This week’s DYK is continued from a soon to be released book entitled “God and Spirituality”: Paul Tillich’s experience during the first World War challenged his faith far beyond anything he had ever before been subjected to. After the First World War began, Tillich was called to serve as a German army chaplain on the Western Front from 1914 all the way to the end of the war in 1918. The horrors of trench warfare were unbelievable. Those who know nothing of the massive slaughter and helplessness of those sent to their doom in continual pointless human wave attacks and counterattacks should read the classic account in Erich Remarque’s novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In its original German, the novel bore the title, “Im Weste nichts Neues,” “Nothing new happening on the western front,” a grim reference to the fact that all the fighting and dying accomplished nothing, as the two sides remained locked in conflict along essentially the same battle line for month after month, with neither side able to gain any military advantage or “win” the war.
Tillich had two nervous breakdowns during those years. Everywhere he could hear the sound of the shells exploding along the line of battle, the groans and screams of the dying as he rode in the ambulances bringing the wounded back from the front, the weeping of those who had lost limbs, or been blinded, or had their lungs destroyed by poison gas. Instead of preaching sermons, he spent his time saying the prayers for the dead over and over as the bodies of countless thousands of young men were shoveled into their graves. There was no “nice God” who would make sure “everything turned out for the best.” There was no joy or kindness to life which he could see anywhere, no cheerful comradeship of brothers in arms, only raw fear, bitterness, and despair all around him, and the knowledge that anyone who refused the order to mount a suicidal mass charge on enemy lines and willing to die in the mud of no man’s land, would be shot on the spot by his own commanding officer.
Even when I first met him, almost fifty years later, Tillich still had what Vietnam War veterans call the thousand-meter stare, the look in his eyes that told of the unbelievable horrors that he had witnessed.
Then during that same period, he was hit with two further blows. He had married a young woman named Grethi Wever shortly before the war. They had a child, but the child died in infancy. Then at the end of the war, Paul discovered that Grethi had had an affair with his best friend, Richard Wegne, and was pregnant with Richard’s child. Grethi gave birth to a little boy in June of 1919 and she named him Wolf. Six months later, in January 1920 Paul’s sister Johanna died. She had been the only family member with whom he had been close to since the death of their mother. This period in Tillich’s life was his “Dark Night of the Soul.”
The Dark Night of the Soul is not a romantic poetic term for a vague intellectual disquietude or a polite intellectual skepticism. It describes the entry into a kind of hell on earth, a period of overwhelming terror and despair, where everything that seemed to give meaning to our lives collapses under us. The term comes from a strange and nightmarish episode in the ancient Hebrew poem called the Song of Songs, in verses 2-7 of chapter 5. The young woman in the story hears her lover knocking on her door in the middle of the night, and sees his hand reaching in, trying to touch her. She arises from her bed, opens the door, and goes out into the sleeping city to try and find him, but he has inexplicably vanished. She calls out to him and no one answers. As she wanders through the dark streets, she comes upon the night watchmen who are supposed to be the city’s protectors. But instead they beat her savagely and rip off her clothes, and leave her to wander half-naked, wounded, and stunned through pitch-black streets. Where had her lover gone, the one to whom she had committed her soul, the one who should have been there to protect and save her? She loved him and trusted him, and he seems to have only turned on her and abandoned her with total treachery. Far better would it have been for her, she thinks with total outrage, if she had never loved him at all, let alone trusted him with her soul and life.
Young Paul Tillich believed, he had been called by God, the Lover of Souls, to serve as a pastor, and in fact, for the first two or three weeks after he had begun his work as an army chaplain, he still believed that he could hear God knocking on the door of his soul, and see God’s hand beckoning to him. Instead, as the full reality of war broke upon him, he found himself cast into an overwhelming nightmare that only kept getting worse and worse.
That is what any truly deep spirituality has to overcome. When the naïve beginning stage of our love affair with God seems to totally collapse, and all the good things that we believed about Him seem to have been betrayed by bitter reality, we have only two ultimate choices. We can choose to live the rest of our lives in bitterness, cynicism and anger, or we can somehow open up our spiritual eyes and ears to see and hear a higher understanding of the meaning of life and the divine light of God. Those who choose the first route, frequently destroy themselves with alcohol, drugs, cynicism, angry attacks on other people and a soul-destroying bitterness. The ones who go the other route of opening their spiritual eyes to the divine light of God, embark upon the path of the saints, and develop a new and different kind of courage and faith. Their eyes see clearer than those who fall into everlasting bitterness, for they see human imperfections with the greatest of clarity, and yet somehow are not destroyed by it, but rendered more compassionate and filled with an enormous depth of personal humility. They emerge from their suffering filled with a divinity that sometimes makes them visibly glow with light. You can sense it the minute they walk into a room and begin to speak. Where did they get the courage and that divine light within them? Not from going back into the old naïve and childish beliefs about a “nice” universe, and not from clinging to sentimentality and wishful thinking.
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