This time last week I was in the one place in which it seemed appropriate to be in a crush of bodies. We and several hundred other tourists were crammed into a little mediaeval synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Prague. As itís on the tourist trail, every coach tour to Prague, whether Japanese or Brazilian has to take in the Jewish Cemetery and the attached synagogue, every man donning a little Jewish hat for the duration, with somewhat comical effect.
But there is nothing comical about the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. The sparse, handsome walls are bare except for their decorative motif. From a distance this looks like a simple repeated pattern in red and black, a sort of poker work which covers the nave and the side aisles from the ground to a height of perhaps seven feet. It is in fact words more precisely names, arranged alphabetically by family group with the surname first, followed by the given names and dates of birth of the members. These names and details are hand-written in handsome capital letters. They are a list of the Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who died or disappeared during the years of the Nazi occupation. There are 80,000 of them.
And if you stood there alone it would be I think an overwhelmingly terrible experience. But crushed in a group of people it is strangely different. These several hundred people who so crowd you in are but a fraction of the 80,000 whose names run round the walls. But even so in their hundreds they cease to be individuals, become objects - tourists - people whose lives you cannot know or understand, and in whose experiences you cannot participate, any more than you can begin to imagine what it was like for the 80,000 dragged from their homes, ticked off lists, shunted across Europe like so many numbered pieces of refuse, and consigned to ignominious death.
We think we know something about suffering , because weíve seen documentaries on television and read books. We think we know something about suffering because our religion is strongly based around the idea of Godís participation in human suffering. We encounter the tortured body of Jesus on the cross every time we enter this church. We have probably at some time or another piously espoused the idea that as Christians we are better equipped to deal with suffering than other folk.
How often have you heard or read the terrific words of S Paul in 2 Corinthians, we are treated as dying and see, we are alive; as punished and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything. How often have we taken comfort from these words, and thought, yes thatís us, we Christians could survive any hardship suffering because having nothing we possess everything
But have you any evidence that itís true? Would your faith survive, would even your sense of human dignity or self survive in extreme conditions? Do you know?
But it doesnít take more than a brief encounter with real suffering to expose the shoddiness of our pious utterances. A bad bout of pain will quickly change your perspective. How on earth do we know that faith will see us through?
The book of Job from which the first reading is taken is a profound and troubling work, a work of great literary as well as theological significance. It is entirely concerned with the problem of suffering and faith:- who suffers? why do they suffer? why does God, if he is omnipotent, allow his beloved to suffer? It shows how humans react to the suffering of others, and how the sufferer, Job himself, reacts. It shows the subtlety of our cruelty to the sufferer and it shows the complexity and contradiction of the suffererís reaction. It proclaims a God of dark and terrible and unknowable power, and ultimately it doesnít answer the question!
The writer of the book of Job - I say writer, although there were several hands this work, but one final hand shaped it - the writer of the book of Job confronts the age-old problem of suffering and does not magic a comfortable conclusion, even though Job finally ends up with three daughters called Turtledove, Cassia and Mascara and a thousand she-donkeys.. His suffering has not been explained away. Initially we are told that God set it all up to prove to Satan that Job was indeed a righteous man. But as the story progresses this explanation fades away, in the enormity of the debate Job has with God. At the end of the book comes the magnificent statement of the unknowable power and glory and terribleness of God, the passage from which todayís reading comes. Job does not get an answer to his questions, any more than I emerged from the Pinkas synagogue in Prague with any answers.
The experience of Job:- no answers, but rather an overwhelming, and far from comforting, encounter with God the Other accords with the recorded experience of a survivor or the concentration camps, a psychiatrist called Victor Frankl. Many of you will have heard of his book, Manís Search for Meaning. Some will have read it, and to you I apologise. I urge you all to read it. Itís only a little book, but profoundly important. Frankl was already a practising psychiatrist when he was transported to Auschwitz, so from the very first he was observing how people, including himself, reacted under the most extreme conditions of human misery. His testimony is therefore invaluable in any attempt we might make to understand suffering, or to understand the nature of God.
I am not going to précis the book now, but simply dwell on one of his many extraordinary discoveries Ė one that accords powerfully with the conclusions of the book of Job. I should stress that Franklís book is not a spiritual work as such. He has no religious agenda, but what he found does suggest that a spiritual reading of existence is valid, even in the depths of Auschwitz. He does nothing to palliate the horrors or sentimentalise behaviour, but his message is almost shockingly positive.
Frankl noticed that two things happened in the camps:- one was that those people who had an inner life, a few shreds of spiritual, intellectual or emotional conviction based on some kind of truth or authentic feeling these people were much more likely to survive the rigours than those who were merely physically healthy. In some cases these convictions were specifically religious, but not always so.
The other thing he found was this: among those who suffered and died - and the vast majority did die - there were three kinds of people. Those who turned their faces against all human values and acted only for themselves, those who turned their faces to the wall and gave up, and those who retained their sense of self, who suffered and merely suffered, but retained their human dignity to the end. These were by far the greatest number. Their endurance of suffering was the only meaning life had at the end, but it was enough to make them human.
It is perhaps a mistake to take one passage from the book in isolation, because the positive conclusion cannot be understood or felt properly without the preceding objective descriptive of the negatives, but this is how he concludes:
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lordís prayer or the Sherma Yisrael on his lips.
It is with this understanding that we can go back to S Paul. He knew what suffering was - afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger - and therefore no doubt he knew that faith does not alleviate suffering. Faith does not make suffering go away, or make us superhuman or impervious. Faith does not magically lift us above hunger and beatings, it does not make us exempt from the huge hideous selfishness caused by the pain of cancer. It does not stem the erosion of our memory in old age or check the anguish of this loss. But if the evidence of the witnesses is to be believed and why should we not believe them? - faith is, in fact, the only thing that is left of person when he or she is reduced to nothing by suffering not even a coherent, intellectual comforting faith but an encounter, a reaching out, like Job, to face the unknowable God. We must be dying first before we make the outrageous claim that : we are dying and behold we live. But others, who have been into the darkness, have claimed that is so, and I for one believe them.