The rousing time

My Chief Far Eastern Correspondent (in Halifax, Nova Scotia) writes to share Advent observations from the Prison Notebooks of the Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp (executed in Berlin, the 2nd of February, 1945):

“Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go all his mistaken dreams, his conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretences with which he hopes to deceive himself and others. If he fails to do this, stark reality may take hold of him and rouse him forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

“The kind of awakening that, literally, shocks man’s whole being, is part and parcel of the Advent idea. A deep emotional experience like this is necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord. A shattering awakening; that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. There can be no proper preparation without this. It is precisely the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden thread which binds earth to heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fullness it is capable of realizing and is called upon to realize.

“We ought not to ignore Advent meditations such as these. We have to listen, to keep watch, to let our heart quicken, under the impulse of the indwelling Spirit. Only in this quiescent state can the true blessing of Advent be experienced, and then we shall also recognize it in other ways. Once awakened to an inner awareness we are constantly surprised by symbols bearing the Advent message, figures of tried and proven personalities that bring out in a most forceful way the inner meaning of the feast and emphasize its blessing.

“I am thinking of three in particular: the man crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and our blessed Lady.”

*

Do you believe in God? Perhaps this is a silly question. A better question might be: Do you trust Him? I have long suspected that even my “agnostic-atheist” friends believe in God. They can’t really help it. I might further suspect that their belief is presumptuous, given the outward denial that He exists.

My late mother was an atheist of the first water. Of course she believed in God. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have been arguing with Him, for seventy years. She would have just “forgotten about the Guy.” Instead she had a grievance. As a young nurse in training, in Halifax of all places — a good hearted, literal-minded Calvinist, raised to say her prayers — she prayed ardently for one of her patients, a little boy with a horrible spinal injury. It was ghastly, and she was appalled by the excruciating pain from which the little boy suffered: quietly, even sweetly, but written on his face. Modern medical science (circa 1940) could do little for him.

He didn’t get better, so she prayed more. She got so she was praying “every day, every hour.” Still no result. Finally, the boy died.

Why, why, why, why?

We discussed this when seventy years had passed, and my mother was herself in great pain: fiendish arthritis, Parkinson’s, and a few other things, enhanced by combination. This after heroically beating off a cancer, through eight rounds of chemo. Curiously, mama did not much complain on her own behalf, beyond involuntary whimpering. She believed in “stoic.” (When the pain, and worse, the disorientation became insupportable, she would sing old hymns, from her choir-girl childhood, and recite the Lord’s Prayer.) She was still vexed, however, on behalf of the little boy. That is what had made her angry with God, and she was still quite annoyed.

It had begun just after his death; she prayed. She told God her views very candidly. “All these prayers I said for him, day and night, and You did nothing.” She wasn’t going to play the fool any more. She blamed God for not listening, for not being there, for not intervening when He was needed, for not even caring. She drew up her account, like Jefferson’s Declaration; finally she accused God of Not Existing. And then, of not answering to that, either.

She would even spite Him. She decided this on a walk: that she would be a good person, without His help. She would, in effect, show Him up. She would drop all these pointless prayers, and prove to Him, once and for all, that He wasn’t needed. For seven decades she kept this up, in the Gaelic manner, through thick and thin.

Oddly enough, this is almost exactly the way my mother put it. She was vividly aware of the irony, and towards her own end, when there was nothing left to do for herself, she just listened to a very young Catholic priest that I had “stuck on her.” (I caught this Father Michael once by her bedside in the middle of the night; the nurses told me he’d been on his knees on the hard floor, well over an hour. They worried that he’d cripple himself.)

I should add that mama always thought well of Catholics. It had something to do with the “absurdity” of their position. They were sticking to their guns the way she was. Moreover, as the sister of a woman who was believed by many to be a Christian saint, and with many impressive friends both Protestant and Catholic, mama had to admit that “belief” did, usually, improve people.

*

Unless the Lord. Unless the Lord build the house. Unless the Lord …

Those who build it, labour in vain.

Father Delp’s hanging, from a meat hook, in a cold little cell on (happily enough) the Feast of Candlemas, 1945, was enriched by nine weeks of interrogation, and beatings; an offer of freedom if he’d quit the Jesuits and join the Nazi Party; and four months in solitary. His body was cremated, and the ashes dumped in a sewer. (This was standard policy for German “traitors” at the time.)

“It is the time of sowing, not of harvesting. God is sowing; one day He will harvest again.”

The Nazi judge who condemned Delp, predeceased him, in an allied air raid. In the grand scheme of things, one wonders if this was chance.

Certainly, Delp lived in a “rousing time,” yet in the letters he wrote, smuggled out of prison in the laundry during his last Advent, he does not clearly distinguish between his time, and ours. It often appears that he is writing not to his, but to our situation, surrounded as we are by a society that may or may not believe in God, but isn’t inclined to trust Him.

The German bishops who drafted defiant statements against the Nazis, re-drafted to tone them down. Delp’s contemporaries often criticized those who went “over the top,” and thereby courted trouble. Why did Father Delp himself feel the need, for instance, to decry so eloquently from a pulpit in Munich, the Nazi policy of euthanasia? It was phrased as a humane policy, using the same basic argument that is used today in support of euthanasia: to put suffering people out of their misery. What could be wrong with that?

The idea that suffering could be of any value is lost on most. Why should we trust God on this? That God who sent his only-begotten Son into this world, to suffer. “For God so loved the world.”

I sometimes think belief in God is entirely beside the point.

And then there is Baudelaire: “Everyone believes in God, though nobody loves Him. No one believes in the Devil, and yet his smell is everywhere.”