When Jesus says the Spirit blows wherever it wills he did not rule out prisons. Only yesterday Fr. Terry told me of a prisoner who, in his youth, used to serve mass and always attended mass afterwards but it never really meant that much to him. But then he says, after falling on hard times and ending up in prison he had no one to turn to but his God. His God did not disappoint. Right there in prison he realised for the first time how valuable and meaningful the mass is. It’s not that he likes prison and he can’t wait to finish his time, but he is forever grateful to prison for finding God there.
Another man who fell on hard times is Job. His story begins with the good life. He is blessed aplenty with family, friends, riches, honour and esteem. Furthermore, he is a good, honest and God-fearing man who always shunned evil. But, as Satan argued, Job wasn’t God-fearing for nothing. It’s easy to be virtuous when you are blessed with everything. How about suffering? Well you know the rest of the story. Job was deprived of everything, his riches, his family and finally his health.
In today’s reading we meet Job in a very dark place. Not only has he lost his health, his property and members of his family but he seems to have lost God. He had been living an exemplary life and he cannot understand why God has allowed so much misfortune to befall him. The God whom he worshipped when times were good now seems a complete stranger to him. The God to whom he related as a friend now seems to have become his enemy.
Today Job’s brothers and sisters populate the world. Like Job their sense of loss, whether it is the loss of health or property or loved ones, can bring on something of a spiritual crisis. Some can be tempted to abandon God, when their prayers out of the depths are not heard. They feel angry at God; they sense that their trust in God has not been vindicated. That is very much the place where Job finds himself in today’s reading. Job in that sense is every man or woman. He depicts the dark side of human experience, indeed, the dark side of faith in God. In the end Job found his peace in being reconciled with God, confessing God’s power and his own lack of knowledge ‘of the things beyond me which I did not know’.
The movie ‘Shadowlands’ has a similar roller-coaster feel to it. It is about the English writer C.S. Lewis, a man both of great intellect and great faith. As the name suggests, Lewis experienced the shadow as well as the daylight. Rather late in his life, when he is a well established figure in the University, he meets, befriends and eventually marries an American fan, Joy Gresham. Sadly, their time of joy didn’t last long. Joy was soon afflicted with cancer and died soon after in 1961. Lewis was devastated. He once wrote in the 1940’s that one should endure suffering with patience, but now, some twenty years later, he finds that the simple answers he had once preached no longer apply. He wrote a book after her death called ‘A Grief Observed’ where he gives a vivid description of his own reaction, as a man of faith, to his wife’s death. Confronted with suffering of a devastatingly personal kind he writes: ‘Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.’ Did you ever have that experience?
Lewis’ faith took a battering, but he did not lose his faith. Through the darkness of this experience he claims to have come to love his wife more truly. He writes that God had helped him to see that because the love he and his wife had for each other had reached its earthly limit, it was ready for its heavenly fulfilment.
There is a parable of prayer in all these stories, whether it be the prisoner coming to appreciate the mass in prison, or Job or C.S. Lewis. At the beginning prayer is easy and consoling but not very deep. But then comes a some sense of loss or other where one is stripped of everything, even one’s sense of God. It is at this moment of darkness and dryness that we are tempted to abandon God and simply do our own thing. But this is the vital moment when we must persevere and keep trusting in God, no matter what, only to realise that God is still with us. In this purifying process God eventually leads us to a deeper appreciation of who God is and find our peace in a willingness to allow God to be truly God in our lives.
‘Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?’ We don’t know except to say that suffering purifies our hearts of selfish motives and we come to learn that God never deserts us, even in the darkest moments of our lives. Above all suffering teaches us to love God for God’s sake and not for ours.
In today’s gospel we meet a Jesus who felt the need to experience all of human suffering, to walk among broken humanity, to listen and to share the pain. His is a healing presence. He heals Simon’s mother in law. In the evening people come in their droves to be healed by him. He shares with them forgiveness, concern, a reason for hope, and a reason for joy. By any manner or reckoning this is a stupendous success and there is every temptation to bask in the enthusiasm of the moment. Not so Jesus. He remains totally focussed on the Father and so very early in the morning he seeks out a lonely place to pray. Jesus doesn’t let himself get controlled from without. He only thinks about his Father’s project. No one or nothing will lead him away from his path.
The same Jesus who transformed the village of Capernaum in an evening is with us again today in this Eucharist. He is simply asking us to be his eyes, his smile, his ears and his hands, so that he can still quietly be at work in today’s world, healing it and bringing it to completion. We can best do that by first and foremost seeking out those lonely places of prayer on a regular basis, so that it is Jesus who shines through us, and not our own egos.
Sunday, 8th February 2015