PATHEOS – March 2012
Just a few days before Lent began this year and in anticipation of it, Doug Pagitt–who somehow always manages to pastor us all, thank God– set a date for the two of us to engage in a Skyped conversation about Lent. But not about Lent in general, he said. Rather, he wanted us to talk about Lent from my perspective as a liturgical Christian. Since almost nobody ever asks me to speak as a liturgical, I was as much charmed as pleased. [In the South, those are two entirely different conditions, and “charmed” trumps “pleased” every time.]
We talked conversationally about all the obvious patterns and rhythms and approaches that mark us liturgicals as different in praxis from our evangelical and Protestant siblings. From time to time in our conversation, we inevitably would circle back, of course, to that most obvious of liturgical hallmarks, the use of written prayers.
For me, the beauty of our written prayers is, at least in part, their very antiqueness. Like the Psalms of Israel, they are the ancient, well-worn, oft-used heritage of my forebears in the faith, men and women whose times may have been different from my own, but whose humanness varied from mine not at all. For me, there is always, as well, the reality that when I pray within the appointed rhythms of the prayerbook, I pray as thousands of my fellow-liturgicals are likewise praying that same day and/or within the same hour of that day. There is, in other words, a perceived gathering of the saints before the throne of God despite the fact that most of us are invisible to one another at the time.
All of this is, of course, only by way of lead-in, because what really matters to me here is that some of those written prayers of the Church, by virtue of their very ability to be forever revisited and repeated, are susceptible to a greater richness of cumulative association than spontaneous prayer ever can be. One such prayer is one we Anglicans pray over and over again, especially in Lent. We pray:
God of justice, God of mercy, bless all those who are surprised with pain this day from suffering caused by their own weakness or that of others. Let what we suffer teach us to be merciful; let our sins teach us to forgive. This I ask through the intercession of Jesus and all who die forgiving those who oppressed them. Amen.
But every Lent, the resonance—the depth of that prayer—lies not in its own particular words, but in those of another prayer, this one not Christian but, rather, Jewish in origin. And I read it, because I can not pray it. I have no right.
Ravensbruck Concentration Camp was one of the most hideous of Nazi atrocities. A women’s camp, it was established primarily to incarcerate Jewesses and their children, though some lesbian and gypsy women were eventually detained there as well. The offenses against God and humanity were so heinous at Ravensbruck that, as the War drew nearer and nearer to its end, the Nazis themselves became anxious lest the secrets of the camp somehow leak out into the world at large.
Accordingly, in the early spring of 1945, as the liberating Russian forces drew closer to Ravensbruck, there was greater and greater urgency about destroying every physical evidence of, and every living witness to, what had actually happened there. Forced death marches of evacuation and unremitting use of the on-site ovens were instituted. As a result, by the time the Russians actually arrived on April 30, 1945, only 3,500 women were left…only 3,500 of the 130,000 who had been held there over the years. There simply had not been either time enough or facilities enough to kill them all [although the ovens, we are told, were still smoking when the soldiers broke through into the Camp to liberate it.]
But what one detachment of Russian soldiers found is what I—and a myriad of other Christians, I suspect—carry always in my Lenten soul. What they found, as they made their way through the abandoned barracks looking for survivors, was a prayer. Written by a Jewess on a scrap of paper and stuffed hastily into a crack in the wall behind one of the cots, it obviously had not been there for long, perhaps no more than a few hours. Its words, however, are beyond time:
Lord, remember not only the men of good will, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember rather the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have bourne be their forgiveness.
The two prayers, in their seasonal congress during this holy time, seem to me to form the most potent expression of Lent’s call, a call that exceeds the reach of either alone. It seems to me that, in concert with one another, they call us not so much to repentance as such, but rather to the living of lives that participate in the atonement of the world as did He Whose unfathomable courage and devotion to us is the Great Prayer…and, perhaps, by grace, also to the holiness of soul that attended those of His people who left us the prayer of Ravensbruck.