Monday, September 15, 2014

Lamentations: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

A “lamentation” is defined as “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow.”   This perfectly characterizes the biblical book of Lamentations.  It is a collection of five poems of mourning, written on the occasion of the destruction of Judah and its capital Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  It’s a short but powerful book, and perhaps my favorite in the Bible, for reasons both personal and literary.

During my second year of college, I had a total crisis of faith/nervous breakdown that forced me to leave my school in Seattle, and move back home with my parents.  As I struggled to emerge from a crippling depression, I read the Bible.  I wasn’t really reading it devotionally.  I can’t exactly explain why I read it every day.   I had lots of free time.  Maybe I was looking for something to hold onto.   Maybe it was curiosity.  What does it feel like, I wondered, to read the Bible after you’ve lost your faith?  Mostly, I was confused and/or horrified at the gnarly stories in the Old Testament.  But sometimes a book would strike a chord in me.  It would resonate at a human level, despite the fact that I’d lost my faith. 

 That is what the book of Lamentations did for me.  It caught me completely off guard.  I remember reading Lamentations alone in Craig Park in Brea, suffering like a sonofabitch, and crying.  I wasn’t crying for joy.  I was crying for the same reason that you cry when you encounter a piece of art that expresses how you feel better than you can.  That is what Lamentations did for me.  Using the religious language of my upbringing, it expressed how I felt—a depressed, faithless young man having lost himself.  I felt, in my own personal way, like the desolate city of Jerusalem.  The voices of the lonely, haunted, traumatized inhabitants in the poetry of Lamentations expressed an inner truth of my life at that point.  Allow me to quote a few passages to illustrate.  It’s okay to cry.  That’s what Lamentations is all about. 

“How lonely sits the city
That once was full of people…
Judah has gone into exile with suffering…
And finds no resting place…
O Lord, look at my affliction…
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…
For these things I weep…
Zion stretches out her hands,
But there is no one to comfort her…
To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you…
For vast as the sea is your ruin…
Who can heal you?

 I am one who has seen affliction…
He has driven and brought me
Into darkness without any light…
He has made me sit in darkness
Like the dead of long ago…

 He has made me desolate…
My soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
Is wormwood and gall…
My soul continually thinks of it
And is bowed down within me…


And then something amazing happens in the text.  In the midst of this cry of sorrow and defeat, there comes an ecstatic moment of hope that is made all the more astonishing given its context.  This is not cheap hope.  This is hope born of despair.  It’s the kind of crazy hope Fyodor Dostoyevsky sprinkles throughout his novels of suffering.  It’s a totally illogical ecstatic hope, and it breaks my heart and also makes me smile:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’
Says my soul,
‘Therefore I will hope in him.’”

Now, to be honest, when I read that, it wasn’t as if I suddenly re-gained my faith.  Even reading it today, I’m still pretty much an agnostic.  What amazes me about this passage is not God, but the poet.  How can a person who is in the depths of despair and grief, who has lost everything (even his identity) still hope?  I have no idea, but it is something humans are capable of.  It reminds me of a passage from Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, which expresses a similar theme as Lamentations.  I will call that theme “Ecstatic expressions of hope in utterly miserable circumstances.”  In Dostoyevsky’s novel, this monologue is given by a drunken man whose wife hates him, whose daughter is a prostitute, and whose life is complete shit.  After telling his sob story to Raskolnikov (the main character), the bartender asks the old drunk “Why should we pity you?”  And here’s what the man replies:

"Why am I to be pitied, you say ? Yes ! There's nothing  to pity me for ! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross,  not pitied ! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me, but pity me!  And then I will go of myself to be crucified, for it's not merry-making I seek, but tears and tribulation ! . . . Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and have found it, and I have tasted it; but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: 'Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another?  Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?' And He will say, 'Come to me ! I have already forgiven thee once. ... I have forgiven thee once. . . . Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much. . . .' And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it ... I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now ! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. . . . And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. 'You too come forth/ He will say, 'Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame !' And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, 'Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also !' And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, 'Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?' And He will say, This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.' And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him . . . and we shall weep . . . and we shall understand all things ! Then we shall understand all ! . . . and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even . . . she will understand. . . . Lord, Thy kingdom come!"

The book of Lamentations also calls to mind perhaps the most famous poem of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which can be read as a kind of lamentation on the destruction of civilization after World War I.  At the end of the poem, a wounded king looks upon his devastated kingdom and says:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down...
These fragments I have shored against my ruins...
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
shantih    shantih    shantih

The last two lines are from the Hindu scripture Upanishad.  It loosely translates "The peace which passeth understanding."  

I also love the book of Lamentations because it ends on a note of uncertainty, and feels deeply truthful because of this.  The book ends with a plea for mercy from God, but with no indication that this plea will be answered.  The book, like the questions it poses, remains open-ended.

Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old--
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Like the book of Job, Lamentations dives deeply into the quagmire of human suffering, and raises more questions than it answers.  For this reason, I appreciate the little book of Lamentations.  

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