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One Hour in Dachau

It’s Thanksgiving, that time of year when we are reminded to be thankful for all of the good things in our life - family, health, a job, be thankful, in short, that our lives are not like those of so many others. “There but for the grace of God go I,”we sometimes say, looking at the misfortunes of others. But, of course, that begs the question, what if our life were to become like those poor unfortunates who, according to this calculus, have nothing to be thankful for?

Let’s be painfully honest for a minute. This gratitude calculus, this way of accounting for what things we should be thankful for, is really not Christian at all. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as when Jesus says that loving those who love us is no big deal because even pagans do that. Being thankful for all the good things we have isn’t bad, it’s just, honestly, not all that good.

If you don’t believe me, or if you think I’m being too strict, then just look at the Bible or the lives of the Saints. St Paul states the matter succinctly in Ephesians 5.20 when he says, “giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ....” “Always for all things”, not “periodically for the good things” or even “always for the good things”, but “always for all things.” And St Paul’s great disciple, St John Chrysostom, lived this sort of thanksgiving in both his living and his dying as evidenced by the fact that his dying words in exile, harassed, suffering, and in terrible pain, were, “Glory to God for all things!”

One of the great saints of last century, St Nikolai of Zica, penned one of the most profound prayers of any century when he he wrote a prayer for his enemies which includes these words:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have.... Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

It is easy to give thanks to God for the good things in this life, although, if we are honest, we do not even always do that. But St Nikolai, like all the saints, teaches us to give thanks for all things - enemies as well as friends, sickness as well as health, the bad as well as the good - because all things by thanksgiving and prayer can become occasions for our salvation.

Melitsa Zernov tells of a conversation she had with St Nikolai about his experience in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp, during WWII. Asking him if the camp destroyed spiritual life in a person he replied:

It was like this in the camp: you sat in a corner and repeated to yourself, “I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul!” Suddenly your soul ascended to the Heavens and you saw God face to face. However, you could not bear it and so you said to Him: “I am not ready, I cannot, take me back!” Then you sat for hours on end and repeated to yourself: “I am dust and ashes. Lord, take my soul!” And, once again the Lord took your soul.... In short, if it were possible, I would give the remainder of my life for one hour in Dachau.

In this season of Thanksgiving, as we gather with family and friends, we will undoubtedly give thanks to God for the good things in our lives, as we should. The saints, however, have taken a higher path. They have taught us to give thanks to God for everything, because we can find grace everywhere and in every circumstance if we will only seek God there and then. It’s undoubtedly and even painfully true, we are but dust and ashes, as our sufferings and temptations daily remind us. But God - who is everywhere and fills all things - has desired to make His face to shine upon us, you and me! And to see His face is our salvation.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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