Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Transforming Life’s ‘Little’ Ironies

Naked I came from my mother's womb,

And naked shall I return there.

The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away;

Blessed be the name of the LORD.

(Job 1.21)

One of life's bitterest and most tragic ironies is that which symbolizes the great gift of my life has been corrupted by sin. Instead of being a source of great joy, this symbol has become instead the symbol of my deepest shame. I am speaking here of nakedness.

In the beginning, we are told in Genesis, the man and the woman are created naked. And naked they stand before each other in gratitude to God an purity of heart, with neither lust nor shame to mar their lives for God or each other. It is only after their transgression, only after their eyes are "opened" that each becomes a stranger to the other. And underneath this hostility toward the other, there is as well a self-loathing, a shame and self-alienation ground in an even deeper estrangement from God.

Compare this to the naked Job.

There is, so St Ephrem the Syrian tells us, no hint of this bitterness in Job's words quoted above. Rather for the longsuffering patriarch and despite all the pain that has come upon him, Job, unlike Adam, has not "covered [his own nakedness] with crimes and evil deeds." Instead, and again unlike Adam who hides from God, Job is "firm in his holy frankness" before God and man. Easily we can "imagine [that] he had never turned aside from righteousness nor would [he pass] from virtue to vice in the future" ("Commentary on Job," 1.21, quoted in ACCS, vol VI, p. 7).

Job's steadfastness in the midst of his suffering highlights for me my own lack of gratitude before God for the gift of my own life. Reflecting on my own, rather ordinary suffering and my own rather pedestrian smallness of heart, I am struck by the words of Clement of Alexandria.

Clement in his commentary on Job focuses his attention on the anthropologically rich fact of human nakedness. Unlike all other creatures, the human being "alone is born in all aspects naked, without weapon or clothing." He continues by telling me that "This does not mean that you are inferior to other animals." Our nakedness is given to us by God "to produce thought." It is because of our original physical, even ontological, poverty that "in turn, we [are able to] bring out dexterity, expel sloth, introduce the arts for the supply of our needs, and beget a variety of ingenuity."

Reflecting on the practical consequences of our nakedness Clement continues by observing that "naked human beings are full of contrivances, being pricked by their necessity, as by a goad, to figure out how to escape rains, how to elude cold, how to fend off blows, how to till the earth, how to terrify beasts" and even "how to subdue the more powerful" of our own kind. Because of our nakedness, because of our poverty, we are "wetted with rain" and so "conceive of a roof." Because we have "suffered from cold" we "invent clothing." He says of poor humanity that being "struck," we "construct a breastplate" to guard ourselves. Our "hands bleeding with the thorns in tilling the ground," cause us to "avail [ourselves] of the help of tools. Because our "naked state[makes us] liable to become prey to wild beasts," we have "discovered from [our] fear an art which frightened the very thing that [frightens us]."

And so, he concludes, there is a certain irony to our poverty. "Nakedness begets one accomplishment after another." Going further he say that "even [our] nakedness" the sign of our poverty and our weakness must be seen as "a gift of benevolence." For his part, having understood and accepted as a gift his own physical and ontological poverty, "Job [though] being made naked of wealth, possessions, of the blessing of children, of a numerous offspring, and having lost everything in a short time" is able to utter "this grateful explanation: 'Naked came I out of the womb, naked also I shall depart thither,' to God and the that blessed lot and rest" ("Catena," Fragment, 1, ACCS, vol VI, p. 8).

The book of Job presents me with a standard that is well beyond me—and which I suspect will always be well beyond me. If I am honest, while I may regret the former, I am just ever so slightly relived by the latter. is frankly so much easier to cultivate in myself a sense of gratitude when, unlike Job, I get to pick and choose the parts of my life for which I am grateful. But it is for this reason, because I am so willing to limit my gratitude to what confirms to my own ego, that each year during the season of the Great Fast I am brought again to sit in the place of Job.

As he always does, St Augustine goes right to heart of the matter. With his usual eloquence, he highlights one of the bitter ironies of my spiritual life. It is hard not to recognize myself as one of "those feebler souls who, though they cannot be said to prefer earthly possessions to Christ, still hang on to them with a somewhat modest attachment." How am I able to recognize myself here? Because, as with all feeble souls, I discover "by the pain of losing . . . things how much [I was] sinning in loving them." Like all feeble souls, my "grief is of [my] own making." (City of God, 1.10, quoted ACCS, vol VI, p. 9).

If we are not careful, we can look at the season of the Great Fast as purely negative event. There is, to be sure, a negative quality to this time of year, but is it the negativity of the catharsis (purification) that leads to theoria (illumination) and eventually theosis (divinization). It is during the season of the Great Fast that I am lead each year to discover evermore fully not only what Augustine might call my inordinate attachments to created goods, but also, to paraphrase Clement, the ingenious variety of my own, and my neighbor's, creativity and intelligence. And all this I must come to see in thanksgiving as God's gift to us.

But again, I can only discover the benevolence of the latter if I am willing to suffer the grief cause by the slow and steady purification of my "somewhat modest attachments." As I said yesterday, this purification only happens if I willing, like Job and with the Church as my guide, turn inward, dive deep beneath the surface of life's bitter and tragic ironies, and rise on the Third Day with Christ our True God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory