GOD AND DEATH, the ineffable and the irrevocable, haunt these stories as they do the more well- known novels of Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic novelist whose considerable oeuvre is steadily, if slowly, making its way into English. These 11 short stories represent two decades of Endo's work, from 1959 to 1977, and have been selected, the translator informs us, "with the aim of demonstrating the range of the author's talents in the short story form." What struck this reader, however, had more to do with "depth" than "range," for, apart from a satiric and scatological parody perched uncomfortably at the center of the volume, the stories fall easily into two categories, obliquely summarized in the translator's portmanteau title.

Endo published a collection called Elegies in 1965 and another called Eleven Stained- Glass Segments in 1979. The twin spectres of war and disease hover over the former, while in the latter contemporary experience merges with accounts of the martyrdom of early Japanese Christians. But as a composite title, Stained Glass Elegies has the merit of revealing that God and death are not so neatly divisible in Endo's universe as the original titles might suggest.

For the martyrs, death in great agony presented the ultimate trial of their belief in the Christian God. Endo's 20th-century characters -- believers, half-believers, and non-believers -- are alternately fascinated and repelled by accounts of the martyrs' suffering. "Yet he could not rid himself of the feeling that the martyrs were far removed from his own life. Only those, like them, who were strong and specially appointed could carry out such superhuman acts. They lived on a higher plane than the one where he subsisted." Ironically, the young student who makes these reflections is at that very moment standing on a former execution ground next to a despised European monk (known as "Mouse"). By the end of the story ("Fuda- no-Tsuji"), the man makes two discoveries at a class reunion years later: first, that Mouse had sacrificed his life to save another man at Dachau, and, second, that heroism flows out of love, not physical stamina, and is as uncommon in the 20th century as in the 17th: "Somewhere in this crowd . . . he thought, sitting with his Harold Lloyd face, his mud- spattered knees quivering, was Mouse."

This quest for heroism in the face of pain and death, like the quest for God, takes place in these stories in most unpromising circumstances: the tedium of hospital rooms, the depression of wartime cities, the isolation of mountain villages. Hating themselves for their lack of courage or love or both, Endo's "heroes" find consolation only in the sad- eyed creatures around them: a myna bird, a dog. But when the sorrowing eyes belong to human beings, they trouble as well as console.

In "Mothers," the most successful fusion of the era of persecution and the present, the main character, a writer, travels to a remote island to visit descendants of 17th-century Christian apostates (kakure), who have maintained their own idiosyncratic and syncretistic version of Catholicism quite distinct from that of the Roman Church. What he finds is a religion built on shame that focuses devotion on the merciful Mother of God who offers hope of winning pardon from a stern Father for their infidelity. In counterpoint to this theological theme, the writer thinks and dreams regularly on the island of his own mother. Gradually he realizes that the image he has formed of her ("with her hands joined in front of her, watching me from behind with a look of gentle sorrow in her eyes") derives not from actual memories of her but from a statue of the Mater Dolorosa she kept in their house.

WHEN, at the end of the story, he finally gains admission to a sanctuary of the kakure and sees the crude shrine with its picture of "a farm woman holding a nursing baby," he understands for the first time both his own fascination with the kakure and their place in the troubled stories of his country's dealings with Christianity: "But when the missionaries had been expelled and the churches demolished, the Japanese kakure, over the space of many years, stripped away all those parts of the religion that they could not embrace, and the teachings of God the Father were gradually replaced by a yearning after a Mother -- a yearning which lies at the very heart of Japanese religion."

All the sad eyes of these stories -- of birds and animals, of lepers and draftees -- find their origin in the sorrowing glance of the Mother, even the eyes of her son, "that Man," as Endo's alter ego, the novelist Suguro, is driven to call God in "My Belongings." This is a vision of religion, and of human life, as far away from "happy talk" theology as could be imagined. Significantly, the most positive statement in these stories (and the last) belongs to a man who has known great suffering personally. Fr. Bosch, an aging French priest imprisoned and tortured in Japan during World War II, and thus a modern analogue of the early missionary martyrs, turns aside his former students' concern for his health by saying, "I only feel pain in the winter when it is cold. When spring comes, I am fine again. That is the way it always is." If Endo's thoughts are never far from Good Friday and the Mater Dolorosa, it is comforting that -- in his more recent stories at least -- he is not unaware of Easter.