S T C U T H B E R T ’ S H O U S E Hermitage of the Diocese of Nottingham
Job’s Wife: the ordinariness of God.
(Prepared for Woman’s World Day of Prayer 2008)
My name is Rachel Denton & for those of you who don’t know me I am a professed hermit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nottingham. People often ask me what that means: basically I live alone, in silence for the most part, & I don’t get out much! & I spend part of my day in prayer, & the Church has consecrated me to continue living like this for the rest of my life.
My hermitage is an old council house up at Owersby & like the homes of many of you who live outside town, it is heated from a coal & wood stove. We have read today from the Book of Job & I often think of Job sitting on his ash heap as I empty the stove of the previous days ashes before stoking up again. I think of him a lot at this time of year!
So I love the book of Job, but when I was reading through the service booklet in preparation for today, I was struck by the comment of one of the women in the study group: “Job’s wife is more interesting to me. She speaks plainly …”; so I got out my bible & went back & studied it at greater length.
As we have already been told the Book of Job is basically a conversation between Job & his friends following a catalogue of disastrous events which have destroyed his livelihood, killed all his sons & daughters, & left him with some hideous & disfiguring skin condition. So he sits on his ash heap & scrapes his sores & bemoans his fate. His wife’s only comment, throughout the whole book (I did check) is, effectively, “why not just give up? Curse God & get it over with!” … her actual words: “Do you persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” I couldn’t help wondering if she could foresee the circus already on the horizon & heading in their direction, & was dreading all its pedantic paraphernalia -
Anyway, Job ignores her advice, & his friends turn up. These are knowledgeable & eloquent men, well used to expressing their opinions; they are experienced in the ways of God & they enjoy the sound of their own voices! At first they gently empathise with Job & encourage him to confess the fault that has brought these disasters on himself. Job is puzzled because he doesn’t think he has done anything wrong. “Well there you go,” accuse his friends, “the sin of pride …thinking you have done no wrong … God must be punishing you for that”, “No”, insists Job, “there must be a mistake, I really haven’t done anything wrong”, “Blasphemy!”, shriek his friends, “God doesn’t make mistakes!”, & they get up & leave him to his damnation.
Then steps forward a young man; a young man who is very sure of himself & who has a message which it is imperative that Job hears. A young man who knows all the answers … “I have been waiting, now I shall have my say, I shall utter words of wisdom”, and then “Pay attention Job, listen to me,” and then, “Keep quiet, I have more to say”, and then “I shall tell you, and your friends as well”, and then “Be patient a little longer while I explain”, and then, “I have more to say” … and so on & so forth.
Meanwhile, Job’s wife presumably trots back & forth preparing meals for these self-
Legend has it that she herself did curse God at some point (& die). I like to think that it was whilst she was making yet another tray of sandwiches for her insufferable houseguests that the wrath of God began to seem so much more attractive, but as Job went on to have another 10 sons & daughters to replace those he had lost, & there is no mention of a new wife, this seems unlikely.
But then I thought a little longer about this silence of hers; the silence of the ordinary; the silence of getting on & coping with the day to day. It is something most of us here are familiar with I am sure.
When I talk about hermitage, which isn’t very often, I seem to spend a lot of time explaining to people who are thrilled by the exotics of it all, that it really is very ordinary; intensely ordinary; it is if you like, a profound commitment to the ordinary & the mundane, and so it is probably indistinguishable in very many respects from the lives that so many men & women living alone today seem to enjoy, or maybe to suffer. The main difference you might notice if you were to visit, is the silence. The hermitage, tries, at least, to be silent; the silence is the point of meeting with God, with humanity, with the hermitage of the whole world. So the ordinary and the silence are both things which are very important & very dear to me. I like that Job’s wife kept silent. I like that she kept on doing the ordinary things.
I spoke at this service a couple of years ago, up at Caistor. The theme that year was about change, & I spoke about how change, effective change, is seldom brought about through momentous earth shattering events, or by the drama & emotion of life moving decisions; really effective change is far more often eroded out of us, it is a gentle, persistent leaning, it is about approaching the ordinary with honesty & reacting the best way we know how. That is how we grow everyday, and that is how we change.
So, whilst I was writing this talk, at about this point, I began to get a real sense of deja vu -
So what is so special about the ordinary that I keep on going on about it so much? Nothing! Precisely. The ordinary is not special at all, it is not Sunday best, & it is not winning the lottery; it is not the ecstasy of the mountain top & it is not a life changing decision. I am sure (I know!) all these things have a part in God’s plan, that they can all be good & even holy, but they are extraordinary, not ordinary. What is so special about the ordinary, what makes the ordinary so much more complete than the extraordinary, is that God chose it; God gave it to us, in fact God created it! Ultimately, of course, God chose it for his Son, Jesus, who spent the first 30 years of his life in a very ordinary way; And he chose it for Mary, who spent the whole of her life being ordinary – if you look at the Gospel accounts, Mary barely gets a look in once we are past the infant narratives: a wedding, a family reunion & the death of her Son; presumably the rest of it was too ordinary to mention.
So God chose ordinariness for his Son & for his mother. We usually imagine (& to some extent the scriptures encourage us to imagine), that in his great plan, God created man from some sort of blueprint & loved what he had made. Plan A. But then man went astray & made a total hash of things; this, naturally, upset God & so (from Galatians), “at the appointed time, God sent his son, born of a woman, born subject of the law, to redeem the subjects of the law”. Plan B. If we read this in isolation, it can give the impression that when Jesus became human, he was becoming something less, something uncomfortable, something contrary, for our sakes.
I would like to suggest we look at it another way, the opposite way in fact. Imagine that Jesus was always human, “In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was made flesh ...”; that being human was, if you like, another name for being “the Word”, an intrinsic aspect of Jesus’ divinity; that being human was the best & only way for Jesus to love his Father, for his Father to love him; that Jesus being human was not the rescue plan, that it was not plan B, it was not even plan A; that Jesus being human predated even plan A; that Jesus being human was the blueprint.
And then (as St Paul says), we were created in the image of Jesus’ humanity; we were made human, because Jesus already was. Then we made a hash of it & “at the appointed time, God sent his son …”
If we start from this point, then we can see Jesus’ life on earth from an entirely different perspective – not shoe-
* The extraordinary events of the final 3 years of his life – the preaching, the miracles, the crucifixion, were, I would suggest, provoked more by our own warped perspective on being human, than by any extraordinary intention of Jesus – if we had been fully accepting of our humanity, our ordinariness, then those 3 years need never have happened – but instead, beginning with that fatal apple in the Garden of Eden, we avoid the ordinary; in Jesus we did it big style! We killed him! And we do it still today, in seeking after thrills & experiences & extraordinariness for its own sake: anything to take us away from being human, from being ordinary. Ordinary is boring & ordinary is mundane & ordinary is dull. Jesus tells us, ordinary is to love God; that simply in eating & breathing & sleeping & working & walking & sitting we are being ordinary as Jesus was being ordinary; we are being human as Jesus was being human; we are expressing our love for the Father as Jesus expressed his love for the Father;
I recently returned from a retreat up in Scotland. It was called a “silence & awareness” retreat, & as silence & awareness is the sort of thing that I do, I went up without much research into what I might find there. In fact it was a retreat using Buddhist methods of meditation for Christian prayer. But this wasn’t prayer as in lots of words, not even lots of nice thoughts; it was prayer in terms of just being aware – aware of your breathing, aware of your walking, aware of your sitting, or eating, or even, after sleeping, aware of your awakening, aware of your ordinariness in fact, aware of being human, and always in silence.
The silence of the retreat; the silence of the hermitage, the silence of Job’s wife, the silence of the ordinary; To be silent is to experience our ordinariness, to welcome it, to embrace it, because it is only in silence that we can be truly present to ourselves, to all that is ordinary in us, to all that God created us to be; and it is only when we are present to ourselves, to all that is so wonderfully ordinary in ourselves, to our humanity, that we can be fully present to God.
I checked on that last talk I gave, it was 5 pages long which seemed about right & at this point I have only made 3 ½ pages. A bit short, I thought & prepared to expand a bit more on what I had written, and then I thought of Job’s wife. … God bless us all.
* This is a dodgy paragraph: I have not explained myself well. My only defence is that I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the talk & go off on a tangent … far better to totally confuse everyone instead. So to clear up a couple of potential misunderstandings:
1. What I am not saying is that the events of Jesus’ 3 “mission” years were not extraordinary, clearly they were. What I am saying is that this extraordinariness was provoked by our need, (to counterbalance, and undermine, and overthrow our warped perspective), rather than by any inherent desire on Jesus’ part to be extraordinary.
2. Following on from that, I am also saying that in presenting himself “extraordinarily”, that Jesus was not setting a new benchmark for what it looked like to be in relationship with God. The fullness of his relationship with the Father had already found perfect, lived-
3. However, just so as to not have the last word … the following comment was made by a friend & he is probably right: he usually is. I repeat it verbatim:
A truth that your talk takes you towards but perhaps which you don’t want to admit, is that through this, first acceptance of, then immersion in, the ordinary, a person enters into that extraordinary life in God for which they are always searching, and almost unknowingly prepares themself for extraordinary acts of love. Jesus’ 30 years of ordinariness prepared him for his 3 year mission, Gethsemane & Golgotha.
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