August 29, 1999
James R. Gorman
This may be like the prayer referred to by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 where he says that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
Oh Lord. You know, beyond our ability to speak.
The abruptness of this address to the Almighty is shocking in a way. It is not "Oh Lord, you know all things" (as Psalm 139 puts it so well). It is almost a prayer in itself, which could be prayed in a number of different ways.
It could be "Oh Lord, you know everything and I know nothing. I'll place all my trust in you."
Or it could be, "Oh Lord. You know." in the sense of dejection and sadness that suggests that we don't even have to finish the prayer. It's the same old story. Lord, you've heard it all before.
Or it could be, "Oh Lord, you know and you don't do anything about it."
This last version is closer to the actual intent of this section of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is obviously angry that Israel is not listening to the charges he is bringing before the king and his household. He is also angry that God keeps placing these complaints about Israel's sinfulness and injustice on his back. Lord, if you are going to make me say these things to Israel, to present your case before Israel, if you are going to place these words on my heart, then please punish those who mock me because of that.
Then Jeremiah warms up to his attack on God.
"I suffer on your account" Jeremiah rages.
"I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, I loved you with my whole heart. In fact," Jeremiah says, "I'm even named after you. The last syllable of my name is the first syllable of yours. Look, we're not enemies here. I love you, you know that. I have delighted in the word you have placed in my heart. I'm on your side. Why do you let my persecutors have their way?"
"Why is my pain unceasing and my wound incurable?"
And then, "To me you are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail."
This last accusation against God is most forceful and angry. I'm almost embarrassed to be listening in at this point. This is obviously "an established relationship that permits bold and candid speech."(1) God is, as a poet put it, an "intimate enemy" with whom the most honest and forthright thoughts can be shared candidly and honestly.
"To me you are like a deceitful brook and like waters that fail." What amazing words! The more amazing that they have been preserved in Scripture for all to see. God seems to be an intimate enemy against whom we can say, like Art Linkletter's kids, the darndest things. Great God, you are a mirage in the desert and you are like a stream filled with toxic waste.
Hell hath no fury like that of an angry pietist and fury hath no eloquence like that of an angry poet.
I have been reading, in preparation of our trip to Ireland, one of Ireland's greatest contemporary poets, Seamus Heaney. The fact that his first name is the one my Grandmother used to call me is something of an attraction. But more than that, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1995, and is the boldest poetic voice in Ireland today. Heaney was born in Northern Ireland, but he left in frustration over what the Irish euphemistically call "the Troubles." He and his family moved to a small village south of Dublin in County Wicklow. In his Nobel acceptance lecture he tells a painful story of the complexities of life in Northern Ireland. Heaney writes:
One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, 'Any Catholics among you, step out here.' As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don't move, we'll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was pushed away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the provisional IRA.(2)And the poet Seamus Heaney, like the poet Jeremiah, is unable to get history to make a decent point. Maybe there is no point to history and the God who seems to make so much of justice and peace seems only to preside over a history made up of insanity and chaos. Perhaps God is a deceitful brook and waters that fail. This is a story, Heaney reminds us in his Nobel lecture, that could be told in Bosnia, Rwanda, "and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth."
Is it possible, he wonders, that Tacitus is right that "Peace is really only the desolation that is left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power"--peace is only the absence of war?
"No" he says. The processes of peace and justice are at work and he, as a poet decided that he would pay at least as much attention "in [his] reckoning to the marvelous as well as to the murderous."
He then tells another story "out of Ireland," as he says; the story of St. Kevin.
It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense.True to life, if subversive of common sense.
That could have been the motto of Jeremiah, who resolved to be obedient to God even if he did not understand God's ways. To serve the cause of life even in the midst of the machinations of death.
I love the stubbornness of Kevin and I have always loved the stubbornness of Jeremiah. The intimate unwillingness to distrust God, who will provide against all the evidence to the contrary. To trust in God, even if subversive of common sense.
Heaney concludes that St. Kevin's story is another story "out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas." These are stories that say in profound ways that good has a way of eroding the forces of evil even though they seem to take a good bit of time and requires that each of us who wish to be children of God be prepared at several turns to act against common sense and speak boldly and candidly in favor of life. And that finally the work of poets has been "as important to the transformation of the culture of any nation as [have] the ambushes of guerrilla armies; . . ."
Seamus Heaney suggests that the poet, the dramatist, the musician, the artist, the preacher, the believer, are themselves prophets of a certain kind who must speak with eloquence in a way that touches the base of our sympathies while at the very same time reckoning full well with the unsympathetic world around us. That is, really, the function of poetry in our world. And there is a St. Kevin stubbornness about that.
The power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we truly are hunters and gatherers of [hope], that is the function of the poet, the preacher, the believer.
In other words, we must pay as much attention to the squeeze of the hand in that story about the Protestants murdered on the roadside as we do to the murders itself. As we "channel surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of making" our hearts and souls immune, it is important for the poet to hear the minor voices that speak quietly about life in the deafening chatter of death.
Jeremiah understood that and knew that God understood that. And thus he could pray, with great and frustrated earnestness, "Oh Lord, thou knowest."
1. Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down p. 140.
2. Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996 p. 458.