Dark Night of the Soul · Inspirations

Auschwitz: Learning to Love in Hell

To mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz I’d like to share a remarkable story from Sun at Midnight by Andrew Harvey. If you’re struggling in a dark night of the soul, this story may give you hope and show you a way through the darkness. It’s a tale of horror, death, love and grace told by Andrew Harvey’s friend Isaiah, a ‘plump, bald, late-middle-aged Israeli poet and mystic who looks like a semi-enlightened sunburnt frog.’

Isaiah is showing Andrew around Jerusalem, talking of this and that, when they find themselves in the Garden of Olives where Christ wandered in torment the night before his crucifixion. Isaiah begins to talk in a low voice and shares with Andrew what he learned in Auschwitz:

Frosted barbwire

“I am not going to dishonour the horrors we all lived through in that hell by going over them. You know many of them, and you have the heart to imagine more, although nothing you can imagine can come close.

“But it is not of these things that I wish to speak to you. I want to tell you what I discovered in hell. It may shock you.

“In Auschwitz, I discovered that there was one thing I was even more terrified of than death. When you live in an atmosphere of terror, you realise that all the fears you shrink form in ‘normal’ circumstances are relatively minor and that there is one terror that everyone has which is overwhelming, and that hardly anyone ever talks about, because very few have gone through enough to find out.”

“And what is this terror?” I asked, a little afraid by now.

“The terror of Love, of Love’s embrace of all things, all beings, and all events. Everyone pretends they want to know and experience Love, but to know and experience Love is to die to all your private fantasies and agendas, all your visions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; even ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Everyone who comes to that death is dragged to it kicking and cursing and screaming and weeping tears of blood, just as Jesus was in this garden.”

He breathed deeply as if to steady himself.

“I was twelve years old. I was mid-winter. I was in despair. My mother, father, and sister had all starved to death. I knew by then that the chances of surviving or of being saved were very slim. There was a guard who was particularly sadistic who used to beat me with his leather strap until I bled.

“I was only twelve. What did I know about anything, about God? All I knew was that I had to decide, once and for all, whether the horror I saw around me was the ultimate reality or whether the joy and tenderness I could still feel stirring inside me was the truth. I knew that they couldn’t both be the truth; if the horror of the camp was the reality about human nature and life, then what was stirring in my heart was some kind of mad joke. If what was stirring in my heart was real, then it was the horror that was the mad joke.

“I thought about this for months. ‘Thought’ is too polite a word, I bled about this, I wept over it, I wrestled with it as Jacob must have wrestled with the angel, for my life. I had to know, or I would drown in the darkness. For the first time, I started to pray. My prayer, which I began to repeat at every moment, was only four words: ‘Show me the truth.’ Nothing came. Not a single insight, not a single vision, no dream with any comforting angel. Nothing at all.

“But I went on praying, more and more desperately, and then early one winter morning I heard a quiet voice say to me, ‘You must decide.’ What did it mean? For a week, I wrestled with this. What could the voice mean? How could I, a child, decide the truth of the universe? Was this the devil laughing at me? Was I God in disguise? The maddest thoughts swirled round my brain.

“Slowly, I began to understand. I understood that I was always free to decide whether the world I was being shown was the real one or whether the world I felt in my heart was the truth. When I really thought about it, the second choice seemed even more frightening than the first. What if Love was the real choice? Would I have to love the guard who had beaten me? Would I have to forgive the apparatus that had killed my parents and hundreds of thousands of others? Would I even have to forgive in some mysterious way God himself for having allowed these horrors to take place?

“I lived through indescribable torment, much worse, even, than what I had suffered in the camp at the hands of the guards. A twelve-year-old soul, let me tell you, has abysses some of the angels would be scared of.

“Then, one morning, I awoke and knew quite simply what I had to do. I had to choose what was at the bottom of my heart, the fire I felt there when I thought of my mother, or our cat at home, or the flowers and vegetables in our kitchen garden. So I went out into the camp yard, covered with snow, with a gray, lowering, hopeless sky overhead and, closing my eyes, I screamed with my whole being silently, ‘I choose Love! I choose Love! I choose Love!

“And then it happened. When I opened my eyes, a sun not of this world had come out and was blazing in glory all around me; the snow along the barbed wire glittered like diamonds, and the air was sweet and hard like the skin of a cold apple against my cheek. The guard I hated at that moment came out of another building, smoking a cigarette. He didn’t see me, but I saw him and – this was the miracle – I felt no fear at all, and no hatred, only a burning pity that scalded my eyes with tears. I did not feel vulnerable as I had feared; the Thing in me that was crying was stronger than anything or anyone I had ever encountered. It or He felt like a calm column of fire that nothing could put out.

“Somehow I survived for another year until release came. Whenever I could, I would gaze at the way the ordinary light changed on the ground, along the wires, on the roofs of the huts and the crematoria. I knew now Whose light it was a reflection of. The fire in my chest did not leave. It has never left. I have tried to live and breathe and act from it and from its laws.”

Here is one final piece of advice from Isaiah:

Whatever you have to go through to come to know this beyond any shadow of a doubt is worth it.”

 >quoted in Radical Passion, Andrew Harvey

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2 thoughts on “Auschwitz: Learning to Love in Hell

  1. But do you actually have to choose?

    It seems to me the sacred and profane are just as real as each other, even though they can seem mutually exclusive. It’s a bit like those background/foreground images in which each defines the other but you can only perceive one at a time. But seeing the goblet doesn’t disqualify you from seeing the faces or visa versa.

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    1. Yeah, I see what you’re saying, cabrogal. Nirvana is samsara, spirit is matter, etc. But I think in the kind of extreme situation described above, you would have to choose otherwise you’d go mad. The darkness would destroy you if you didn’t know about the light. And once you know the light is there, why wouldn’t you choose to focus on that, rather than hatred and fear?

      It’s not that easy in practise, obviously. They’re not mutually exclusive, no, but one is easier to live with than the other.

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