It may not be only the terror and injustice that afflict so much of life which make the faith choice seem so difficult. At times it may simply be the familiar drudgery of daily living.

In the first fifteen years of her life Janina David had witnessed more horror and loss than any person should ever be expected to suffer. At the end of the Second World War, she was living alone in a small room, struggling to find her way back to life. She had resumed her education, but was finding the daily tasks of ordinary life almost impossible.

In the spring of 1945, Janina stood on the edge of her life and wondered whether she could go on.

With the first days of spring I abandoned all pretense of studying and spent my free time in the park, lying head down on the steep embankment, staring at the river. There was a place at the wildest end of the park which stuck like a ships prow between the grey fork of the fast-flowing water and where one could forget that there was a land and a town behind. Only the vast body of the river was visible from my level, grey silver or spring green, sometimes reflecting a blue patch of sky or a blinding shower of sunrays refracting on the surface. The weeping willows turned green and veiled the shores in a semi-transparent mist. The whole park was waking from its winder sleep and every day I noticed new signs of returning life in the swelling buds, glistening young leaves, in the grass sprouting underfoot and the shimmering colours of wild flowers against the tree-trunks.

Life was returning. I observed this manifestation of Nature with bitterness and suspicion. The new colours, the bird song, the fresh scent seemed a mockery of life as I knew it. Lying in the wet grass I dug out all the forbidden literary clichés and applied them to my own existence. My life – if I went on living – would be a vast, grey stretch, like this river… an unbearable prospect… with no rays of sunshine to lighten the gloom – horrid… when it rained, the sky would be weeping over all the misery in the world… and the days would roll one after another like black beads of a rosary, till this unnecessary existence ground to its long-overdue end…

(David, Janina. A Square of Sky: A wartime childhood: from ghetto to convent. London:
Eland, 1992 [orig. pub. 1994 and 1996], 408, 409.)

Most of us probably experience spring as a time of renewed hope and expectation. For Janina the return of colour and life was only cause for “bitterness and suspicion”. The beauty of nature was a mockery of almost everything she had experienced in the past six years. She could only imagine life ahead as “a vast, grey stretch, like this river… an unbearable prospect… with no rays of sunshine to lighten the gloom – horrid.”

And yet…. and yet…. The account of Janina David’s journey does not end on page 409. She concludes the story of her journey through horror writing,

The earth was soft. I lay on my back, feeling the ground yielding under me, like a warm cradle. Grass grew between my fingers and over my body; ants crawled on my legs. I watched them calmly, without a shiver of fear. They and I, all of us, we belonged to the earth. She was the only indestructible, fundamental basis of all life. She gave us life and to her we shall one day return. This was the sole certainty, the only consolation.

From the orchards, dreaming in the autumn sun, the warm wind brought a scent of ripening fruit. A scent of life returning. A scent of peace.

Janina did not die in despair and despondency. She did not give up. She did not resign herself, crushed by the horror and tragedy of life. As far as I can tell she continues to live today in England at the age of 87.


When I look at the horrors Janina David was forced to endure, I am tempted to despair of the human race. My faith falters. But, when I look at the fact that Janina survived and regained her ability to see beauty and to experience peace, in spite of all she had suffered, my faith is deeply renewed. How, without some power that is inexplicable in human terms, is it possible to begin to comprehend the resilience of the human spirit that causes people like Janina to persevere and survive against insurmountable obstacles?

The faith choice has so much to do with where we choose to look. It may be doggerel verse, but the little poem attributed to Dale Carnegie, points to profound wisdom:

Two men looked out through prison bars,
One saw mud and the other saw stars.

Yes there is great horror in the world. There is poverty, starvation, abuse, disease, suffering, violence, injustice, abuse, and terror. But every day new babies are born, new wonder and life come into the world. Every year spring follows winter; the blossoms do return. There is untold beauty that can be perceived even in the most squalid and difficult circumstances.

Faith is not a matter of measuring and quantifying; it is a matter of perspective. When I look at the wonder and mystery of life, it is impossible for me not to believe that human beings are more than a merely random collision of molecules that have fallen together by pure chance. When  I behold the endless resilience of the human spirit and the unshakeable life force that permeates all of existence, I cannot help but find my heart opening to the possibility of a transcendent realm of goodness and light at the core of all being. I do not have to hide my eyes from the horror in order to make the faith choice. I need only to open my eyes more fully to the deep realities that surround me and allow my heart to soften in the face of the richness that is life.

 

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