No one has ever seen God, but the One who knew Him before He was born on this earth taught us all to address Him in prayer.
When a Christian wonders if it makes sense to pray, the first and most eloquent answer comes naturally: Jesus Christ exhorted us to pray. No one would suspect that Christ was telling people to waste their time. If so, Jesus could have blessed the loud patterns of tradition that excelled in time-consuming surrogates for prayer. The prayer would then need only to be continued as before: exclusively public, as loud as possible, a bunch of words repeated until they lost their meaning. But the Master insisted on a completely opposite pattern of prayer that treats God as a spectator who must be impressed. “When you pray,” said the Savior, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”1 Jesus does not lie.
“Of course. Tell that to the Jews during the Holocaust!” How many conversations about the meaning of prayer must have witnessed the outbreak of such a strong argument against the possibility of ever establishing a dialogue with God ?! “Where is God when I suffer?” is a question-capsule, a concentrate of all the tears that will have slid down the faces of all the people in history. Many return to Auschwitz hoping to find either the map to God’s hiding place or a common grave in which to push their faith once and for all. In the years after the war, even among those who did not lose a hair, many haunted their clergy with the question, “Why, Father, why did God not guard the Jews?” An American rabbi named Reeve Robert Brenner, however, thought of asking someone else questions about God and the Holocaust.
Only those who suffer
In The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, Brenner recounts his conversations about faith and God he had with hundreds of Jewish concentration camp survivors. The rabbi monumentalized them in a research with a result that was impossible to anticipate. Nearly half of those who survived Nazi hell did not feel that their experience affected their religious beliefs in one direction or another. Here is the statement of one survivor: “It never occurred to me to question God’s actions while I was imprisoned at Auschwitz, although I certainly understand that others have done so.” And he then says, as to discourage others from thinking he might be a little less intelligent: “If someone believes God is responsible for the death of six million because He didn’t somehow do something to save them, he’s got his thinking reversed. We owe God our lives for the few or many years we live, and we have the duty to worship Him.”2
“It never occurred to me to question God’s actions while I was imprisoned at Auschwitz, although I certainly understand that others have done so.”
This man’s admirable religious loyalty seems irreproducible, but Brenner’s research has revealed even more astonishing things. Talking openly to the survivors, the rabbi calculated that about 5% of them began to believe in God as a direct result of the experience they had in the camp. If we extrapolate to the total number of European Jews who survived, in one place or another, that time of hatred against them, 5% means about 170,000 people.
Brenner did not try to optimistically rewrite the history of Nazi horror. He did not even hide the fact that 11% of the survivors saw their faith scattered in nothingness, intertwined with the smoke of the gas chambers. But the fact that 5% of the survivors of the camps enter the concentration camps as atheists and left them as believers, that almost half of them left the camp with their faith untouched shows that it is indeed possible that, in the midst of the most devastating pain, there be reasons to unwaveringly believe in God.
Contemporary intuitions usually lean towards the most tragic scenario: crushed by suffering, man lets go of his ultimate beliefs, and those who have not suffered as much as he has have no right to suggest that he could be wrong. But when you look at the clenched hands emerging like a stubborn prayer from the avalanche of misfortunes, even those who have not suffered as much as those hands have have no right to look at them and be silent.
A ten-year-old boy
A beautiful example of non-silence is provided by writer C.S. Lewis, who told in his first chronicle of Narnia about a little boy named Digory, whose mother was dying. Digory comes face to face with the great lion Aslan – a parable for God – and, although he is afraid of a refusal, he gathers his courage: “Please—Mr. Lion—Aslan—Sir, could you—may I— please, will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make Mother well?”3
“Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes.”
But the Lion doesn’t answer at all and keeps talking as if he hasn’t even heard the boy’s desperate request. Not long after, Digory renews his request: “But please… please, he bursts out, give me something that will make my mother well.” And C.S. Lewis, who lost his mother in the battle with cancer at just ten years old, says that Digory “Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes.”4
Digory’s mother will not be healed, just as Lewis’s mother was not, just as his wife, decades later, will not escape the disease. But even when they do not offer healing, the Lion’s tears say that He truly cares about our suffering.
God being Himself
It takes courage to see the tears of God. Sometimes we do not look up from the earth for fear that our gaze will be met with severity and then we will be crushed not only by pain, but also by loneliness. Sometimes, when the pain becomes too great for us, we get the impression that God has shrunk to the point, as the American pastor Pete Grieg put it, “of the magnitude of our suffering.”5 And we are afraid that His tears are tears of helplessness.
We do not see Him as He is, and then our loss becomes deeper, because “the power of prayer depends almost entirely on our ability to understand Who is the One we are talking to.”6 Suffering has, unfortunately, this ability to mute the sound of God’s voice into our hearts.
“The power of prayer depends almost entirely on our ability to understand Who we are talking to.”
“God’s voice can so easily be muted by our hurt, our self-hatred or our crazy preconceptions about who He really is, how He speaks and what we think He will say. But when we come to God (…) with an open wound of longing, we come to Abba, Father, who loves us deeply.”7 Christ did not contradict the fact that the God who longs for us to call Him “Father” is a hidden God. But the Teacher’s exhortations were always to a practical experience of trust, not to a theorizing that would help us decypher the ultimate equation of divine behavior. Ultimately, faith does not make it possible to fully understand God before taking any step toward Him, but is manifested in the decision to move forward with the God Who will always remain deeply known but infinitely unknown to us. Maybe this is the very infinite we need eternal life for. Like Jesus said8: ”Now this is eternal life: that they know you”.
It takes courage to see the tears of God.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.