Amazing Mercy: Undoing Auschwitz

“The Church… has the right and the duty to call upon the mercy of God, imploring it in the face of all the manifestations of physical and moral evil, before all the threats that cloud the whole horizon of the life of humanity today…”  –Dives in Misericordia

Auschwitz, February 3rd, 2008

Stillness. A certain expectancy hangs in the air. Or maybe it hangs in my heart, I can’t tell. And the sun is shining. Why is the sun shining? It feels like it shouldn’t be, in this place. And I’m reminded what someone said to me yesterday: “I hope that it’s cold and rainy and gray tomorrow, don’t you?”

But I had answered, “No. Because maybe the only way we’ll see God, is if the sun is shining. Maybe we’ll need that, to survive it.” –And now here I am, in the brilliant sunshine, torn between gratitude for the warmth of it and frustration because it feels so out of place, and sheds a sort of unreal quality over the whole thing.

And I try to realize where I am, as I stand in front of the gate that thousands stood before on the day that they were removed from themselves. They stood on this side, and they had a name and a history, and things to call their own: they were someone. And then they walked through this gate, and everything changed. They never heard their name again, because here they became a number; and they forgot all they had been, because here it no longer mattered; and they were stripped of all they had, all they owned, because here, they wouldn’t need it. And I stand here today, overwhelmed by this reality, as I, another human person, walk through the gate that stripped so many of their identity, and yet somehow, remain the same.

Silence. The old, innocent army barracks, stripped forever of their innocence, stand still in their precise rows. No one would guess, by looking at the solemn, orderly bricks, all that went on within those walls, all that those staring windows witnessed. And we are walked through exhibitions of suffering and death, before a wall against which so many were killed, through cells of torture.  In one, a saint was made, and in another, an image of the Sacred Heart is scratched into the wall, a testimony to hope in the Heart that was the first to have bled…

Yet all I can do as the tears pour down is to ask myself, “Why not me?”  It feels so wrong to walk through this gate, to step through this door, to walk down these halls and past these cells where my brothers and sisters were tortured and died—and then walk out. Walk away. Why? Why, when so many walked through these doors never to walk out again, why am I able to walk away? It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. How am I any different? What has kept me from being among them? I don’t understand… It isn’t fair, Lord, for me to be able to simply walk away, when so many lives ended and died here…

We keep walking, and we come before the exhibition of the largest factory of death that has ever been: and though it stands in crumbled rubble now, I see it all as it would have been, and the picture sinks into my soul: The train pulls up right beside the road, and unloads its human cargo, the most despised and rejected of the world: the old, the weak, the children. And they are huddled in a mass on the road. And the captain stands there and he points: “You, over there, you, here, you, that way,” in harsh, foreign, jarring tones. And some of them go one way, and some the other. And they are led into the long, low, rectangular buildings, all into one big chamber, perhaps with hooks along the wall. They are told to undress, to take everything off, and they will be able to bathe, to wash themselves, to be cleaned…

They stood waiting for the soothing waters, but waiting for them instead was the burning, choking gas, and afterwards, the flames… And I can see the women, and the clothes piled to the ceiling, and the smoke pouring from the chimneys, and the size of the ovens… and my heart is sick.

“It is precisely because sin exists in the world, which “God so loved…that he gave his only Son,” that God, who “is love,” cannot reveal Himself otherwise than as mercy.” ~ Dives in Misericordia

Quiet. A hush still fills the air, and I think it is bigger than my heart this time, as we finish singing the chaplet begging for Divine Mercy, in this place, while all of us walk off slowly, individually, cut off from each other, solitary in our own worlds. There is a breeze in the trees, though, I can hear it. And it feels like a cemetery breeze, and the trees look like the trees of a graveyard… and my heart is in mourning as at a funeral. It is a funeral, a funeral of millions, and I did not know that it was possible to mourn so deeply for so many… so many that I did not know. But this mourning is all I can do: it is all I have to give, and it seems so insufficient, so useless, to witness so much death and pain, and have only sorrow to offer in return…

But if this were really a funeral, there would be something else here: I feel something missing, something that has always been a part of every funeral I can remember: the sound of a whistle or bagpipes playing a familiar hymn.  And I can hear the sound, as from afar off, echoing slowly and profoundly in my head, the contrast tearing through the thin air with violence:: “Amazing Grace…” as I pass by the rubble of the ovens that burned human persons… “How sweet the sound…” as I breathe in the dead silence of the place… “That saved a wretch like me…” as I follow the road that walked millions to death. “I once was lost, but now am found…” as I stand on the spot where their destiny was decided, and all that they were was stripped from them, “Was blind, but now I see…” as I feel less able to see than I ever have before. I know, intellectually, instinctively, there is more to the story: everything does not end here, because more happened here than can be seen: More than these people died here, more than their dreams were destroyed: I know that the One Who once said, “Father, forgive them,” is truly not confined to time and space, and that He Who carried the weight of the world on His shoulders carried even the weight of this place.

I suddenly see the Cross, and know that the blood that fell upon the road to Calvary was more than the Blood of the Son of God; that the blood of each of these persons was taken up into His, and that with His own, somehow, He had shed their blood, born their pain, suffered their tortures, was weighed down by their emotional suffering, when He took on every sin.

I have seen the Crucifixion here, but where is the Resurrection? Because I know that the Resurrection always follows the Cross… but where is it here, Lord? Where is it for these lives, in the face of this atrocity that feels so much bigger? How can I sing “I was lost, but now am found,” and it be true here?

A mysterious answer that I do not understand is welling up in my heart. Somehow, I sense that we, each of us simple young people who are right now walking out and away, far away from all of this, carry with us the fruit, the grace, the new beginning… the resurrection of the sacrifice, the endings, the loss suffered by our brothers and sisters in this place. Somehow, that we are reaping the graces of their martyrdom… that “their blood is the seed of the Church” in our souls.

Somehow, this answer does not satisfy, but it is all that I have right now. And I feel it like a weight on my shoulders: the need to remember, the responsibility to take with us the weight of what happened here… to not let the world forget.

And so we walk away, carrying with us the fruit, the weight of their sacrifice, and I wish with all my heart that I could give them something more than the simple accepting of this gift… I wish I could give them more than my sorrow; I wish I could give them something, do something, in return…

“It is obvious that the Church professes the mercy of God, revealed in the crucified and risen Christ, not only by the word of her teaching but above all through the deepest pulsation of the life of the whole People of God.” –Dives in Misericordia

Lourdes, April 3rd, 2008

Stillness. The quiet of exhaustion after a long day before, and the silence of slowly coming back awake. The sky is clouded over with rain. Why is it cloudy, in a place of so much beauty and peace? But then, maybe thick, gray skies are not always oppressive: perhaps here, in this place belonging to Our Lady, they are her mantle, the sign of her solicitous care and constant presence– and the gentle rain is the mercy of God.

And I stand before the gate of St. Michael, where thousands of pilgrims have stood before, and found themselves. So many have stood on this side feeling lost and alone and afraid; unsure of who they are, and where they came from, and why they came. But when they walk through this gate, everything is changed: they discover that who they are is a child of Mary, and where they have come from is the Heart of the Father, and all they have are the needs they bring with them. And I stand before this gate, another pilgrim, walking through, overwhelmed by all it means, all this gateway stands for. And I feel that I will be changed forever.

Peace. The hush of a new morning. All the buildings of the sanctuary stand in solemn, welcoming formation, the hospitality and reconciliation wards lining the walk, and leading, drawing one’s feet and eyes right to the Basilica that looks like a glistening castle, with two arms outstretched to welcome all who come and stand beneath the crowned Virgin. We are led down the walk where processions have trod for a hundred and fifty years; through exhibitions of the miracles witnessed, past the wall of the healing spring, where numerous faucets are flowing for all to answer the command of the Lady to wash and drink; past the Grotto where so many have found healing. And I ask myself, why? Why would anyone ever want to leave this place? Why can’t we stay forever and ever? Why would we need to go anywhere else?

We keep walking, and we reach the site that is the greatest place of healing the world has ever known. And I see the thousands who come here everyday, and the image of the place sinks into my soul… the trains pull up daily, and unload their cargo—among them so often the most despised and rejected, the weak and the old and the handicapped and the children. They sit for hours outside the low, rectangular building… waiting. Waiting for their destiny to be decided.

As volunteers, we are ushered in, and given tags with our names on them, and a bright sticker to show our nationality. And it’s somehow such a comfort to be given our names to wear on our badges. Each of us ties on a large, flattering blue apron: the uniform of Our Lady’s servants. We are led downstairs, and into the room lined with baths. The walls are all of a grey tile, and the floors as well. I think perhaps it is marble. So simple, it seems stark. Large, thick blue and white striped curtains separate off the baths, one from the next. They all have a small room in front of the bath, with two walls lined with chairs, and hooks above the chairs. It is silent and solemn, and we stand, waiting to be instructed.

We nervously watch the demonstration and try to take it all in. “The women come in, and you tell them to undress, to prepare for a bath…” and my heart begins to turn, because it is reminding me of something jarring, sounding far too familiar, of another room, and another command to undress, and a promise of bathing that was not fulfilled… and I don’t know why I think of this in this place of beauty and peace…

The woman in charge walks in. A bell is rung. The sound of the Salve Regina echoes in the lonely place, as everyone faces the statues of our Lady at the head of each bath, and offers their day and their work to her. And then the woman in charge begins to count and point: “You, there,” “You, over there…” in a language of sounds foreign and unsettling to my ears.

And then we stand in the separate baths, with the women we will be serving with for the day. “Notre Dame de Lourdes, Prie pour Nous…” and we all kiss the hard, marble floor. And then the work begins. The first women are coming in, and I am telling them the directions: “Take everything off,” and I am holding the blue cape around them like a tent, to cover and protect them. It is like a dream, somehow. Just minutes ago, we were watching, and now we are doing, and praying that everything goes well, and that our hands can somehow communicate well enough. We have watched, and now we follow, and there is a structure, a pattern to the way it goes—the shoes under the chair, all the clothes on the hook, the cape grasped in the left hand, then the right crossed over, and then they sit down to wait… the same over and over again, motions used where words fail over the rift in language. And I watch the older women, and their experienced hands and smiles. They are so sure, so gentle and loving, so strong and firm and confidant and soft. And I see how beautiful it is, how full of God, how much they have been taught by our Lady herself, until they move in very imitation of her own movements, as I would have imagined them to be…

And then my turn comes to serve inside the bath, and I go through the white curtain, and take my place with the white sheet in hand. It is another world altogether. Here the souls who have waited their whole lives just to be here are standing in the moment they have longed for. The first woman stands on the step, nervous and unsure, and as she looks around at us uncertainly, though her body is covered, she is left open and vulnerable before us: her heart laid bare in her face. We communicate through the body, but it is on the level of the spirit that we meet: soul to soul before our Lady, and suddenly, the world has shrunk in size, and everything outside of this small space has ceased to matter: it has all fallen away, and all that remains is the three of us serving, and the one being served, and the Lady in whose name we are doing all of this.

She stands and offers her intentions to her Mother, all the needs she has carried here in her burdened heart, over mountains and across seas, and she lays them all down. And the chemise, the experienced woman at the head of the bath who guides all the action, who sends them down into the waters, and receives them back from our Lady’s arms, lifts her arms gently, and in one deft movement, the blue cape falls and the white sheet is around her. And we have her firmly by the wrist and the arm, held just right, this way, and no other, as we have been shown, so that she cannot fall. And she gasps at the coldness, and draws back, but we lead her gently on, one on each side. She needs the support of both of us to reassure her, and to lead her physically onward. And our eyes and bodies can say all that our tongues are deficient in. But even with us leading her, she has to make a firm decision to keep going, on into the waters, down toward our Lady. And she bends to kiss her, and I place my hand on her shoulder, to indicate that she should sit down, and push her gently down, to sit back in the water. It’s one, swift movement, and then we’re pulling her up, and she catches her breath as she catches our eyes, and we smile, as the Chemise is saying “Notre Dame de Lourdes, Prier pour nous, St. Bernadetta, prier pour nous…” and we whisper it with her, to ourselves, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” And the tears are running down my own face as she is re-clothed in the blue cloak, and I feel as if it were me who was just renewed and transformed in our Mother’s waters, as the Chemise takes her face in her hands, and smiles our Lady’s smile over her, kissing her face. And I realize that I have just witnessed with these bodily eyes the Mother of God touch the life of her daughter.

I return to the outside, where the women are waiting their turn, all anxious to some degree. And the Madame points me over to an older woman in the corner, struggling with her stockings. She has a strong smell, and a haggard, wrinkled, hairy face, and I bend over her gnarled, twisted, wet feet to pull on the sticky stockings. But as I pull up the first one, I look down again in surprise, and ask myself, “Whose feet are these?” and it flows over me like a wave: “They are Christ’s feet. I am putting on Christ’s stockings.” And I have never known or felt something quite as certainly as I know this to be true, now. It is not a chore, then, to help her with her undergarments, and her pants, and shoes, and sweater. And after I have completed the difficult task, and every last piece has been twisted straight, and buttoned right, and smoothed of wrinkles, I straighten up and catch her eye as she takes me by the arms. She is crying, and is speaking things in French that I do not understand, but the beauty of that glance is universal, and I know that she is more grateful and moved than she can communicate, that I had been willing to help her. And I realize all at once how humbling it would be to not be able to even do such simple things for oneself, but have to rely on others… And she takes my face in her hands, and kisses me, and I cry as I watch her depart, knowing I have seen Christ this day.

I move on to the next person, repeat the words, “Take everything off,” hold up the blue cape for the fiftieth time, and yet the words still sound strange, and my soul is still troubled. I have just seen Christ, and I know He is here. I feel Him whenever I smile into the eyes of a frightened woman, and I grasp His Mother whenever I am splashed and doused in her waters. So why these disturbing memories: why do the voices of the women speaking in their various languages recall to me the harsh tones of an army commander; and why do these piles of clothes, these preparations for washing, recall the haunting images of travel worn clothes piled to the ceilings, and women huddled together, waiting…  Why can I not stop thinking about the horrors of Auschwitz, even in the midst of all this beauty? Nothing we’re doing here, at its core, is remotely like anything about that place. Why the memory, the feeling, the association of that place, here: the place, of all places, which is the direct antithesis?

The Antithesis. Maybe this is exactly the point. I grip the blue cloak tighter as my heart begins to pound faster, and my thoughts are racing. I recall all the details I can about that horrible place, and the memory of our guide’s description strikes me like a blow, deep and piercing, running clean through me… They were unloaded from the trains, and herded into the large rooms, where they were told to undress—for what? For a bath.  But instead, they faced the fiery furnaces, the choking gas. And if they weren’t killed right away, they were clothed in blue and white stripes, and given a number, not a name… Lourdes was here, the baths were here, a hundred years before Auzschwitz. In Lourdes, they were using the blue and white stripes. In Lourdes, they pulled the pilgrims up in trains. In Lourdes, the men and women filed in, waited for their turn, took everything off, to be cleaned, to be refreshed, to be renewed. In Lourdes, the low, long buildings were operating like clockwork, fulfilling their daily work, day in and day out, ordered and precise, and carefully. For a hundred years before Auzschwitz. And the realization washes over me like a wave of ice: Auschwitz was the corruption of Lourdes. It was the devil’s ultimate mockery of the place of most beauty, of the most sacramental healing that the world had known.  Why did they not behead them, shoot them, hang them? Why, for the majority, was it the mass ovens, after the promise of refreshing waters? Why even promise? Why the low-lying buildings, the striking blue and white stripes? Why were they made to undress, to stand naked and empty? And what was going on a hundred years before Auschwitz? “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee…” Can it really be only a coincidence? And why am I surprised, when this is how evil always works: feeding off of an already existent good; twisting, corrupting, destroying, perverting… it is not creative, it can do nothing new.

…And is it any wonder why these women come in so afraid, when an event like this is so recent, embedded in the sub-consciousness of their world, their families? I wonder if they think of this, if they, like me, recall that place when they are ushered in to these older halls of healing…

If this is true, and it feels so, sickeningly in the pit of my heart, than what is it I am really doing here? What is the meaning of this place now, after the mockery, the atrocity… Who is it that I am covering right now? —and I almost drop the cape: I am undoing Auschwitz. Here is a cape to cover the shame of nakedness and to preserve and defend the dignity of the person, where it was stripped from them. And here are the waters, given as promised, not denied: the truth to replace the lie, the reality to undo the counterfeit, the waters of healing. of re-birth, to quench the fires of death and destruction.

But that was such a grave atrocity. What can it mean, “Undo”? How can one ever talk about such an evil being erased? And I suddenly remember the message of the Lady of this place: what she came here to say: Penance, penance, penance…What is penance? A reparation for an evil committed; filling in the hole left by an evil act, replacing it with a positive act of good. Even-ing out the balance, making up for the wrong. And it was not just the individual dignity of those millions that was destroyed in the holocaust, it was an attack on all of humanity, because we are the Body of Christ, and it was He Who was attacked… “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together…” (1Cor 12:26.) Millions were killed in Auschwitz: millions are cleansed and healed yearly in these waters—and who was it, who is it that I am serving, that I am covering? Who but the One Who suffered and died with each person in Auschwitz… Christ our Savior. His feet, His hands. Their feet, their hands in Him… I am covering His nakedness, I am preserving the dignity of His Body—the Body of Christ—the same Body that had been mutilated and destroyed in Auschwitz, here preserved, loved, saved…
“An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us… For this reason, the Church must consider it one of her principal duties-at every stage of history and especially in our modern age-to proclaim and to introduce into life the mystery of mercy, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ.”  – Dives in Misericordia
Quiet. The hush of respectful silence still hangs in the air around the Grotto, as I walk back past the holy place at the end of the day, the powerful realization of mercy still washing over me.  And we are all walking in our own worlds… And suddenly, I remember a breeze in the trees, and a song in my head, and the words echoing, resonating across the empty expanse… “Amazing Grace…” as I am doused by the springs that bring healing to thousands of human persons. “How sweet the sound…” as I breathe in the echoes of ‘Ave Maria’ filling the air in numerous languages. “That saved a wretch like me…” as I pass by the Adoration Chapel where the God of our life and restoration is enthroned. “I once was lost, but now am found…” as I see the glory of identity and dignity restored to the tearful faces of thousands. “Was blind, but now, I see,” And the tears fill me own eyes, and my spirit bows in humble adoration: for the blindness has been removed, and suddenly, I can see: I can see the Resurrection, because I have found something I can offer them more than just a reception of their sacrifice, more than my sorrow. I have found something I can do: I can give them back their dignity in the hearts of each and every brother and sister that comes through those waters.

This is how we can participate, share bodily and tangibly in the Resurrection of Christ: how we can walk away from the ovens and the crematoriums… because they are in rubble, but the baths still run in Lourdes; and the Body of Christ still proclaims to the lost and old and weak and ill and unloved and despairing and unwanted: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee…” And they leave without fear, because they know that she does hear their prayers.

This is what Christ came and lived and died that we might know… this is what the children of God need to be reminded of in the face of evil and darkness: that His mercy endures forever. Forever and ever and ever beyond all the Auschwitzes that have ever been or can ever be: because love was there first: Lourdes was there first: the Immaculata’s healing waters, and the forgiving hands of the Father were there long before. Now I understand. This is the beauty of the Church’s life: this is Mercy, that we have been given means, very real, physical, tangible means, to live within the Resurrection; to participate in the undoing, the restoration, the building up… the new creation. I have discovered only one among many such places where this means is lived out: in a little corner of Southern France, through the hands and faces of those simple volunteers who will forever be praying, “O Mary, Conceived without sin… pray for us who have recourse to thee.”  

And I, who once asked “Why? Why am I able to walk away?” can now answer with all those volunteers in Lourdes what the rest of the world needs so desperately to know: “Because Love is stronger than death…”

“The Church of our time must become more particularly and profoundly conscious of the need to bear witness in her whole mission to God’s mercy… seeking to introduce it and to make it incarnate in the lives both of her faithful and as far as possible in the lives of all people of good will.” ~Dives in Misericordia

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