Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Saints Remind of the Presence of Suffering

August 9 - St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Carmelite Martyr

August 14 - St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

Long before the word "holocaust" came into popular use as reference to the Nazi killing machine which practically eradicated Eastern European Jewry and assorted "undesirable" others, the reality of that horror was known to me. The area of Brooklyn, New York in which I grew up was shared by Italian Catholics and Jews of mostly Russian or Eastern European heritage. While the former came to this country largely to escape poverty in the Mezzogiorno of southern Italy and Sicily, the later had come to escape military service in the army of the Russian tsar or lethal pogroms periodically declared to clear the countryside of a Jewish presence.

After World War II, many new immigrants began to arrive in the neighborhood. Many Italians came and along with them a smattering of young Jews from the displaced persons' camps of Europe. They had to be young because only they had the stamina to survive if survival was at all possible. Their young bodies had great resistance to deprivation; they could work hard; they could run and hide; or they could be hidden by some extraordinary non-Jew willing to risk life and limb. And some of these refugees had numbers tattooed on their arms. When asked about them by her observant daughter my mother replied in hushed tones, "They were in the camps." She gave no details but I intuited that this was a grave circumstance of which one did not speak.

Most of the history I know I learned from reading great historical novels as a teenager. From the fiction of Leon Uris (Exodus, Mila 18, Armageddon) I learned about the Warsaw Ghetto, the concentration camps and the refusal of the United States to wave immigration policies to receive more Jews into this country as the intentions of Hitler became undeniable. Later Elie Wiesel's memoir, Night, proved that the truth was even more horrid than the fiction.
The Saints Teresa Benedicta and Maximilian Kolbe are our Holocaust reminders in August of each year. Yes, we have the moving Diary of Anne Frank and the film Schindler's List to remind us. But as Catholics following the liturgical year these names and their stories come before us year after year to bring to our eyes the inhumanity of which we are capable. But they also speak of the heights of courage, fortitude and generosity of which human beings are still capable.

With such memories in mind, I thought today of the 'holocausts' of our own days in the streets of Baghdad, on the parched earth of Darfur in the Sudan, in the wee hours of the morning as four young people are gunned down execution style in Newark, New Jersey.

A few years ago I read an old book by Caryll Houselander, The Comforting of Christ. Houselander is best known for her book about the Blessed Mother, The Reed of God. The older book, published in 1947 in England, reflects the horrors of World War II. The author's bold suggestion is that by our lives, our prayer, our sacrifices, our attentiveness and availability we have the power within us to comfort Christ who suffered and continues to suffer for us. At the end of the book Houselander offers A Meditation on the Mass of Reparation. I have been using it as a preparation for receiving the Eucharist and find it very powerful. Houselander was a poet and a mystic and these affinities are expressed so well in this lengthy meditation. After speaking to each Person of the Blessed Trinity she follows the movements of the Rite of the Eucharist. Of the moment when the priest adds a drop of water into the wine-filled chalice she writes:

Receive the tears of the world, in the drop of water in the Chalice; receive the tears of old mothers who weep in the ruins of their homes, rifled nests of the little birds that were once their sons; receive the tears of frightened children, of homesick children. Receive the privileged tears of those who can weep for contrition; receive the tears that are not shed, that are hard as salt-water frozen in hearts that can weep no more; that ache in the throats of those who have no more tears to shed. Receive, O God, from my hands, who am not worthy to breathe the air He breaths, the tears of Christ in the Chalice of our salvation, the tears of the Infant in Bethlehem, the tears of the little foreign Child in Egypt, the tears shed over Jerusalem, the tears shed over Lazarus...O God, we offer Thee the tears of Christ in the tears of the world: "We offer Thee the Chalice of Salvation, humbly begging Thy mercy that it may ascend to Thee for our salvation and for that of the whole world."

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Your posting reminds me of Ps 56:8 -- You have kept count of my tosings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?
I recall thinking of our God Who keeps our treasured tears in lovely crystal bottles upon His "mantlepiece". As some who cries easily in prayer, it is comforting. How much more so for those who truly suffer.