Tuesday, December 24, 2013


If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.
--Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Via Dolorosa: Station V, Jerzy Duda Gracz, Częstochowa

I've begun a sort of perverse tradition of reading a very sad book over Christmas break (because if you do something two years in a row, it's tradition).
This tradition appeals to me, because I think it cements in the absolute necessity and the raw gravity of the child in the manger.
When you realize what just sort of a world this child is born into, the entire scene stops being saccharine and becomes sacred.
Is this really the solution to the awful groanings and moanings that fill the world?
This teenaged mother and her small son are somehow the solution to the awful weight of all the ills of the universe?
The mystery becomes baffling; mind-boggling; beyond all human comprehension.

You who live safe
In your warm houses
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no. 
---Primo Levi, If This is a Man

One day, in a sunny piazza in Rome, we had a discussion about what education ought to be, and how the Modern University Education fell short of this Ideal.
We found that the best classes we had taken were not so much focused on the material being learned; they did not try to force us to remember every single detail in Canto Twelve of the Inferno, nor did they quiz us on the name of each minor character in Crime and Punishment. They did not demand we learn the names of every single early Christian heresy, nor memorize the terminology of Stanislavsky's technique.
The classes that stuck with us the most, that continued to influence us long after the final exam were the classes which had taught us a different lens through which to view the world. They did not try to make us miniature scientists or philosophers or mathematicians, but rather taught us what it means to look at the world through a mathematical, philosophical, or scientific lens.
They gave us a new set of eyes through which to look at the world.
If education's primary goal is to broaden the mind, to expand the scope of our imaginations, then these classes, which gently cracked our narrow-mindedness, opening up a different view of the universe, succeeded in these goals.

One of the classes that I was in this semester taught us how to read a book and find the religion in it. Not all books are about religion or religions, but each world the author creates has to have a central orb around which their world revolves.
As you read Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, it is obvious that a deity is being praised, even if there is no religion attached; there is a Source of All Life.
Every human will find for themselves a religion of some sort; a human being must have something central in their world, even if it is only themselves.

In If This is a Man, Primo Levi paints a picture of a world without God.
He does not deny the existence of God; but in Auschwitz, God has become almost irrelevant. Religion and its god does not belong on that side of the barbed wire.
For here, in Auschwitz, human beings are stripped of their humanity.
There is no love, no selflessness, no generosity, no gratitude, and no charity for one's neighbor.
God is not here.
Auschwitz is hell in the literal sense of the world: a space where the absence of God is.

In a moment of bitter hopelessness, as the end of the Third Reich draws near, Levi congratulates the Nazis for their creation, for their laborious effort of annihilation:
“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” In this hellish universe of the lager, God is distant and far off. He is not denied; He just is not relevant.
This is a world, behind the barbed wire fence, which is hell. God is not there. There is no morality, solely the brutal fight to survive. Without God, Man is destroyed.
“How much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire?” asks Levi. The lager is a world in which morality crumbles, because man's humanity has been utterly destroyed, annihilated. 
In the world behind the barbed wire, there is no selflessness or love. All central aspects of man interacting with man have been erased. There is only survival.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising: 
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you
May your children turn their faces from you.
--If This is a Man

Levi finds a brief moment of humanity, however, in a rare moment of respite, as he walks with the younger inmate in his kommando; and, in an effort to teach him some Italian, recites for the young Pikolo the Canto of Ulysses from Dante's Inferno. 
As Levi arrives at the lines: “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance /Your mettle was not made; you were made men, /To follow after knowledge and excellence.” In a rush, in a blast from the clouds, these lines remind Levi of his own humanity: “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.
These moments of humanity arrive like a breath of fresh air, they arrive with the messengers of humanity. These are the few men in the camp who have refused to forget that they are human.
Men such as Maximilian Kolbe, whose witness is brought into high relief by the hopeless picture painted by Levi. 
For their sacrifice not only declared the existence of God in a hell on earth, not only did it say, even here in Auschwitz--God.
It declared the existence of a man; it said, even here at Auschwitz--we are man.

All the terrible events of world history seem to constitute a grave accusation against God. 
But when God appears before us, unarmed, with his love as his only might, all the frightening images of God lose their plausibility. 
In the crib and on the Cross, the glory of God is raised aloft in this world. And wherever men follow this God, a new humanity begins.

--Joseph Ratzinger “The Blessing of Christmas”

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