, Eliphaz nevertheless takes it upon himself to lecture his friend.

St John Chrysostom helps us see the irony here of Eliphaz's intervention. Chrysostom observes that Eliphaz is hesitant and uncertain in his response to Job not from "moderation," but because he knows he "cannot convince Job about an evident fault on his [Job's] part." Instead Eliphaz is undone by Job's insistence of his own innocence AND his willingness to share "the same fate as the impious." ("Commentary on Job," 4.2 quoted in ACCS, vol VI, 21)

Having begun now to detach himself from his inordinate loves, Job finds within himself the possibility of identifying with the unrighteous and the sinful to such a degree that—in anticipation of Christ—he is willing to share with them the consequences of their sin. This is beyond what Eliphaz and the other friends of Job can imagine for themselves—or indeed for anyone—because they have not yet taken that inward turn. They are still very much attached to their own egocentric desires.

They can reprove Job—but they can have no compassion for him. To do so, to be willing to suffer along with Job—which is to say, to imitate his own imitation of Christ and bear innocently the consequences of human sinfulness—is impossible as long as they are attached to their own egoic desires. Job is a provocation to Eliphaz and to all who structure their lives according to the desires of their own will.

My inordinate attachment to the created does not reflect the intrinsic value of the things themselves. Rather my attachment to the created order reflects the egocentric value I posit of creation. My desires are inordinate because they are arbitrary; they reflect my momentary, transitory whims. I do not desire the goodness of creation as is given by God. Rather what I desire is the self-referential utility to which I can bend creation, my neighbor and even God Himself. What I value in God and creation is their value for my own plans and projects.

More tragically, reflecting as it does the desires of my ego, the life I live life is one ever decreasing appreciation for the goodness of God and His creation. Even the images of the self that I catch in the fleeting reflections from the world around me are ones I select and arranged according to my own egoic desires. And so my attachment to my desires leads to a similar, personal, downward spiral in which I come to see ever less of my own goodness.

A moment ago, I said that Job embodies a provocation to Eliphaz. The provocation, I think is this. I can no more choose the path of purification than I can choose my own birth (or death for that matter). Just as birth is the condition of possibility for my freedom, and so prior to freedom itself, purification is what makes me free, but it is not something I am free to choose. In fact, if my analysis of the diminishing sense of my own goodness is true, I am not free either to reject purification since this merely ratifies the work of sin and death in me (if I may borrow from the Apostle Paul).

Finally, let me conclude with what I see as the fundamental difference between Job and Eliphaz and for each man represents for the spiritual life.

For Job, unlike for Eliphaz, the truth of cosmology, the truth of anthropology, are not merely abstract facts to be manipulated by me as I seek to make a point or win an argument. Yes, Job can say with Eliphaz, "blesses is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not reject the chastening of the Almighty." (5.17). Unlike Eliphaz, however, Job would not stop there. He would confess his gratitude to the God Who "causes a man to be in pain, but He restores him again. He smites, but His hands heal again." (v. 18) For Eliphaz this is simply a truth about God and about humanity's relationship with God. While Eliphaz gives voices to what is true for all and is willing to apply this to Job, he (curiously) does not apply this truth to himself. And again, this is not how it is for Job. Like Christ, Job lives in his own flesh the mystery of God's wounding and healing love for every human person. And, needless to say, it is to this way of life, to Job's way of life, that we who are in Christ are also called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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