God does not spit out our prayers.

Sometimes a statement can be so wrong as to be almost right. Or might one say, even very wrong statements can come ever so close to true? In his memoir of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls how the prisoners were periodically pared down. Those too ill to work were sent to their deaths. It was a capricious culling. The prisoners were forced to run out one barrack door and into another.

Here, in front of the two doors stand the arbiter of our fate, an SS officer. On his right is the Blockältester, on his left, the quartermaster of the barrack. Each of us, as he comes naked out of the Tagesraum into the cold October air, has to run the few steps between the two doors, in front of the three men, give the card to the SS officer, and go back through the dormitory door. The SS officer, in the fraction of a second between the two crossings, with a glance at the front and the back, judges our fate, and in turn give the card to the man on his right or his left, and this is the life or death of each one of us. In three or four minutes a barrack of two hundred men is “done,” and in the course of the afternoon the entire camp of twelve thousand men (122).

 

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Sometimes the old and the sick ran well or someone, who was young and in good health, would stumble. Levi writes, “There is nothing surprising about these mistakes: the examination is very rapid and perfunctory, and, in any case, the important thing for the Lager administration is not that the most useless prisoners be eliminated but that free places be quickly created, according to a fixed percentage.”

Levi’s troublingly false, but almost true, statement comes as he remembers the end of one such day.

Now each of us is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as to pick up the last drops of soup, a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails, and then, from my bunk, on the top level, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his cap on his head, his torso swaying violently. Kuhn is thanking God that he was not chosen.
 
Kuhn is out of his mind. Does he not see, in the bunk next to him, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow, and knows it, and lies there staring at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Does Kuhn not know that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty—nothing at all in the power of man to do—can ever heal?
 
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn’s prayer out upon the ground (123-24).

 

Primo Levi died, many years after Auschwitz, an atheist. What offended him so deeply in Kuhn’s—profoundly Hebraic—prayer for pardon is the old man’s belief that there could be a God who cared about his sins and who might take mercy upon him, might hold back death another day. And so Levi suggests, that any God, who tolerates such horrifying evil as Auschwitz, would find the notion of begging forgiveness more than pathetic. It would be contemptible. How could the evil of Auschwitz be a punishment for sins as petty as Kuhn’s?

Believers will insist that Levi is wrong about the alternatives he offers. God does exist, and God does not receive our sorrow with contempt. Believers may be right, but they must not be smug. There is no way to minimize what Levi experienced, no way, speaking only of this world, to fault his conclusion.

The notions that our world comes from God and is governed by God are hard to sustain, if one looks seriously at evil. What egocentric presumption to think that God listens for our repentance and acts accordingly!

And yet the liturgy begins with a collective act of contrition. We enter the presence of God, asking for mercy. Levi is ever so close to right in suggesting should God should spit out such a prayer. The evil we’ve brought into the world, the evil we’ve allowed to flourish in the world—yet we come, asking forgiveness?

How it helps to see ourselves in the eyes of another! Disagree with Levi, but take your sin seriously. If God does not exist, we waste our time, confessing our sins. If God does exist, our understanding of evil and our role in it is so small, so limited as to be worthy of contempt.

Worthy of contempt, yes. But that’s not who God is. In God justice and mercy meet, because God is the justice we cannot attain, and it is God who lifts us toward it, toward himself, in mercy. God does remove “the reproach of Egypt” from Israel (Jos 5: 9). Jesus says that God is a forgiving father, who awaits the prodigal child. But why believe that parable rather than the testimony and conclusion of Levi? Ask yourself, sincerely ask yourself, that question. The answer matters.

And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself through Christ
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5: 18-20).

 

People think they know how to pray and wonder what they should do, how they should pray, in the liturgy. It’s ever so the opposite. The liturgy is the prayer, the presence, Christ left us. We learn from it. And it begins, “Lord, have mercy.”

Joshua 5: 9a, 10-12 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
2 years 2 months ago
CORRECTION: Mass, the Catholic Liturgy first begins with the Trinity, wherein there is an address to that perfect Family, the One True God ... In the Name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, for we know to whom we pray. We await the return of the Risen Christ in joyful hope living lives in the Spirit throughout the years. Without the Spirit, we would not make it Spiritually. For it is the Spirit of Jesus-God come in the flesh who said that without Him we can do nothing.Jn 15:4-6... "and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more: the first things are passed away." Rev 21:4. Bottom line is that when we are cut we bleed like everybody, but we have faith, hope and love in a life in the Spirit that spurs us on in the Spirit of The Living God, the God of Israel, the One God of Abraham, Issac, David... Once again this week, one struggles to understand a direct connection between the cited bible verses and the column again this edition. Fidelity and having confidence in the Living God is nothing to be ashamed of, for such is Jesus teaching handed on through His Church. But its Grace, we know this and therefore pray for everyone... Just my opinion... in the Risen Christ,

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