EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Hesychasm and the Book of Job II
Bill Long 2/4/05
Job and the Spiritual Life
Hesychasm's understanding of the steps or stages in the spiritual life has an immediate appeal to us. It is attractive because it recognizes, first of all, that we need to stop or slow down in order to be open to the divine. Most people in America instinctively believe this. We know that our lives are too fast-paced and too schedule-driven to truly become the type of spiritual life that we want to live. We may have had "glimpses" of what a "life of retreat" or "contemplation" could become if we have taken a weekend or week just to let life slow down and let nature, God, the world, our senses or whatever speak to us. Thus, the Hesychast insistence on detachment from material and mental things has an intuitive attraction.
Second, it is appealing because it emphasizes the hard work that is needed to attain union with God. I guess I need to explain this point a bit. America knows that most valuable things are only obtained by hard work. America is willing to work sort of hard on issues of spirituality if there is some kind of payoff along the way. I say "sort of" hard because more than 99% of Americans who want to take up the spiritual life will not do the first step in truly rigorous cultivation of that life: try to learn the language(s) in which the original texts were written. But we will pay a lot of money for someone who knows the original texts to lead us on a retreat. So, we will work sort of hard on it.
But ultimately Hesychasm is unappealing to me because I am captivated by the vision and spiritual understanding of the Book of Job.
The Book of Job never lays out a three-step or a five-step or, really, an "any step" view of the spiritual life. Yet, I think it is the most accurate portrayal of the emotions attendant upon loss of any work in the Bible and perhaps Western literature. Central to understanding the Book of Job is the overriding sense of injustice that permeates Job's experience and speeches. He has experienced tremendous loss (his ten children, his goods, his health) and, beginning in ch. 3, he expresses a panoply of emotions to try to understand his loss and where God is in his loss. Some of the emotions that grip him are denial, undifferentiated pain, anger, bitterness, grief and shame or humiliation. The friends, actually, try to encourage Job to keep his "chin up," or to recognize the transitoriness of his loss, but Job will have nothing to do with their Panglossian optimism. He suspects, rather he knows, that God is just having a very very bad series of days and that God is in the wrong in inflicting so much pain on him. That is, Job knows that he has done nothing wrong to warrant the huge loss that has come his way.
When describing the pain that pulsates through his system, Job says the following, "For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes (Job 3:24-26)." This is a man who confesses that he is "not quiet." He isn't "ready" for step two, much less step three, of the Hesychast system. His world is occupied by the large spaces of torment, by the images of God's oppressive presence, by his inability to explain to himself where God is, why God is silent or why God has visited such disproportionate suffering on him (disproportionate to what Job "deserves" as a blameless and upright man--Job 1:1).
What Job does, rather than trying to "detach" himself from the flow of events, is to plunge deeper into the feelings he experiences and thereby utters some of the most poignant, powerful, terrifying and hopeless poetry in the Western tradition. Who could not be moved by the rhythmic desperation of 3:24-26? Who could remain unaffected by the great poem on human mortality in Job 14, in which Job entertains the notion of a future hope, a hope for some kind of life beyond this life for a few verses (14:13-17) before his vision comes crashing down with a numbing feeling of hopelessness (14:18-22)? Who could remain dry-eyed as s/he reads the catalogue of oppression visited by God on Job in ch. 16, where God is depicted as a fierce warrior who is doing everything possible to make Job's life miserable?
Work of spirituality? You bet. The Book of Job is more accurate in portraying the real mental life of people than any spiritual guide or book of nurture could do. But the Book of Job assumes that people cannot simply, or even with great difficulty, be lifted from this tumultuous life by committing themselves to God or studying the wisdom of the fathers. It assumes that what we want more than anything in life is understanding of our situation and intimacy with God. But, the reality of human pain makes these dual desires well-nigh unattainable.
At the end of the Book of Job (ch. 42), he will experience some kind of "breakthrough." If it is a breakthrough of gracious proportions, where his vision of God is actually a vision of blessing and an overwhelming positive experience, it is not the result of a "process" of gradual theosis, as in the Hesychast tradition, but of a sudden irruption of the divinity in his life. But if his breakthrough is one of negative proportions, as I have argued in my online Job essays, what occurs is that Job is so overwhelmed by the vision of God that he is emotionally depleted and utterly devastated. That is, the Book of Job may ultimately suggest that a vision of God, the union with God which the Hesychasts promote, may be more damaging to the human psyche than helpful. And, if you think about it for a minute, you can see how this may the case. Isn't a "union" with God like putting your finger into an open electric socket? Isn't it like asking a tsunami to wash over you? Why isn't it more like Semele's experience (in Greek mythology) of wanting to see Zeus is his basic divinity--and being incinerated in the process?
So, I am all in favor of a spiritual tradition that realizes that we need loads of quiet and that the fulness of divinity is most present when we are in that time of quiet. I am also in favor of lots of Greek terms trying to describe the realities of life. But, ultimately, I am attached to, rather than detached from, my body. I am riveted to rather than riven from my emotions. And, I think I like it that way. I want to be preoccupied with the emotions attendant upon loss and grief, with the feelings that result from emotional or sexual union, with the uncertainty and gifts that the flow of relationships provide. Detachment? I don't think that much interests me.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long