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In the Half-Heard Stillness

In the Half-Heard Stillness

Glynn Cardy 24th October 2021
The book of Job does not pretend to be history. Job, the character, didn’t literally exist. Rather it is a literary piece
critiquing the ideology of ‘you get what you deserve’.
The prevailing view of the time, as spelt out in the Book of Proverbs, was that wisdom was the ability of the individual
to discern the pattern of God in the world and conform to it. That pattern was the values of hard work, high morals,
moderation, kindness to the less fortunate, etcetera. If you conform to the pattern God will reward you. Wisdom
brings happiness, the lack of wisdom misery. Every life got what that life deserved. And rewards and punishments
were experienced in this life.
So, if you were poor and afflicted, you deserved it. And if you were rich and healthy, you deserved it. Nothing was
said about the effects of differing environments, privileges, structural biases, or temperament. To the degree that a
person was successful, God’s blessing would be upon them. To the degree that one failed, God’s curse would be
pronounced.
It was, and is, an ideology that favours the way things are and the powerful who are, and credits any success or failure
solely to the individual.
Yet even back in ancient times some saw problems with this thinking. For good people did suffer. And evil people did
prosper. So, one skilful Jewish poet wrote a book to dramatize the issue. A wise, prosperous, Torah-observant Jew
(aka Job) would do everything right, but then inexplicably one day he would begin to suffer calamity after calamity.
He’d lose his wife, children, cattle, health, honour, and prestige.
Then he would be visited by representatives of the prevailing wisdom (Job’s so-called ‘comforters’) who would seek to
force his life and tragedies into their frame of reference. The dialogue with the comforters turned on the meaning of
life and of suffering, and the role of God in that mix. Does God allow evil? Is God less than all-powerful and allloving? Is there a fundamental duel in the cosmos between good and evil, God and Satan? Is suffering a pathway to
God?
Those who have definitive answers to these questions, then and now, I think provide little help to the Jobs and others
who suffer. And, indeed, for those of a fundamentalist persuasion in this present Covid pandemic time, who label
people and policies as either right or wrong, good or evil, based on God’s so-called ‘will’, such definitiveness can do
much damage.
For me these questions are better placed in Meister Eckhart’s frame that ‘relation is the essence of everything that
exists’. In other words, it is our relationships to one another and all life on this planet that inform us of the essence of
what might be called God. How we relate to one another is fundamental. How we care for those less fortunate,
discriminated against, and survivors of injustice are fundamental. For what we fundamentally do tells others what we
fundamentally believe.
Our text today from Job comes at the end of the book, towards the end of Job’s exploration. The six verses are not
about the ‘comforters’ being right and Job being wrong. Or Job figuring out that he really was bad, in error, and now
needed to repent. Such interpretation does the book and the author a disservice.
Again, I would read those six verses as being about the framing. Job is saying God’s ways are beyond his
understanding. God is bigger than Job and his culture’s frame. Beyond his logic and reasoning and language. Job
is, here at the end, accepting his not knowing, his agnosis. And in doing so he is letting go. Letting go of his hurts,
anger, fears, arguments… just though they may be… and letting be. Is this a stillness, a peace, in Job?
As for v.6, the bit about repentance, the scholar Carol Newson says there are at least six different ways of interpreting
it. In other words, it’s deliberately ambiguous. I would choose to read it as Job turning (repenting) from a smaller and
inadequate understanding of God and suffering, to larger and ultimately unknowable one. A turning from answers to
the question of ‘why?’, to no answers.
Our second reading today comes from Edward Carpenter, that English utopian socialist, poet, philosopher, early
activist for queer rights and prison reform, and eclectic spiritual explorer. In this piece titled ‘The Lake of Beauty’ he
invites us to quieten our minds, clothe ourselves both with gratitude (seeing the beauty that is) and with the
expectation of hope – a hope that will come in its own time, under its own steam, in its own way.
So don’t let the anxiety that easily falls upon us when tragedy strikes pull us in this direction or that seeking a remedy.
“Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind.” Instead draw those waters into “a little compass, and hold them still,
so still; and let them become clear, so clear… so mirror-like…” that, in time, “Love shall come and bend over and catch
2 her/his/their own likeness in you.” In the stillness, in the still point that can be you, the reflection of hope, love, God (if you like) is seen.
Of course, the path from pain, suffering, and anxiety to a point of quietening the mind, gratitude, and stillness is quite a journey. As it was for Job.
The poem by T.S. Eliot called “Little Gidding”, last in the series Four Quartets, was first published in 1942 when
London was suffering from fire raining down from the skies, aka the blitz. It was a time when normal was no more,
when death and injury were no strangers, and when mental suffering was rife.
Little Gidding is a village in Cambridgeshire, and for a while in the 1600s was the home of a small Anglo-Catholic
religious community. Importantly, for the poem’s inference, it was this community that King Charles I sheltered in
following his defeat at the Battle of Naseby (English Civil War).
So Little Gidding in the poem is more than a quaint English village, it is a metaphor for sanctuary in the midst of
suffering. “Taking any route, starting from anywhere, at any time or at any season, it would always be the same…”
We all have, and simultaneously hope to find, when under duress our Little Gidding.
Coming to Little Gidding to kneel, to pray, is, on one hand, a universal human impulse to cry out to some higher power
for help, for relief, for some form of salvation, or at least understanding. I suspect there are times we all do it, when it
all feels too much, even if we don’t believe in a higher power or its efficacy.
On the other hand, Eliot takes us further. He writes, “Prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation
of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment… Never and
always.”
He is, I think, talking about the prayer that is beyond or without language, even beyond or without conscious thought.
The prayer that is an intersection. A crossroads of feelings, fears, contexts, calamities, and somehow, remarkably, a
moment when time ceases, and the rockfall of fate is no longer a threat.
This intersection holds the moment of birth (the rose) and of death (the yew-tree). It holds the patterns of history:
wars, plagues, sufferings. “History is now and England” (Eliot’s context, place – rather than an imperialist reference).
But also, the intersection holds the possibility of hope. Quoting from the great medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing
he speaks of the drawing of love (like water drawn from a deep well) and the voice of Love’s calling. Hope is drawn.
And hope speaks to the heart.
The next lines are the most well-known of the poem, exploration and the end being to arrive where we started, and to
know the place for the first time. I would suggest these lines, like those that follow, are best understood in the context
of the prayer. The journey is, he writes, “through the unknown, unremembered gate… Not known, because not
looked for but heard, half-heard, in the stillness…” And then Eliot quotes Lady Julian of Norwich (who also lived
through traumatic times), “And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
This ‘all shall be well’ is not wishful thinking, or some God-given prophecy, or reasoned thinking either. Rather this is
about being in that timeless moment, hearing the fears of your heart, but somehow blocking out that noise in order to
hear the ‘half-heard’ stillness. And in the stillness hope is drawn.
I wonder if we, like Job, suffering from the rockfall of fate, can block out the clamour of fearful fretting, to find and hold
that half-heard stillness, from which Love’s hope may be drawn or in which reflected?