Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
Job 1: 21
The Book of Job is a problem for us, as evil is a problem for us. We speak of the “problem of evil” because we cannot “make sense” of what we call evil from our common-sense perspective of life. Through our cultural and our religious formation we come to judge life out of a certain self-centered calculus, a way of understanding that has a certain balance and justice about it from our point of view. In that calculus we come to believe that life is “what we make it,” and we shall be rewarded based on the goodness of our actions. In different epochs, this basic comprehension becomes nuanced in particular ways. In our present day culture, we speak much of a pervasive sense of “entitlement.” As individuals and as a people, we are so “special” that we deserve a particular level of comfort and recognition. When our inherent superiority, as we see it, is not recognized by others, we tend to get frustrated, angry, and hostile. Our demand is that life must be “fair” to us, which means that we must be rewarded by life and world with what we take to be values for ourselves.
In the opening prologue of the Book of Job, we are given a stark reminder of our actual truth: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.” For Freud, and so many before and since, religion is understood as a great illusion; as a refusal to be able to bear with “the harshness of reality.” Yet, in the Book of Job, we are reminded that the spiritual life is precisely the opposite. It is to live in such a way that we live in constant mindfulness of the truth of who we really are, of where we come from, and of where we are going.
Recently a seventy year old candidate for President of the United States was asked on a television program what was the age of the person he saw when he looked in the mirror. His answer was “thirty-five.” In many ways this interchange captures the cultural milieu in which we live. Truth is the shoring up of our delusions about ourselves and our lives. It is more valuable to us to be healthy rather than sick, to be young rather than old, to be powerful rather than weak, to be rich rather than poor. Our significance is reflected by our standing in front of others who must “take their place in the line” behind us.
The Book of Job, however, asks the question: “Who are we when evil overcomes us, when we have lost everything?” Our sense of ourselves, our perspective on life, is for the most part a creation of our relationships. Our role and place in our various societies are the clothes with which we cover our nakedness. Evil and suffering is the experience that undresses us. We find ourselves, once again, as we were at birth and will be at death.
As we are born into the world and as we leave it, we do so alone. To ponder the experience of Job and to allow it to evoke what is deepest in us is to realize that at our core we are always alone. We never truly become a person until we at least begin to befriend this naked reality, the truth of our birth and death. All of us must undertake this life-work in our own way and through the guidance of our own life experience.
As an only child, I was immersed in loneliness. There was far too much enforced solitude, and, so, having and holding on to friends became my controlling passion. While there were aspects of early religious formation that were difficult for many, for me there was a real emotional security in never having to be alone that I relished. Life in religious community, despite its occasional or more than occasional difficulties, afforded me a relief from the painful fear of being rejected and left alone. Over time I came to realize that true being together required far more than occupying the same space and following the same schedule. I realized that often being with others with whom there was little or no connection evoked even deeper loneliness than being alone.
Slowly, I came to see, through both congenial and painful experiences, that communion is possible only between and among those who appropriate rather than reject their own loneliness. It is not by mutual bolstering of the delusions of the collectivity but in the honest sharing of our loneliness and nakedness that we experience true friendship and communion. Evil is a problem, but it is not, ultimately, too much for us. We do not need to run and hide from our own nakedness. Job’s friends argue with and berate him because they must keep him at a distance. The great paradox is that we only know communion in our lonely and naked presence to each other.
We pray in Psalm 62: 5, “My soul, wait in silence for God only, For my hope is from God.” We are able truly to be with each other because this primordial relationship with God alone is true of all of us. Suffering and evil cannot overwhelm us when we know in the fiber of our being that we came into this world with nothing and will leave it with nothing. Nothing, that is, but the very source of our life and love.
At such times a person will consider with humble heart that of himself he has nothing and will say with patience and self-resignation these words of holy Job: “God gave and God has taken away. As the Lord judged best, so has it come to pass. Blessed by the name of the Lord” (cf. Jb 1:21). He will also abandon himself in all things . . . .
Such a person will turn all his virtues and his entire state of abandonment into an interior joy and will place himself in the hands of God, rejoicing that he is able to suffer for God’s glory. If he does this properly, he will savor more interior joy than ever before, for nothing is more pleasant to one who loves God than the feeling that he belongs entirely to his Beloved. If he has properly followed the path of virtue as far as this point, then even if he does not possess all the forms of virtue which have previously been described, that will not prevent him from experiencing within himself the foundation of all the virtues, namely, humble obedience in what he does and patient resignation in what he suffers. On this twofold foundation this mode is set firm forever.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, II,A