CLOUD OR ANGELS?
by Fr. Andrew Harmon
In one of Germany's famous art galleries, a painting called "Cloud-lane" hangs at the end of a long, dark hall. From a distance it appears to be a depressing painting — a mass of dark, threatening clouds. But when you step up close to the canvas you see that what is really there is an innumerable host of beautiful angels.
Appearances can be deceptive. In John 9, Christ and the disciples come across a man blind from birth. The appearance depresses the disciples and they assume the blindness is a punishment — either for the man's own sins or those of his parents. But Christ sees past the surface and says in verse 3, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him." The disciples saw a blind man and can only think of doom and gloom. Jesus sees a blind man and sees an opportunity for the glory of God to be revealed.
And if we read the rest of John 9 we see how God's glory was revealed in this blind man - partly through his miraculous healing but even more so in how this simple, uneducated man became brave enough to stand up to the powerful Pharisees and declare to them his belief in Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest saints in our tradition is righteous and long-suffering Job whose story is told in one of the most beautiful books of the Old Testament. Job, like the blind man, came to know God's glory in the midst of suffering. He was a rich and happy and healthy man with a wonderful family — and then disaster struck. A storm killed his children, all his wealth was lost, and he also lost his health. He ended up totally destitute, sitting in a heap of ashes. His so-called friends — Job's famous comforters — had the same answer to his dilemma as the disciples did to the blind man's suffering — suffering is punishment for sin. But righteous Job refused to believe this. He knew he had not committed any sin worthy of such punishment. However, Job didn't know why he was suffering and so he struggled with God and argued with God, but yet stayed true to God. And at the end of the book God appears to Job and speaks to Job and reveals His awesome glory to Job — just as His glory was revealed through the blind man in John 9.
We all have Job-like times in our lives — times of suffering, depression, illness, finally death. We all have times when we struggle, when we get angry at God, when we doubt God — after all, even righteous Job went through that.
When we have those times, when we feel like all hope is gone and that there's no longer much meaning or purpose to life; that's when we need to struggle to remember the blind man and to remember Job — and to remember how God was at work revealing His glory even in the worst of times — that there were angels present even in the darkest of clouds.
Once a man was shopping at Marshall Fields' in Chicago. A magnificent tapestry was on display there. The rare beauty of its design and the marvelous skill with which it had been sewn made it particularly impressive. The shopper turned over the corner of the tapestry to get a peek at the price tag — $6000! But he discovered something else, too. While peeking at the price he glanced at the back side of the tapestry He realized that if Marshall Fields' had hung it wrong side out they probably couldn't have gotten $6 for it, to say nothing of $6000. That back side appeared utterly without design. Threads ran crazily in this direction and that. It all looked like the work of a nitwit. Yet those were the very threads that, worked by the artist's master hand, had produced the exquisite picture on the other side.
When we're suffering, the threads of our life may appear all tangled up to us but it may be a beautiful picture that is being formed. When we're suffering, all may appear chaos to us but there may be a rhyme and reason that will later make sense. When we're suffering, we may see nothing but storm clouds but perhaps hidden in those clouds is a host of angels.
Sometimes it is suffering and the hard times that prepare us to know God better. Job went through many horrible, and apparently pointless, trials, but at the end of it all, he was ready to hear God speak to him, The blind man suffered for many years, but at the end of it he was ready to manifest God's glory to the world.
Sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to prepare us for what's ahead. Joseph Duveen, the American head of the art firm that bore his name, planned in 1915 to send one of his experts to England to examine some ancient pottery. He booked passage for him on the liner, the Lusitania. Then the German embassy issued a warning that the liner might be torpedoed. Duveen wanted to call off the trip. "I can't risk your being killed," Duveen said to his young expert. "Don't worry" the man replied. "I'm a strong swimmer, and when I heard about the sinkings in the North Atlantic, I began hardening myself by spending time every day in a tub of ice water. At first I could only stand it a few minutes, but this morning I stayed in that tub nearly two hours." Duveen laughed as the idea seemed preposterous, but he let the young man sail. Of course, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sank. The young man was rescued after nearly five hours in the cold ocean, still in excellent condition.
Suffering can actually strengthen us instead of weaken us — it can prepare us for what lies ahead. It can open us up to a closer relationship with God, as it did for St. Job.
But when we're in the midst of suffering — when we're perhaps in physical pain or greatly depressed over problems in our lives it's hard to calmly remember that all this might make us better people, that it's part of the plan for our lives, etc. All we know is that we hurt. And maybe, when our suffering is at its worst, we can only remember one thing — that we do not suffer alone. Christ has also suffered He was betrayed by one of His closest friends, deserted by the rest, slandered, spit upon, beaten, and finally crucified like a common thief- all while perfectly innocent. We do not suffer alone. Christ has also suffered and He goes with us through our times of suffering.
Therefore, we should not despair or give up. Admit it's rough — yes; have some doubts — yes; perhaps get angry with God like Job did — yes; have no idea why we're suffering — yes; but give up — no! Instead, we struggle on, with Christ at our side, until the days of suffering end.
Once, during a war between Spain and France, the Spaniards surrounded the French army and sent over a note to the French general which said, "Surrender! We have you outnumbered and surrounded." The French general wrote a reply, fastened it to an arrow, and shot it into the Spanish camp. It read, "Surrender? Never! We have our King with us."
Our King, who knows what suffering is, is with us, too, and so we should never surrender, never give up, but struggle on, asking for His help. Like Job, we may not understand why we suffer. But let us have faith that there is a reason that someday even if not until the next life, we will understand. Let us take comfort, even in the worst times, from knowing that our King is with us and that even these worst of times will somehow, someday, work out for good. Let us remember that even in the darkest of storm clouds there may be hidden a host of beautiful angels.
Father Andrew Harmon is pastor of St. Matthew Church in North Royalton, Ohio.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America