Daily Meditations

The Essence of Prayer (IV)

On many occasions throughout history people witnessed persecution and were not afraid, but shared in the suffering and did not protest; for instance, Sophia, the mother who stood by each of her daughters, Faith, Hope and Charity, encouraging them to die, or many other martyrs who helped one another but never turned against the tormentors. The spirit of martyrdom can be brought out by several examples. The first expresses the spirit of martyrdom in itself, its basic attitude: a spirit of love which cannot be defeated by suffering or injustice. A very young priest, who was imprisoned at the beginning of the Russian revolution, and came out a broken man, was asked what was left of him, and he answered: ‘Nothing is left of me, they have burnt out every single thing, love only survives.’ A man who can say that has the right attitude and anyone who shares his tragedy must also share in his unshakeable love.

There is the example of a man who came back from Buchenwald and, when asked about himself, said that his sufferings were nothing compared to his broken-heartedness about those poor German youths who could be so cruel, and that thinking about the state of their souls, he could find no peace. His concern was not for himself, and he had spent four years there, nor for the innumerable people who had suffered and died around him; but for the condition of the tormentors. Those who suffered were on the side of Christ, those who were cruel were not.

Thirdly, there is this prayer written in a concentration camp by a Jewish prisoner:

Peace to all men of evil will! Let there be an end to all vengeance, to all demands for punishment and retribution … Crimes have surpassed all measure, they can no longer be grasped by human understanding. There are too many martyrs… And so, weigh not their sufferings on the scales of thy justice, Lord, and lay not these sufferings to the torturors’ charge to exact a terrible reckoning from them. Pay them back in a different way! Put down in favour of the executioners, the informers, the traitors and all men of evil will, the courage, the spiritual strength of the others, their humility, their lofty dignity, their constant inner striving and invincible hope, the smile that staunched the tears, their love, their ravaged, broken hearts that remained steadfast and confident in the face of death itself, yes, even at moments of the utmost weakness … Let all this, O Lord, be laid before thee for the forgiveness of sins, as a ransom for the triumph of righteousness, let the good and not the evil he taken into account! And may we remain in our enemies’ memory not as their victims, not as a nightmare, not as haunting spectres, but as helpers in their striving to destroy the fury of their criminal passions. There is nothing more that we want of them. And when it is all over, grant us to live among men as men, and may peace come again to our poor earth – peace for men of goodwill and for all the others … *

There was also a Russian bishop who said that it is a privilege for a Christian to die a martyr, because none but a martyr can, at the last judgement, take his stand in front of God’s judgement seat and say, ‘According to thy word and thy example, I have forgiven. Thou hast no claim against them anymore.’ Which means that the one who suffers martyrdom in Christ, whose love is not defeated by suffering, acquires unconditional power of forgiving over the one who has inflicted the suffering. And this can be applied on a much lower level, on the level of everyday life; anyone who suffers a minor injustice from someone else can forgive or refuse to forgive.  But this is a two-edged sword; if you do not forgive, you will not be forgiven either.

French Roman Catholics, with their acute sense of justice and the honour of God, are very conscious of the victory which Christ can gain through the suffering of people: since 1797 there has existed an Order of Reparation, which by perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament asks forgiveness for the crimes of the world and the forgiveness of individual sinners by their victim’s prayers. This Order is also educational and aims to give children and adults the spirit of love.

Typical also is the story of the French general Maurice d’Elbee during the revolutionary wars; his men captured some Bleus and wanted to shoot them; the general, unwillingly, had to consent, but he insisted that they should first read the Lord’s Prayer aloud, which they did, and when they came to the words ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us’, they understood, they wept and let the prisoners go. Later on, in 1794, General d’Elbee was himself shot by the Bleus.

Jean Danielou, the French Jesuit writer, says in Holy Pagans that suffering is the link between the righteous and sinners, the righteous man who endures suffering and the sinner who inflicts it. If there were not that link, they would drift apart and sinners and righteous would remain on parallel lines that never meet. In that case, the righteous would have no power over the sinner because one cannot deal with what one does not meet.

~Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer

* Found in the archives of a German concentration camp and published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung.