Flowers piled up near the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. Credit: Creative Commons/stiatska.

Why does this shit keep happening? It seems like it’s every week now, another tragedy. Bombings, shootings, hurricanes. A paralyzed Congress, unable to do anything to stop it, swept under by the tide of what sometimes feels like a malevolent force. A force that targets schoolchildren; that preys on the poor and the sick and the elderly; that ravages our ecosystems and decimates wild species; that literally cuts the legs out from under people. Why does this shit keep happening? Is it God? A cruel and sadistic God? Or is that too anthropomorphic? Is it just collective human failure combined with what Albert Camus called “the gentle indifference of the universe?” Or are those two ultimately the same thing? Maybe the ultimate cruelty is the gentle indifference of a God who sits back, the ice clinking in its glass, and allows us to fail.

In the legend of Job in the Hebrew Bible, this is exactly what God does. God gives the Adversary (in Hebrew, ha-satan) license to torture a human being, one described in the verses as “blameless and upright.” So Job loses his children, his livestock, and all his wealth. He becomes sick and disabled, in constant pain. One by one, each of the elements that constitute his identity are stripped away. A man dissolves while God sits back and watches. The practice of “sitting shiva” in silence is said to stem from this legend. The existential horror is literally unspeakable. When Job’s friends come to visit him in his pain, the text says, “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights and no one spoke a word to him for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Religion scholar Stephen Mitchell, in his translation and introduction to The Book of Job, reflects extensively on the dimensions of eastern spirituality in the story. His take on it, I think, is brilliant. He describes the Job in the beginning of the story as not pious in a good sense, but servile. He’s afraid of God. Job has a primitive understanding of reward and punishment – the cosmic vending machine where you put in piety and get out candy. He thinks he knows how the world works.

And so Job is dragged, kicking and screaming, on a spiritual journey. The cosmic vending machine is broken. No matter how pious he is, his suffering just intensifies. After having defended God all along, by the end Job has nothing left to lose and he rails against the injustice of it all. He broadcasts his innocent bafflement at the turn his life has taken. Tellingly, he cries, “O that I had someone to give me a hearing/ O that God would reply to my writ/ or my accuser draw up a true bill.” In other words — Why does this shit keep happening?

Well, God finally replies, but not in the way that Job expects. God refuses to engage with the calculus of good deeds and bad deeds, reward and punishment. God speaks from out of a hurricane and paints for Job a picture of the scale of reality itself. God starts out:

Gird your loins like a man
I will ask and you will inform Me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions?
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?

Think about that – God is asking Job whether he knows what the foundation of the universe is built on! The questions go on and on. Shock and awe. Here is a man, Job, who has hit rock bottom, wants to die, and he is shown a vision in the form of a series of questions that are impossible for the rational mind to grasp. You could throw in – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Stephen Mitchell would probably say that it’s not coincidence that the questions sound like Zen koans: they disrupt ordinary categories of thought.

By the end of this legend, Job seems to have journeyed from the cosmic vending machine model of life to what can only be described as enlightenment. He says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Perhaps he has seen the gentle indifference of the universe, except that it’s not gentle at all. It’s cataclysmic power beyond good and evil, primordial energy, beautiful and violent, dimensions we can’t imagine, colors we’ve never seen, death and rebirth a million times. Mitchell writes, “When I was a very young Zen student, caught up in the question of evil, I once asked my teacher, ‘Why does shit smell so bad?’ He said, ‘If you were a fly it would taste like candy.’” It’s all about perspective.

There are no words for all our feelings of heartache and despair over the atrocities happening in our world. Sometimes the best we can do is to sit in silence together, opening ourselves to the infinite, the eternal, the unknowable. Sitting shiva for the three who died in the Boston marathon and for those who will never walk on their own legs again. Sitting shiva for the children and teachers in Newtown. Sitting shiva for the victims of gun violence every day in our cities. Sitting shiva for those who lose their lives and their livelihoods in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and all around the world in acts of war and terrorism. Sitting shiva for the malnourished infants who could be saved but for the lack of political will. Sitting shiva for the 150 plant and animal species that became extinct today because of deforestation and pollution. Sitting shiva for the earth itself, reaching a boiling point as humans take and take and take. Sitting shiva for our innocence that gets chipped away every time we turn on the news. Sitting Shiva for our own secret, vanishing sense that the world owes us something in return for our goodness.

God doesn’t answer Job’s question – or ours – about why this shit keeps happening, but places the question in a different context. From a spiritual perspective, the answer is simply unavailable. Where were we when the earth’s foundations were laid? Have we ever commanded the day to break? Facing the unfathomable depth of our ignorance, sometimes the only possible response is silent awe. Job finally says, “I lay my hand on my mouth.”


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