On Dec. 26, 2004, the world was stunned by images of death and destruction following the earthquake and tsunami in Southern Asia. In a moment’s notice, the tranquil waters of this sun-drenched region were transformed into a swirling caldron of pathos and death. Unedited pictures of helpless victims have been seared into our collective memory – infants torn from their mothers’ arms, vacationing tourists, natives, elderly, and children swept away by a fate that played no favorites. And now a second and equally devastating crisis of health and human services is looming on the horizon.
Few would judge these calamitous events to be blessings in disguise. Yet we do see blessings emerging from the rubble and ruin of destroyed lives and property. In recent days, the collective response from people and nations across the globe has been gratifying to observe. Humanitarian aid is pouring into the region from across the globe. Our own Catholic Relief Services was one of the first agencies on the scene, aided by generosity from our diocesan community. At least for a while, international differences and partisan politics are being set aside in favor of the common good. We are seeing the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins come alive – that “the just man justices; Keeps grace . . . acts in God’s eye what is God’s eye he is – Christ.
This year, the world seems smaller following the tragedy we witnessed at the close of the year. Diverse peoples and nations are standing in solidarity with one another. We feel John Dunne’s words, “no man is an island, entirely of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, part of the main . . .”
Following these events, I experienced in my own family a deeper sense that human life is precious, fragile and good. Phrases like “I love you” and “thank you” were spoken and received with depth and sincerity. There was a greater appreciation of the blessings of home, health, friendship and family.
The events of Dec. 26 also stand as a poignant reminder that I personally have taken too much for granted and have too frequently forgotten to say thanks to God for all the blessings I have received in my life and ministry.
Beneath these positive responses and developments, we are also left with haunting questions that have troubled the human family since the advent of time. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Where is God in the midst of so much misery? Does God really care about us, or are we ultimately left to fend for ourselves? What is the meaning of suffering? Each of us can add our own questions to this litany.
The late Dom Helder Camara, retired Archbishop from Brazil, once put into words what so many are feeling in our own hearts. Addressing God in prayer, Camara wrote, “By now you must have realized that your cataclysms – floods and droughts, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, earthquakes – affect the little ones most of all, whose life is already subhuman. Isn’t it bad enough for them to be crushed by diseases or human weakness? How are we to explain what comes from you?” How do we explain to believers, not even to mention skeptics and unbelievers, the problem of evil and the mystery of suffering in our world?
The New Catholic Catechism courageously acknowledges that faith is often “lived in darkness and can be put to the test.” “Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice and death seem to contradict the Good News: they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.” These troubling questions bring us to a crossroads on the journey of faith – a juncture that either carries us deeply into the mysterious ways of God, or drives us away – some to the point of decrying or denying God. Where are you?
Contemporary theologian Richard Gaillardetz offers the consoling opinion that “God is found in questions that elude answers, and in human experiences that challenge the limits of our faith.” It is precisely here, at the point where we experience human suffering personally, that we also have the opportunity to enter this mystery personally.
In the face of human suffering, the Church attempts to meet those who suffer with unthinkably Good News. In a word, the Church offers not simply a doctrine, not empty words and complex philosophies. Instead, in the face of sorrow and sadness, we offer the opportunity to encounter a living person – “with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God (RM18).”
In order to grasp the mysterious ways of God, the Church asks us to open our hearts and minds to the light of Revelation, with its power to illuminate the darkness of human suffering and death. In order to understand the “why” of human suffering, we must look to Jesus Christ, who is the living revelation of divine light and love.
The scripture has it that “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son.” (Jn.3:16) In order to help people find meaning in the face of suffering, the Church proclaims Christ crucified and raised from the dead. In Him, we begin to see the mysterious ways of God “in a mirror, dimly” (1Cor. 13:12) and begin “to walk by faith and not by sight” (2Cor. 5:7). Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful (SD31).”
In Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead after experiencing suffering and death on the Cross, death has lost its finality. WE have a Savior who is with us in the midst of our trials and tribulations. In Him, death no longer has the final say. The Bangladeshi poet Tagore writes poetically what is revealed in Scripture: “Death is not extinguishing the light. It is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
In Christ, and through His Resurrection, a new age has dawned. The darkness of struggle and human suffering has taken on new meaning through the death and resurrection of Him who shared in our suffering, became our suffering, and ultimately transformed our suffering by his death and Resurrection.
The late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross once wrote, “If we could see all things, even tragedy, as blessings in disguise, we would find the best way to nourish the soul.” Perhaps Dr. Kubler-Ross was correct. In the face of this tragedy, there are blessings in disguise awaiting us. We have before us a precious opportunity to deepen our own faith by entering prayerfully and generously into the sufferings of other people. Pray. Contemplate. Stand in solidarity. Struggle. Give. Witness. Hope.
This side of the grave, we will never understand fully the mysterious ways of God. We can say with faithful certainty that God responded to our plaintive cries in Love to us by sending us the Gift of Love. Now we are to respond in kind. “By your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the savior of the world.”
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 21, 2005.