A couple of weeks ago, Alice Herz-Sommer died at the age of 110. She was 39 when, with her family and scores of other Jewish intelligentsia, she was sent to Terezin, to a concentration camp the Nazi regime used to demonstrate their humane treatment of the Jews. Through starvation and the death of her mother and husband, she played music at Terezin, part of a prisoners’ orchestra. They were “dancing under the gallows,” the inmates used to say. But Alice said something else: “Music saved my life.” She said, “Music is God.”
I saw a film about her: a tiny old woman in a tiny apartment, half taken up by a grand piano. She talked about her life and music. To her, music was a miracle, and as long as she had it—played it, listened to it, thought about it—she could go on. She was one of those rare persons who come out of hell cleansed with joy, and we feel cleansed just by their presence. A sage.
Lent is the time of introspection. I was watching utter serenity on Alice’s face, hearing wonder in her voice, and thinking about why I am not like that every day. Of course, she may not have been like that every day, but she was…like that. And my life is so incomparably easier! Why am I not constantly happy, serene, and grateful?
That’s what we say, isn’t it? We should be grateful for the many blessings that we have. There are plenty of people who are worse off than we are.
I suppose, I am not like that because it doesn’t work like that, at least, not for me. To start with, I am not at all sure that surviving a death camp is a healthy standard for us to hold our lives up against, even at the lowest bar. The same goes for war zones, starving children, homeless under bridges, or girls who can’t go to school. Those atrocious conditions just shouldn’t be compared to anyone’s life—maybe, because they are not life. They are a perverse distortion of life.
But beyond that, it just hasn’t ever worked for me to be grateful for the things I have and others don’t, in those terms. It seems uncomfortable somehow. It seems to emphasize the tie between my gratitude and the painfully unequal distribution of the blessing. I guess, I have a nagging feeling that, if only some people can have a thing, a kinder feeling is to wish that someone else have it than to be grateful for having it.
I think these thoughts, then shake them off and wonder if I am not just ungrateful by nature.
I’ve just had difficult several months and struggled to keep my head above worry, above doubt and pain. I didn’t feel abandoned or alone, never despaired, just bogged down in the daily problems, uncertainty, surprising and worsening every so often. Loss. Wondering if I’d heard the Spirit right when I thought She was guiding me on a path.
Then, a week ago Sunday, before the beginning of Lent, I heard one of my favorite gospels. It came so timely, as if Jesus had put his lips close to my ear and said it to me for the first ever time: Worry less, concentrate on what’s important, and the rest will take care of itself. It was about flowers of the field and the birds that don’t sow or reap, God knowing what we need. “Sufficient for today is its own evil.” Last Sunday, I heard it twice.
My problem is, I say you cannot plan. I say I’ve learned this. I’ve learned it so well on my convoluted life’s journey that for the past few years I haven’t been using the word “plan” when talking about the future, only the word “hope.” And yet, I’d grown some hopes so deep and sure that I planned, all right. I planned and didn’t know it, and when plans collapsed once again, as they tend to do, into dust, and hopes crumbled, I lost ground under my feet. I thought I’d lost it because, once again, I was looking forward for the ground. I was planning.
Of course, this is what we do: we plan. We must. We cannot have jobs or retirement funds or higher education or a lease if we truly make no plans at all. But to be in fact ready for things to change at any time, that’s the trick. That’s the hard part. To be in fact aware, on the level of deep understanding, that permanence is not, and assuredness of anything earthly but love is an illusion – that’s the trick.
I doubt I can truly preserve this awareness, only cultivate it. It comes in waves, in flashes. It came last Sunday from the Gospel, proclaimed as if for me specially, twice. Worry less. I know that you need many little, passing things, here and now. They will come or they won’t, but not if you forget to breathe Me in while you worry about the little things. Walk toward me, and what comes, will come. Feel the miracle of belonging to this unfathomable Creation. Sufficient for today is its own evil. Don’t create more.
Even five years ago, in times of pain, worry, and uncertainty, I didn’t hear the Voice telling me to breathe. I didn’t feel this peace filling the corners of my misshapen soul, saying, “All will be well, my love, even as it’s not.” Even five years ago and for so many dark years before that, I was alone with my fear and my grief, with all the little things and the giant, terrible things that are crushing the world. And I didn’t know how to close my eyes and not be alone. Didn’t know how to have Him.
Today, I know better, and close my eyes is all I need do, and for a moment, I remember Heaven, and I know that nothing else matters.
So let’s worry less. I’m going to worry less. When it’s hard to be grateful for our little particular blessings, let’s be grateful for the big one. For beauty. For love. I’m going to be grateful for knowing what matters. That’s a gift that will hold me always afloat, no matter what happens, in any flood.
In an old TV show last night I heard two teenage orphans talking. They were struggling with everything in their lives, with no one for help but each other. One asked, “Is it always going to be this bad?” The other answered, “Who knows? Maybe these are the good old days.”