Coming to terms: some disconnected notes on suffering

Cliques and Homeys

I am a Jewish deserter, Roman Catholic defector, and practicing Episcopalian, but have so far managed to stand clear of the Episcopal blogosphere. This entry, along with several others, properly belongs there. Of course it will not get there because maybe three people read this stuff. Even a cri de coeur like this goes largely unnoticed. I might just as well be as invisible here as I am to the job market and to anyone but the legal authorities.

So I am outside one of several circles where I don’t belong. In a long life I’ve had more than one occasion when it became clear to me that I was set apart. Maybe that was my own doing, maybe that was my fate or the will of God, but there it is. The kid who when they chose up sides for pickup baseball games was told to play Left Out. I’m not joking. Neither were they.

Recently the Rector in my parish, who knows too well the despair that has lived in me forever, suggested not the stodgy and aloof translations of The Book of Job that I read before (King James and New Revised Standard Version) but a rather immediate (shall we say) version that is part of a Bible called The Message, versioned by a scholar named Eugene Peterson. She even gave me a leather-bound copy of the entire Bible, with my initials on the cover. Talk about moved….

And I read Job again. They used to say that watching Edmund Kean playing Shakespeare was like reading old Willie through flashes of lightning. See, Peterson may have done his scholarship but the translations are not scholarly or remote. In his rendering of Job, the language is direct and occasionally nasty. Everyone kicks sand in everyone else’s face. Job has at his comforters, the comforters have at Job, and ultimately God comes out from behind the curtain and discloses himself as the ultimate Star Wars Emperor, the manipulator of an unjust universe.

The Portrait of God

Signorelli, The DamnedBack in 1979 , a novelist named Stanley Elkin published a collection of stories he called The Living End. It was a funny but brutal glimpse of theology as only a disconsolate believer could envision it. The protagonist…well, here is the synopsis from Powell’s Books:

A quintessential Elkin protagonist, Mr. Ellerbee — until he is senselessly killed during a liquor-store holdup — is a good husband, a good boss, and an overall good sport who cares greatly about his fellow human beings. After a whirlwind tour of the afterlife, Ellerbee finds himself in Hell for a litany of minor offenses, including taking the Lord’s name in vain, keeping his store open on the Sabbath, and thinking that Heaven looks like a theme park. And so begins Elkin’s hilarious, imaginative vision of life after death.

The synopsis is accurate but leaves out a few details and nuances. One is the vision of Heaven that Ellerbee is vouchsafed before his condemnation: a series of cliches made real, of angels with wings, little black kids singing “O dem golden slippers!”, and endless puffy clouds.  Another is St. Peter’s casual dismissal of Ellerbee: “Go to Hell.” Yet another is Elkin’s description of Hell as “the ultimate inner city.” (Trust a guy who summered in North Jersey to see Hell resembling Paterson or Newark.) Ellerbee links up with the guy who shot him and they form as much of an alliance as two of the damned can manage. And then Ellerbee, after a long but unmeasured stay in this misery, loses it. He turns and invokes “the real sonofabitch God,” the “grand guignol martial artist” and several other uncomplimentary names, daring him to get right into his face and damn him personally. The insults become so white-hot that God ultimately descends into Hell and does as he’s asked.

Elkins’ God turns out to be a petty jerk. Ellerbee once had a passing case of The Hots for the wife of one of his employees. Now God yells at him “You had a big boner!” even though Ellerbee, faithful husband, didn’t make a move. Then the charges of staying open on the Sabbath (whose is not clear), and finally the coup de grace: “You thought Heaven looked like a theme park!”  But Ellerbee is satisfied. At least now God has done the work himself. He’s proven his pettiness and meaninglessness. He employs no surrogates. No Jesus, no Holy Spirit or Casper the Unfriendly Ghost, no Tim La Haye: just the real deal God-the-Freudian-murderer-father putting the whamma-jamma on him.

I loved reading the original version of the story, which appeared in New American Review back around 1972.  I like it more now because I have been the lead in my version of the movie for longer than I wish to remember.

Elkin invokes Job’s God via all the versions but he’s seen most clearly in Peterson’s. The entire testament is a long way up from the Hip Hop Prayer Book, a politically correct butchery of English, but it throws into relief the profoundly inexplicable Biblical hauteur and nastiness of a Deity who proclaims he runs the world and who are we to question him?

Well, it is not a lie, is it? For any believer, God is indeed in charge. But Peterson’s God-in-translation is a high-handed schoolyard bully, both the unquestioned leader and sole member of the pack. Like the Czar in an old Wolfschmidt vodka magazine ad, he can bend iron bars with his bare hands. He can command the sea monster, and make the winds blow. And looking backward, that’s not just Peterson’s God, it’s God as revealed in any version of Job: arbitrary and beyond having to answer to anyone. In the face of such might we can only accept. Or we can follow Elkin’s Ellerbee into Hell. God questions, we answer. It’s like a job interview with Donald Trump.

If we lay down for such authority, maybe God will clean the pus out of our scabs and give us back what he took from us. Maybe the beatings will stop if our morale improves.

It amazes me how little I know (“Of course, I could be wrong”) that emphasizes the precipitating event of this appalling story: that God lends his power to Satan on a bet. He and Satan act like a couple of cheap gamblers in the backroom of a Deadwood whorehouse. God lets Satan take from Job not only his possessions but also the lives of his 10 children. And then he lets Satan afflict Job with some sort of skin and or nerve malady that makes him literally stink like a giant pustule. Clinically it might be smallpox, but what matter? Job is a plaything, and God has put Satan in charge for just long enough to get out of Job precisely what he thinks of a universe without justice.

Nobody is dishonest in the book. Stupid, yes. Dishonest, no. The three comforters come across as Thumpers parroting the Big Book or 12 & 12 at an AA meeting, and Elihu–“the kid”–is thicker than the first three. They actually believe the trash-talk they spew about punishment always being in proportion to sin. “C’mon Job, own it up, your sins were so bad that God punished you this way.” But Job steadfastly denies guilt, reinforces his innocence, and reaffirms more than once that he is being unjustly punished.

No wonder the great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez wrote of Job in terms of the undeserved suffering of the poor not only in South America but anywhere. He might just as well turn his attention to the growing cadre of the poor in this country as well. The ranks are expanding every day.

“Shall Not The God of Justice Do Justly?”

In my own life and all around me I see people losing their occupations, their homes, their retirements, and in some cases their lives. We’re starting to hear about the weekly suicide or murder-suicide. But then we hear “Maintain faith!” It is easy to preach faithfulness and a life of service if you stand in a position of having something. If no one has touched your privilege, your stuff or your family, you can afford to be faithful and even holier than thou. If you are in a position of being among the dispossessed, such pleas may be met with scorn and abuse.

Is there in fact payback for sin? Of course. No joking. The question is when the payback finally stops, when God has had enough, when we have had enough, or whether Hell exists on earth if nowhere else. I paid for my sins. I paid for my faithlessness, I paid for and with craziness (haven’t you heard that mental illness is both a punishment and a sin? where were you?) that drove me into wrong choices, I paid for the alcohol I used to drown the guilt. I paid with joblessness and insomnia.

I paid for abandoning Judaism even though it had become an empty shell of legalisms and acrimony that taught me that the locks were forever changed.

But it all stopped. The catting around, the lushing it up, the indecision about which stone I would use to rest my head. All gone. And what I got instead was the proverbial Jello I could try to nail to the wall.

I have come to believe that even once a sin is behind us, the punishment goes on, driven by its own momentum. I have come to believe that punishment, pain itself, exists apart from what we think of as a balanced world of reward and punishment.

My punishment? God forgive me for saying this, but (here’s the Credo) I believe in my heart that I was not supposed to get sober nine years ago, or to quit screwing around. I believe that God intended me to drink myself to a slow death, die of some STD, or get shot by a jealous husband (or my own wife). And so the price of my defiance: I have lost more jobs than times you’ve gotten laid (is there a virgin out there over 12 and ugly?). Some of the grief I endured came from my hand-holding with evil and some was simply the operation of evil itself.

Do I sound “normal”? Are you kidding?

Do I feel “normal”? Define that.

I have been in a psychiatric hospital. That was not my doing. I have been to jail. That was. And all this happened to me after I became a presumably reformed, sober, and believing character. You tell me: what am I supposed to think? That the God-driven universe is 100% benign and that I am loved? Or that some people are singled out for what the Nazis used to called “special handling.” There’s no Why. There just Is. And it’s my personal miracle that, given what I believe, I am still alive and able to say this.

I’ve lived the last nine years of my life as a Dostoevsky character. Not Raskolnikov (I am not violent and I don’t own an ax). Maybe not even Prince Myshkin, a.k.a. The Idiot. Certainly as one of the Possessed (or The Devils, if you like that translation better). Maybe I’m one of the Karamazov brothers, or maybe even the Grand Inquisitor. Your guess is probably better than mine.

For reformed I am. Or have been. And still misery has come, pounding into my head like an icepick migraine.
  • Lifetime alimony to a perpetual grudge-holder.
  • An eroded skill set that no longer allows me to function in a profession where I made my living for over 20 years.
  • A series of celestially-ordained marriages to a bestiary of fiends who managed my financial and professional life: Gustavo Mellander, George Daniel Miller, Herbert Wendell, Lester Stockel, Marie Hirsch Gittes, Larry Gandy (the most singularly evil and frightening man I ever worked for), Edwin Meir, Lara Kraft (that’s not a misprint), Kim Hansen, David Owen, Candace Argilan. One among them threatened me with a lawsuit if I didn’t retract the truths I told about him on an earlier blog.
Right now I am approaching the Golden Age of 65 and while I can’t say I’ve given up, exactly, I don’t necessarily hold out much hope except when the common decency of human beings takes me by surprise. Virtue always shocks me. Maybe that’s good. It’s been suggested that I’m supposed to be one of those people who develops holiness from suffering. Maybe that is what I was supposed to get from Peterson’s translation/revision of Job: that God indeed is arbitrary to the naked human eye, but functions according to a plan I cannot see. Maybe my acceptance of the plan I cannot see will help me keep my chin up. Maybe I can get this glow around my head like an icon in a Robert Lentz holy card.

I don’t feel particularly holy at 7:30 on a Saturday morning after writing this for two and a half hours. I am resentful, broken, tired, and scared shitless and back into insomnia. Someone I know speaks of the inhabitants of the Land of Broken Toys, and yes, that is where I am right now. I wish I could follow the advice of Job’s wife–“Curse God and die”–but I can’t and I won’t.

But he’s going to have to prove to me–one of his creations–that he isn’t really a vicious little twit.

Along with Job, my patron saint, I want to be damned face-to-face, or I want to be allowed to make my living, pay what I owe, and maintain myself as a functional and believing member of the society I chose and the Church to which I was directed.

If you value truth you finally have it.

Maybe I need to start my own blogosphere.  Or maybe, like Wicked John in the old Southern Black folk tale related to Stagolee, I have to be handed a torch and told to go start a Hell of my own. I can populate it in ten seconds with the Recession-shattered, superannuated, and articulate. It could be a really interesting place if you get off on the smell of sulphur.

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