I learned a few years ago that a lot of people apparently send letters to God with a mailing address of Israel.
A reporter for National Public Radio interviewed an Israeli postal worker about these letters. He had determined that since the letters were sent to God, they should go to the most sacred city in Israel – Jerusalem. Then, as he tried to figure out what should be done with them there, he decided the place closest to God would be the western wall or the Wailing Wall.
The western wall was the wall closest to the Holy of Holies in the temple, where God was said to reside, before it was destroyed in the first century. Since the 18th century, people who visit the wall have often written prayers on slips of paper and stuck them in cracks in the wall.
Now the Israeli postal service collects letters to God from all over the world and workers periodically take them and place them in cracks along the Wailing Wall.
Sometimes the letter writers ask for winning lottery numbers. Sometimes they ask for a good job or a spouse. But most often the letters come from people facing difficulty, people who are grieving or in despair.
“Despair seems to be a common experience for Americans these days.”
Despair seems to be a common experience for Americans these days. A recent report found nearly half of Americans sometimes or frequently feel alone. Mortality rates among middle-aged whites have increased since the turn of the century. Researchers call this a result of “deaths of despair” – those caused by drug overdoses, suicides and alcohol-related liver disease. These “deaths of despair” are also increasing among Millennials (36,000 died from these causes in 2017 alone). Researchers also now speak of “climate despair,” an impulse to give up in the face of dismal climate news.
Sunday morning we awoke to the news of yet two more mass shootings, this time in the space of 24 hours. The grief over the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, understandably turns to despair in the face of politicians unwilling to act in the face of the gun lobby and a president incapable of consoling a nation.
I imagine many of us in our dark night of the soul have felt ourselves praying to a seeming emptiness, a void from which we receive no answer, no assurances. How often, like the prophets, have we cried out to the universe, “How long, O Lord?”, only to hear silence? We strain our ears, listening for some word, some clue from the vast expanses of space that someone is listening, someone who cared for us and our troubles. Is it not when on the cross Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that we most fully identify with him? Is it not in that moment that we see him as human like us and know that like us he suffered and cried out in the darkness?
The existentialists grasped the import of this moment of recognizing our aloneness in the universe. The existential moment is the coming to consciousness of our situation: We are here through no choice of our own, and now we alone must make choices to determine who we are. While we may have others around us, ultimately they are still outside us; we suffer alone and we die alone.
In Samuel Beckett’s existential play, Waiting for Godot, the two main characters wait and wait and wait for Godot, but Godot never comes. In Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, three characters find themselves in hell – a room where they torture themselves and one another with their lives’ failures. One character begs for the door to open; yet when it does, he refuses to leave.
It seems there’s no getting around it. Enduring silence, darkness and suffering seems to be an inevitable part of human existence. For the existentialists, the silence, darkness and suffering is all there is. The experience of emptiness gives rise to despair – waiting for Godot, who never comes.
For St. John of the Cross, however, enduring the dark night of the soul in faith gave rise to more faith, to a deepened faith and to a keen sense of being attuned to the slightest movements of the Spirit.
Annie Dillard says that we have to stalk the Spirit. She says the Spirit is at most a glimpse here, a glimmer there, and all that we can hope for is that occasional momentary sighting, like catching a glimpse of a shooting star.
“I imagine something happens in the tactile process of writing a letter to God that gives people a sense that the God to whom they pray is real and cares for them.”
I wonder if the people who write letters to God addressed to Israel are trying to find a way to reach across the great expanse of silence and darkness for a glimpse of God, like Moses on Sinai, who saw, only for a moment, the back of God as God passed. Perhaps they are stalking the Spirit, searching for a way to reach across the loneliness and seeming emptiness of their lives to get God’s attention. I think of the woman with a blood disease, who fought through the crowds around Jesus just to touch the hem of his garment and be healed.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Lives of Bees, one of the three sisters is tormented by an acute sensitivity to pain and suffering in the world. Generally, her sisters try to shield her from bad news because it sends her into convulsive attacks of grief. The only relief she can find once one of these attacks begins is in writing down her anguish on a piece of paper and sticking it in the cracks of the wailing wall they have built in the backyard.
I think we need a wailing wall.
In this national moment of children in cages, racist rhetoric, rollbacks on LGBTQ rights and reproductive care, willful disbelief in climate change, economic insecurity for millions and escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, it is no wonder that many of us feel overcome by despair.
I imagine something happens in the tactile process of writing a letter to God that gives people a sense that the God to whom they pray is real and cares for them. Perhaps by making requests so concrete, people find a way to make God substantial and real for themselves. Perhaps the act of writing a letter helps stave off grief and fear in a world that every day seems more frightening and overwhelming than the day before.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Our faith is that somehow, somewhere in the darkness and silence or chaos and fear, God is with us; and that is all we need.
Faith is living in the belief that, no matter the silence or emptiness or grief or suffering, God is with us, even when we cannot see God or hear God or feel God. Faith is what in the midst of the darkness and silence keeps us watching for that fleeting glimpse, that flash of light in our peripheral vision, that moment that is here and gone before we even recognize it. Faith is what keeps us stalking the Spirit.
Maybe writing a letter and putting it in a crack in an ancient wall is not an act of despair but an act of faith. In these times, we most definitely need a wailing wall.