Look Here! Of Monsters and Miracles–UPDATED

In the wake of the Colorado shooting, as is common with any tragedy or disaster, we are hearing a lot about miraculous escapes: people who should have been in Theater 9 but weren’t, people who turned this way and not that, people who listened to an inner voice telling them something was wrong, or who developed superhuman abilities to navigate toward the exits in the dark and the chaos.

In one of the many mysterious ironies of Aurora, one of the dead, aspiring sports broadcaster Jessica Ghawi, had just weeks earlier counted herself among the miraculous survivors of another mass shooting incident. Jessica and her boyfriend, a Canadian hockey player, left Toronto’s Eaton Centre Mall just minutes before gunfire rang out in the crowded food court. Ghawi posted a description of that escape on her blog, quoted here by CTV News:

“I was on a mission to eat sushi that day, and when I’m on a mission, nothing will deter me. When I arrived at the Eaton Center mall, I walked down to the food court and spotted a sushi restaurant,” Ghawi wrote.

“Instead of walking in, sitting down and enjoying sushi, I changed my mind, which is very unlike me, and decided that a greasy burger and poutine would do the trick.

“I rushed through my dinner. I found out after seeing a map of the scene, that minutes later a man was standing in the same spot I just ate at and opened fire in the food court full of people. Had I had sushi, I would’ve been in the same place where one of the victims was found.”

Some would call these inexplicable deliveries twists of fate or mere chance. People of faith, though, tend to use the word miracle—implying a divine intervention into human action. This attribution usually includes a sense of some meaning or mission in the deliverance: I have been saved for a reason.

Miracles are on my mind this week, as I’m preparing to contribute to a Patheos Book Club discussion on Tim Stafford’s book Miracles: A Journalist Looks at Modern-Day Experiences of God’s Power. I’ll post my reflections on the book soon, but right now I am struck by the many questions that applying the notion of miracles to a tragedy like Aurora raises. If the survivals were miraculous—wonders worked by divine action—what were the deaths and the grievous injuries? If Jessica Ghawi’s Eaton Centre escape was a miracle, what was the reason she was saved from one gunman, only to fall victim to another weeks later? If God was working miracles just after midnight last Friday, why on earth did he not snatch 6-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan, she of the heart-stoppingly joyful gap-toothed grin, from the gunman’s path? Veronica’s mother, Ashley, is pregnant and was seriously injured. When Ashley’s brother learned that the unborn child would survive, he told reporters, “It’s a miracle!”

We ask these questions about the meaning of miracles even when we know they’re entirely the wrong questions. (And never more wrongly asked than by NBC’s Tragedy Queen Ann Curry, who, in a Dateline interview with a survivor on Friday night, asked, with her patented sympathetic murmur, “What would you like to say to the families of those who weren’t as lucky as you?” I’m not sure what she was expecting—I’m sorry I’m alive? God must like me more than your child? Bummer, dude?—but what she got was stunned silence followed by tears, the only genuine answer to such foolishness.)

To get closer to the questions we should be asking, we need to look at another word used in connection with Aurora and other tragedies like it, this time to describe not the survivors but the perpetrator: monster. “Don’t say his name,” one of the survivors insisted after the suspect was publicly identified. “He’s not a person. He’s a monster.” Certainly, all the descriptions of the shooting call up the worst monster stories our collective unconscious holds: a masked, hulking creature emerging from the fog to deal out death and madness. The boogie man, not under the bad or in the closet but out in the world, in public, in front of parents helpless to save. A horror movie, off the screen. The dark night, rising.

What strikes me, today, is that the words miracle and monster are cognates. Miracle is rooted in the Latin verb “to look,” monster (like the words demonstrate and monstrance) in the Latin “to show forth,” with a secondary sense of “to warn.” (The first use of the word monster was to describe what circus sideshows called freaks, humans born disfigured or visibly disabled, whose deformities were considered a message from the gods.) Both monsters and miracles shout “Look here! Pay attention!” Both miracles and monsters are signs and wonders.

To what do Aurora’s monster and miracles call our attention? What do they signify, and what do they make us wonder? What questions do they beg?

The individual questions and answers will differ for each of us, as we sit down with these events in the silence of our hearts and in prayerful contemplation. The societal questions are only now beginning (or picking up again, as the interval of forgetting between tragedies shrinks), but certainly we must ask—and not be afraid to answer—questions about the consequences of living in and promoting a culture pervaded with violence and death. (Msgr Charles Pope gets those questions started here.)

We must ask—and not be afraid of sounding judgmental, or of blaming the victims—questions about what constitutes mature family relationships and wise parenting. (CNN collects parents’ excuses for bringing babies to midnight movies here, complete with prohibitions of judginess. Someone needs to ask, though, whether what we had in Aurora on Friday morning was the new normal in family bonding, or just possibly some parents’ inability to delay the gratification of being first to see a movie. Someone needs to ask why a young woman would accept a marriage proposal from the father of her 4-month-old baby just hours after he abandoned her, their baby, and her 6-year-old daughter to get himself to safety. Or is that too judgy, too?)

We must ask, I think, questions not only about the easy availability of guns and ammunition, but also about the loaded guns living next door, the proliferating numbers of stereotypically bright, quiet, seething, angry loners whose inner emptiness makes a cushy nest for Evil. They are not just FBI profiles or tragic anomalies. They are the neighbors Christ asks us about. They are disturbed, profoundly, but the society that incubates them is even more profoundly disturbed. That the stigma of mental illness still moves family members to protect and excuse and deny the sickness in their midst out of shame is the biggest shame of all. Culpability—mental and moral capacity for committing this heinous crime—will be the subject of much investigation and testing of the Aurora suspect in the coming weeks, but we need to be asking ourselves If this turns out to be illness, how does it get this far? St Dymphna, pray for us as we seek answers that are candid and compassionate.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Not looking for meaning in the individual miracles or warning in the individual monster, but turning to the Source of All Meaning in humility, and heeding the alarm bells already going off to which we let ourselves grow deaf. Not answering our questions, but listening to those God asks us in signs and wonders. Not succumbing to the dark night rising, but allowing ourselves to be illuminated by the One who is the Rising Dawn.

Dawn—which, in Latin, in one last significant etymological reflection, is Aurora.


Update: Elizabeth Scalia and I are thinking alike this morning (again). Here’s her reflection on the emptiness of the monster, and the need to pray for dawn. Forgive the circular linking.


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  • Elizabeth Scalia

    ‘That the stigma of mental illness still moves family members to protect and excuse and deny the sickness in their midst out of shame is the biggest shame of all. ”

    I keep thinking of the report of his mother, saying, “you have the right person…”

  • http://www.withouthavingseen.com Ryan Haber

    Thanks. Well said.

    I do think it is important to say his name, though. James Holmes is a man, a human. He must be dealt with as such – crazy or evil might not be discernible or relevant – but human is.

    We must not forget that James Holmes is a human being. We are made of the same stuff as he.

    • http://fromthepulpitofmylife.blogspot.com/ Ruth Ann Pilney

      I was thinking that, too. And I remembered an old saying that was oft repeated in my childhood, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

    • Melody

      “We must not forget that James Holmes is a human being. We are made of the same stuff as he.”
      Of course you’re right. Solzshenitsyn is quoted as saying “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I think it is appropriate to pray for him without in any way excusing his acts or his responsibility for them.

  • John

    It seems he bought all that legally… indeed it’s not uncommon for someone who has a shotgun to also buy a hunting rifle and/or a pistol. Nor is it uncommon for someone who buys a weapon to also buy ammo in bulk as you have to practice if you want to hunt with them (it’s not like the movies…most of the time you’ll miss the bulls eye). So as far as it goes, no law was broken and no law could be designed for this type of killer; he had no mental illness or criminal record.

    What of the hi-cap drum magazine? That probably saved lives because it jammed (as is a common bug to such hi-cap mags….and why the US military doesn’t use drum magazines for M-16s). Unfortunately the shotgun and handgun did not jam. He was shooting 00 buck (so each shell had 7 to 9 .32 caliber balls in it…. meaning at a distance of 100 ft they may spread out enough to hit several people.)

    Now he didn’t have a concealed carry permit that we know of – so he did break that law. But since no one else broke the law by packing heat, he had an unfair advantage. Had someone shot back it’s likely he’d not have had the time to do as much harm as he did. Ditto with the other school killers who broke the law but had a monopoly of firepower doing it.

    Gun control laws only disarm those disposed to obey laws. The wild west (when everyone were armed) wasn’t a blood bath. Indeed the shootout at the OK corral was noteworthy because most towns DIDN’T have regular massacres and mass shootings.

  • Melody

    Great writing about the mystery of miracles. I love what you said , “…not answering our questions, but listening to those God asks us in signs and wonders. Not succumbing to the dark night rising, but allowing ourselves to be illuminated by the One who is the Rising Dawn.”
    I’m going to have to re-read “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”; my mother always used to tell me to read it when I was obsessing about the questions of why some people die and others are spared. I don’t recall that I ever read it all the way through, but this sentence at the end was a keeper : “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
    I do think the discussions about whether or not the people who took their children to this movie are bad parents are a rabbit hole which distract from the main issues. It doesn’t matter if it happened at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight; it could just as easily have been a Saturday matinee of Alvin and the Chipmunks. The bottom line is that nobody expects to be dodging bullets in a movie theater.

  • Mizz E

    Melody’s comment referencing Thornton Wilder’s book, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, sent me to find the celebrated opening sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

    The Friday midnight shooting in Aurora occurred on July the twentieth.

  • Cathy

    This is so beautifully written, and so full of grace — thank you. It’s a quibble to say that I’m with Melody on the subject of the parenting judgments, but I am, and I can’t quite figure out why. I think it’s the fact that there’s simply no connection between the misdemeanor and the punishment; they’re disproportioned in every way, and to use this as a moment to talk about the wisdom of taking little kids to late-night movies feels like missing the point at best and cruelty at worst. I do think that taking kids to a movie at midnight is a bad choice, but it isn’t a choice that can be construed as contributing in any meaningful or necessary way to the horror of what happened that night. It’s a bad choice for which the natural consequence is having an overtired, cranky baby, or a hyperstimulated, nightmare-plagued schoolkid, not a dead child. To me, it’s as if someone opened fire on a store that sells trashy, provocative clothing for tweens, and killed a six-year-old girl there shopping with her mom. Now, I think six year olds shouldn’t wear trashy, provocative clothing, and that their moms shouldn’t allow or encourage them to do so, but I wouldn’t use that event as an occasion to spread that message, mainly because “you might get shot” isn’t the reason why I think that, nor should it be something those who do allow those clothes ought to fear for their children. Does that make sense?

    I actually *do* think this is an appropriate occasion to talk about hyper-violent pop culture, because there I do see a meaningful (if complex and indirect) link to this tragedy. But maintaining good sleep hygiene, or even parenting in a way that puts kids’ needs first: these are good, important issues that just aren’t what this tragedy — its miracles or its monster — is about.

    Anyway, a quibble; your overall point is wonderfully wise and I so hope we all manage to take it.

    • joannemcportland

      I never meant to imply that taking children to a midnight showing of a violent movie is wrong because it might result in those children becoming victims of random violence. Of course not. Random violence is precisely that, and we can neither prepare for it nor eliminate it entirely from our lives.

      I meant to suggest that, in the light of this incident, we might want to ask questions about how we parent: to think hard about putting the welfare of children before parents’ needs to gratify whims (no one NEEDS to be at the first midnight showing of a movie so badly that children must be brought along because no other caretaker is available), or some vague idea of family togetherness that means children are like wardrobe accessories, with us everywhere, or parents’ inability to deny children anything (“She LOVES Batman! She wanted to be there!”).

      I am not blaming the parents whose children were injured or killed. I am just asking whether, under any circumstances whatsoever, children aren’t better off in their own beds at midnight.

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