In early March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 plunged into the ocean with 239 people aboard.
On April 9, 16-year-old Alex Hribal injured 21 people during a stabbing rampage at his Pennsylvania High School.
On April 16, the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 girls as part of an escalating campaign of murder and mayhem.
Also on April 16, a South Korean ferry sunk, killing over 200 people.
Over Easter weekend (April 19-20), nine people were killed and 36 wounded from shootings in Chicago.
And now . . . Now 7 are dead and 13 wounded in Isla Vista, CA after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger commenced a long-premeditated slaughter.
I’m sure there have been worse stretches, but my recent memory cannot recall a more consistently awful stream of news. Perhaps, for reasons I don't quite know, I'm simply more aware of what's happening. Regardless: Hundreds of people disappearing, hundreds more enslaved; people in normally pleasant moments struck suddenly by enormous evil. When I think of the Nigerian kidnappings or the massacre in Isla Vista, words of St. John Paul II visit my mind: “The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people.”
Like all acts of evil, these recent events lead me to wonder about God’s love and what it means. Why are some people subject to such torment and brutality? Will that sorrow and sadness visit me or my family? Am I prepared for it? Could I ever be?
Imagining moms and dads collapsed in grief and crying the night away, I think of lines from “The Layers,” a poem by Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?”
In commiserating with friends about the latest tragedies, I sense a familiar bewilderment, a bewilderment that blends into speechlessness. Questions lurk. Is there really a loving reality behind all this? Do mysterious forces hold us captive, leaving us to struggle for survival? How do we, as a believing community, respond?
For my own part, the questions multiply until they push me to some kind of brink, some kind of border, at which point I realize I have to decide: What will I choose to believe about the world? What will I take as true?
It is here, at this threshold, where I begin to realize the importance of my beliefs, where they really begin to matter, where they are not simply a worldview but the planks that build a bridge to cross a chasm. As the news stories queue up, as I field questions from my own inner skeptic, as well as from students, I begin to realize with urgency the meaning and nature of religion. Religion, religare, "to bind": what keeps me be bound, not in captivity, but in wholeness, in togetherness? What returns me to an emotional equilibrium?
Reason is magnificent, but reason alone comes up short. In the face of physical and moral evils, reason alone suggests not that this world is inherently bad, but that it’s not necessarily inherently good. Reason urges me to be suspicious, wary of my neighbor. Reason urges me to entertain limitless “what ifs,” to shun risk, to deadbolt my freedom.
But reason is only half-sufficient. If reason were our only guide, the earthly picture would be rather bleak. To move forward without trepidation, without feeling as if we are foraging, we need more than human theorizing. We need knowledge from a supernatural source. St. John Paul II is again helpful: "Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence." (Fides et Ratio, Sec. 16.)
Like the Israelites long ago, the culture that surrounds us can lead us to think the world comes not from a reality that loves but from a reality that is arbitrary or violent. Tragedy and evil can sweep away, or badly weaken, our hope, reducing us to unbelief, idolatry or other empty paths. This is why the biblical authors put down their stories, so that they and their fellow Israelites, in the wake of captivity and exile, would remember their covenant, would remember that their God—our God—would never abandon them.
Events of our time, no less than 2,700 years ago, can eclipse the memories that orient our lives, the spiritual memories that sustain us through rough times. Because of this, we, too, must cultivate a proper remembrance. We, too, must recommit to the creation story revealed first to the Israelites. God—the one, loving, personal and intelligible source of existence—has created this world, this universe, and it is good. Fundamentally good. Love, not chaos, came first.
As Catholics, we must see our own meal of remembrance, the new Passover, with new eyes. On this point, the meditation of historian Eamon Duffy has been of great help to me. Reflecting on his own spiritual trial as he grieved the death of a good friend, Duffy wrote:
All this time I had carried on going to Mass, though I didn't know what I was doing there. And it was there, in its celebration of the death of Jesus (and what an extraordinary idea the celebration of a death seemed), that I found something by which I could establish some sort of bearing on my turmoil. For as I knelt there rather numbly, week by week, it dawned on me that the Mass began from the point at which I had now arrived. Here, in a ritual grown commonplace to me by long acquaintance, there was an unblinking contemplation of all the ills of humanity. Here it was acknowledged that men and women died, often horribly, that good is defeated, that power crushes tenderness, that lies swallow up the truth. And in the face of that acknowledgement, in the face of the cross, the Mass proclaimed a celebration, an affirmation of the unquenchable life of love.
In the wake of the Boston bombings and Isla Vista, of Boko Haram and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, God's self-communication enables us to proclaim, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
God's own self-communication enables us to repeat, in the words of Psalm 139, “even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.”
Only say the word, Lord, and we shall be healed.