How to describe suffering—other people’s, I mean. I am just back from a shopping expedition for emergency food that my family would never eat. Everything must be pre-packaged and ready to eat. German sausages in cans, black rye bread that can also be used for paving streets, bizarre Christmas cookies that won’t go bad until two years from today. I pack all these items—along with toothbrushes, covid masks, and diapers into the biggest box that I can find and hope that it finds its way to the Ukraine. We all hope that these items will reach the people who need them: people living out of their cars, trying desperately to cross the border and get away from a place they never planned to leave.
Even given the strange circumstances of the past two years, it is hard to picture Europe—my Europe—two years from today. Even last week, we could not have pictured the circumstance Eastern Europe currently finds itself in. A life full of contradictions and mind-numbing suffering.
Not suffering of the beautiful or transcendent kind. No, that was last week, when my daughter along with thirty other beautiful maids and handsome youths sang the poetic strains of Gorki and Brecht’s “Die Mutter”, a prose poem set to music which extols the excellencies of youthful idealism and condemns the horrors of war and inhumanity of work. They sang in a baroque concert hall built by Jesuits in the sixteenth century. I don’t think there was anyone who was not struck by the irony that Augsburg’s Brecht Festival opened in 2022 on the day after Russia invaded, (yes, old fashioned invasion) the Ukraine.
Toward the end of Brecht’s piece, the haunting lament of the working-class mother Pelagea, for her son recalls the strains of the Stabat Mater from the thirteenth century. In the choir they have been rehearsing Die Mutter since October. That was when my daughter sent me a photo of the sheet music on her phone, asking me what the Latin song had to do with choir practice. This is her first encounter with church music being used to make a political point. “It’s an Easter song,” I tell her. What happens to Mary of course, is not Pelagea’s story. A sharp sword pierces Mary’s heart and she participates with Christ in his suffering. Marxism would have it the other way round. Human suffering has no transcendence, it can all be reduced to an argument about the price of soup.
After the concert we walked out into the night, heavy with wind even after sunset. Another young choir member joins us at the tram stop. The girls hold on to the tulips that they received at curtain. And then, one a German girl from Turkey and the other from America, begin to sing to each other snatches from Brecht. Barely heard, the melody drifts off into other noise, but it proves that meaning is not so easily done away with—especially in hardship—as Gorki and Brecht hoped it might be. The chords Brecht uses are less important than the dynamics. Brecht knows better than many how to elicit empathy from his audience. The song is not so much sung as recited operatically in a strained concentrated style that perfectly conveys the shock of grief.
That is what all my newspapers are saying: Europe is experiencing grief, national grief for the first time in seventy or eighty years. Grief over disunity, grief over fighting. Grief over having to fight and not wanting to.
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, the bells of all participating churches will toll for two minutes into darkened streets. We’ve all been told to extinguish our lights as a sign of national grief. At church, about two hours ago, we lit the altar lamps and threw ashes on our heads. We sang hymn number 523, the hymn of the mother, the one standing at the foot of the cross.
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