The Prayer Shawls of Auschwitz

A post over at Cranmer which simply must be reproduced in full:

Those who have visited Auschwitz are likely to find their thoughts straying back there on this day of Holocaust remembrance.

A visit both underwhelms with the very ordinariness of the buildings, yet at the same time the significance overwhelms, as Auschwitz reaffirms its special place in the pit of human history.

A visit needs to be approached like a pilgrimage, with preparation, otherwise there will be a numbing of the experience, a confusion of conflicting emotions which may encompass anger, indignation, bewilderment and the deepest sadness. The reactions of others around you may mirror your own, yet they may not, and that too can be a challenge. Some seem visibly shocked, some deeply affected, some struggle, whilst others present as merely curious and that response can be a challenge as it may offends one’s own interpretation.

The Holocaust was possible because the humanity of the rejected was stripped away from them as it was, is, and always will be from the unwanted, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, wherever we are in the world.

Holocaust Memorial Day needs its universal dimension.

There, all humanity was killed in a systematic, planned way; not in anger, but simply because that is what the state said needed to be done, and someone had to do it.

It has to be universal, but it also has to be rooted in places like Auschwitz, which shows how genocide moves beyond the personal killing of Abel by Cain. Here it is shown in all its bureaucratic, banal evil. Hair is cropped and piled here, children’s shoes collected and dumped over there.

When I visited, I realised that I would need to take a Bible and that I should find a suitable quiet place to read it. I decided on Psalm 88 and Psalm 10. I invite you to read them. You will find there the anguish of those who wore the prayer shawls captured in verse after verse.

Psalm 88 O LORD God of my salvation, have cried day and night before thee: let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; for my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength: free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves.

Psalm 10 Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble? The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined. For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth. The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts. His ways are always grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight: as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them. He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity.

These Psalms surely must have been prayed under those shawls.

Psalm 88 is particularly striking because of its steadfast refusal to find any cause for optimism. “Life is grim,” says the Psalmist. “I know it is grim, God – you know it is grim.”

‘Let’s not kid each other’ is the subtext.

It concludes with no verse of praise, no expectation of redemption, no hope. This is why I think Psalm 88 must have been the Psalm for Auschwitz. The evil was so evil that it takes mortal man beyond hope.

Yet surprisingly Psalm 10 begins to recover from the blow. It ends:

O LORD thou wilt hear the desire of the meek thou wilt strengthen their heart thou wilt incline thine ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

I chose to read these psalms before I went, and I found the place to contemplate their meaning as I stood before those prayer shawls displayed as if on a gibbet in a cabinet. Surely these psalms expressed the prayers of those who suffered and prayed under them.

Many who are separated from the scriptures by the modern world may be shocked by their candour, directness, and anger. God is no stranger to the outrage of those who suffer. Two things are striking: Psalm 88 is in the same spirit as those who urged Job to ‘Curse God and die’. Psalm 10, which retains hope, pre-figures the ‘Song of Mary’ – The Magnificat.


Let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire


He has scattered the Proud in the imagination of their hearts.

And so God did.

So He did.

The underlying sin of Auschwitz and the genocidal killer is that of Adam himself –  Pride. The proud have supplanted the judgment of God with the judgment of themselves. They take to themselves the right to judge and the power of life and death itself, and when Man does that, it leads to places like Auschwitz.

It does not last. If the world hates His people, it hated Him first and God is not mocked for long.

Auschwitz also teaches that early in its story the Atheist Nazi State consigned to the camp the leaders of Polish Church lest it speak its truths, hold its peoples to hope, and challenge the inhumanity of what was to come, and the pride that underpinned it.

As God sent His son, so it sent His Church.

Amongst those was Maximillian Kolbe,  ‘The Saint of Auschwitz, who lit a feint light in the darkness by laying down his life in place of another man. His story is worth reading today: it is one of sacrifice and the triumph of faith and hope.

Yet there is another lesson and paradox to be found at Auschwitz today. It is full of living Jews. Young Jews, confident Jews, handsome young men and beautiful young girls, tanned and healthy carrying their flag. They, too, are on pilgrimage and have prepared themselves for it.

They represent the refusal to allow the triumph of those who hated them then and who hate them today. Their presence demonstrates the power of hope in all places of despair, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

God will not have it any other way. As the Jewish singer-poet Leonard Cohen has written: ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’

It is true about our fractured humanity, our brittle pride, and our broken hearts.

Before the Prayer Shawls of Auschwitz, it is possible to doubt and to cry out, “How can this happen? How can this be redeemed?”

With His living Church and His Chosen People, the answer comes back on this and every other day: ‘Because with God – all things are possible’.

(Posted by Brother Ivo)


Anglicanism: Protestant or Catholic?

Writes Rev Dr Hassert on his blog:

That Anglicanism is wholly “protestant” is an extremely simplistic assertion and hinges on the meaning of the term itself. However, so too is the contention among some that the term “protestant” doesn’t apply to Anglicanism in even the slightest sense. If asked if we Anglicans are Protestant or Catholic some will say: “We are Catholic, but not Roman–we are not Protestants.” This is simplistic and historically erroneous, and any layperson with an interest in reading would soon find very Catholic sounding Churchmen of the 16th and 17th centuries embracing the term Protestant. (But my rector said it wasn’t so!) What to make of it then?

If we are using today’s terminology perhaps “Protestant” isn’t wholly accurate, but neither would be the use of the term “Catholic,” for in today’s use of the term this means Roman. Many Anglicans are happy to explain the historic and correct use of the term “Catholic” but do not wish to do so with the term “Protestant.” This is a selective use of logic–if the historic usage of one term is explained the other term ought to be likewise explained. “You see, you misunderstand the term Catholic dear friend. . .” The follow up should be they also misunderstand the historic use of the term Protestant. However, it needs to be noted that many Anglicans today have become Latter-Day Puritans, attempting to sweep the Anglican Church of any hint of “Romanism” (which may mean choirs robed in surplices, a priest wearing a coloured stole, or keeping the 1662 Prayer Book calendar of saints days): Many from this group do indeed wish to deny any “Catholic” character or nature existing within Anglicanism. This also is to deny history.

How do the Anglican divines use the terms? It is shocking to many that the terms are used together: Protestant Catholic, Reformed Catholic, etc. Again, as I say so often quoting Bishop Cosins: “Protestant and Reformed according to the principles of the ancient Catholic Church.” What does this mean? Well, it should be clear to most. The English Reformation was built upon removing erroneous beliefs and practices (the Mass not in the vernacular, the Bible not in the vernacular, Purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation, doctrines about the excess merits of the saints, etc). All needed to be stripped away–reformation was needed, and the Church of England protested against the errors of the Roman Church.

To put it more concisely: “At the Reformation the Church of England became protestant in order to become more truly and perfectly Catholic.” William Van Mildert, Bishop of Durham 1826-36.

Let me turn to the good Father Moss for a fuller explanation (from Answer Me This):

“Remember, ‘Catholic’ means universal. Strictly speaking, only those doctrines and practices are Catholic which have always been believed and used in all parts of the Church. More loosely, the word is applied to practices and traditions (such as the observance of Christmas Day or the use of special dress by the clergy) which have a long continuous history and are universally accepted, even though they do not go back to apostolic times. The word also implies ‘orthodoxy,’ holding the right faith and worshiping God in the right manner as required by the Church.”

In answer to the question: Is the Anglican Church Catholic or Protestant? Moss replies

“Both; it is Catholic positively and Protestant negatively. It is Catholic in its essential nature because it maintains the Catholic and apostolic faith and order. It is Protestant, in the oldsense (emphasis added), negatively because it rejects the papal claims to supremacy, infallibility, and universal jurisdiction, and the decrees of the Councils of Trent and the Vatican.”

When one is confused as to the use of these terms, they ought to be clearly explained. Some will argue (as Moss actually does) that the term Protestant has changed so much that we should omit its use all together (many Lutherans argue likewise, in that the old use of the term Protestant only referred to Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians; now that it refers so loosely to almost anyone not Roman Catholic it has become meaningless). However, the same could be said of the term “Catholic,” since almost everyone means Roman when they say “Catholic” in the United States: Let’s just stop using the word since it is so easily misunderstood. In my opinion we should follow the language of the Anglican divines, using both terms correctly and explaining the meaning in a clear manner to avoid confusion.

Is Anglicanism Protestant or Catholic? Ideally it is both, in the best sense of both terms.