There are times in the ebb and flow of human life when it can be difficult to pray. Tragedy. Natural disasters. Death. Grief. Shame. You feel like you don’t have the right words or the emotions are so overwhelming that it’s hard to even speak. What do you do when your prayers sound like angry questions? ‘God, why did you let this happen? God, where are you?’
Just a few weeks ago, on Sunday, June 24th, I gathered with fellow theologians and a team of doctors outside the gates of Auschwitz I to pray. Catholics. Jews. Muslims. Methodists. Lutherans. Presbyterians. Agnostics. I offered these words: ‘Almighty God, grant us the strength to bear witness and to resist evil.’ Several others gathered in the group offered solemn words to bring strength and comfort in anticipation of what we were going to see in the camp.
The next morning our same group of theologians and doctors convened on the railroad tracks near the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (the former-Nazi camp notorious for its gas chambers and crematorium). As I searched my memory bank for a fitting word, I could only offer this one line of Psalm 23: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.’ A prayer that spoke the truth about where we were. No fancy words-just the truth about the presence of darkness. Few other words were spoken amongst our group that morning as we walked along the railroad tracks through the main gate into the camp.
After several hours surveying the camp’s barracks, crematorium, and gas chambers, our group returned to the nearby Polish town of Oswiecim. In Oswiecim, our group decided it was appropriate to conclude the day at the local synagogue (which no longer holds services because of the 20th century destruction of the local Jewish community). In that place, our prayers, the prayers of Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Protestant pastors, seminarians, and doctors turned that empty synagogue once again into a house of worship. We had walked through the valley of the shadow of death; it was time to lift one another up in prayer in a house of worship.
With stunning simplicity and clarity, a rabbi friend later asked of us, ‘Were you able to pray in Auschwitz?’
Yes, one can pray even in the darkest of places. Prayer is an affirmation of life. To pray amidst suffering or in emotionally dark places is a sign that death and despair do not have the last word.