The Chaotic Serene Garden

I have no problem-solving thoughts. I do not intend to suggest a new method of remedying the human situation which I am about to describe; neither do I believe that it can be remedied at all. The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional, antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic, harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.

All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old, who said, “I will speak that I may find relief”; for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word, and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.

-Joseph B. Soloveitchik
from the Foreword of his book
The Lonely Man of Faith

In many ways, reading the first part of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s book is like looking in a mirror. Well, not exactly. He was born over half a century before I was and after all, I’m not Jewish, let alone a Rabbi. Yet everything he says about his own experience and the experience of a man of faith completely reflects my own thoughts, feelings, and uneasy journey with God.

I’ve talked before about trying to find a storyteller who speaks in metaphors I can understand, and so far Rabbi Soloveitchik is one of those storytellers. I don’t think I’ll ever know why men like Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and even the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, use “my metaphors” so much more clearly than any Christian author I’ve ever read. It is true that Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, spoke very well and clearly to some parts of me in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, but that’s something of a rarity.

I’m not going to presume a Jewish soul, and in so many ways, I’m such a Goy (at least according to my Jewish wife), so I really don’t have an answer. But at least as far as my reading up to the end of Chapter 1 is concerned, Rabbi Soloveitchik is speaking in a language that could apply to people of many different faiths, not just to the Jew.

And he’s talking about exactly what I experience.

I have a confession to make. There were times when I thought I was going crazy. There were times when I thought I was just a bad Christian, a person with a bad or weak faith, someone who just didn’t “get” what it was to walk on a path that leads to God. And yet just look at how Rabbi Soloveitchik starts the first chapter of his book:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you that impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my own intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence feel frustrated. On the other hand, I also feel invigorated because this very experience of loneliness presses everything in me into the service of God.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writing style is very different from mine, what he’s actually saying is just what I’ve been trying to say for a long as I have been blogging. Actually, it’s been a lot longer than that, but blogging has provided me with a unique outlet for my frustration and my need to “follow the advice given by Elihu, the son of Berachel of old” and to “speak that I may find relief.”

Joseph Ber Soloeitchik was born over a century ago, was an American Orthodox rabbi, Talmudist and modern Jewish philosopher, and a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. The words of his book first appeared in print over fifty years ago, when I was still in elementary school. He died at the age of 90 nearly twenty years ago and a continent away from where I was living at the moment his soul ascended to God. I don’t imagine that we would have had a lot in common had we ever met.

Except for how we experience our faith.

Maybe I’m not crazy after all. Maybe faith is designed to be lonely, inconsistent, and chaotic, like riding a roller coaster that alternately travels through a beautiful and serene Japanese garden and the fresh hell of a radioactive Chernobyl.

If I can take the beginning words of the Rav’s book at face value, I guess my journey of faith will never get any easier, and my only solace is in “confessing” my “tortured soul” (in my case, as a blogger on the web). And yet, it’s nice to find out that I’m not alone in feeling alone in my faith.

I’ll let you know how the rest of the book turns out.

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5 thoughts on “The Chaotic Serene Garden”

  1. No, you are not alone in feeling that loneliness.
    I resonate with this a lot: “between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God”

  2. Excellent blog James thanks so much for sharing! Now I really want to read this book.
    With a good dictionary in hand of course. lol

  3. Thanks Joe and Liz. I really do recommend this book. It’s fairly short and I’m over halfway through by now (took a trip to St George, Utah with my family to give my parents a surprise 80th birthday/60th wedding anniversary party at their church…I didn’t do any driving, so had plenty of time to read) and it doesn’t disappoint.

    Visit my morning meditation tomorrow to read more about the Rav’s insights and a few of my (humble) responses.

  4. Hi Dan, Actually, I was going to mention that in the body of the blog post, but it didn’t develop in that direction. Yes, thanks for the recommendation. Excellent choice.

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