Here is a very poignant article by Fr Ray Blake in England – My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
When I was in Rome (1985-86) at the Nepomucene College, there was a priest who had been tortured by the KGB (or the Czech equivalent). There were scars on his face, and a great sadness exuded from him. Indeed the whole place exuded sadness. A young fair-haired seminarian had walked out of his country over the mountains with his papers in one shoe and some money in the other. He reached Austria, and then on the Church in Austria helped him on his way to Rome. The sadness of the place was oppressive and had its effect on the little American community I belonged to as a first-year seminarian.
My own grandfather was a prisoner of war from 1940 until the end of the war in an Oflag near Linz (Austria but then under Nazi rule). He did his duty and attempted to escape twice, and was probably badly treated by the German soldiers charged with camp security. His journal, which I have read and kept by my sister, is poignant. They were only required to try escaping twice, because a third attempt would be punished by the firing squad. I could not understand why he would not talk about the war when I was a little boy, with a romantic idea about nation and war against the Hun, but he must have been traumatised to see death, destruction and inhumanity on such a scale.
Fr Blake’s story about the monk at Quarr Abbey is poignant. There are many stories of mental illness with those who slipped through the psychological screening of modern communities and dioceses. I knew a monk of Hauterive Abbey near Fribourg who was (is) a brilliant canonist and theologian, but could not live in the community. He obtained a special dispensation called exclaustration, and, though still officially a monk, lives and works in academia at my old alma mater. The story of Dom Peter at Quarr is not unique, and the job of being an abbot is made difficult: keeping the community together whilst tolerating eccentricities coming from a multitude of causes.
Many monasteries, as far as I have experienced, seem to have more of the spirit of the barracks or the boot camp than a contemplative community – but I was in the guest house at Triors (with access to some of the conventual places like the workshops and the cloister). The monastic life is only for the toughest and strongest of characters. Men with nervous or mental disorders come very unstuck in a monastery – if they survive the novitiate and period of simple profession. A man who had withstood torture by the Gestapo certainly won the admiration of the Abbot of his time, but the life-long effects of such abuse were certainly ignored. I recommend the wonderful little novel Cosmas or the Love of God by Pierre de Calan. This book is still available to buy. Again, we rejoin the theme of the fool for Christ as we read in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Cordelia describes her brother Sebastian:
…Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.
I thought of the youth with the teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. “It’s not what one would have foretold,” I said. “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”
Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is – no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him…I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love…”’
Torture is still controversial in our “civilised” world, with President Trump allowing it to get information out of those involved in Islamic terrorism. From a purely intelligence point of view, torture is unreliable as a means of getting accurate information, because a man under torture will say anything to stop the pain. The morality of using torture or mind-bending drugs in cases of war and “clear and present danger” is difficult and disputable. Who would not beat up a kidnapper to find out where his children are?
Man’s inhumanity to man is beyond belief, particularly under Nazism and Communism. Torture was also practised from motives of gratuitous sadism and the intention of destroying human beings. I have recently watched several videos about the history of psychiatry and the way torture was (misguidedly) used for therapeutic purposes. Bedlam was the most notorious place of abuse and torture of the mentally ill, and lobotomies and electric shock treatment were used well into the years of my own lifetime.
The worst of human suffering is when a person loses any sense of consolation from God or other people, friends and family in particular. The notion is terrifying, as happened to Christ shortly before dying on the cross. He quoted the psalm: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. Even being God and man, he suffered like any other human being dying by man’s hatred and sadism.
Any of us can go through this terrifying crucible of desolation and suffering, even without human wickedness, whether from our own sins and guilt or from reasons of poor mental health. Depression and anxiety take their invisible toll. My most memorable experience was in March 1996 when I was at Triors, the day after a visit by Msgr Wach and feeling that I had been cynically mocked. I was taken at my weakest by mere words. I remember the quote of Oscar Wilde in the Ballad of Reading Gaol when contemplating the fate of a prisoner condemned to be hanged for murdering his wife:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.
Christ himself describes murder not only in terms of ending a person’s life, but by mere thoughts of hatred and duplicity. Perhaps without such an experience in the coldness of the Abbey church, I would not have survived the three months I have just been through with my wife and coming to terms with Asperger’s Syndrome in long discussions with my family and the psychiatrist, and begun to emerge from it stronger in my faith and resolve to serve as a priest. I remember the Abbot (Dom Courau) coming to visit me, having seen me in tears in the church, with a kindly eye and concern. I have not forgotten that moment of human warmth, and my long drive and walk in the majestic Vercors mountains and the farmhouse of Marthe Robin.
Fr Blake describes our times as an Age of the New Martyrs, a time of confessing the Faith with no reward or consolation for ourselves. The enemy is both outside and within the Church, and bullies and sadists abound in the most sanctimonious disguises. It is somewhat precocious as a reflection long before Septuagesima, let alone Lent or Passiontide. Being prepared does no harm as long as self-pity does not enter the picture.
We need to move onto the joys we can still find, and which I have found in the ACC. A glimmer of light brings so much warmth and hope. Let us build on that!