There is a darkness in the world. It’s always been there, since we made our first wrong step and chose ourselves over God. Most of the time, the darkness is just a shadow on our souls where sin more readily grows. Sometimes, it erupts in spasms of violence or disease and knocks us back on our heels, changing the course of our lives. And sometimes, the darkness cracks a hole in the world and breaks through in a monstrous wave of evil so overwhelming we can’t even fathom it.
And so we pray. Yesterday, we prayed for the innocent souls murdered in Newtown, because that’s what we do. We prayed at mass, in a time and space that is sacred. We prayed for healing. For understanding. For mercy.
In the evening, I had to face a room full of 14-year-olds, and I knew there were questions in their minds. I was there to lecture on Church history: a lecture that normally begins with the Ascension and Pentecost.
Last night, instead, we began where it all ends and begins again. Here:
In darkened room lit only by three Advent candles and the glow of a projector, the picture above was on the wall. It’s a horrible image, isn’t it? A detail from Grunewald’s famous Isenheim Altarpiece, showing the twisted and tormented body of one who was true man yet also true God.
It always has to begin here. Nothing makes sense without it. Until we grasp that, we will never find peace in the face of tragedy. Until we understand that people of their own freewill coldly plotted and executed the death of the incarnate God, we can never really understand what life and death mean as we travel through this vale of tears.
And even once we do understand it, it doesn’t always help. We’re human, after all. We recoil from pain and tragedy. We demand answers. We tremble in rage at the prospect of a God who seems to have turned away from us.
Good. That’s the normal response. If your first response is, “It’s God’s will” or “This is what you get when you take God out of schools” or “God doesn’t go where he’s not wanted,” then to hell with you.
First, it’s not God’s will. Evil is the absence of God, meaning this is the opposite of His will.
But God also draws good out of evil events. Sorrow is a hole in the heart, and grace rushes in to fill it. “The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway wrote, “and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places.” There is a wound in Newtown. Forty wounded parents of young children. Eighty grandparents. Hundreds more brothers, sisters, husbands, friends, cousins, teachers, pastors, school mates: each person touching so many lives. Grief rippling outward, growing exponentially, until thousands of people have a direct connection to this tragedy.
It’s worse, of course, for the parents: their souls torn, their minds wrenched. The sorrow will be unbearable at times. Some will not recover. None will ever recover completely. The scars will never fade, and they never should; neither on them, nor on us. But there will be healing, and there will be grace: the grace that we only allow to enter at the broken places.
Second, God is not “out of the schools” because bureaucrats made some rules about prayer. God was in the heart of every child in that school, and no doubt in the hearts of many of the teachers. God is where we are, and the folly of the fundamentalists (of both the atheist and Christian varieties) is to think legislation can somehow change that.
God was in my classroom last night, I can tell you that much. Teenagers who are rather bored and irritable about sitting in a room learning their catechism for 90 minutes on a Sunday were suddenly plunged into the ancient forms of mourning and remembrance that are the gift of the Church. I explained why we pray for the dead, and a very passing explanation about the nature of evil. And then, from a list projected on the wall, we read 27 names:
Charlotte Bacon, age 6
Daniel Barden, age 7
Olivia Engel, age 6
Josephine Gay, age 7
Ana M Marquez-Greene, age 6
Dylan Hockley, age 6
Madeleine F Hsu, age 6
Catherine V Hubbard, age 6
Chase Kowalski , age 7
Jesse Lewis, age 6
James Mattioli, age 6
Grace McDonnell, age 7
Emilie Parker, age 6
Jack Pinto, age 6
Noah Pozner, age 6
Caroline Previdi, age 6
Jessica Rekos, age 6
Avielle Richman, age 6
Benjamin Wheeler, age 6
Allison N Wyatt, age 6
Rachel Davino, age 29
Dawn Hochsprung, age 47
Anne Marie Murphy, age 52
Lauren Rousseau, age 30
Mary Sherlach, age 56
Victoria Soto, age 27
Nancy Lanza, age 52
We also prayed for Adam Lanza, that God may have mercy on his soul.
They were people we never knew, and now would never know. People who were–nonetheless–our brothers and sisters. Yes, I understand that we only feel particularly close to these people because the media brings them into our homes. I don’t understand why that’s a problem. People die tragically every day, unknown to us. If we can connect to their suffering and loss even by the illusion of pictures and words on a screen, then we become closer to them and, by extension, all mankind. In a world numbed by violence-as-entertainment, we need to awaken to the real thing and remind ourselves that we’re part of the something bigger. Our suffering may be minor, and theirs is certainly great, but we are all united in our pain through the nexus of the cross.
We concluded our prayer with words, ever-ancient, ever-new. We prayed to a God who is the father of a murdered son. I began with the Latin, and then they recited the English together:
Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine,
et lux perpetuae luceat eis.
Requiescant in pace.
Eternal rest, grant unto them O Lord
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.