By Deborah Smith Douglas
Job’s world has caved in. From within the ruins, he rails against God.
Why can’t he die, he demands to know, if this prison of helplessness and pain is what his life has come to?
Why is light given to one “whom God has fenced in” (Job 3:23)?1
It is a powerful question, and a vivid image of being enclosed—shut in, trapped—with no way out.
Maybe because I’m more than a little claustrophobic myself—I will happily walk up a dozen flights of stairs rather than take an elevator; I have never liked small enclosed places of any kind—my mind shies away from the fearfulness of being “fenced in.”
My mind in fact wants to deny the fearfulness altogether.
“Fences are good,” I assure my frightened self. The fences and hedges and stone walls that hemstitch the English countryside are absolutely necessary for the safety of the flocks. What the shortsighted sheep take to be obstructing barriers are in fact only the wise shepherds’ way of protecting them from predators and storms.
Surely (this line of whistling-in-the-dark leads me to insist) what Job thought was a terrifying dead end was really just a sheepfold, God’s loving protective enclosure against unseen enemies and dangers. And sometimes that can indeed be the case with any of us. In our panic, we can feel trapped, hemmed in—when in fact, if we could only see it, we are being held safe from harm.
However, even my skittish mind and heart must admit, sometimes Job is right. Sometimes we really are enclosed in darkness, and can see no way out. Sometimes, as the poet Rilke put it, grief or trouble can make us feel suffocatingly surrounded by “massive darkness.” Not like a lamb secure behind a fence. Like a miner in a narrow underground tunnel, pushing through solid rock:
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.2
When I am brave enough to be honest, I know that Rilke has captured both the isolation and the claustrophobic entrapment of certain kinds of inner darkness. Grief. Depression. Fear. Physical pain. Mental suffering. Any of those can make us feel as though we are walled up, alone, in solid rock: everything is close to your face, and everything close to your face is stone.
Margaret Spufford is an English historian and Anglican laywoman who has lived with pain for most of her life: the physical pain of her own incurable bone disease, and the emotional pain of her daughter’s incurable metabolic disease.
In her oddly but aptly titled book Celebration, Dr. Spufford describes the isolating nature of the anguish for her pain-wracked child as “feeling... imprisoned behind a very thick plate-glass wall.”3 Behind this wall, she could see other people but not hear them. She was unreachable, and so were they.
This solitary, fenced-in un-reachableness also characterized her own physical pain. The first time she experienced the imprisoning effect of acute pain was soon after her own diagnosis of idiopathic osteoporosis, which causes her egg-shell bones to break spontaneously, immobilizing her with sudden pain. She describes one such experience of pain as so intense that in an instant it separated her from everyone else in the world, enclosing her for the first time behind that impenetrable barrier of pain.
On another occasion, as she was being taken to the hospital by ambulance after one of the first of these shattering episodes, the paramedics stumbled, momentarily dropping the stretcher on which they were carrying her. They caught it again almost at once, but even that small jarring was enough to fracture another two vertebrae. “I can only have fallen a couple of inches,” she recounts, “but the effect was terrifying:”
All my reflexes seemed to go berserk in the pain. I, who so much valued control, was completely out of control. I was screaming. . . my fingers were clenched in someone’s hair, the world ran amok, and my husband, who was there, was utterly irrelevant through the pain. He could not reach me. Nor could anyone.
However, even in that moment’s catastrophic isolation, when no one, including her husband, was able to reach her, she realized something else—somehow Christ was with her, inside the walls of the suffering:
It was months before I dared tell even my husband, who was not likely to feel that I had suddenly been afflicted with religious mania, and knew that I did not go in for pious or saccharine imagery, that quite extraordinarily at that moment of unreachability, I had suddenly been aware, even as I screamed, of the presence of the Crucified. He did not cancel the moment, or assuage it, but was inside it.4
Rilke similarly glimpses the possibility of a transforming, accompanying presence in the “massive darkness” of his grief. At the end of the poem quoted earlier, Rilke asks God to “make yourself fierce, break in:”
...then your great transforming will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.5
The exchange that Rilke longs for—for his great grief to be taken by God, for God’s great transforming to be given to him—is exactly what is promised (and made possible) by Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection.
In unimaginable love, God has taken on our humanity—including all our mortal terror, sorrow, and pain—and invited us, in exchange, to participate in the mystery of eternal life that is God’s own nature.
In unimaginable love, God has taken on our humanity
God offers us, in that exchange, a partaking of divinity so deep that it amounts to union, what the Lady Julian called “one-ing” ourselves to God.6 God in Christ is so profoundly with us that that “with-ness” is who he is: Emmanuel.
What Rilke longs for in his darkness, and what Margaret Spufford experienced in hers, is just that truth: our suffering in this life may be unspeakable; we may feel ourselves to be completely isolated and alone, but in truth God is with us. Not (as Spufford realized) assuaging or canceling the pain, but inhabiting it—and thereby transforming it.
This “great transforming” of our catastrophes is possible because the Incarnation was for Jesus just such a catastrophic narrowing, just such a claustrophobic enclosure of the vastness of God within a human life. Christ understands our human experience of being “fenced in” not as a function of divine omniscience, nor from some detached observation of our suffering, but from his own human experience.
Recalling Job’s description of being enclosed in darkness, the readings from Lamentations appointed for Holy Saturday echo the terror of being trapped, entombed: God has “driven me” the author laments, “into darkness without any light;” God has “besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation.” Sounding eerily like Rilke, he cries that God has “walled me about so that I cannot escape ; . . . has blocked my ways with hewn stones” (Lam. 3:2, 5, 7, 9).
From firsthand knowledge Jesus understands our inevitable times of being enclosed in imprisoning narrowness, with no way out. Christ not only understands these moments because he has had his own: he also comes to share ours with us, to lighten our darkness, to love us beside us, from inside our walls of stone.
This is the inestimable gift that we approach in this season of Advent: the saving gift of the love of God in the Incarnation, the unfailing presence of God-with-us in all our darkness. This Presence is so powerful and all-encompassing that absolutely nothing can divide us from it. As St. Paul reminds us, neither death nor life nor things present nor things to come nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39).
Job did not, as far as we know, receive this blessed assurance.
Job did not find the answer he was seeking, the meaning of his suffering, in the presence of God with him in the humility of love. Instead, he was awed into silence by God’s declaration of his own unanswerable greatness. “Did you create the world? If not, how dare you question me,” is the gist of what God thunders out of the whirlwind (38-41). And that is answer enough for Job; he humbly acknowledges his own finitude, and repents of his audacity (42:1-6). Spufford admits that the answer that satisfied Job is not for her. In the first place, as Spufford points out, mere insistence on divine power does not solve the intellectual problem of innocent suffering. More importantly, such an “answer” bears no witness to the presence of the living God in the suffering world. What she clings to in her own suffering is an awareness of God-with-us, not a conviction of God’s omnipotent majesty. The only grounds for faith that she can see are the incarnate love of God in Christ, the abiding presence of a Savior who loves the world enough to share its helplessness and pain. A faith that doesn’t comprehend the reality of suffering and death simply isn’t worth having, Spufford decides.7
If we can learn to live within that mystery, our own suffering can carry within it what Tolkien called “a joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”8
But the question remains for many of us, less schooled in the austerities of suffering than the heroic Dr. Spufford, how do we learn to live within that mystery? How can we endure being “fenced in” with patience and courage and hope? How on earth can we find joy in sorrow? How does our conviction of the presence of God-with-us help us?
As Spufford tells us, the presence of the Crucified with her inside her walls of pain did not cancel or assuage the suffering. But it was transformed by the loving presence of the One who suffers for and with us. Strengthened by that Presence, she began (more deeply than ever before) to pray. She found in the Eucharist and Christ’s self-offering within it, comprehending as it does “all the realities of acute pain and death,”9 unexpected meaning, hope, and strength.
Uniting her own suffering with Christ’s in prayer has led her to a mysterious contemplative practice she calls “absorbing darkness”—learning to accept pain “without handing it on in the form of bitterness or resentment.” In this way, “in some incomprehensible miracle of grace, some at least of the darkness may be turned to light.”10 Increasingly, she has been drawn beyond the consolation of Christ’s presence to the boundless depths of adoration. In contemplative silence, she has found—even within the limitations imposed by her disease—a kind of interior spaciousness and an abundance of life, even a sense of wholeness so all-encompassing that she realized she desires nothing else.11
In utter love for God who loved the world enough to suffer and die for it, Spufford has learned to abandon herself to His redemptive plans for her life, whatever they may be, coming to accept that she is “profoundly loved, and need never be afraid.”12 There will continue, she knows, to be times when suffering closes in on her, closes her in, behind those thick plate-glass walls of pain. But she knows that God is with her, and can redeem all suffering, and will never leave her.
This, it seems to me, is the “great transforming” Rilke longs for in his poem: inside the stone walls of our grief and darkness, to find God-with-us, and in that Presence to find space within our suffering for praise and compassion, for trust and gratitude.
May we accept with joy and trust that we are profoundly loved, and need never be afraid. May we give God thanks and praise that there is no corner of our humanity so dark or narrow, no stone wall so high, that it can keep God out.
In telling about the life and witness of Dr. Margaret Spufford, Douglas writes: “Uniting her own suffering with Christ’s in prayer has led her to a mysterious contemplative practice she calls ‘absorbing darkness’—learning to accept pain ‘without handing it on in the form of bitterness or resentment.’” Who have been persons in your spiritual life who have found ways of faithful prayer and practice to help guide them through dark times? What did you notice about them?
Excerpted from “Enclosed in Darkness (But Not Alone)” by Deborah Smith Douglas. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, November/December 2010 /January 2011), Vol. 26, No. 1. Copyright © 2010 by The Upper Room.
1 Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version Bible.
2 “It is possible...... ” from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, A Translation From the
German and Commentary by Robert Bly (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 55. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
3 Margaret Spufford, Celebration: A Story of Suffering and Joy (London: Harper Collins 1989), 100.
4 Spufford, Celebration, 38.
5 Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, 55.
6 “Prayer oneth the soul to God.” 14th Revelation, 43rd Chapter, XVI Revelations of Divine Love Showed to Mother Juliana of Norwich 1373, preface by George Tyrrell, sj (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1902), 103.
7 Spufford, Celebration, 76-87.
8 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,’ in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1966),81.
9 Spufford, Celebration, 86.
10 Spufford, Celebration, 92.
11 Spufford, Celebration, 88-89.
12 Spufford, Celebration, 29.
I could not have found The Upper Room Moments of Prayer (on Facebook Live) sooner. For it is during these moments of centering spiritual practices, meditating on the words of scripture, praying with and for the world, that I find moments of transcendence, hear whispers of peace and hope, see glimpses of truth and justice, behold visions of love and beauty amid all the stark realities that are around me.”