|From the South African Times online, May 22, 2014, after bombing in Jos, Nigeria|
My latest devotional find is the 1997 translation of Karl Rahner's The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, which I discovered in the church library. Rahner was Jesuit theologian who was highly influential at Vatican II, but before that he was just another German trying to survive the Nazi regime. Speaking to his fellow Germans, he recalls the common experience of bomb shelters, as my parents' generation might say "Where were you when you heard about JFK?" And just as we might say "9/11" without explanation, he begins without preamble:
Do you remember the nights in the cellar, the nights of deadly loneliness amidst the harrowing crush of people? The nights of helplessness and of waiting for a senseless death? The nights when the lights went out, when horror and impotence gripped one's heart, when one mimed being courageous and unaffected? When one's innocently bold and brave words sounded so strangely wooden and empty, as if they were already dead before they even reached the other person? When one finally gave up, when one became silent, when one only waited hopelessly for the end, death? Alone, powerless, empty. And if the cellar really became buried by rubble, then the picture of today's man is complete. For such are we people of today, even if we already have crawled out of the rubbled-over cellars, even if our everyday has already begun again.... As such we have already entered into an exterior destiny, because the exterior destiny - by God, it is so even if it sounds so fantastic and romantic - is only the shadow of events which have occurred in the depths of men: that their hearts are rubbled-over.
He goes on to explain that we cannot escape the rubble in our hearts as they had escaped the cellars, no matter how much we try to ignore it by a constant stream of work and entertainment. Rahner, you just didn't know - imagine a world so plugged in as ours, trying even more desperately to shut out the pain in our hearts.
I was fascinated by the cellar passage, and it even took me a minute to piece together the exact circumstance, given the author's time and place. All over the world people crouch in make-shift cellars, or in refugee camps or immigration detainment centers. But what of us who live relatively safe lives, who don't wonder when the next bomb will drop? Where does our rubble come from?
As I write, I am hyperaware of every noise, even though my anxiety level is fairly low. That is life with PTSD - in my case, due to experiences working at a rape crisis center. Being with rape/ assault survivors mere hours after the trauma seared my brain in a dramatic way, and I am still trying to recover. I have buried those memories, tried not to think about them let alone talk about them, until I was finally unable to function in daily life and am forced to deal with it. There's a lot of rubble to dig through. In the process, I bump up against random bits from the wear and tear of life: from believing God would damn me to hell and there was nothing I could do about it, among other things. Denying the existence of the rubble in my heart doesn't make it magically disappear.
According to Rahner, I'm one of the lucky ones because I cannot ignore it. I can't pretend that everything is OK, and the God of joy has not allowed me to believe that despair is somehow Real, that innocence and laughter are fake. This position hurts, but what is the alternative? To think that despair is a sign of strength, to become a nihilist? To ignore the pain, "suck it up," and model myself after the man in the grey flannel suit?
What about religion? Rahner calls Christianity the best possible way to escape true salvation, for those so inclined:
One can be a Christian, not because one believes but because one wants to hide one's unbelief for and from himself because this would otherwise frighten oneself too much. Indeed, from the nature of the matter, Christianity is the best disguise of unbelief for man's deceived heart, the best facade to hide the rubbled-over heart.
What is the rubble in my heart? What weight has the inner part collapsed under? What facades do I build to hide, even and especially from myself?
God, are you here with me under it all?