I recently attended a talk given by Dr. Rosann Catalano, a Roman Catholic theologian and scholar at the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies, on the topic of pain and suffering in the Bible. Dr. Catalano (who is an excellent speaker, by the way, and if you ever get a chance to hear her, you should go) wrote her thesis on the psalms of lament, and has done a great deal of work in this area.
I took notes during her talk with the intention of blogging it afterwards (…although not quite this long afterwards). The material I present as blockquotes are not necessarily direct quotes, but my notes of the material presented by Dr. Catalano. My own reflections and thoughts in response are included as normal blog text.
The talk was arranged to accompany the start of a parish bible study on the book of Job. However, we never actually got to Job, because she wanted first to establish the context and tradition in the Hebrew bible for the discussion of
Human pain and the power of God, mainly in the Jewish bible: how does it frame the question of human suffering?
Although I was disappointed not to hear her comments on Job, I found her comments tremendously fruitful. I especially appreciated the reflections on pastoral application: how our culture treats suffering, how our church communities should respond to persons who are suffering, how we as individuals should respond to suffering.
The text we studied was Dt 26:5-10, and we began with its context, which was the Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavuot):
– an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to main temple and bring first fruits to offer to God in thanksgiving for the bounty of the land
– religious holiday in the fall that gives thanks for the earth providing sustenance
– the way to give thanks is to bring a portion of that sustenance to the temple
I was struck by this because it explained something in the new missal translation in the prayer over the gifts. The wording of this prayer, which is a Christian adaptation of a Jewish blessing, was slightly modified to emphasize that the gifts of bread and wine we offer are gifts we had received from God in the first place. When this was mentioned when the missal first came out, I thought it was a bit odd: because everything we have is a gift from God in the first place, so why was there a need to emphasize it here?
But learning that giving back a portion of the harvest was the way to give thanks to God in this feast made it fall into place. The eucharist is also called the Great Thanksgiving; we have just brought the gifts of bread and wine to the altar; and we’re saying a Jewish blessing over them. This is a liturgical connection back to this ancient Israelite religious practice.
(I was not taught that this prayer was based on a Jewish blessing, and was therefore shocked and delighted when I found these Catholic mass texts, all but the last lines, in a Jewish prayerbook I leafed through in college. Since then, I’ve learned that Baruch atah Adonai, “Blessed are you, Lord,” is a standard opening formula in many Jewish prayers, which would have been a clue to me if I’d known it growing up.)
Dr. Catalano’s operating thesis for this talk was:
The foundational story of Israel is the movement from bondage to freedom, Egypt to Canaan, degradation to exultation. Foundational event is the Exodus. The core experience of being delivered was not only an experience that the people had, but also shaped the way in which ancient Israelite religion structured all of its narratives about its relationship with God.
That movement became so imprinted on the consciousness of this people that whenever, historically, they experienced deliverance by God, when they spoke of that event, they spoke of it in the structure of this movement from pain to praise (parallel from bondage to freedom).
This is how Christians use the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: it is our foundational story, that structures all of our narratives about our relationship with God. So that was a useful building block of interfaith understanding for me: the Exodus is to Judaism as the crucifixion/resurrection is to Christianity.
And again, we have liturgical attestation, in part of the Exultet that we sing at Easter Vigil:
This is our Passover Feast,
when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night
when first you saved our ancestors:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!
This is the night
when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
This is the night
when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
Here is the text from Deuteronomy as we had it in front of us, from the NRSV:
5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.
and Dr. Catalano’s commentary:
Dt 26 is “the historical credo” (in Christian-speak – a credo or creed is a Christian concept, not a Jewish one), a condensed narrative that could be memorized that became the archetype of how the narrative of deliverance by God gets framed. Its fundamental story is that the creator of the universe has promised to be a God for us, in every circumstance.
The concept here is that this text is a standardized formula that tells the story. Even though it’s a liturgical text used at this annual festival, it would have been learned by every child as they grew up – similar to the way that Christian children grow up learning the Lord’s Prayer. This is a text that all the people would have had internalized.
– “he went down to Egypt”: who went? just a few
– “there he became a great nation”: a substantial community in Egypt… but he was never an Egyptian, he was always an “other”, a foreigner, in that land
– “the Egyptians treated us harshly and oppressed us”: we suffered. Suffering is an acknowledgment of pain.
I bolded that in my notes, because discussions of the relationship of suffering to pain always catch my attention. I’ve frequently heard the quote “Pain is not optional, but suffering is,” and while it appeals to me on one level, at another level it strikes me as a flip dismissal, analogous to telling people they should just “get over it.”
But suffering as an acknowledgment of pain: now that feels solid to me, and highlights that it’s important to acknowledge your own pain even (especially!) if no one else will.
Back to the close read:
The text doesn’t tell us here, but how did they end up enslaved? That answer is in Ex 1:8:
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph, and he worried: “there are more Israelites than there are of us. let us deal shrewdly with them so they do not increase, because if they do, they might want to join with others and rise up against us.”
The cause of this bondage is not that they were sinful: they were enslaved because of a political reality.
Dr. Catalano emphasized this last point because it’s so different from the Christian emphasis on personal sin in the relationship with God.
But as I read it, the Israelites were enslaved because of sin: but it was somebody else’s sin. The new king’s sin. The new Pharaoh feared these resident aliens in his country: they were different, they weren’t assimilated, and they outnumbered the natives. So he treated them harshly to keep them down, for fear of what they might do.
Is that ringing in your ears as loudly as it rang in mine? That is a powerful anti-xenophobia text. Why were the people treated harshly and oppressed? Not because they’d done anything wrong, but because the Pharaoh was afraid of what they might do someday.
Is this a relevant text for preachers in the US today? Don’t be like Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites because they were immigrants and there were a lot of them and he was afraid. Can I get an Amen?
Back to the text:
– we cried to the LORD: the cry of those who suffer is directed to someone whom we think will be able to help us, to deliver us from pain
– what LORD? the God of our ancestors
– the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction
– the LORD brought us out of that place
– and brought us into this place: which is abundant
– THEREFORE, I now bring.
In other words, “You wanna know why we schlep out to the Temple every year to do this? Here’s our story.”
At this point in the talk, she asked us to identify the decisive moment of deliverance in this story. There were several different responses: some thought v7, when the people cried out; some thought v8, when God brought them out; a few thought v9, when the people gave the thanks offering in response.
I thought the text had a triangular shape, that deliverance begins with the crying out, peaks when the LORD heard, and completes at the bringing out. So if you ask me for the decisive moment of deliverance, I’d pick that central high point, the LORD hearing.
Here is her commentary, along with some pastoral application:
– we tend to think about deliverance as something God does
– what this text wants to say is that the idea of deliverance is far more nuanced.. it is actually a cooperative engagement between us and God. That each of us has a job to do in this process
– I have to recognize I’m in need
– Crying out is a response to the pain I’m in
…. note: our culture doesn’t help people do that!!
…. do [can] we create in our community a welcoming environment for people to be able to express their pain
– God’s hearing and seeing and freeing is a response to our cry to God
– if we didn’t cry out, what would God hear?
– my tradition tells me that if I’m in pain and if I have the courage to cry out, then God will see and hear and free… and don’t forget that you have an obligation at the end of that to give thanks
Deliverance is the movement from pain to thanksgiving, the whole thing.
I liked that formulation a lot.
This also made me think of prevenient grace, the doctrine that even our initial crying-out to God is caused by God’s grace working in us.
If deliverance ends when we give thanks, then that makes more sense out of eucharist as the Great Thanksgiving. And then I got excited about a phrase from the Acts 2 passage describing Pentecost: they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began speaking in tongues, and the people outside were all amazed because each one heard them in their own native language, telling of God’s mighty deeds! Isn’t that part of thanksgiving? Telling of the gifts for which you are thankful! This interpretation ties the happening of Pentecost to the happening of the crucifixion and resurrection as part of the movement of deliverance from pain (crucifixion) through deliverance (resurrection) to praise (Pentecost).
That is the structure of all the psalms of lament (except 1).. there are more psalms of lament than any other genre. laments of community and individual = about 73. If you add in the Thanksgiving deliverance psalms, there are over a hundred.
Isn’t that interesting? Our culture, the majority American culture that understands itself as a majority Christian culture, has no tradition of lament… practically has no way at all to voice lament. Yet lament is about half the book of psalms!
So what does our tradition tell us?
We suffered a lot… and there is a way through pain. Although it might not be on our timetable. How long was it before God heard? The text doesn’t say.
This pattern shapes not only the understanding of what Christians call the Old Testament, but elevates/privileges our having the courage to cry out in our pain. We have to find better ways to acknowledge and make hospitable space for the pain in our community.
Suffering is not redemptive. What is redemptive is what we do with that pain. (cf 1 Peter) Suffering is the consequence of living a just and righteous life, not the goal of life. The goal is to live a gospel-observant life.
In answer to a question about how God’s omniscience connects to all of this, and why it is necessary for us to cry out if God knows everything, she responded:
Catholic theology by and large was built out of a philosophical system in the Middle Ages, developed by Aquinas and reflecting Greek philosophy. The 3 omnis (omniscience = all-knowing, omnipotent = all-powerful, omnipresent = everywhere) are characteristics of the Greek [higher] gods.
If you read the bible and ask “who is this God it describes?”, you would never come up with those omnis.
So, do you construct an understanding of God based on what our scriptures tell us about God, which is highly conflicted? or based on a philosophical system, which is neat and tidy.
In scripture you find a God who gets angry, isn’t very nice, gets confused by God’s own creation. See Gen 6, cause of flood: God regretted creation.
“Why is this happening to me” usually means “it should happen to somebody else – I’ve been good!”
There’s a clash between the catechism portrait of God and the God that comes through in the bible. Catholics were not (until Vatican 2) encouraged to pray and study the bible. The Baltimore Catechism was based essentially on a watered-down version of Aquinas.
If you give precedence to the biblical text, and don’t import ideas from philosophy, you don’t get that omniscience where God knows even without your crying out.
Living a covenanted life with another is a matter of learning. What the bible wants to say to us is that’s true of the covenant relationship of God with Israel and the people of the New Testament.
At one point, she shared a story about the first time she had given a parish talk about her work, back when she was a grad student. She was nervous at first, but eventually hit her stride, and was feeling pretty confident, when she got a question from a woman named Harriet who was sitting in the back of the room, who stood up and asked,
Now let me get this straight. Are you telling me that if I’m stuck in the bottom of a well, then God is in there with me?
“Yes!” she replied enthusiastically, pleased that the woman had gotten her point. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
But Harriet was not so enthusiastic:
I don’t want God in the well with me!!
I want God to be outside the well, where he can lower down a rope and pull me out!
This made us all laugh, but it made a serious point:
Who is the God that is revealed, and who is the God that we want?
The God that is revealed is the one who says, I’m never going to leave you, you’ll never be alone.
The God we want is the God who does magic tricks, who will rescue us.
Thank you, Dr. Catalano, for a very rich and inspiring talk. I hope you’ll be back at our parish again soon!
 The prayer text in the 1970 ICEL translation is
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation:
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
which earth has given and human hands have made.
It will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed be God forever.
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation:
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.
Blessed be God forever.
The new missal modifies the second line to emphasize that we are offering what we have received from God.