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Bill Gnade on a Photograph Beyond a Thousand Words
The judges of the World Press Photo contest will not notice this photograph. The Pulitzer committee will not shortlist it. In fact, few will notice it, not because it lacks artistic merit but because it is too religious. To me, it is one of the most thoroughly Christian images ever made. But anyone antagonistic or indifferent to the Christian faith will see only colors, a man in a dress, a photo op.
It is almost as though the cosmos aligned in so grand a manner when this photo was taken that the mystics and astrologers are right in believing that the stars and suns and moons and clouds bespeak the presence of God. Everything had to come together in a moment that lasted no more than a second: the position of the sun, the clouds, falling water droplets, the slope of trees (dozens of years old), the bricks, the barbed wire; not to mention that the pope is at Auschwitz and it is raining and sunny, and the photographer is in the right place, crouched just so, with the right lens, the right shutter speed, the right aperture.
A German pope standing in the dust of death, the remains of Auschwitz, the infamous death camp of Hitler’s terror. But this is not just any German, nor any pope; this is Joseph Ratzinger, a former member of Hitler’s youth squads and former German soldier. And in this vision there is something not just for the eyes, but for the ears as well. For we can hear our Savior’s voice speak to us about Ratzinger, about Auschwitz, about our own souls: Behold, I make all things new.
Think of Auschwitz, that place of death where dark, ashen clouds hung against deep blue skies; where rainbows broke over the landscape with so much radiant beauty, where birds and bees proclaimed freedom on the wing. Think of the waiting, the hoping, the deep, unrequited longing in the breast of each imprisoned father, mother, child, or orphaned boy. And now look at the man in white, praying.
Gnade is the German word for grace, for mercy. There was a Captain Hartwig Gnade who reportedly murdered 1,600 Jewish men in one day in Lomazy, Poland, while serving in Hitler’s Police Battalion 101. He refused to order gnadenschusse (mercy-shots) for the dying wounded. I can hear countless voices begging for gnade. There is bad blood, somewhere, in my family. The German pope praying at Auschwitz settles me, comforts me, when I think of this.
An Imperfect Photo
What makes this photograph so powerful? Is it the rainbow of promise—in the background, no less!—radiating below dark clouds? Is it the expectant crowd of witnesses? Is it the pope, head lowered, the simple man in white? Or is it the barbed wire, the symbol of restraint, limitation? Is that ghastly wire fence the thorns and thistles of Adam’s accursed sin? Is it the Crown of Thorns piercing the heavens? Do the heavens bleed rainbows over our great sorrow, our great sin?
And then there are the bricks at our feet, the countless bricks no doubt made by prayerful Jews in Egypt’s bitter pits thousands of years ago; bricks of clay and stubble that heaven’s fires will one day melt down into paving stones of gold. God proves through the fires that he is the alchemist par excellence: He finds gold in everything, even bricks of sweat, soil, and tears.
But there is something else in the photo besides the hidden names, the mass graves, the faceless mass beyond our vision, or the grave Mass we know is our salvation. We may be looking at the pope absolving humanity’s sin, or at least our complicity, from beneath a thorny crown; we may be looking at the rainbow that serves as the symbol of God’s promise that he will never again regret creating us.
But there is something that maybe only I see. For I am a photographer, and there is something in this photograph that disturbs my artistic sensibilities: It is the black-clad man just over the pope’s right shoulder. He makes my camera shudder.
Had I taken this picture, I would have waited, or moved just slightly to my right, so as to hide that walking figure behind the pope. In other words, I would have tried to hide what is, to me, a very distracting element. I know who the man is: He is a papal assistant bringing an umbrella to shield the Holy Father from rain.
But I cannot accept his presence there; he makes the picture lose its impact. He is a clutter that ruins the elegance that I see, or that I want to see. In other words, the man in black ruins perfection. Is he a portent of death? Is he a reminder that even this, too, must pass? Is he a bleak reminder that Christ’s work is not yet complete? Or is he just a simple man recorded by a photographer too hasty to edit him from our view?
A little leaven leavens the whole lump, or so goes the old adage about sin. To break one commandment is to break them all. To murder Abel is to murder everyone; one little lie sets afire the whole course of nature. In short, there is no sin so small as to be harmless. And while I wish I could pass over that one little photographer’s sin in what should be a perfect picture, I find I cannot.
But it is not the photo that is imperfect, nor is it the gospel. I am imperfect. The speck in the picture is the log in my eye.
A Perfect World
I have often fancied that if God were to answer the question why he did not create a perfect world (assuming, of course, that he didn’t), he would answer with a paradox: A perfect world is an imperfect one.
It is just like God to be perfectly imperfect: He knows that we are not ready for the perfect, and that we have no idea at all what it looks like, feels like. This is not to suggest that God is imperfect; it is to suggest that we do not have a clue what perfection looks like. As a result, we have no idea what imperfection looks like, either.
How can we know? It is all a bit like saying one has felt sick all one’s life; the thing seems impossible, since one cannot know sickness without first knowing health. But in a real way, I have been sick all my life, even when I have felt perfectly well.
This is not some cheap way of arguing that God must have willed sin, death, and destruction as prerequisites for our understanding holiness, life, and integrity. That is too simplistic, and it is to miss the point. The point, of course, is that God knows what he is doing.
The problem of evil most often discussed in theology and philosophy classes, constructed around a perceived conflict between God’s goodness and his power, has always struck me as unduly myopic. For God, if he is anything, is not simply power and goodness beyond comprehension, nor is he just one of these things: God is omniscient.
And it always seems to me credible that the way an omniscient being would destroy evil is exactly the way the world is unfolding before our eyes. We shout for justice and plead for intervention, unable to see that both are here, and they look exactly like Life. God is doing a mighty thing.
It seems he knew what he was doing the day Pope Benedict XVI visited Auschwitz: when the sun and raindrops and clouds obeyed his command, when a photo-grapher crouched behind veils of barbed wire, when trees struck a perfect angle, when a man in black carried a shield to cover the brow of the pope. God has always been present at Auschwitz, warring, healing, saving, speaking. There really could be no other way.
I guarantee this: Of all the countless images you have seen in your life, this photograph is one of the few of this pope, or any pope, you will remember forever. There is something perfect there, even if it is a perfect reminder that the perfect has not yet come.
Bill Gnade works as a writer, poet, and photographer in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and son. He holds a BA in philosophy and theology from Gordon College.