Sunday, July 3, 2016

"If I survive…"

do not cry.
Queen of Heaven,
protect me always.
Hail Mary,
full of grace..."

Those words, etched on the walls of a Gestapo jail in Auschwitz, inspired composer, Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." It could have been the soundtrack of my childhood.  Its tone -- low, sad, and sweet. If I had heard it then, I might not have felt so alone.

But actually, it was a small book that gave me hope, courage, comfort, and forbearance. I can remember standing in our middle school library and seeing the word, "Night" embossed into the faded cotton spine of Elie Wiesel's book, on the eye-level shelf in front of me.

I took it down with shaking hands, and opened it with trembling fingers.  I knew in an instant that it was my book. That he was my hero. I knew his story. Everyone did in those days. But to know that he had written a book about night -- the most terrifying time of day for me -- was a gift of supreme grace.

No, my monster didn't come with guns and swastikas. My family wasn't murdered. I did not live in a rat and flea-infested barrack with hundreds of other prisoners. But for me - a small girl with a quiet heart - my hell felt just as dark and hopeless.

I borrowed "Night" from the library that day and took it home in my plaid book bag. I remember slipping it under my pillow and knowing that even if I couldn't read it right away, it was there to remind me that I was not alone in the night. The fact that others had faced even more torturous events - had survived, had gone on to become advocates for innocence, and had rediscovered their relationship with a God they'd once doubted - was a lifeline for me.

With a small flashlight, deep under my covers, I read and I cried -- night after night. It was Elie's honesty that gave me the strength to hold on to my sanity. It was his survival that emboldened my hope.

You see, it was one thing to suffer years of abuse and then have it suddenly end when my abuser discovered his relationship to God. It led me believe that God was now protecting me, and that if I only kept a keen hold on that divine link -- I would be safe. But when a life-event triggered the abusers return to his old behaviors, I was deeply shaken. Where was God?   Nothing I did - no prayer I prayed - seemed to be able to arrest his steep spiral into self-hatred and the hatred for others that followed.

I had no one I could talk to.  No one except the authors I'd made my best friends in the night.  I still took all my sorrow to them.  Elie Wiesel, Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, those wonderful Bronte Sisters…   The abuser's threats to the lives of those I loved, kept me silent and compliant. I was afraid. But I was not alone, there had been millions of girls and boys who'd faced villainous torture and paralyzing fear -- night-after-night -- in places like Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka.

Wiesel shares in "Night," a conversation that he had with another prisoner.  It gave me a safe place to take some of my own questions:

“Why do you pray?"
he asked me, after a moment.

"Why did I pray? A strange question.
Why did I live? Why did I breathe?

"I don't know why," I said,
even more disturbed and ill at ease.
"I don't know why."

After that day I saw him often.
He explained to me with great insistence
that every question possessed a power
that did not lie in the answer.

"Man raises himself toward God
by the questions he asks Him,"
he was fond of repeating.

"That is the true dialogue.
Man questions God and God answers.
But we don't understand His answers.
We can't understand them.
Because they come from the depths
of the soul, and they stay there.
You will find the true answers,
Eliezer, only within yourself!"

"And why do you pray, Moshe?"
I asked him.
"I pray to the God within me
that He will give me the strength
to ask Him the right questions.”

I prayed for God to give me the right questions. I prayed that I could let go of the "why" question:  Why me? And instead, begin to ask questions like, What can I do to protect my sisters? How can I be brave? Who am I? Where is my goodness?  The questions themselves refocused my thoughts and gave me courage and strength.

Then, in a 1981 New York Times interview, Wiesel would again come to comfort my wounded heart, diffuse my anger, encourage my hopes, and give me a path towards the freedom I longed for. He said,

“If I survived,
it must be for some reason.
I must do something with my life.”

Once again, it met me where I was, and walked me forward out of a particularly dark chapter.  I knew that Elie had also struggled with his faith. And yet, he had persisted and prevailed.

Today, with the news of his passing,  my heart is both heavy and grateful. I will miss the dream of one day meeting him. I will miss the conversations I have imagined. I will miss asking him a million questions. But I will not allow myself to miss out on asking God to help me ask the right questions for each day's journey out of darkness and into His light-filled purpose for me.

Someone recently told me that I needed to forget the past, and move on. Like Elie, I do not believe that this "forgetting," is my path. Forgiving, yes. Forgetting, no. When I am remembering, I am holding something in consciousness. In that moment it is not in the past, it is very present. By recognizing this, I can decide how to think in that moment about that "memory." And in doing so, with Love's help, I can reclaim it for good.

I would never think to tell someone to forget -- to wipe something out of their conscious awareness -- anymore than I would tell someone to forget Jesus' crucifixion, or Mandela's imprisonment. Not when we are given the opportunity to reclaim those moments for God. To deny evil its claim as a creator. By this reclaiming -- we realign out lives with one divine Cause.

Each of us will experience something that has the potential to carve out in us a space of compassion, non-judgmental, alertness, humility, courage, patience, gratitude, vigilance. For me, the dark chapters were only context -- not content. I am made up of better things. And yes, my faith was tested -- but it was not found wanting. I have been through the valley of the shadow -- but I didn't stay there. And every step of the way, God was with me. It was all for some reason.

Thank you Elie Wiesel for being there in the night. Thank you for reminding me that every life has purpose. That every moment has a reason.

offered with Love,


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