the ghost of love
“He isn’t just feeling the anger and spite and unbearable self-disgust of this one crowd on this one Friday morning in Palestine; he’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human crowd, past and present and to come, and accepting everything we have to throw at him, everything we fear we deserve ourselves. The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets.
Let me take that from you, he is saying…I am the light behind the darkness. I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish. I am the ghost of love in the torture chamber. I am change and hope. I am the refining fire. I am the door where you thought there was only a wall. I am what comes after deserving. I am the earth that drinks up the bloodstain. I am gift without cost.”
-Francis Spufford, Unapologetic.
I remember the silent ache that hovered in the streets of the medieval German town, dark and empty on a holiday weekend, uninterested in foreigners, unwelcoming to say the least.
In the morning, I discovered our guesthouse had a view of three large chimneys sprouting from the side of a white, boxy, brick building. Pre or post World War II? I shuddered, as I pictured a sanatorium full of children with special needs, the elderly, the mentally ill, tucked away behind barred doors, and then emptied for the Cleanse one blind day. Beautiful souls plucked from the “Master Race,” simply because they were labeled, different, vulnerable.
We ate a simple breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cheese and bread. I was anxious to get moving, to see the imprint of unimaginable evil stamped on unholy ground.
It was Easter morning and we were going to see Dachau, the first concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Dachau, which sits on the outskirts of Munich, is nothing like its sister town, where tourists sip frothy beer from ceramic steins in Oktoberfest. Dachau houses an aging concentration camp, dutifully marked with plaques and pictures, explaining in detail what occurred in each corner of the camp. Learn, learn, learn from these bricks and barbed wire, from these bullet holes and mounded graves. Thousands of Jews, clergy, Roma, homosexuals and political prisoners lived and died in Dachau.
The camp was deserted that Sunday morning, covered in a thin layer of fog. The rains stopped shortly before we arrived at the camp, and a gentle sunrise had split the haze.
I walked alone, past the bones of the crumbling barracks, where brambles had grown over fences and the firing wall. My mind was full, charged by the countless books I had read on the Holocaust. I was still a teen then, but had read stacks (and still do) of books on the Holocaust. I read until I finally threw one book across the room in disgust, traumatized by the description of human skin lampshades and medical experiments. Mengle’s face with his gap-toothed smile burned in my mind. I stopped reading about the perpetrators, and focused on the stories of survivors.
My interest eventually brought me to the largest synagogue in Europe, in Budapest, Hungary. Then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, with my husband, and finally to the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem. I couldn’t read enough stories, face enough facts to make sense of it. It still stirs the inky depths of my spirit.
I was so interested in studying the Holocaust, that my Dutch high school principal eventually gave me his father’s original photos of the liberation of a concentration camp. I still don’t know which one it is, but General Patton stands alert in one photo, saluting the survivors. Others are so unreal and graphic, I myself have felt tempted to give them away.
How can such vile evil thrive and grow like yeasted bread in this world made by the hands of God?
At the end of each book, I would sit in silence and ask God some serious questions.
And now, on my current journey, I find myself trudging through some very tough stuff, with no end in sight. I take the same cross legged pose on the bed and sigh deep, until the ribcage is lifted, even just a little. Suffering is hard to make sense of.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “… waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.”
Well, I’ve lifted the burden, tossed it, heaved it upon the cross, and still, my heart simmers to scalding. The lifting requires immense effort somedays. The unanswered questions. The cross that bore them all. The blood that was shed, the blood that covered even when a million empty suitcases, shoes and baby dolls were burned along with their owners. Even when, even then. And even here, in my own life, when I don’t suffer well, and I don’t give thanks, and I don’t pray once during the long day. This place is marked by His holy fire too. Oh, give me eyes to see it flicker and flame.
As I walked through the camp that brisk Spring day, the church bells tolled for Easter morning. They rang and rang, signalling the resurrection of a King. Here? In this place hollowed out by death and torture? The soil beneath me had sopped up the blood of the accused, the forgiven, the foreigner. Is this a place to celebrate the Saviour? The prisoners certainly thought so, as they held a post liberation Orthodox Easter service in Dachau in 1945. They gathered scraps from S.S uniforms, to make priestly garments. They met in the mud. To them, this was a place to celebrate the Saviour. Greek and Serbian priests came together, and recited the Paschal Homily for Easter, by memory.
Part of it reads:
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Imagine their cracked lips bellowing the truth, as death lay all around them. Imagine their celebration, their pain, their suffering, and their declaration: life reigns.
“I am the ghost of love in the torture chamber.”
Oh, may the holy fire of Freedom and Life singe the tattered bits from our hearts. May we be sealed, whole, covered by the cloak of the Risen One. Even when the rolling thunder threatens another downpour, let us press on, press in, press hard until the wineskins burst. Let His love flow over the wicked stains, the wretched places.
Suffering still continues in our world.
But the gift of Life reigns here, even when, even if.
Although we aren’t Orthodox, this year we will read the Paschal at home for the first time, as we are unable to take our fragile, little girl to church these days. But we will read it aloud, bare feet on the carpet, red wine marking the coffee table, challah torn with scattered crumbs. We will open the closed doors, shake off the weariness and let life ring through our creaky bungalow, steady and sure as the bells on Easter morning.
Read the full Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom here.