If a tree falls in your front yard, and no one hears it, do you still have to cut it up and haul it away?
Somehow, philosophical conundrums lose their profundity when you are no longer dealing with hypothetical trees.
While I was cutting up and hauling away said philosophical tree yesterday and today, I was thinking about the words of St. Isaac the Syrian: “This is why you must surrender all things to God’s foreknowledge, and not believe that there is anything in this life unchanging.” Watch out for the double negative there. He is saying that everything changes.
We spend our few years in this life in a world that changes. And while there is some small amount of predictability in these changes (night to day, summer to winter, the gradual failure of our bodies with age), a good deal of the change we experience is sudden. Trees fall for no apparent reason. People suddenly leave or enter (or reenter) the sphere of our life. Men and women ignorantly or intentionally abuse and oppress one another leading to sudden outbreaks of violence, even war. Opportunistic diseases or blights of various kinds are ever waiting in the wings for a chance to destroy. Life changes.
Surrendering to the foreknowledge of God is no easy matter. It is in many respects one of the major spiritual works of our lives. What makes this surrendering particularly difficult is that life is not completely arbitrary. The universe does seem to function with a certain predictability–sort of, most of the time. Of course if you look too closely or at the really big picture, the laws of nature as we generally encounter them do not apply. And then there are the accidents and the unknown variables and the consequences of human stupidity, foolishness, greed and spite. It is sort of like English grammar: there are rules, but they are complicated, with lots of exceptions and with regional variants.
If our life were more apparently arbitrary, then perhaps it would be easier to trust in God. This is probably why the poor–according to St. James and others–are strong in faith. The poorer people are, the fewer resources they are able to manipulate to create predictability, or an illusion of predictability. Thus the poor are much more exposed to the raw unpredictability of life and are in a sense pushed toward surrendering to the foreknowledge of God. I am not saying that all poor people have great faith (or any faith at all, for that matter). I am saying that it is easier for the poor to have faith, just as Jesus said that it is more difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
But poverty is not a fixed commodity. That is, one can be cash poor, but resource rich. One can be rich in knowledge or authority, yet have nothing to eat. One can be lacking in honour or respect, yet have abundant material resources. And one can live on the street and eat from other people’s garbage, yet have a deep abiding relationship with God; while another has almost limitless resources at his or her disposal, yet frequently doubts even God’s existence. There are many ways we are poor.
It seems the lesson that we must learn again and again is the first lesson: blessed are the poor in spirit. When trees fall in my front yard and I don’t know how I will deal with it, I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God. When I don’t know where my next meal, or bus fare, or month’s rent will come from, I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God. And when I pray to God whom I’m not sure is there, and when I serve and love in silence because I don’t know what to say, and when I am kind and generous and merciful not to receive a reward (for I’m not even sure such a reward exists), then I am blessed, if I will trust in the gracious foreknowledge of God.
The problem with poverty is that we can so easily see everyone else’s. It is our own deep poverty that we find so hard to see.