Faith does not mean professing what we hold true in a ready-made formula, it means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life, and which cannot be comprised in any formula. It means that, from the very roots of our being, we should always be prepared to live with this mystery, as one being lives with another. Real faith means the ability to endure life in the face of this mystery. - Martin Buber
We live in a world filled with horrors. Yesterday, I heard part of Hearing Voices' program, "Prisoners of War", in which Americans held by Germans in the Second World War recount their experiences. It would be impossible for anyone hearing these old men talk about their lives without being moved.
Yet, we need not move that far back to encounter the many horrors we know exist.
On January 15, 1974, a chilly winter day, 15-year-old Charlie Otero began his afternoon walk home from school. Charlie, his parents, and four siblings had recently moved into a quiet peaceful suburban neighborhood in a small frame house located at 803 North Edgemoor Street.
Charlie, happy that another school day had come to an end, walked gingerly up the side walk towards his home. As he opened the front door and walked into the living room, nothing immediately seemed out of the ordinary. "Hello, is anyone home?" he called out into the quiet house. There was no response. Not even a bark from his dog. Such quiet was unusual. With some trepidation, Charlie walked toward his parents' bedroom. A strange feeling of dread welled up inside him.
Charlie's father, Joseph, 38, was lying face down on the floor at the foot of his bed; his wrists and ankles had been bound. His mother, Julie, 34, lay on the bed bound in similar fashion, only she had been gagged. For a few seconds, Charlie could not move, he didn't know what to do. Moments later his senses came back to him and he rushed out in desperation to get help for his parents, not realizing that he had experienced only a portion of the horror that the house had in store.
A neighbor who came over to the house to help realized that when he tried to call the police, the phone lines had been severed.
As the police searched the house, they were shocked to find nine-year-old Joseph II in his bedroom face down on the floor at the foot of his bed. His wrists and ankles were also bound, the only difference being that over his head was a hood -- and according to one reporter, he had three hoods covering his head.
The worst was yet to come. Downstairs in the basement, Charlie's eleven-year-old sister, Josephine, was discovered hanging by her neck from a pipe; she was partially nude, dressed only in a sweatshirt and socks, and she had been gagged.In Syria, the Civil War has taken the turn most such conflicts take. The results are horrors that are both overwhelming and all too familiar.
According to the UN, Syrian armed and security forces have been responsible for: unlawful killing, including of children (mostly boys), medical personnel and hospital patients ("In some particularly grave instances, entire families were executed in their homes"); torture, including of children (mostly boys, sometimes to death) and hospital patients, and including sexual and psychological torture; arbitrary arrest "on a massive scale"; deployment of tanks and helicopter gunships in densely populated areas; heavy and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas; collective punishment; enforced disappearances; widescale and systematic destruction and looting of property; the systematic denial, in some areas, of food and water; and the prevention of medical treatment, including to children.:20–4:4–6:2–4:10–20 Amnesty International reported that medical personnel had also been tortured, while the UN said that medical personnel in state hospitals were sometimes complicit in the killing and torture of patients.:11 The execution and torture of children was also documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.:30:31–2Most of the serious human rights violations documented by the UN have been committed by the Syrian army and security services as part of military or search operations.:4:1 The pattern of the killing, coupled with interviews with defectors, led the UN to conclude a shoot-to-kill policy was operative.:20:10 The UN mentioned several reports of security forces killing injured victims by putting them into refrigerated cells in hospital morgues.:22Rage would seem the order of the day that such a world exists in which human beings seem both capable and free to act this way. Hate would seem the obvious response toward those who would torture and kill others. Even death at times seems far too easy, not so much a punishment but an escape from the justice those who commit such acts deserve. Were we to dwell on these and so many other stories of human brutality and violence, it would no doubt leave little inside us but bitterness, a species-wide self-hatred that would have us sneering at our fellows, knowing there is little separating the man sitting next to us on the bus or walking past us on the street from the psychopath, the soldier following orders, or just another face in the faceless mob that attacks and kills without reason or remorse.
Were we to stop here, where would we be? The odd thing, as should be obvious, is that our life is filled almost to overflowing with beauty and love, with simple acts of kindness for others, with art that rips us out of our humdrum lives and lets us glimpse behind the veil at the beating heart of the world. In our most intimate person-to-person relationships, we come to know that those who hold our lives in their hands are those with whom we cannot live fully without. We see in the eyes of our children the possibility of life, the promise that someone will be there once we're gone to dust.
When I think of "mystery", it is this coexistence of terror and beauty, of mass death and love that I remember. It should be impossible that such opposites should nest side-by-side in human life and history. Were "justice" interwoven in the fabric of existence, the momentary eternity of the glance from one's beloved, the feel of a child's arms around the neck, the awe as we look upon a work of art could never count up against the horrors of Khmer Rouge, the lived-out fantasies of the serial killer, or the day-to-day inhumanities far too many of our fellows know. Yet, somehow, they do, indeed. Perhaps those moments we experience as love and beauty, as sublime peace and hearty laughter are so fleeting precisely because, unlike the seemingly endless horrors of the POW camp and torture chamber, state-sponsored terror and mass death and dehumanization, were we to experience them fully, we could not live to tell the tale.
The Christian faith, for all it would seem to answer any question on any topic some would put to it, at the end of the day, rests easy with that we call "mystery". Not the mystery of gravity or the unanswered questions about "the good life" or which social organization best suits a fully human life. These are not so much mysteries as either questions for which we don't have answers yet but shall or questions that are inherently unanswerable and thus best ignored. In the incarnation, death, and resurrection, we have enacted the Divine Word on the mystery of existence. That it is. That it is taken up in to the Divine Life in the most personal, unique moment, as God becomes human, Creator becomes creature, and as such says, "Yes" to this most deep mystery. It is now a part of God's life, part of the way we as those named and called by this God are to live our lives. We are to live within this mystery as it is, that it is, no longer offering a "solution", but rather affirming it as it is, and declaring that it, too, is part of who God is.