On the Shores of Babylon

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Henri Nouwen once remarked that he found it curious that many of the people he knew who were very angry and bitter were people he had met in church circles and places of ministry.

He is not alone in that. Many of us, I suspect, could say the same thing. We often find more anger and whining than joy within church circles because there we can justify anger and disappointment in the name of something sacred.

There is a biblical name for this particular type of anger and whining. This is called being on the shores of Babylon, feeling exiled from your own faith experience.

We are all familiar with the Psalm 137 (popularized in songs) that sings out the lament: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. How could we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? Let my tongue cleave to my mouth, if I remember you not, if I prize not Jerusalem above all my joys!

There is an interesting background to this lament: After Israel had entered the Promised Land, received God’s law, become one kingdom, and built a temple to worship in, she felt politically secure and confident in her faith. Her confidence in faith was very much rooted in possessing three material things: a land, a king, and a temple. God had promised these and God had delivered on that promise. After much struggle they finally had their own land, their own king, and their own temple. These were now the pillars of their faith, their guarantee that God was real and with them. Naively they expected it would stay that way forever.

It was not to be: Neighboring Assyria, overtook them, conquered the land, deported the people, killed the king, and knocked the temple down to its last stone. Israel now found herself in exile in Babylon, with no land, no king, no temple; and, seemingly, no reason to continue to have faith in God. Her faith, anchored as it was in land, king, and temple, now seemed empty, a dream gone sour. She felt exiled, not just from her own land but from her own faith. Someone had taken away her land, king, and temple and, with them, seemingly her reason to trust in God.

She was left with some painful questions: How can there be a God, if God promised to be present in a land, a king, and a temple, and these are gone? Moreover, how can we be happy in such a situation? Someone had stolen my faith and my church and I will not be happy about that! The laments of Babylon are in the end a euphemism for whining and anger.

But they echo the bitter, whining poetics we hear today in our own church circles: liberals and conservatives, equally unhappy, each blaming the other for somehow stealing away the other’s church, for ruining something that was dear to them, and for putting them on an unhappy shore. In Roman Catholic circles these laments often pit Vatican II against John Paul II with both sides are equally protesting: How can we be joyous and gracious in this situation! It is no different in Protestant circles. There is lamentation everywhere. We are on the shores of Babylon, unhappy, given over to whining.

What we need to hear in all this is the answer that God gave to Israel when she first expressed that religious unhappiness: Where is God when someone has taken away your land, king, and temple? God’s answer: “You will find me again when you search for me in a deeper way, with your whole heart!”

God is beyond any material land, ruler, or church building. God is also beyond any church council and any pope, no matter how true or great these may in fact be. The dark night of pain and insecurity we experience whenever we feel like we are on the shores of Babylon is the purifying pain that comes with finding out that everything that is religiously precious to us, everything we want to identify with God himself, eventually gets crucified (just as Jesus did) and in the wake of the disillusionment we find ourselves in a free-fall, losing a grip on what once anchored our faith. And we will continue to free-fall until ultimately we lose everything so as to fall right to the bedrock of faith itself, God, solidity beyond all material lands, kings, and temples.

That is the difference between and an icon and an idol. Idolatry forgets that the icon is not God. No matter how true and wonderful an icon might be, there comes a time when it has to be taken away from us. Then we find ourselves on the shores of Babylon, insecure, feeling exiled, unhappy, but hearing this from God: You will find me and your joy again when you search for me in a deeper way, with all your heart, mind, and soul!