Mercy and the Mystery of Suffering

Birkenau gate

On July 2, our world lost one of the great authors and humanitarians of our time, Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi Holocaust and spent his life urging the world to never forget or repeat its horrors.  In his classic book, Night, he describes the incapacity of human language to truly reflect what he experienced. Read the quote at:

Wiesel’s loss for words echoes the mystery of human suffering that Job confronts in the first reading for today’s Eucharist: 

Perish the day on which I was born,
the night when they said, “The child is a boy!”

Why did I not perish at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Or why was I not buried away like an untimely birth,
like babes that have never seen the light?
Wherefore did the knees receive me?
or why did I suck at the breasts?

For then I should have lain down and been tranquil;
had I slept, I should then have been at rest
With kings and counselors of the earth
who built where now there are ruins
Or with princes who had gold
and filled their houses with silver.

There the wicked cease from troubling,
there the weary are at rest.

Why is light given to the toilers,
and life to the bitter in spirit?
They wait for death and it comes not;
they search for it rather than for hidden treasures,
Rejoice in it exultingly,
and are glad when they reach the grave:
Those whose path is hidden from them,
and whom God has hemmed in! (Job 3:2-3, 11-17, 20-23)

Perhaps Ezekiel would understand.  Writing as a prophet in exile some six centuries before the time of Jesus, he had the grim task of warning his people of divine judgment for their sins and infidelities, the destruction of Jerusalem and exile, and their eventual return.  A man of visions, he saw his nation and his own people as a valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  They were doubly dead—not only physically and materially but also spiritually.

If that death is real for those whose suffering is at least in part a consequence of their sin, how much more profound it must be for the innocents who suffer:  the parents of children buried the rubble of a building in Aleppo or killed by a stray bullet in Chicago, or families who have lost their homes to the recent earthquake near Perugia or the floods around Baton Rouge?

How can they possibly be put back together?

As Job and many survivors of the Holocaust have found, some kind of healing can happen.  Wisdom can be gained.  Life can return.  Places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald stand not only as memorials to the dead but even more as prophetic reminders for the living.  We cannot and must not forget the horrors; but we must also remember that they are not the end of the story. 

There is a word for that:   Mercy—a gift that God has given us, a gift we are to share.—JC