E s s a y s
PRAYER OF THIS EVENING
Brothers and sisters,
Before we set off this evening for the place where we are to prayer together as Christians, Jews and Muslims for the future of Europe, , I would like to relate a Hassidic story to you:
Rabbi Pinchas asked his students how one recognises the moment when night ends and day begins. “Is it the moment that it is light enough to tell a dog from a sheep?” one of the pupils asks. “No,” the rabbi answered. “Is it the moment when we can tell a date-palm from a fig tree?”, the second asked. “No, that’s not it, either,” the rabbi replied. “So when does morning come, then?” the pupils asked. “It’s the moment when we look into the face of any person and recognise them as our brother or sister,” rabbi Pinchas said. “Until we’re able to do that, it’s still night.”
It was a long night during which we, children of Abraham, believing in one and the same almighty God, were unable to recognise and acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters. It was a long night of mutual fear, prejudice and hatred, a terrible night of history, in which our ancestors and predecessors wounded each other, and those wounds have not fully healed and still cause pain. Thank God that in the past there have also been sublime moments of peace, and that in each of our spiritual families God awakened, at various periods, individuals whose hearts and minds were so open that they sought the paths of reconciliation and of understanding for others, even though they frequently suffered injustice from their own and their nearest. Let us remember them and offer thanks to God for them as we walk through this evening’s darkness, so that we may prepare by common prayer for a dawn of reconciliation and a new beginning.
Long before his own brilliant mind was clouded by madness, that great prophet of the period of European nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche, narrated a parable about the madman who came with a lantern in the daytime among people who no longer believed in God, and asked them the question: Where is God gone? Unlike them, he knew the answer: We have killed Him. He came with a lantern because unlike them, he was aware of the night that the Earth had been plunged into after that event – “far away from all suns”.
In another work, Nietzsche wrote: Nihilism, that least welcome of all guests, already stands at our door. But for Nietzsche, Nihilism, like the death of God, was ambivalent – a threat and an opportunity at one and the same time. In the twentieth century, on the threshold of which the prophet of God’s death died, Nihilism entered the European home by the front door. It was the beginning of a deep night in which the children of Abraham, who for so long had killed each other, were now murdered en masse by those who believed that the God of Abraham – not just the God of the metaphysicians, which Nietzsche had in mind – was dead and must remain dead. The genocide of the Armenians, the Shoah of the Jewish nation, the suffering of millions of Christians in the concentration camps of Nazism and Communism, the massacre of the Muslims in Kosovo… How much suffering was endured by the land we meet in today, and how many others suffered on Polish soil when it was under the enemy yoke!
But hope and opportunity are concealed within even the deepest and most painful night. John of the Cross, a great mystic of a country in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived and contemplated together, wrote much about the significance of darkness for man’s relation to God. The dark night of the spirit, in which people are confronted with God’s silence and feel the absence of God, is an extremely important time for their spiritual growth and maturation.
Might it not be that that time of horror, when God seemed to many to be silent or absent, and when many thought Him to be dead – that collective dark night of the spirit – was a key moment in history, which will only now show forth its fruits?
“But where there is danger, what saves also grows,” wrote Hölderlin and long before him Saint Paul said: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.”. We are like olives, the Talmud tells us: only when we are crushed do we yield what is of greatest value.
When the people of Israel returned from Babylonian captivity, they brought back to their homeland the precious urge for spiritual renewal. For years I’ve been asking myself the question, whether the nations who were crushed by totalitarian Communist regimes for decades brought something equally precious to the rest of Europe after they emerged from that night of oppression, or whether they might still be able to. Often I am tempted to reply that we disappointed those who expected something of the kind from us. Like the weary prophet Elijah we must admit that “we are no better than our fathers.”
But after Easter this year I felt – and I’m sure I was not alone – that I could glimpse a light, which maybe was not sufficiently apparent to all, when it was amongst us in the frail lantern of the body. Was not John Paul II, the Pope from Poland, that light and signal of hope? A gift sent by God to Europe from the dark night of history and from the depths of suffering of crucified nations?
In saying this, it is by no means my intention to fuel in a tawdry fashion the sometimes rather superficial “cult of personality” associated with that great Pope. What I have in mind are two specific actions of enormous symbolic importance and consequence, two actions that we here this evening might gratefully draw inspiration from. In the first place I refer to that bold and humble act of confession and penitence for the church’s past faults, his “mea culpa” at the beginning of Lent in the year of the Millennium. And secondly, I am thinking of the great prayer gathering of representatives of world religions at Assisi.
I am deeply convinced that the twentieth century can leave in the memory of humanity two images of hope that may be a sign that it was not simply a century of historical darkness and suffering, but also a moment of change and hope. One is the photograph of the planet Earth taken during the first human landing on the Moon, the other is the photograph of the Pope, holding hands with the Dalai Lama in the company of representatives of Judaism, Islam and other world religions in front of the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.
Those two images have much in common. The photograph of the Moon not only bears testimony to an enormous achievement of human courage and intelligence, it also shows how small our world is – just a little boat sailing through the endless darkness of the Universe, “far away from all suns”. And the image from Assisi is evidence of the hope that maybe we are beginning to realise that we have to learn to live together aboard this single frail vessel.
And so when we come to prayer together once again, here, near the grave of St Adalbert, Bishop of my native city of Prague and patron of European unity, let us recall the prayer of St Francis by whose tomb the first of such gatherings took place: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace!”
Let our minds and hearts embrace our entire history and let us pray for the healing of its painful wounds. Let us think of the victims of violence and hatred, in both our distant and our recent past, particularly those who were killed unjustly in the name of our God and in the presence of the holy symbols of our religions. “Victors write history”, but God hears the lament of the victims and vanquished. So we too should allow our hearts to listen to their calling and be willing to remember not only the martyrs and victims within our own tradition, but also those in others’ traditions.
The legacy of the faith of our father Abraham – belief in one God – unites us in one great family, and today we are aware of our mutual closeness. But God truly fulfilled his promise to Abraham that the number of his spiritual offspring would exceed the bounds of our imagination: they are as many as the stars in the sky and the sand in the seas – and even in places we would not expect to find them.
As we look at the stars in the sky we think in our prayers tonight also of those who seem to be far, far beyond the bounds of our visible communities. Yet to God, who can “raise up children to Abraham from these stones” they are close.
Let us pray also for those who are unable to pray. They include some who have lost the strength to believe because of the dark night of history and the chasm of suffering: it is our duty to give them confirmation that the dawn is near. They include those who may not have recognised the face and name of our God – who, as the mystics of all our three religions know, is a mysterious and hidden God – yet they join with us in rejecting false gods and oversimplified concepts of God.
Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists are agreed that they do not believe in gods, a Christian theologian wrote recently. The God we believe in is not one of the gods of this world.
Yes, our shared service to this world lies also in our determined refusal to serve or adore the false gods of this world “Allahu akbar”– God is the greatest, words heard several times a day in so many parts of the world from the lips of thousands of millions of our Muslim brothers and sisters. And their creed begins with the words: “There is no god but God.”
There is no god (divinity) but God! This is something we ought to say altogether and out loud to every corner of the globe: God is not in the storm or the whirlwind! God is not in the earthquakes of racial, ethnic, political or religious hatred and intolerance! God is only in the “still, small voice” – among the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.”.
God is not in the destructive waves of the Tsunami and other natural disasters but in the waves of solidarity with those who suffer.
There is no holy war – only peace is sacred. If everyone was only to follow the principle “an eye for an eye” the whole world would soon be blind. We must break once and for all the dangerous spiral of vengeance and retribution. If our world is to be healed we can no longer rely on the logic of “as you have done to me so I’ll do to you” – we must learn the logic “as God has done to me, so I’ll do to you” – the path of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The strength to behave like that can only come from contemplation and prayer. May this evening’s prayers reach all those places in the world where there is distress, where night still reigns, as a sign of hope that wherever people recognise brothers and sisters in each other – yes, also here amongst us – the dawn is breaking.Presented on the conference “Europe in Dialogue”, Gniezno (Poland), September 16th, 2005
(Will be published in: Tomas Halik, Noc zpovednika, Prague 2005)