The survival of faith in the face of the desperate atrocities so often perpetrated by human beings is a deep and intractable mystery.

Surviving in Russian and Nazi occupied Poland during the Second World War, Irene Gut experienced unimaginable horrors.

In July 1942 Irene and her sister Janina watched in horror from the window of an abandoned house as the Jews of the Lvov Ghetto were rounded up and sent to be executed. She describes the scene in her memoir, In My Hands:

The gates were dragged open, and the Jewish prisoners were forced out through a gauntlet, while the guards beat at them with their rifle butts. An old man, tottering with a cane, was not fast enough, and a guard shot him on the spot. In vain, women tried to protect their small children from blows, men tried to shield their old fathers. But every time someone stumbled and fell under the beatings, shots rang out. The street was paved with bodies, and still the Jews were forced to march out over them.

We watched this from our windows in a paralysis of horror. We could do nothing but watch. We could not even pull back from the glass to keep hidden. And old rabbi carrying the Torah stopped to help a young woman with a shrieking toddler, and all three were shot. A graybeard in a faded uniform of the Polish army from the last war limped past the guards, and he, too, was not fast enough. The sun shone down on all of them, and the dust settled in pools of blood.

…. I watched, flattening myself against the window. As I pressed against the glass, I saw an officer make a flinging movement with his arm, and something rose up into the sky like a fat bird. With his other hand he aimed his pistol, and the bird plummeted to the ground beside its screaming mother, and the officer shot the mother too.

But it was not a bird. It was not a bird. It was not a bird. (Opdyke, Irene Gut. In My Hands: Memoirs Of A Holocaust Rescuer. with Jennifer Armstrong. NY: Anchor Books, 1999, 104.)

One year later, this time in Ternopol in western Ukraine, Gut again witnessed a Nazi roundup of Jews. This time it seemed to be too much and her faith gave way:

Two more trucks drove away. I tried to pray, but the words in my head did not fit together in the right order. I wanted to say ‘Holy Father,’ but I could not. I thought He must have gone far away, taking His name with Him.  147

Certainly, many people going through similar circumstances abandoned any hope at all in a power of goodness beyond themselves. Who could blame anyone having experienced the atrocities Irene experienced, for being unable to find the “name” of beauty, love, grace, truth, and light in her heart. And yet, roughly six months later, having safely returned from secretly delivering seven Jews to join the partisans in the forests outside Ternopol, Irene remembers reflecting

Once again, God was watching out for me, and I returned in safety. 200

Is this merely pious delusion? Was the thought of living with the emptiness of a God who had “gone far away, taking His name with Him,” simply too painful? Was the dark reality that her circumstances should have made unavoidable just too threatening to acknowledge?

What could possibly have caused Irene to trust in the power of goodness, beauty, light, and love despite all she had seen and the violence inflicted upon her?

Why does pain cause one heart to turn bitter and hopeless while the same experience causes another heart to open to a deeper awareness of light and love?

It is a deep mystery why for some faith is born in the midst of pain while for others faith dies in the dark land of suffering. It is simply a fact that faced with horror and hatred some people find they are consumed by the darkness, while others remain able to perceive beauty and light.

Like all mysteries, the mystery of faith has no tidy answer. I can only acknowledge this enigma and seek to embrace with grace and compassion the diversity of human experience.

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