Readers who have a special interest in believing that faith in God is an escapist evasion of the harsh realities of life, like to suggest that the Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel lost his faith in God during his internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The argument that Wiesel lost his faith in the face of Nazi horror, might seem to be supported by Wiesel’s willingness to ask difficult painful often unanswerable questions. But, for Wiesel, questions that cannot be answered are no argument against the existence of God. Unanswerable questions are one of the means by which our hearts are opened to the reality of a mystery and wonder that transcend our ability to comprehend.
Early in his memoir Night Elie Wiesel describes his meeting as a boy with Moishe the Beadle, the man who would become his spiritual guide. Wiesel says, Moishe
had watched me one day as I prayed at dusk.
“Why do you cry when you pray?” he asked, as though he knew me well.
“I don’t know,” I answered, troubled.
I had never asked myself that questions. I cried because… because something inside me felt the need to cry. That was all I knew.
“Why do you pray?” he asked after a moment.
Why did I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?
“I don’t know,” I told him, even more troubled and ill at ease. “I don’t know.”
From that day on, I saw him often. He explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer…
Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies.
If Wiesel had stopped here, the words of Moishe the Beadle might seem trite and simplistic. But Wiesel goes on to say that, in this dialogue, when God speaks using words,
We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.
“And why do you pray Moishe?” I asked him.
“I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.”
“The real questions” of course are the ones that have no answers in this human realm. It takes strength to ask these questions because it is hard to hold that deep unknowing. It takes courage to live with the unresolved tension of the horror and the glory of the human condition. It is a brave person who can say, “I do not know, but I trust.”
Questions that cannot be answered are no proof of God’s absence. Silence does not demonstrate that we have been abandoned by the divine.
The empty spaces that surround us are an invitation. They call us to let go of our need for control, understanding, and comprehension. Silence invites us to step out beyond the limited time-bound material realm and open to a dimension of existence that cannot be contained by our human answers.
We come to know the reality that is present in the silence where words exhaust their usefulness, by holding the unanswerable questions. As we stand on the edge of the abyss of unknowning we discover that we are held. We are no alone. The emptiness of sound is not the absence of Presence. The way to connect with the realm of the Spirit is by asking “real questions”.
What are the “real questions”?
The real questions are the not intellectual quandaries with which we so often entertain ourselves. The real questions are questions of the heart. They are the ones that that cause me to be honest.
Why am I sad?
What is it of which I am afraid?
What is it that I am resisting in relation to you or to this circumstance?
How do I respond to loneliness?
These are the questions that have the capacity to break open my heart to that place where I know there is a mysterious presence that permeates my existence. Questions are a doorway to an awareness of the One in whom I can trust even when I do not understand.