“My whole life is a mess…”
I am a priest and I have heard statements to this effect any number of times in my ministry. It usually comes not after a single misfortune, but after multiple problems. It also reflects that the problems have moved beyond their external boundaries and have now become the framework of a person’s whole experience. It is not a statement to be taken lightly.
The Scriptures do not treat such experiences in a callous fashion. The entire book of Job poses the problem of a man who has lost everything to a string of misfortunes. Indeed, the book even provides the background story in which we hear a dialog between God and Satan in which God specifically allows Satan to do all of these terrible things to Job. Job’s problems are not in his head.
Job has no problems within his head -for after each terrible misfortune he says, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” But he is not blessed in the counsel of his wife. She is disgusted with how Job’s life is turning out and says, “Curse God and die!” His friends offer misguided counsel as well. Few things can be as irritating as a theologizing friend when you have suffered terrible loss. The platitudes of the “comforters” are often little more than salt in fresh wounds.
But the book of Job does not solve the riddle of Job’s suffering. There is no satisfactory answer – or no answer that would satisfy the philosopher. Job receives the vision of God – and with that – he is satisfied.
An oft-quoted verse regarding the world and its suffering is in the book of Romans. St. Paul says:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)
I would be willing to extend St. Paul’s statement to say simply: All things work together for good.
And this often proves a great difficulty for many. Our minds and emotions explode at the many contradictions that arise in the face of the world’s suffering (or that of a single child) and the word “good.” But it is important to note that St. Paul does not say, “All things are good…” It is, instead, a confession about the nature of creation’s movement. Despite all that is bad, wrong and evil, creation is moving towards the good (“working together”).
In theology, this “good working” of God in creation is called “providence.” In the Baptismal liturgy we hear:
For of Your own good will, You have brought into being all things which before were not, and by Your power You uphold creation, and by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the elements, You crowned the circle of the year with four seasons.
The very heart of this faith begins in its first words: “Of Your own good will…” The Christian belief about all that exists in creation is that it is good. That the universe exists is itself good and is the work of God who gave it existence “of His own good will.” The same God who called it into existence upholds it. He sustains it in existence. If God did not maintain all of creation in existence, moment by moment, it would instantly cease to be. The good God who gave the world its good existence and sustains it, also gave it a good order – and it is here that the faith introduces the word providence. The ordering of creation has a purpose and a direction. And this purpose and direction are good.
I often think that our modern world, despite all of its technology and science, fails to think of the world as it truly is. Everything is in motion. Nothing in all the universe actually reaches the state of non-motion, or “absolute zero” as it is called. We can approach it, but never arrive. But our imagination tends to think of the world in very static terms, as though it were a snapshot or a painting.
It is difficult to speak of things in motion. Not unusually, in the writings of the fathers, the language of motion is translated into the imagery of music or dance. Music is sound in motion just as dance is pure motion. But as all of creation is itself in motion, it is appropriate to speak of the music of creation and the dance of creation.
The music that is the song of creation moves towards a goal. Like a great composition, the many discordant moments, the counter-melodies and sounds that jar the ear still move inexorably towards a resolution, a final chord that no one has yet heard except the one who first began to sing. And that chord will resolve all sounds so that they will be seen to have always been part of the whole. It is the musical expression of Job’s vision.
The folk dances in many Orthodox lands most often have about them a movement within a circle. The dance sometimes threatens to break the circle, to drive the dancer off her feet and hurl her with centrifugal force beyond the reach of the circle itself. But the steps return the dancer to the movement of the circle again and again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, sometimes with leaps and great skill, while other times like the drunken steps of the uncertain. But the circle remains and continues. It unites the dancers with the music, and at its best enables them to enter communion with the music so that their motion becomes the expression of the notes themselves. But the circle remains.
A very common presence in Orthodox music, both in the wide-spread Byzantine tradition as well as in many other places, is the “drone” note, known as the “ison.” It is a note that is held beneath the melodic line, sometimes sung by only a few. When it is sung well, it never overwhelms the melody. I like it best when the ison is barely there at all – when it is both present and absent – so much a part of the melody, though remaining stable, but so united that it can only be discerned through effort.
I think of this ison as being similar to the mystery that has been “hidden from ages and from generations.” It has always been present and even audible, but most fail to hear it (they weren’t listening). But the ison represents a unity and purpose, a common note that links every moment of the song. It is often just a note, sung, but with no words giving it shape. It supports the words. It gives an order that could easily be forgotten with the melismatic wanderings of a byzantine tone. For the melody wanders, feeling its way and pressing the boundaries of order. But the ison remains and always calls the melody back to its harmony.
The purpose and providence of God, the good ordering of the universe, is almost never discerned by studying the twists and turns of life. The outrageous events that assault the innocent are harsh notes that disturb our ability to hear any harmony. St. Paul’s affirmation of the working of God’s good purpose is the confession of a man who was persecuted, stoned as a heretic, beaten as a criminal, imprisoned as an enemy, once tortured with hatred and envy. He knew all of the tragedy of the ancient world: infant mortality, famine, natural disasters, all of the catastrophes of our existence. And it is from within that harsh cacophony that he hears the single note of God’s goodness and its promise towards all things.
One of my favorite American hymns, “My Life Flows On An Endless Song,” was written by the Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry. A verse was added in 1950 that I have converted in my own thoughts to a Paschal hymn, the tyrants being our adversary and the prison, Hades. I gladly sing it with my friends.
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?