As I read Caryll Houselander’s Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross, my mind drifted back to a Russian woman who once said to me, “You Americans are so superficial because you do not know how to suffer. God has taught us Russians know how to suffer, and it either makes us into saints or demons.” In fact, not long ago a woman I know reminded me of this quote the other day and shared with me how much light it has shed on her own life, and revealed to her more clearly the superficial character of our culture that does all it can to flee suffering. We kill the pain with alcohol, drugs and sex, and like addicts we ceaselessly pursue endless stimulation, entertainment and play video games that glorify violence in macabre and dehumanizing ways. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s quote that I referenced the other day captures this fearful quest well:
It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.
Then this past weekend I was reading some of Stanley Hauerwas’ troubling book, Hannah’s Child, and was enthralled by this comment on suffering:
Learning how to say “God” is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say “God” forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die. We fear ourselves and one another, sensing that we are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others to sustain the fantasy that we will not have to die. The widespread confidence that medicine will someday “cure” death is a fantasy. The attempt to develop and maintain a medicine so aimed, moreover, depends on the creation of wealth as an end in itself.
A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself cannot avoid the creation of a people whose souls are superficial and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. They will ask questions like “why does a good God let bad things happen to good people.” Such people cannot imagine that a people once existed who produced and sang the psalms. If we learn to say “God,” we will do so only with the prayer, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” If there is one thing the psalms do, it is to teach us how to lift up the voices of the suffering to God, whether they be ours or others’.
Such a view of a Jewish grappling with God in prayer reminds me of a review I read of movie called God on Trial. It’s set in the barracks of Auschwitz. The story is based on a legend that a group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners held a mock trial to determine whether or not God was guilty of the suffering in the world. The characters are from all walks of life — a doctor, a rabbi, a glove maker, a professor, a criminal. The prisoners have been selected for extermination in the gas chambers the next day. As they try to make sense of their tragic circumstances, they also wonder where God is. Some are afraid to question God, while others are ready to curse Him.
As the mock trial proceeds, witnesses are called to testify for or against God. They recall the history of European Jews and lament Israel’s history of oppression. Some testify that God is mysteriously purifying His people. Others claim that God has broken the covenant and has abandoned the Jews. In the end, the men in the barracks find God guilty of breach of covenant. He has not taken care of them as according to His promises. As they enter the gas chambers one of them asks another, “What do we do now that we have found God guilty?” His friend answers, “Now we pray.”
For my soul is filled with evils;
my life is on the brink of the grave.
I am reckoned as one in the tomb;
I have reached the end of my strength,
Like one alone among the dead,
like the slain lying in their graves,
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand.
You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths.
Your anger weighs down upon me;
I am drowned beneath your waves.
You have taken away my friends
and made me hateful in their sight.
Imprisoned, I cannot escape;
my eyes are sunken with grief.
I call to you, Lord, all the day long;
to your I stretch out my hands.
Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?
Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your justice in the land of oblivion?
As for me, Lord, I call to you for help;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face?
Wretched, close to death from my youth,
I have borne your trials; I am numb.
Your fury has swept down upon me;
your terrors have utterly destroyed me.
They surround me all the day like a flood,
they assail me all together.
Friend and neighbor you have taken away:
my one companion is darkness