Monday, April 03, 2006

Contending with the Almighty

I read a few sections of the Book of Job not too long ago. I can identify with him in some ways—not in his innocence, but in his freedom to argue with God as well as his conclusion that such arguments are ultimately wrongheaded and that the humble, contrite heart is what opens the door to wisdom.

I was going to make a separate prayer request to you, but I think I’ll work it in to this reflection. A longtime friend of ours was visiting here on her way back to Washington from the funeral of her uncle in southern California. She left, as it happened, the day I started reading Job, and the word I had happened to jot down early in the morning was, “The Lord gives and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I didn’t think the meaning was as superficial as “a friend visited and then left,” and it wasn’t. But then I thought, Gee, I hope she’s OK—she had to drive 800 miles by herself through some very bad weather. But that wasn’t it either. A couple years ago she fought a courageous battle with a particularly merciless form of cancer, that of the pancreas, and emerged healthy against all odds. One of the things that she did shortly after arriving home was to go for a routine CT scan. Not so routine, it turned out. The cancer has returned and has spread to other organs. According to the doctors it is inoperable and medically incurable, though they can buy her some time, though not much, with chemo. So I ask you to pray for Laura that the Lord’s will be done—be that a miracle of healing or a blessed passage to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Then I thought: that’s what the Lord gave and is taking away. We do a lot of prostrations during Lent, so when I’m on the ground it’s a good opportunity to submit to his holy will. But my first reaction in such cases is usually to contend with the Almighty, like Job. I would try to get Him to see things a little more clearly: there’s the issue of her teenage and 20-something children, her budding vocation as an iconographer (she did the icon of Our Lady for our new shrine), etc. In such cases, a couple things usually happen. Here I want to take it out of this specific instance and put it into any situation in which we do not understand the Lord’s will or in which some hardship, suffering, or tragedy befalls us. If we contend with the Almighty, we may first hear what the Almighty said to Job, a series of questions that are at the same time answers:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you commanded the morning… caused the dawn? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? ... Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?... Can you send forth bolts of lightning? … Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars? … Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” Job, perceiving that he could not even begin to grasp the ways of God, and that his own arguments were a house of cards in the rushing wind of the Spirit, responded: “I have uttered what I did not understand… what I did not know… and so I repent in dust and ashes.”

Once our respective places vis-à-vis the cosmos are acknowledged, the Almighty might give another kind of answer, one that still manifests his eternal wisdom and our lack thereof, but one that is perhaps a bit gentler, more enlightening. Going back to Laura’s case, He might say: “Do you not know that I foresaw this illness coming? Was it by chance, then, that she returned to her faith and the sacraments of the Church just a few months before the cancer first struck? Was her full recovery not My doing, and did I not grant her an abundance of grace these past two years, so she could endure the latest news with more peace and trust, and with much less fear of death than before? How do you know why I gave her the gift to produce sacred art? If I wanted her to adorn your monastery with a parting gift, am I not free in My generosity to do so? Would you delay her most profound happiness if I choose to call her home now? I do not take people ‘before their time,’ for I am the Lord of time and eternity. Are you perhaps worried that she will suffer, that you will suffer? That is for you to place in My hands, for in My will alone will anyone find strength, peace, wisdom, and happiness. And don’t be too sure that I won’t work a miracle, either, for I’m very good at those. I also choose to test people’s faith and trust, so that they can be perfected, purified like gold. Whatever happens, you will know that I am the Lord.”

Make the application in any situation in which you may be contending with the Almighty. You may have no idea what the Lord’s answer to your struggle or pain is at this moment, but start by trusting that there is one.

We have to realize that, like Job, when we contend with the Almighty, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. God doesn’t mind (and even welcomes) our honest prayers and cries and questions, but He also expects us to listen. He expects us to realize that since it was He, not we, who created the heavens and makes the eagles soar, He does have a perspective on things that we just might have missed. And He has the power to change things, to deliver from evil, to heal, and best of all, to grant eternal life and happiness to those who put their trust in Him, even if that trust seems to fly in the face of the best of human arguments.

So, even though I may do so again in the future, I’m not contending with the Almighty now, but I am submitting to his holy will, keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus, accepting whatever good He wills to bring out of whatever situation. It’s not easy, for any of us, and some have extremely heavy crosses to carry, intolerable sufferings that only faith and grace can make endurable and fruitful. Even then, submission, not contention, is the only response that brings peace and hope. Oh, that our eyes would be opened the same way they’re going to be opened when the gates of Paradise swing wide for us! When the very things we suffer now will be wrought anew into crowns of glory and rejoicing! When agony is transformed to ecstasy, when there will be no more crying or pain, for the former things have passed away!

Yes, the Almighty, the one with the lightning bolts and the hard lessons. We’ll sit on his lap and He’ll stroke our hair as He reminds us that it was always about love, about perfecting his image in us, about making all things new. He was patiently awaiting our “yes” to the necessary trials, drawing forth our trust while in the crucible of earthly exile, as his angels were busy preparing our everlasting home.

There’s a reason He knows everything and we so little. Rather than hearing us insist He tell us, He’d like us to put our hand in his. Don’t contend, cooperate. Don’t rage, but say “Thy will be done.” The day of the Opening of Eyes is coming. Quiet for now. The Lord is near, bringing the peace that passes understanding. You can cry on his shoulder, it’s OK. He will carry you on those same shoulders to the house of glory He has chosen for you since the foundation of the world. Amen.