The Heart of Darkness
[Job] has lost everything: his sons and daughters, his livelihood, his house, and now his health. He is all alone, scraping his wounds with the sharp-edged fragments of clay pots. Yet he is not alone. He is accompanied by friends, inquisitors really, who are keen to discuss with eerie dispassion how such an apparently righteous person could suffer so egregiously. Job pierces the maelstrom with a simple acknowledgment that the spirit gives life.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing
and the spirit-breath of every human being. (Job 12:7–10)
Later, a beleaguered Job protests that he would never speak wrongly or deceitfully as long as he lives,
as long as my breath [neshamah] is in me
and the spirit-breath [ruach] of God is in my nostrils. (Job 27:3)
Here is the bare-bones expression of the spirit in the valley of the shadow of death. We are in the heart of darkness now. Stay with me—and Job—here just for a moment. I know that many of us have learned to encounter the spirit on the mountaintop. For now, let’s shuffle in the dark, for we have so much to learn about the spirit in this deep, dark, desperate valley, so much that we can’t learn in the heart of joy.
And what we learn is this: there is life growing here. There is a nanosecond’s glimpse of energy, a split second of vitality. The big bang occurred in a moment’s time, and all of the energy in our universe can be traced to that moment. Close your eyes and you’ll miss it. Turn your head away and it will evaporate. That split second is all the time the spirit needs to generate life: “as long as my breath is in me and the spirit-breath of God is in my nostrils.”
Or consider a desert floor, where nothing seems to grow. Look closely and you will find life there, unexpected life, odd-looking life, life as protest against the harsh sun, the dry sand, the frigid nights: “as long as my breath is in me and the spirit-breath of God is in my nostrils.”
Or recall the funeral anthem in the Book of Common Prayer, which begins, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Job might have turned this around: “In the midst of death we are in life.” We breathe. We breathe spirit-breath. We breathe ruach. And so we live, with an exhausted Job, “as long as our breath is in us and the spirit-breath of God is in our nostrils.”
Job teaches us, in the heart of darkness, that a beleaguered human being can speak only “as long as” she has breath and spirit within her—yet she will speak. Job hasn’t fabricated this insight. He has picked this sentiment up from the poems that we still know as the Hebrew psalms. These are his spiritual arsenal. They lodge in his memory and protect him against the onslaught of sickness, loneliness, poverty, and exposure to the indignity of insensitive friends. In one of these, the psalmist sings,
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I yet live.
Job, like the Hebrew poet, lives along the hard edge of death and life, gain and loss. The poet, like Job, will sing “as long as I live” and offer praise “while I yet live.”
How can the poet, like Job, claim to ride a razor’s edge of life in the heart of darkness? Because the poet knows that life grows there. If you want to find the spirit that creates new life, you have to look into the heart of darkness. The poet knows this.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their spirit,
they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
The pendulum swings in this song between death and life, life and death, but it swings more widely toward life than it does toward death. When death has the upper hand, when dust defines us, God sends the spirit-breath to construct life; God’s spirit grabs a toehold in the desert. The poet, and Job with him, can sing in the brief compass of a lifetime, not because he ignores the harsh realities of existence, but because he knows precisely this: God sends the spirit in a flash of renewal. Bang! Big bang!
The poet and a pathetic Job know that inspiration survives among the cliffs of despair. It may be, in fact, that truth means the most in the heart of darkness rather than in spiritual spurts of mountaintop enthusiasm. It may be that praise means the most in the valley of the shadow of death, where grief stomps on our chest and makes it barely possible to breathe—and yet we breathe nonetheless.
An Ash Heap Today
This is a living truth, one that is all around us. Let me explain what I mean by telling you what I always tell a dear friend of mine, David, who is not a Christian, when he asks me why I attend church. Though it is not the answer he wants—he wants to hear that I encounter God there in some sort of direct and remarkable way—I usually tell him something kind of like this:
A church I once attended was unremarkable by all measurable standards. We were about a hundred souls gathered in a nondescript building without vaulted ceilings or polished wood pews. We had neither theater-style seating nor a state-of-the-art sound system. We had a few old speakers hanging from the ceiling, a pull-down screen that was not much bigger than the household screen we used to put up in our living room to watch slides of family vacations. We had a cross with nails in it sitting on the floor—a relic from one year’s Maundy Thursday service—a piano, and a small electronic organ without pipes. We were a pretty standard-issue church.
Except that every Sunday Priscilla and I perched in a special spot. We sat two rows behind a married couple who occupied the very first row. They sat there, not to make their presence known or to display their piety, but because they were both in wheelchairs. The husband could barely lift his head, and he needed to be fed at the potluck lunch we had the first Sunday of every month. Sunday after Sunday, they rolled up to the front, confined and immobile, and praised God.
Priscilla and I also sat next to a feisty woman in her fifties. She too was in pain every Sunday morning because she had multiple sclerosis. One week she told me that every morning she felt like she was hit with a Mack truck; it took her hours to mobilize her energy for the day. Sunday after Sunday, however, she sat and stood and sang and prayed. Every Sunday without fail.
These good people surrounding us on Sunday morning came to God in chronic pain. All of them understood only too well that the spirit of God within did not give them quick release from what hurt or threatened to undo them. All of them knew that the spirit of God in them was a daily gift that kept death at bay, that kept them moving, even in the incidental motions within a wheelchair or with an aluminum walker. Each of them learned to value every breath they took. Each realized that the breath of God—what Israel’s authors would identify with the spirit, or ruach, of God—is a gift. Each came Sunday after Sunday ready to allow that spirit-breath, however little or much there may have been within them on any given Sunday, to roll over their tongues in praise or prayer or quiet protest.
That is why, I tell my friend, I attend church Sunday after Sunday. These people are my moral compass. They remind me that persistent pain cannot extinguish praise, that praise is more precious perhaps when it is peppered by pain. They teach me that the spirit-breath of God survives even—or especially—in the shadow of death. They assure me that spirituality is not an escape from mortality but the pulse of life even in the throes of death.