Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Job 24) transports me 75 years back in time to the plague-ridden city of Oran, Algeria. Oran has always fascinated me, since hearing my Dad talk about serving there during World War II. The movie Casablanca also lifted it up as one of the stopping points on an underground railroad of sorts for refugees fleeing Europe for the Americas. And then it is the setting of one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read, Albert Camus’ The Plague. Camus vividly illustrates the capacity for both good and evil that befalls a city quarantined and plagued by a widespread epidemic that brings extreme suffering and death to the citizens. The physical suffering is intense, and the accompanying breakdown of spirit and community is equally intense. The book centers on the actions and conversations between several characters who respond to the plague in different ways, most notably among them the priest, Father Panaloux, a doctor, Bernard Rieux, and a city clerk, Joseph Grand.
These conversations in the broken city of Oran remind me very much of the conversations between Job and his “friends” in the Bible’s poetic equivalent of the Plague. Camus’ philosophy of the absurd could find no better setting than the house of Job, with its depictions of meaningless suffering and a capricious God who takes the accuser up on a bet of sorts, allowing calamity after calamity to break into Job’s life to see how he will respond. What strikes me as incredible about Job as well as Camus’ characters, though, is the presence of such amazing compassion in the midst of this absurd suffering. Coming face to face with the senseless suffering of a child is what brings compassion into Father Paneloux’s heart, after he had initially played the role of Job’s foolish friends and assigned blame for the plague on the sinners who must have angered God. Speaking to Dr. Rieux, the priest makes an early attempt to define the plague as something good, something God is bringing on for reasons not yet revealed. He says, perhaps we should love what we can’t understand. To which the doctor replies, No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture. The only way Rieux knows to respond to the suffering is to do all he can to alleviate it, to work for healing, and to ease the pain of the victims.
Job, in today’s passage, sounds very much like Camus. Even after suffering so much loss, after being violated in so many ways, and essentially giving up on any ideal of a just world, Job speaks from a place of compassion for those who are suffering around him. He moves out of his own loss and violation and pours his heart out for all those widows and their children who suffer untold griefs. Like Dr. Rieux, whose heart went out to the suffering of his friend Joseph Grand, what filled his breast was the passionate indignation we feel when confronted by the anguish all people share. The plague of Job’s time involved the fatherless child snatched from the breast and the infant poor seized for a debt and the widow shown no kindness. It’s an absurd world, where people look in vain for the Almighty to bring judgment to the violators. In a line that could have easily been voiced by Dr. Rieux in Oran, we hear Job: The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing. Job’s only consolation is that the oppressors will ultimately go the way of all flesh. And his only response is to do as Dr. Rieux and Joseph Grand, to actively engage in acts of compassion. A later passage spells it out beautifully: If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless – but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow – if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.
At the end of the day, Job and Panaloux and Rieux and Grand are yearning for love. For, as the people of the Plague learned, there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. May our arms fall from our shoulders if we ever lose that craving, and may we have the eyes to recognize that love and that wonder when we look into the faces of those we see every day.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.