“Night” is a book by Elie Wiesel about his experience in the German concentration camps. “One day,” writes Wiesel, “as we returned from work, we saw three gallows… The SS [guards] seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows… ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over… Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive… The child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death… Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer; ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…’”

Where is God when a child is shot in Newtown or hung in Auschwitz or killed in an American drone air strike or for that matter dies of cancer? I don’t know. There is no answer.

Talk of God giving humans free will and thus allowing us to face the consequences of our choices solves nothing. If the creator could intervene personally when it came to the magic tricks in the Bible like making the sun stand still for a day in a battle, he could have done something about that child gasping out his young life. He didn’t. Theology that tries to paper this horrible fact over with explanations about why there is evil is nothing but nervous blather.

But I take comfort in the fact that sometimes a person of immense courage follows Christ to a cross. Such acts point to a God that had the empathy to share our fate. Sometimes one person’s example gives me hope that following Christ might be the path that leads us out of the hell we’ve made, even if I’ll never know why we’re here in the first place, let alone why God didn’t just make things simpler, better, faster rather than taking the slow path of gradual ethical evolution.

Mother Maria’s life makes her someone for me to look to for guidance as to how to redeem the irredeemable. “Mother Maria of Paris is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God.” So wrote British intellectual and Orthodox bishop Harold Bloom. Born to a prominent Russian Orthodox family, Mother Maria (then known as Elizaveta Pilenko), renounced her religious beliefs at age fourteen when her father died. She later became a committed atheist and Bolshevik. In 1910 she married and was actively involved in literary and revolutionary circles. By 1913 her marriage ended in a divorce. When the anti-communist White Army took control of the town she was in they put her on trial as a communist. The judge was a former teacher of hers and Mother Maria was acquitted. The two fell in love and were married. Mother Maria and her husband fled Soviet Russia and arrived in Paris in 1923. By then Mother Maria was involved in both theological studies and carrying on social work amongst impoverished Russian exiles. Her second marriage also dissolved.

Mother Maria began her journey back to Christianity because, as she would later explain, “Christ also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face.” After getting to Paris, her Orthodox bishop – aware of her work on behalf of the poor and her failed marriages — encouraged her to take vows as a nun, something she did only with the bishop’s promise that she would not have to live in a monastery. In 1932, Mother Maria took the monastic Christian name Maria and made her rented house in Paris into a place that became a hybrid of commune/homeless shelter/intellectual/theological salon and a food pantry rolled into one. As Jerry Ryan wrote (in a review of Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings), “Many were scandalized by Mother Maria. This woman had been twice divorced, had an illegitimate child by another man, had leftist political sympathies and was an eccentric. At her becoming a nun she took the name of Maria in memory of St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who became an extreme crazed ascetic.” Mother Maria continued to scandalize. Her habit was filthy with grease from the kitchen and paint from her workshop. She would hang out at bars and had no patience with long Orthodox liturgies, and found strict ascetic fasts impossible to keep.

As Olivier Clement writes in the preface to Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, “If we love and venerate Mother Maria it is not in spite of her disorder, her strange views and her passion. It is precisely these qualities that make her so extraordinarily alive among so many bland and pious saints. Unattractive and dirty, strong, thick and sturdy, yes, she was truly alive in her suffering, her compassion, her passion.”
Mother Maria wrote, “In our time Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit demand the whole person. The only difference from state mobilization is that the state enforces mobilization [to care for people], while our faith waits for volunteers. And, in my view, the destiny of mankind depends on whether these volunteers exist and, if they do, how great their energy is, how ready they are for sacrifice.”

Mother Maria dismissed people like me who are preoccupied with our spiritual life and so-called personal relationship with God. She said that my sort of spiritual narcissism must be abandoned if one truly loves. Christian egocentrism is a contradiction in terms, she said. In her essay called “Types of Religious Life” Mother Maria denounced the church’s institutional structures, rituals, even esthetic beauties, as dead ends. Mother Maria also dismissed “trends of social Christianity … based on a certain rationalistic humanism [that] apply only the principles of Christian morality to ‘this world’ and do not seek a spiritual and mystical basis for their constructions.”

After the fall of France to the Germans, when the order from the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy French government requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was published, Mother Maria wrote this poem entitled “Israel.”

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

Jews began coming to Mother Maria begging for Christian baptismal certificates in order to escape deportation. To help them was to risk death. Risk notwithstanding, Mother Maria took in Jews and gave them forged documents declaring that they were non-Jews. Soon her house was literally bursting at the seams. Mother Maria once remarked, “It is amazing that the Germans haven’t pounced on us yet.” She also said that if anyone came looking for Jews she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.

The children’s book, Silent as a Stone, St. Maria of Paris and the Trash Can Rescue, tells the story of Mother Maria’s rescue of Jewish children. Her home was near the cycling stadium of Vélodrome d’Hiver where the Jews were held on their way to deportation. The book is based on firsthand accounts of what Mother Maria was able to accomplish during her visits to that stadium in the terrifying days of June 1942. As those who had been rounded up awaited transport to the camps, Mother Maria used her status as a nun to bring food to those waiting for transport and then smuggled some of their children out of the stadium in trashcans. This was taking place while Mother Maria continued to help the Jews who managed to come to her house to escape.

On February 8, 1943 the Germans “pounced” at last. They arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, her priest Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia Fondaminski. Father Dmitri was interrogated by Hans Hoffman, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been preserved, as transcribed by the ever meticulous Nazis.

Hoffman: “If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?”

Father Dimitri: “I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.”
(Hoffman struck the priest across the face.)

Hoffman: “Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty?”

Father Dimitri: (holding up the crucifix from his cassock): “Do you know this Jew?”

Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Prisoners who survived have shared some of their memories of their time with her: “She exercised an enormous influence on us all,” wrote one survivor after the war, “No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions — this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.”

On Easter Saturday, 1945, Mother Maria took the place of a terrified woman who was about to be sent to the gas chamber. She died in her place. Another account makes no mention of Mother Maria taking anyone’s place that day. Either way she was sent into the gas chamber. Irrespective of what happened in those final moments Mother Maria was a martyr who died because she had saved others.

Christ’s suffering cuts a door in the wall of our mortal prison. Those who emulate Christ’s compassion to the point of death point us past death to life. Just because we can’t explain the mystery of our joy in the midst of such a short mortal life doesn’t mean that joy is an illusion. I say the Nicaean creed in our Orthodox church. I say the words “I believe” this and that. I say these words in good conscience because saying I believe is not the same as saying I know. I don’t. Words fall short. I don’t know what words such as “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” mean. Then again I don’t know what the words “I love you Genie” mean either when I tell my wife of 43 years together the truth. I say those words with all sincerity but also in ignorance of their ultimate truth. Those words too are only metaphors for something that is indescribable. What I know is that I have seen Genie forgive me. What I know is that my heart beats faster when we’re making love and I look into the mystery of Genie’s face that’s literally ever young to me. Logic tells me that my wife is actually sixty. How can both facts, Genie being ever young to me yet also aging both be true?

The point isn’t what does the actual historic Genie Schaeffer really look like at any one point in her life but the deeper meaning of the power of love and how it transforms her in the eyes of her lover. The truth about how I see Genie is as real as any scientific measurements a dermatologist might take while preparing to do fractional resurfacing to lessen the effects of sun damage. Both truths – the dermatologists’ and mine — are equally real. Genie is actually ever young to me. She’s also actually sixty. The dermatologist has his science to prove a point about the aging of Genie’s skin. I have the truth of a forty-three year love affair to offer her as an equally valid fact.

Certain expressions of beauty seem to have prophetically pre-existed their creators just as love seems to pre-exist consciousness. It’s as impossible for me to imagine a world without my wife Genie’s love or without the music of Bach, Mozart or Duke Ellington as it is to picture life evolving without water. It’s as impossible for me to imagine that life would be worth living if it were not for the example of mother Maria and people like her. What we’re all waiting for in this sick irony bound society of ours is an expression of spiritual value that fits with evolutions’ key directive: become conscious and use that consciousness to embrace meaning, truth, beauty, love and goodness.

When we lose hope we’re seeing everything, as it were, from the “dermatologist’s” point of view and not through the eyes of love. Christ’s death and resurrection – however we interpret those words – is a means of freeing us from the anguish over our eternal survival. Our desire for some sort of guarantee of eternal life and fundamentalist “descriptions” of heaven are self-defeating. It is putting faith in our imagination rather than in God’s. This is the same mistake we make looking to physical and literal remedies to stop the aging process. If Genie was fixated on the literal aging process, she’d be more in the grip of mortality than ever, not less. The best and truest remedy is found in my eyes not in a dermatologist’s science. The best hope for eternal life is not theology but the love we feel for others. Our hope is that love predates creation and thus that our God sees us as ever young.

Join me and many others at the Wild Goose Festival this August!

If I Was Still an Evangelical, I’d Want to Be Tony Kriz (Blessed be Tony!)
This Christmas Give one of my Paintings
The Best Talk I Gave
Pro-Lifer Ready For Killing Kids for Religious Liberty and Jesus (Seriously)
About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • Nick Gotts

    Theology that tries to paper this horrible fact over with explanations about why there is evil is nothing but nervous blather.
    But I take comfort in the fact that sometimes a person of immense
    courage follows Christ to a cross. Such acts point to a God that had the
    empathy to share our fate.

    No, they don’t; they show that some people are amazingly unselfish. That’s it.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    What I am coming to believe is that it has always been God’s intention that we live as independent beings able to chart our own course and take responsibility for ourselves not just as individuals but as a human race. And as such, those who suffer really are like Christ in that their suffering is an indictment and a call for us to repent of what we are doing to each other. I think that instead of saying, “where is God?”, the real question ought to be, “how much more suffering do we have to witness before we turn away from our destructive ways?” Ultimately this whole human experience has always been ours to play. When we own that, not all suffering will end, of course, but I think then we will find ourselves on God’s side rather than demanding that he get on our side and set thing right.

    Kind of odd, but related I think:

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi Rebecca, good point and thanks for reading my article, but turning away from our destructive ways is only part of the question, ever seen an animal killed? Fear, pain, death, suffering are built into our evolution and also into the life of all creatures on our planet, tough to let God off the hook just because of bad human choices…

      • Rebecca Trotter

        True. I was typing on a kindle screen keyboard which is a massive pain, so I didn’t want to get into it and just put a link up instead. I have come to the conclusion that the idea that the world was perfect before the fall – or that God ever intended the world to be perfect – is nothing more than an immature fairy tale. God said the world he created was good. And it is good – even with flesh eating bacteria and predator and prey and all the rest. I think that life was always meant to include challenges and even suffering and pain. In fact, I would go so far as to say there was probably always going to be conflict and even some level of violence – look at various primates who go to war against other groups. So, I do think that by creating us, God was condemning us to some level of suffering, no matter what.

        What I have come to believe is that life can best be understood as something like a game. And every game has challenges, setbacks, etc. It wouldn’t be much of a game if it didn’t. In the post I link to, I say that it’s like God put us into the game to play at a level which was challenging, but a good match for our abilities. When we ate the fruit (I’m not a literalist at all, but think these are important stories, nonetheless) it was like advancing to the highest level of game play all of a sudden. And we just weren’t ready for it. We didn’t have enough understanding or knowledge and in the struggle have created immeasurably more suffering for ourselves.

        Please understand that I don’t mean to blithely let God off the hook or minimize suffering as unimportant. I only speak of these things as someone who has known really, really intense suffering myself. But part of having had that experience is realizing that we are stronger than we think. I’ve been traumatized, defeated and utterly without hope. And I don’t think anyone could have gone through my life any better than I have, so it’s not that if only I had a better attitude or made better choices or whatever, it wouldn’t have been so bad. I did the best anyone could and it has still be awful. But as often as I’ve said, “I can’t do this anymore!”, the reality is that the sun kept rising and setting, I kept sucking air and suffering wasn’t the final word. Nor was it the most important aspect of my life. So I guess I’ve gotten to a point of accepting suffering as a part of this good world and life God has given to us. (It’s been a process – any Christian with a serious faith life is going to have to forgive God at some point. Anyone who never struggles with anger at God for the way things are down here is either in serious denial or has a paper-thin faith life.)

        So anyways, I think that we have a real responsibility to stop doing things which increase our suffering. But I also think that we have a responsibility to work out how to ease suffering created by what theologians call natural evil. Really, I think that’s one of the objects of the game itself. So many people are waiting for God to come and hand us peace, health and abundance. But God has given us the materials we need to create these things – we just have to work them out. Consider that God made reeds and wood and metal, but it was our job to take those materials and make musical instruments. God made a world where smallpox evolved and we figured out how to get rid of it. God made a world with seas and we figured out how to cross them. You’ve probably never noticed it, but in the book of Job (chapter 39), when God speaks and lists off the animals, each animal he mentions is one which humans were able to domesticate for their own purposes. He’s not just telling Job off, he’s actually pointing to our power. We take what God has provided and bend to to our own purposes because we actually are more able than we feel like we are in the pit of suffering. (Believe it or not, God’s response to Job is actually one of empowerment: Yes, there is loss on the way. But really, what is death but returning to God? We’re OK. We really are.

        • Victor

          Well said Rebecca and I would go as far as to say that this game of u>s (usual sinners) involves angels whom GOD (Good Old Dad) created first before HE created us in His Own image and long story short, every “ONE” of our human spiritual and reality godly cells are in this game and longer story short, we of God’s children cells will succeed in the long run with each others help and if in the short run only “ONE” of GOD’s cells make “IT” to GOD’s Kingdom, we will have won the race sort of speak. :)

  • Lars

    Where is God? You’re right, there is no good answer. Perhaps He exists only in our imaginations. It would seem that nearly every society we know of has imagined a God or gods to explain the unexplainable. We have many wonderful and not so wonderful stories about how these gods have interacted in human affairs, inspiring hope, worship, and fear. We are curious, creative storytellers and have a long history of inventing beings greater than ourselves to do the things we cannot (protect, heal, avenge, etc.). But, however empathic that God may be, He only seems to show up in stories and is unable or unwilling to intervene in the present. As Mother Maria so beautifully illustrates, that intervention is up to us. We create the world we wish to pass on to our children and that maddeningly “gradual ethical evolution” is the process by which that happens. Do we follow Christ’s example because He offers the hope of eternal life or because that is how we should treat our fellow humans? And what if there were no eternal life in heaven for us, no eternal conscious torment in hell for our enemies? Would we still be as interested in His example? I’m not always confident in our motivations.

    If God can intervene and doesn’t, I have a hard time seeing that as a loving response. If my child uses his free will to play in the street, I will lovingly intervene if I’m able. I’m not going to look out the window and curse his free will or expect God to hold up traffic. But I also know that, unlike God (presumably), I will not always be there to protect him and that his free will, or someone else’s, might someday cost him his life. That is just the sad part of reality and has been since the dawn of consciousness. It will not diminish my ability to love him or the joy he has given me.

    While extremely grateful for examples of human goodness like Mother Maria, I hope we continue to ethically evolve so that we no longer need to have examples like her and Hitler. Thanks for this well-written and provocative post!

    • Kerry

      Yes as I read the piece, and your response, Lars, I was reminded of that “Saint Mother Teresa.” I say that knowing there has been much controversy about her life, particularly from Hitchens. It seems that she believe people must suffer, and so denying her patients simple available medicine or procedures, she “nursed” them to their early graves.

      It is apparent that if there were no god, then what happens is exactly what you would expect to happen if there was no god. I have a family member who is very sick from cancer. Prayers continually rise to heaven on his behalf, but doctors are very much a part of his everyday life. Should he live, god will get the credit, not the doctor’s. Should he die, god will get the credit, and should he linger, as he has, god again gets the benefit of the doubt. This is a no-lose proposition for the almighty. It, in my opinion is pathetic reasoning.

      • Lars

        I have, so far, been spared a family member dealing with cancer. Recently, however, I have very religious (Christian) acquaintances who have not been as fortunate. In both cases the victims were young, there were many, many prayers on their behalf, and both succumbed within a year of diagnosis. The bittersweet reality was the hope that God would hear and grant them a miraculous healing and that He was in control as much or more so than the doctors. When the miracles didn’t happen, there was relief that their suffering was finally over, they were now in the arms of God, and that everyone couldn’t wait to see them again in heaven. How is that a bad thing?? In the same situation, would I, an agnostic, not do the same thing, just in case? Is God a necessary coping device to deal with something so tragic?

        Like you said, He got every bit of the credit if there was a good report but never any blame (and if you are a true believer, can it be otherwise?). I do wonder, rather cynically, if things had gone differently, how much credit God would have received vs their doctors. Yet, how does one deal with losing a child who has suffered so much pain and a child that had hoped for the same miracle as everyone else? How does a child, who also prays, process this continuing non-answer? How do the parents, the relatives, the friends? That is a staggering amount of unassailable, if not misplaced, faith.

        I do have an older friend who is not religious as far as I can tell and was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer (despite being a non-smoker) almost two years ago. After many rounds of chemo and radiation, the cancer has been eliminated and she is back at work full-time. Of course, there could be a re-occurrence at any time but she is one of the fortunate ones so far and has given the credit to her doctors. Had she been religious though, this would have been seen as a miracle, evidence of God’s existence, and that, yes, He does answer prayer.

        Where is God? Wherever you need Him to be, I suppose.

  • Rona Sine

    Believing in God though you haven’t seen Him is what you call faith. Our faith makes God exist.

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  • maughold

    poignant, maddening, beautifully raw. thank you.

    one question – in the first paragraph about St Maria, did you mean Orthodox bishop (Metropolitan) Anthony Bloom rather than Harold Bloom?

  • bdlaacmm

    I certainly agree with that anonymous voice in the death camp: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…” And that is where we will always find Him – amongst the poor, the defeated, the scorned and spat upon, the oppressed everywhere. No mystery why our back alleys and inner cities are filled with the praise of God from rude storefront “missions”, whilst our suburbs and shopping malls are cathedrals of nihilism and despair.
    “He has filled the poor with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

  • Rt Mishra

    good read, when you really question your self where is he?