Friday, May 27, 2011

God in the midst of the storm

Photo credit Paul McEnany via Creative Commons
 By Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington, DC

We are all struck by the fury and devastation in the Midwest this year. And we are left to wonder why and how God allows it. And old song says,

Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? ….And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.” The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald….. “Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early!”

Yes, where does the “love of God go?” There are no simple answers, those that attempt them know not of what they speak.

There is a story of St Antony of Egypt wherein he pondered such things and received an answer of sorts:

The Abbot Antony, being at a loss in his meditation on the depth of the judgments of God, prayed, saying, “Lord, how comes it that some die in so short a space of life, and some live to the further side of decrepit old age: and wherefore are some in want, and others rich with various means of wealth, and how are the unrighteous rich and the righteous oppressed by poverty?” And a voice came to him saying, “Antony, turn thine eyes upon thyself: for these are the judgments of God, and the knowledge of them is not for thee.”

It was an answer in its “non-answer.” For our minds see so very little. Wittgenstein famously said in his Tractatus, Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence.

I suppose if God were to advance an explanation we would hear only thunder, for our minds cannot conceive such a thing. Sometimes we must remain humbly quiet before our God. Job thought question God, and God did answer, with a non-answer:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know….! (Job 38:1-4)

Then comes the great litany of creation, one of the most painfully beautiful passages in the Old Testament (it goes on for chapters). At the end, Job can only say,

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. [You asked,] ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:1-3)

Another song (a gloss on Psalm 104) speaks of God’s glory in creation but also of its fearsomeness:

O tell of His might, O sing of His grace,
Whose robe is the light, whose canopy, space,
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

I have often meditated on the “non-answer, answer” and concluded that, while I cannot understand God’s ways, I have also been the situation where I cannot explain what I do, and yet do them, I must.
At times I must take my Cat Daniel to the vet f0r shots. At the mere sight of the cat carrier, he darts under the bed and begins caterwauling and digs his claws into the carpet to resist my persistent tugs to pick him up. I tell him we are only going for a visit and he will be fine. But he does not understand, even though I speak to him. So loud and awful are terrified protests that neighbors look out the widows as I take him to the car. He moans and caterwauls all the way to the vet who puts him the front of the line since the waiting room is so disturbed with his cries. He moans all the way home and, upon emerging from the cage avoids me for days out of fear. Talk about trauma. But no explanation is possible for him. I act for his good, and the good of others but he does not, cannot, see that.

At times I do “violence” in my garden. Roses must be pruned, old and dying plants must be removed. Fruits must be picked. Some flowers are cut and brought inside to be enjoyed. The soil must be broken and turned.

One can imagine that if the garden and plants were sentient this is all very unsettling. I would like to explain what I am doing, but they are only plants and soil and cannot understand. When I break the soil I only enhance its ability to give life, but it does not understand this, it “feels” (in my imagined scenario) only pain. The pruning is “painful” to the roses and temporarily diminishes their glory But I know what I am doing and in Spring the glorious results show forth. Even to the clipped flowers I intend no indignity, rather it is a great dignity that they are brought into the house to enjoy special favor and admiration.

We cannot understand – I realize that humans are not cats or garden plants. But I suppose we are no better able to understand God’s ways than my Cat Daniel can understand me, or my roses comprehend my pruning. I have thought however, that the non-answer of God is not a refusal to answer us, so much as it is a manifestation of our inability to fathom God’s ultimate plans. He knows what he does and why. We are often left to cry or protest. Even if He did explain, we would hear only thunder.

There is an old song that says:

We are often tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by

Trials dark on every hand,
and we cannot understand
all the ways of God would lead us
to that blessed promised land;
but he guides us with his eye,
and we’ll follow till we die,
and we’ll understand it better by and by.

Yes, by and by, but not now. Jesus says as much:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear….You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me. (John 16, varia)

For now, all we can do is pray for those who were lost and those who are suffering. We can send our help, but too many simplistic answers for why only make the suffering worse. And so we respect the mystery of God’s providence and trust by faith that All things work together for good to those who love God and are called, according to his purposes (Romans 8:28), somehow, in ways we know not.

This song says, When the oceans rise and thunders roll, I will soar with you above the storm. Father you are king over the flood, I will be still, know you are God.

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