Following the devastating destruction of his livelihood and the deaths of his children, Job tears his robe and shaves his head. Falling on the ground, he worshipfully insists that what was the Lord’s always to give must by that same token be the Lord’s to take away. Soon, he is afflicted with painful sores all over his body. Now, he collapses in a pile of ashes, heavy with lamentation and grief.
When Job’s friends hear of their companion’s tragedy they immediately set out to find him and comfort him. Upon seeing him from a distance, covered in scabs and ash, they barely recognize him. Weeping for their friend, they too tear their robes and sit down in the ashes with him. They had come to comfort him, but there were simply no words available to speak his suffering and ease his pain. They sit with him in silent mourning for seven days and seven nights.
Job’s wife does not try to comfort him; quite the opposite–”Why do you maintain your integrity? Why don’t you curse God and die?” Of course, unlike Job’s friends, Job’s wife suffers along with Job: that was her livelihood, too, and those were also her children. True, her body had not been wracked with torment like Job’s, though the quiet suffering of the “secondary sufferer” (she who is ignored in favor of the one who’s suffering is judged to be greatest) is it’s own kind of hell. And no one, apparently, covered themselves in ashes and wept over her.
Later, Job’s friends’ empathy wears thin. His tragedies are mercilessly multiplying, and credulity that someone could suffer so acutely yet so innocently has been strained past breaking. Now, they open their mouths and speak what before could not be spoken: judgments and reasons for Job’s sufferings. They attack Job as a sinner, as one who must have merited divine wrath to suffer so greatly. Well-known as wise sages, they preach the superlative wisdom of their time, eloquent and commanding. Satan had originally been given leave by God to afflict and torment Job. The Hebrew meaning of “Satan” is “accuser.” Job’s friends, holy in their act of mourning, had, with supreme, terrible irony, become Satan, chargers of fault, blame, and offense, dispensers of shame and humiliation.
Like the story of the Prodigal, we often concentrate on what seems to be the central character, the broken and contrite Prodigal himself or Job’s example of faithful suffering. This is good because we can indeed see shadows of ourselves in their stories, which therefore help us to endure our own mistakes or trials, or help us to see something about ourselves that we could not otherwise see. But perhaps even more often we are also the steadfast yet narrow-minded, envious brother, or the initially compassionate yet ultimately accusatory friends of the suffering. Mourning can be hard, both as a matter of endurance (how long must we mourn with her? As long as it takes) and as a matter of form (how do I comfort her? According to what she might need). In fact, truly mourning with the Saints may very well be the most demanding element of what constitutes us as genuine members of the body of Christ. It requires us to turn ourselves inside out in order to meet vulnerability with vulnerability. There’s an enormous risk that our acts of mourning will not be received, or that they will be misinterpreted, or simply not be sufficient for the task. Comforting can be terribly uncomfortable. It’s little wonder that we often either tentatively extend ourselves in superficial ways or try to avoid comfort and mourning altogether.
And yet, perhaps only two things might in the end be required, at least as a foundation of mourning as a genuinely comforting and uniting practice. First, that there are acts of mourning that are recognizable as such. In Job’s time it was the tearing of clothing, public weeping, covering in ash, shaving a head (there were likely others as well). These signaled to others that one was mourning or that one was seeking to be with others in mourning. They were ritualistic in nature, expected of mourners in general. Mourning was was seen as an inevitable and necessary fact of the human experience of genuine loss; when we recognize that together, in forms that are sharable and recognizable by the whole community, we symbolize our real love and concern for one another as well as the reality of the community we share together, through universal emblems of mourning. In our own communities this might occur through prayer vigils, rendering service in common ways, or gathering together to discuss a tragedy or someone in need. I have often wondered if our public acts of mourning are sufficient for the task, whether we have a long way to go to make public mourning both acceptable and rich in meaning.
Second, that we irrevocably insist on being with those that need our mourning and comfort. This could take many forms and requires us to be attentive to individual needs. In Job’s case it was the mere presence of his friends that accomplished this act of mourning, their silent resolute willingness to simply accompany him in pain and ashes. Anything else they could have done would have betrayed his suffering by making his suffering serve their own needs and vanity. Of course, tragically, this is precisely what eventually occurred. Our mourning could even mean understanding that the person who is in need cannot bear even our presence, at least for a time. But the necessity to be there is not rescinded; we pray for, think about, wait steadfastly for when he or she might need our presence. We hold them, even in absence, as a presence for us.
Are our public acts of mourning sufficiently binding and recognizable as acts of mourning? Is there truly a space we have carved out for ministering to others in ways that reveal our faithfulness to the ideals and promises that we believe makes us Latter-day Saints? Comfortingly, an affirmative response tells us that there is much work to be done, but it is the work which makes of us Saints more than any other.