This story “The Language of the Soul’s Night” is from Eloi Leclerc‘s The Canticle of Creatures (now out of print) as quoted in St. Francis and the Foolishness of God by Marie Dennis, Joe Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Stuart Taylor. I read this story every Oct. 4, the feastday of St. Francis of Assisi, to remind myself that Francis is more than the “saint of the birdbath” and what it means for me to be a Franciscan.
April, 1945: The Allied armies are penetrating deep into the heart of Germany. A lengthy freight train is moving slowly along the line from Passau to Munich, with thousands of exiles packed into its cars. They have been shut up there for twenty-one days now. Hundreds have already died; hundreds more are at death’s door, delirious from hunger. The train started from Buchenwald and has made a long detour through Czechoslovakia and the mountains of Bohemia; now it is heading for Dachau near Munich. Suddenly, incredibly, singing can be heard from one of the cars; it is Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Brother Sun! “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, and first my lord Brother Sun … All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother.”
What can such a song mean in circumstances like these? The men who sang were hardly more than ghosts themselves, surrounded by the dead! What was going on in ‘this railroad car? …
April 7, evening: Night has fallen, the train rolls on. In what direction? We do not know. One thing is certain: we are on our way — ninety to a hundred men in each car, crouching, crushed against one another, a fellow prisoner between one’s legs, like skeletons packed one upon another. The horrible nightmare is beginning. (Could we possibly have thought at that moment that it would last, not three, four, or even five days, but twenty-one days and twenty-one nights?)
No room to stretch out a leg. And we are so exhausted! And so full of despair, too! This very morning, we were still in Buchenwald, waiting for a liberation that seemed very near. We had waited all through the winter, amid hunger and cold, hard work, and death. Many had died. At last, we had survived all that. Then, suddenly, liberation was at hand. It had lifted its head only a few miles away, as real and as powerful as the spring sun that had defeated the long winter. From the hilltop at Buchenwald we could see the flames from the mouths of the American guns. It was only a matter of days now, perhaps even of hours. The cannon were thundering, and hope was leaping in our hearts.
But the SS decided to evacuate a section of the camp. Several columns of prisoners had already set out, under heavy guard on the preceding days. Today it was our turn. With death in our hearts, we walked the few miles from the heights of Buchenwald to the station at Weimar. We were tuming our back on hope, this long column of four to five thousand condemned men. Really, we were no longer among the living. Some comrades, their strength drained away, fell during the march, and the SS put a bullet through their heads. In some spots, the path was spattered with blood and brains.
At Weimar station, they put us on board.
Now we are rolling onward into the unknown. Two SS guards to each car. Some cars are covered; others, like ours, still black from coal dust, are open to the sky. A few comrades were able to bring a blanket; luck for them, since the nights are still cold in Germany at this time of the year when winter is barely over. A deathly silence reigns among us. Rocked by the swaying of the train, we sink into a boundless sadness.
Next morning, Sunday, April 8: We stop at a small station. The train stands there all day, then all night. We are forbidden to stand up, even to restore circulation to our legs. We are forced to remain crouching, day after day. For food, a few potatoes and a bit of bread; nothing hot, of course. Meanwhile, a very cold fog descends.
There are people from all over Europe among the hundreds or so packed into our car. From all social classes, too. Most are between twenty and thirty years old, but all look like very old men. Some know why they were arrested and deported: they were part of a resistance movement. Others are there simply because they were caught in a random sweep in Paris or Warsaw or some other city. But we speak as little as possible of such matters. In extreme wretchedness such as this, what is there to know about a man except the suffering that now fills his being? Here the suffering is limitless and everyone shares it. All differences fade away in the face of the common destiny. Lost in this mass of men, there are five of us who are sons of St. Francis.
Monday, April 9: The train starts moving again shortly before noon. While we are under way, the SS relax their vigilance. We take advantage of this to stand for a moment and take a look at the countryside through which we are passing. During the afternoon the train stops in the extensive suburbs of Leipzig, and the SS have those who have died during the journey brought out of the cars. These are quickly and unceremoniously buried beside the track. During the night and throughout Tuesday morning, we continue on eastward. We travel along the Elbe for a while and are only about thirty miles from Dresden. But now the train turns southward.
At this time the SS were probably intending to take us to the concentration camp at Flossenburg in the Oberpfalzer Wald on the Czechoslovakian frontier. For reasons unknown to us they had to drop this idea.
Wednesday morning, April 10: We are at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. Groups of Czechs immediately gather along the tracks. They are deeply moved at the sight of our striped garments and skeletal figures. They begin to throw bread to us. The SS men fire a few shots at them. The train rolls on slowly and passes under a bridge in the city. Some people who have gathered on the bridge drop food into the cars. We knock each other over trying to get a morsel of bread. More than ever, we are forbidden to stand up, but our hunger is too strong to resist. The train stops at a little station in the countryside, not far from Pilsen. There we are shunted to a siding.
In the evening, they give us a little food: one ration-loaf of bread for ten men. The day ends with the departure of the dead whose number increases each day. The corpses are no long buried beside the track. The corpses are hardly more than skeletons now; they are seized by the arms and legs, shoved upwards, and tipped over into the car.
Next morning, Thursday, April 11: The train stands all day in this little station. In the evening, the dead are removed; nothing else happens all day long. The same thing the next day; we spend all day without food, and in the evening they remove the dead. Life is tragically simplified for us now. We have only one occupation to fill our time: watching others die, while we ourselves wait for death. On the average, two men died each day in each car; that means about a hundred deaths a day for the whole train.
These days spent motionless seem endless to us. But the nights bring a further torment. Alongside the dying, who are at their last gasp, some of the living fight for a bit of space in which to sleep; others go mad and pound their heads against the sides of the car in order to finish their nightmare. Over us, an SS man rains down blows with a club in order to restore quiet. But even all this is not the worst. The terrible, awful thing is to find oneself watching for a neighbor to die and telling oneself that tomorrow there will be more room to stretch out in.
During the night between Friday and Saturday, attempts are made to escape from several cars. This act of despair will cost all of us dear. In the morning, a SS officer climbs into our cars and fires into the mass of prisoners. Two of our comrades are hit; they will spend a long time dying.
Only on Monday, April 16, does the train set out again. We have the impression the SS do not know what to do with us and will be forced to kill us all. But the weather is marvelous. Everything is a call to life: over our heads, a wide blue sky; the larks tumble about up there, drunk on the freedom of space; in the fields men and women are working at the harvest; yonder a few small churches lift up their steeples. The train stops again at evening, on a plateau. Once again we wait, face to face with death. There we are, completely cut off from everything that is going on in the world. Where are the Allies? What is happening in France just now? These big questions seem irrelevant to us now. For many of us, it is already too late.
During the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, the train starts up again. It travels toward the southeast. Now we are entering the mountains of Bohemia. The scene is full of grandeur. From the floor of our car we can watch the forests on the upper slopes. The new light-green foliage of the birches stands out against the dark green of the giant firs. Here and there the gold of flowering bloom catches the eye. Spring is bursting out. Nature, ignorant of what men are doing to each other, continues to produce greenery and flowers once again. From the moist warm earth the sun draws the good smells of a forest in the spring.
In some places the slopes narrow into a rocky, precipitous ravine. Our train with its five thousand condemned men moves slowly through these wild ravines. The idea comes to us that we have been brought there for some barbaric celebration. Then suddenly, fear. Above our heads, over the side of the car appears “the killer,” an SS officer. We have called him that because he has already killed several among us. He stares at us the way a bird of prey stares at a nestful of creatures he is going to kill. His rifle is pointed at us; the monster fires into the heap of men. Two comrades are now dying. One has been shot in the mouth. We are all spattered with blood. A terrible anxiety grips body and soul. There can be no doubt now, we feel our hearts jumping wildly, like a bird that has been mortally wounded and flutters around in its own blood, unwilling to die.
We have been traveling all day. This evening the train has halted in a little station at the edge of the Bohmerwald. The railroad bridge across the Danube at Passau has just been cut. We are forced to stay there on a siding several days, six to be exact. Long, terrible days. To crown our wretchedness, the good weather is followed by rain. It falls, cold and steady, for three days and three nights. We are paralyzed by the cold. There is nothing hot for us to eat. Some of us, coming back from removing the dead, have managed to pick up some pieces of wood and a few bricks along the track. On the bricks we light a fire in the car. It’s really more of a ghost of a fire. We crowd around it to get dry and warm, but the flame is too weak. Besides, skeletons can’t get warm. Most of these days pass without any food at all being given to us, and we must be satisfied with a few dandelions hastily picked beside the track as we return from fatigue duty with the dead.
The dead! There are more and more of them. Many of our comrades die of dysentery; many of exhaustion. Others have contracted erysipelas and are the most horrible spectacle of all. Within a night or a day, these men become unrecognizable; their swollen fiery faces are completely distorted. Delirious with fever, these unfortunates fill the night with their yelling; they scream for water, but in vain. In the morning, their bodies lie stiff in death. Sometimes the corpses remain in the car throughout the day, washed by the pools of water that have formed here and there on the flooring.
These extremities of suffering plunge us into acute anxiety. It is no longer simply the anxiety that grips any living thing as death approaches. Amid our terrible distress there arises in us a strange feeling that eats away at those inmost certainties which till now had sustained us. We have a growing impression that we have been handed over to some blind, savage power. There we are, thousands of men abandoned to hunger, cold, vermin, and death. The human being is completely crushed. Man, whom we had till now believed was made in God’s image, now seems laughable: worthless, helpless, hopeless; a being caught up in a whirlwind of forces that play with him, or rather, pay absolutely no attention to him. Among the corpses that lie in the water of the car, eyes turned back, is a companion or a friend. Everything we can see, every experience we must undergo, tells us we are in the grip of an iron law, handed over to the play of blind forces and that this, and this alone, is reality.
Reality where the Father has no place! Experience that once in your life, and you will never again speak lightly of the “death of God.” It is an atrocious experience. When the Father is absent, the Son is in agony. The Son’s agony is always due to the Father’s silence, the Father’s absence. And where can the least sign of the Father be found in this hell? Now we understand the words, “My soul is sorrowful enough to die.”
Black night fills our souls. And yet, on the morning of April 26 when one of us is in his last moments and the light has almost left his eyes, what rises from our hearts to our lips is not a cry of despair or rebellion, but a song, a song of praise: Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Brother Sun! Nor do we have to force ourselves to sing it. It rises spontaneously out of our darkness and nakedness, as though it were the only language fit for such a moment.
What brings us in such circumstances to praise God for and through the great cosmic brotherhood? Theories have no place in our utter confusion of spirit; they offer no shelter against the storm. The only thing that remains and is priceless in our eyes is the patience and friendship this or that comrade shows you. Such an act by someone who, like yourself, is immersed in suffering and anxiety, is a ray of light that falls miraculously into the wretched darkness that envelops us. It re-creates you, makes you a human being once again. Suddenly we learn all over again that we are men. And when such an act of friendly help has been done to you, you in turn are able to do it for another and thus respond to the reign of brute force with a freedom and love that bear witness to another kind of reality…
At such a moment, astounding though it seems, we experience wonder before the world; we experience the sacred in the world. Such an experience is possible only in extreme deprivation of soul and body. Only in utter distress and need can we fully appreciate a mouthful of bread, a sip of water, a ray of sunlight, and now and then, like a visitor from another world, the warm greeting of a passerby. The tiny drops of rain that tremble on the telephone wires in the evening light after a storm are filled, to the selfless eye, with boundless innocence. And the broad rain-washed heaven shows us — how luminous, how pure it is! All these lowly things that we can contemplate from the floor of our car are not the result of passing chance. They speak sweetly to the soul.
Where do they come from, this purity and innocence that suddenly lay hold of us through these humble realities? Whence the limpid radiance that bathes the world but is perceptible only amid extreme poverty? How innocent things are. Do you smile? Yet this experience can be matched by no other. Nietzsche said: “One must … have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” We certainly have not been spared chaos. Devastation is everywhere, around us and within us. History has swept like a cyclone across our lives. And yet, over this heap of ruins, there now shines “the great evening star of poverty.”
Because this vision was given to us, we were able, on an April morning somewhere in Germany, to gather round our dying brother and sing of the sun and the stars, the wind and the water, the fire and the earth, and also of “those who grant pardon for love of you.” “When he died, so light as to be nameless,” there was no flight of larks overhead, but a supernatural peace had filled our hearts. That evening we carried his body away, accompanied by blows from the SS who felt we were not moving quickly enough. His was the last death in our car.