Paul Murray’s book on the prophet Jonah, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment, is a short one. Actually, it’s a very short one. Discounting the text of the book of Jonah itself and the illustrations, it runs to no more than 49 small pages. A pretty lightweight book then? Short, yes, but no, lightweight it isn’t. Although Murray, an Irish Dominican, obviously cannot give us an in-depth explanation of the text in those 49 pages, he has nonetheless written some quite remarkable reflections on this fascinating Old Testament text.
Murray is well-informed, and he manages, again rather surprisingly, given the limited space, to engage with an astonishing variety of perspectives, including modern scholarly treatments (Phyllis Trible, A. R. Ceresko, James Limburg, Yvonne Sherwood, André LaCocque, Jack Sasson, Hans Walter Wolff), works from the long history of Christian and Jewish engagement with this text (Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Columban, Martin Luther, Rabbi Eliezer, the Zoar), poets, novelists and dramatists (Herman Melville, Francis Quarles, Wolf Mankowitz, Hart Crane, Robert Frost), philosophers and psychologists (George Steiner, Erich Fromm, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Buber), mystics (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton), the list goes on ….
More importantly, in his brief comments on the lesson of the wild storm, the lesson of the great whale (before anyone objects, Murray is well aware that the Hebrew text doesn’t mention a whale) and the lesson of the wondrous plant, Murray has given us some equally brief but nonetheless insightful spiritual reflections on fear, terror and courage; compassion, love and responsibility; suffering and bewilderment; failure and breakdown; death and resurrection; anger, resentment and bigotry ….
The following quotes may give a flavour of Murray’s writing:
… the moment of actual failure and breakdown – the experience of bewilderment in our lives – can be the moment of breakthrough, the moment when God’s grace finally shakes down all our defences. And then, to our amazement, from out of the belly of failure, from out of the death of false dreams and false ideals, and even from the jaws of a living hell, we can begin to experience the grace of resurrection.
… sometimes, it is only in the midst of the ‘tempest’, in the heart of a storm of circumstances which we can’t control, that we come finally to realise something of the wonderful mystery of God, and realise also how far beyond anything we can imagine or hope for are his plans both for ourselves and for the entire world.
Here’s something else that Murray has done for me. Having come across numerous references to John of the Cross’s reflections on the ‘dark night of the soul’ in recent months, Murray’s quotes from this text have finally persuaded me that I must go and read it!