I am in a particularly difficult situation right now – looking for jobs in a very tough job market and overall trying to figure out my vocation – and I often hear from people that “God has something out there for me, so just keep going.” This by the way is perfectly good theology – I cannot fault it – and I also cannot fault those who wish to give me comfort in this way, well meaning as they usually are. However, whenever I hear it I can’t help wondering about the bigger question of the nature of the “something” out there for me. Implied in the statement is that this something will be something I want, something that people can immediately recognize as a blessing. And when I think of this, I think of Boethius.
For those who are not familiar with Boethius, he was a medieval philosopher and politician in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. He was accused of conspiring against his emperor, Theodoric, and was imprisoned. His most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, opens with the imprisoned Boethius’s lament. Very soon, however, he receives a visit from Lady Philosophy, who takes him to task for his fruitless and immature self-pity, and undertakes a dialogue with him, leading him through a gauntlet of questions and answers that cut to the philosophical heart of his problem, often leaving behind exactly the kinds of question we most care about in the twenty first century, which is how we deal with suffering and loss emotionally. In fact, there is a sense in which Boethius is speaking of something that I think we have nearly lost the cultural capacity to imagine, an inexorable reality that is both good and does not cater to each and every of our whims [rather, people in general seem to believe in an inexorable reality that is by and large evil and destructive, and a progress fighting against this reality and for our whims – the idea that a) the cosmos might be good and b) that it provides a pattern to conform to rather than an imperfection to be perfected is very alien to a modern way of thinking]
In any case, I think of Boethius at times like these because Philosophy will not let him remain under the delusion that the “something” out there for him must necessarily be something he will like or something most people would consider a blessing. It includes both the top and the bottom of the wheel of fortune, and some brutal facts about the way things work. Boethius, for instance, must realize that though he was in his own way seeking to do something he considered good through politics –to “change the world,” so to speak – this change is not ultimately in his hands – from Boethius’s perspective, he left behind a corrupt government. Moreover, the end of Boethius’s own personal story is something of a case study in what he was trying to show in The Consolation – Boethius was eventually executed for his alleged crimes rather than reinstated.
Despite its name, The Consolation is hard reading. It is hard because all those things we want, such as emotional comfort, reassurance, and diversion are not there. In fact, the first few times I read it, I, coming out a good emotive Evangelical background, kept wondering: “Where is personal experience? Where is the incarnational Christ that meets us where we are at? Isn’t it He whom we turn to for consolation?” This sense was in fact so pressing for me that I gave a paper approximately oriented around it to a society of Boethian scholars, and scandalized them by suggesting that there is no consolation at the end. For a while I wondered if Boethius in fact had not been a little too influenced by Greek philosophy and not enough influenced by Christ. What I did not recognize but hopefully recognize now is that, whether or not there was consolation, there was certainly truth, and it is a truth that we need to hear particularly around the season of Lent.
While it is nice to come up with a comfortable juxtaposition wherein we have the cold, unfeeling God of the philosophers on one side and the personable buddy Jesus on the other, I can’t help seeing the point Boethius was driving at at the very heart of the Gospels – part of faith means recognizing that God’s blessing and salvation are not the same as personal or national success. At one point, Christ is talking about the crucifixion and Peter, being a good Evangelical, stops him and says, “Don’t go talking about crosses and suffering. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. And surely it cannot be that.” Christ’s response is to address Peter as Satan. And we see it elsewhere in reverse: when asked whether a man went blind on account of his own or his parents sin, Jesus says it is neither – it is so God can be glorified. And those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse people than those who did not. The God revealed in Christ is the same God who speaks out of the whirlwind in Job.
Like Boethius and Christ in the Gospels, I often wonder about those who are not blessed. I have heard from various Christians stories about how God has brought about a particular set of circumstances to bless them in a particular way; moreover, I have no doubt that God is behind these things – every good and perfect gift is from above. But I sometimes can’t help wondering about the flip-side of these stories. What about the other people who were killed because they did not leave the country at just the right moment when the tsunami hit? What about the people who were not protected from the stray bullet by the Bible in their pocket? I can’t help thinking that, for every person who experiences miraculous healing through prayer, there are many others who die with prayers no less fervent. Once in fact I heard someone listing the things they were thankful for. They were in the hospital for something at least treatable, and one of the things they were thankful for was that they were not like so and so in the next bed who was dying of such and such a disease etc. Apparently, God is praiseworthy because he did not give me that illness, and we can move on without dealing with the fact that someone – anyone – suffers from it.
Lent looks these problems square in the face. With Christ we set our faces like flint toward Jerusalem. I imagine that none of the Desert Fathers went into the desert because they could not find one – deserts were plentiful and barren in the minds and hearts and cultures of the affluent societies around them. Rather they sought a physical environment that in fact reflects the way God’s world really works, at least in this time between times. People are parched and hungry in the desert. Yes, people die. And in faith we say that, yes, God made this world and it is good with all its mysteries and tragedies, though that does not keep us from asking once or twice now and then if this cup cannot be taken from us. Some like Pilate think truth is illusory, a vapour that does not really exist. Others seem to think of it as an objectively solid club to beat people over the head with. I suggest that it is a nail that pierces our hands and feet, and penetrates even to dividing joint and marrow. And there will not be resurrection until we have tasted it in our blood.
Back when I was part of Evangelical circles, there was not much talk of Lent. I have a theory that this is because there was a popular theology asserting that Christ not only died to take away our sins but also our suffering. If you take away suffering – the long, slow purgatorial path of painful penance – you can do away with Lent. From the perspective of such theology, Christ celebrated Lent once for all, and it is finished.
I and the liturgical calendar would like to submit otherwise. The blessing is not that Christ takes away our suffering, but rather that our suffering in a way as miraculous as transubstantiation can become part of the suffering of His body, the church. Pain and suffering will not go away this side of the apocalypse, and there are always people, Christian and otherwise, who will suffer. In Lent, we as the church do not come to fix this, though goodness knows we will do as much as we can. Rather, we witness to an alternative way of suffering, a way that shatters the illusions and vexations that we take comfort in, a way that exposes us to the searing whirlwind of truth in the desert of repentance. And the deepest secret of all is that there is a strange tenderness, even in the heart of the whirlwind.