A journey through silence

by
13 April 2017

In a Good Friday reflection, Paul Cowan considers silence and its abusive and redemptive power

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Hanging on a tree: the gallows at Auschwitz concentration camp

Hanging on a tree: the gallows at Auschwitz concentration camp

AT THE beginning of the year, with about 50 other clergy, I was invited to join the Archbishop of Canter­bury for a three-day pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau (News, 20 January). It was to be an opportun­ity to reflect on the nature and reality of human evil, and what this means for the mission, pastoral care, and leadership of the Church.

As we walked through the snow from the retreat centre where we were staying to the camp, in tem­per­atures well below zero, I won­dered how anyone could have survived even a single winter. We filed under the notorious entrance sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (”Work sets you free”), and the conversa­tions quietened and then ceased entirely. It felt impossible to com­prehend the enormity of what happened in the place, despite the best efforts of our guides.

Before the visit, I was encouraged to read Lamentations. Predicting that I would struggle to concentrate, I decided to read the text aloud, and was struck by the power and urgency of the lament, the raw honesty of its questioning. I found myself reading at a pace and adding a sense of protest to my inflection: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”

As Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, how many “passed by”? How many of his followers and friends fell silent, and hid them­selves away? Acts of compassion and empathy, of walking alongside in solidarity — endeavouring, with Simon of Cyrene, to share the bur­den — are always costly, yet Jesus taught us that it is in this sacrificial place, among the poor and suffer­ing, that we will find holy ground.

 

I ALSO read Laurence Rees’s book Auschwitz, and came to appreciate more deeply how invasion and occupation brought a fear that had the power to silence entire nations. A pernicious silence enveloped not only those who were herded on to cattle trucks, but also those who “passed by”: the neighbours who watched it happen. Martin Luther King once said that “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Silence, or certainly the lack of an opportunity to speak, is often the experience of victims of injustice.

Clearly, silence is not always a holy state. Throughout history, abusers of power have found ways to quell the prophetic voices that call for justice, love, peace, and the protection of the vulnerable. As King Amaziah said to the prophet Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel.”

Jesus’s disciples, too, were silenced by the power of the oppres­sor: we remember Peter, overcome by his fear, denying any connection with Jesus. I wonder how many people across Europe in the past century have fallen silent, minim­ised, or denied their relationship to the despised and persecuted “other”, and, with Peter, have carried a crush­ing secret guilt?

And, overarching the silence of the individuals, there is the terrible sense of God’s silence, both at the cross and on every other occasion of human suffering before and since. The cry of “Where are you?” echoes throughout the Hebrew scriptures. How often have we cried out for divine intervention, but heard nothing; prayed for an end to the horror, and yet the sun goes down on yet another day of suffering?

 

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

 

. . . . .

 

YET, as the group of clergy con­tinued through the camp, I had a growing sense that I was walking on holy ground — even though this feels like a strange thing to write about a place of industrialised evil. The camps are more than a museum: they give voice to those who were not heard, and who died here in secret.

How necessary the silence sud­den­ly seemed in giving us space to hear the voices of others, especially as we embarked on a Stations of the Cross walk around Birkenau camp. Our guide, the Revd Dr Manfred Deselaers, a Roman Catholic priest, encouraged us to listen in four ways: to the voices from the earth, to the voice of our own hearts, to the voice of the other, and to the voice of God.

This four-fold exercise in listen­ing is perhaps a good framework for a rule of life, and one that resonates with our three Anglican sources of authority, which call us to listen attentively to scripture, tradition, and reason.

If we are to honour our Anglican foundations, we need to learn path­ways to a holy silence that listens to God through scripture; through the voices of the saints who have gone before us; and through our hearts, our reason, and the voice of the other — particularly the marginal­ised, the vulnerable, and those with whom we passionately disagree.

The disciplines of counselling, arbitration, and mediation also rely on the ability to listen well — disciplines that we have recently been nurturing, and need to con­tinue to develop in the Church as we struggle with contentious issues.

I wonder what the voices of the Auschwitz earth would say to us in the Church of England today? Saints past and present, we are all God’s children, with a voice to be listened to and honoured.

 

THE silence we kept that day in the camps was not only wholly appropr­iate in response to the evidence of such appalling suffering, but also the only way in which any of us could encounter God that day in such a place; for “silence is the way God speaks to us,” St John of the Cross said.

A former CBS anchor, Dan Rather, once found himself unpre­pared for a television interview with Mother Teresa. “When you pray,” he asked, “what do you say to God?”

“I don’t say anything,” she re­­plied. “I listen.”

He tried another tack: “Well, OK, when God speaks to you, then, what does he say?”

“He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”

The interviewer looked bewil­dered. For an instant, he did not know what to say.

“And if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa went on, “I can’t explain it to you.”

As I look back on the way I prayed as a young adult, I am re­­minded of the prophets of Baal trying to light a fire. The few gaps I left were an attempt to squeeze responses out of God. But I have since learnt to treasure silence, and surrender my need for God to dance to my tune.

In juxtaposition to the prophets of Baal, Elijah encountered God in the “sound of sheer silence”. Job’s friends were doing well in support of their suffering friend, until they stopped listening and started talking.

There is, at both Auschwitz and the foot of Christ’s cross on Good Friday, a deep sense of holy ground that must be approached in silence. Each serves as a mirror, starkly revealing our personal and corpor­ate brokenness and potential for evil. Might it be that there is holy ground to be found by all who venture to sit in compassionate silence in places of suffering? In the present day, standing near me in the world, who are the people whose voices I need to listen to?

‘Behold your son. Behold your mother.’

 

. . . . .

 

UNSURPRISINGLY, many who arrived at the camps as people of faith rejected the God who appeared to be utterly silent. Others contin­ued to find solace and strength from their faith while surrounded by evil.

Eliezer Wiesel’s account, in his book Night, of witnessing a child being hanged strikes at the heart of the matter: “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows.’”

After this experience, Wiesel writes of his desire to reject God, but that he still finds himself praying. There is, somewhere deep within him, a flicker of faith that refuses to be extinguished. Indeed, I have seen this incredible inextin­guish­able flame time and again throughout my ministry, in people who have suffered dreadfully in their lives.

Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence is the story of suffering at the hands of fellow human beings, in which torturers try to force a Jesuit priest, Fr Rodriguez, to reject his Christian faith. The film continually takes us back, through Fr Rodri­guez’s memory, to the image of an icon by El Greco of the face of Christ at the time of his crucifixion.

The wonder of an icon is that it can speak to us in different ways at different times, giving enough to nurture our devotion while leaving space for our individual prayers and journey — and so the crucifix is a mirror that reflects humanity’s propensity for evil, and yet also a window through which we see God’s limitless love.

It is tempting to gloss over the pain of Good Friday with a con­clusion that hints at the joy and celebration of Easter Day, just as it is tempting to join Job’s friends in the jump to comfortable answers and explanations.

But Good Friday is a day to re­­main alongside those in dark valleys, who need the freedom and space to contemplate — even rage at — the God who is absent, yet always present; the God who can be re­­jected, yet never escaped from; the God who is silent, yet never stops whispering to our yearning hearts.

 

 

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’

 

. . . . .

 

The Revd Paul Cowan is Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford.

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