Fortieth day of Christmas

[This item is revised from first appearance for Advent, in 2014. The Prison Notebooks of the Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp — executed at Berlin on Candlemas, the 2nd of February, 1945 — were first brought to my attention by my fondly remembered “Chief Far Eastern Correspondent,” at Halifax, Nova Scotia.]


“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. …

“The kind of awakening that shocks man’s whole being: … that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. …

“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. …

“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 that is a silly question. A better might be: Do you trust Him? I have long suspected that even my “atheist/agnostic” friends believe in God. They can’t really help it.

My late mother was an atheist. Of course she believed in God. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have argued with Him, for seventy years. She would have just “forgotten about the Guy.”

Instead she had a grievance. As a young nurse in training, at 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 the little boy suffered: quietly, even sweetly. 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. This after heroically beating off a cancer, through eight rounds of chemo. For mama 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 still-remembered Lord’s Prayer.) She was still vexed, however, on behalf of the little boy. That is what had made her angry with God, “forever.”

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 acting when He was called upon. She drew up her account, like Jefferson’s Declaration; finally she accused God of Not Existing. And then, of not responding 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 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.

This was the way my own mother put it. She was vividly aware of the irony, and towards her own end, when there was nothing left for it, 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.)


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

Father Delp’s hanging, from a meat hook, in a cold little cell on the Feast of Candlemas, had been enriched by four months in solitary, and nine weeks of interrogation and beatings. He was offered freedom if he’d quit the Jesuits and join the Nazi Party. He refused. His body was cremated; the ashes dumped in a sewer. (This was standard practice 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 just before his execution in an allied air raid. … (Details, details. God attends to them.)

The German bishops who drafted defiant statements against the Nazis, re-drafted to tone them down. Like Dolan of New York, they would criticize those who went “over the top,” thereby courting trouble. Why would Father Delp himself feel the need, to make a big issue, from the pulpit in Munich, of the Nazi policy of euthanasia? After all, it was “humanitarian” — designed to put suffering people out of their misery.

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 on the Cross.

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

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