beauty and the beast

This is where my current journey begins...

The day after I finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night I happened upon a picture of Auschwitz in a recent edition of National Geographic magazine. Wiesel’s book was a horrific account of suffering and regret during his internment in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and Auschwitz was his home for much of that time. Through his prose, Auschwitz became a surreal place to me, a place where life was denigrated, families torn apart, and faith stolen. This account of the Holocaust made real for me something that I had always thought but never really articulated: that we not only have the power to destroy ourselves, but we also have the capacity to intentionally carry out that destruction. Elie Wiesel’s words sparked my imagination to create mental pictures of that place and time. However, it wasn’t until I came across the photograph that my interest in the problems of theodicy peaked.

I sat in my office and opened the magazine to an article on modern Buddhism. As I flipped from one page to the next Auschwitz suddenly unfolded before my eyes, covering two pages. A red brick gatehouse grew from a serene field of bright green grass. Train tracks, beginning separately, melded into one as they silently worked their way through the gates. Razor wire stretched into the horizon creating a shimmering ominous net. It could have been anywhere though; nothing in that picture gave life to the idea that around one million Jews and prisoners of war died under the watchful eyes of the guards in the gatehouse. It was a threatening picture but it was also mute, telling none of the secrets that lived on the other side of that fence.

There was little silence for me though. Instead, I heard Elie Wiesel’s laments from behind the gate house. I heard him weep and cry out in anguish to God. I could imagine his face, gaunt and vacant, staring out from behind the fence. His words interpreted what I saw, darkening the green grass and filling the blue skies with thick gray ash. The clean lines and vacant tracks became dirty with soot from the haunted trains that entered full and left empty. Wiesel’s voice wasn’t the only one I heard through this picture, because Auschwitz was not alone.

A Buddhist monk sat cross-legged, meditating in the middle of the train tracks; a ghostly shadow shrouded in a black cape, blocking the tracks as he faced the horrors before him. His prominence in the picture brought back memories and childhood visions long since pushed aside. I have always been amazed by the tenacity of nature. Where I lived as a child, huge Oak trees would buckle the sidewalk as they grew and stretched their roots underneath, protesting the restrictions to life imposed by the heavy concrete. In fields long forgotten, flowers and trees grew on the husks of burnt brick buildings, reclaiming the land as their own. In the summer, kudzu, a prolific large-leafed vine would snake its way across unkempt land covering whatever stood in its tracks. To me, the solitary Buddhist grew from the tracks like a black iris blossoming in a polluted river. His presence held back those haunted trains for a moment as he meditated amidst the pain that permeates the soil. I can only guess what his meditations held, but I imagine that suffering, death and cruelty must have ventured through those moments. How could someone sit before this monument to inhumanity and not feel the voices and ghosts that permeate the heavy air? Moreover, to believe that one’s meditations or actions can affect a place is to hope that that place can be redeemed as well.

What I saw in that picture was a small attempt to reclaim the space through reflection on the horrors that we are capable of committing. The monk sat there like a single vine of kudzu creeping along the tracks, growing amidst the atrocities yet not entirely destroying the evidence. His presence, for me, was a stark contrast to Elie Wiesel’s journey within those gates.

What was created by the Holocaust are wounds that will never fully heal. But what I saw in that photograph was a stitch, a small suture that pulled together one corner of an open wound. It was something powerful that closed a miniscule segment of a gaping wound formed by an evil act perpetrated in this world. The monk’s presence to the evil, presence against the evil and cathartic response of meditation created a powerful moment of contrast that held both hope and horror captured in that photograph. For me, his presence contrasted the story and presence of Elie Wiesel created without diminishing his pain and grief.

It is through beauty – through intensely contrasting elements – that we can begin to think about the relationship between Wiesel’s work and the National Geographic photograph. These two artistic mediums, the prose of a survivor and the photograph of a visitor, provide the kind of contrast that opens the doorway to constructing new ways of working with the problem of evil as related to the traditional Christian understandings of a good and all-powerful God. Logic and proofs can only advance the relationship between these three facts (a good God, an all-powerful God, and the presence of evil) of Christian theology so far. Due to their overwhelming contrast, a purely logical proof becomes arguable, eventually leading us to pick sides, often choosing between an ever dwindling God whose power or goodness shrinks under the weight of the problem of evil, or trivializing evil and the pain and suffering of those who have experienced evil through an allegiance to some far off eschatological hope.

grace and peace



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