Friday, December 30, 2005

What do good people do when bad things happen?

An anonymous post in an earlier PGR collection of photos from St. Louise de Marillac Church in Arabi (St. Bernard Parish), in addition to the tragic reports I'm hearing and reading of suicides caused by the despair Hurricane Katrina has created -- and which our government has allowed -- prompts me now to post this reflection printed in an October Clarion Herald. It was composed by a Catholic priest of whom I am not very fond because he has allowed his orthodoxy and conservatism to narrow his understanding and compassion, nevertheless, he found the right words and tone here -- and I don't think you have to be Catholic (I'm not) to find your own meaning in the message:

To borrow a line: These are the times that try our souls. Times are especially trying for those who believe in an all-powerful, loving and knowing God. Faith is not only tested but also stretched to its limits. The usual pious bromides offer little relief. We want our faith to offer understanding in the face of the mystery of this physical evil.

First of all Catholic theology is faith seeking understanding. However, faith does not become reduced to a pure intellectual explanation. Neither does understanding give way to a pure faith devoid of reason. Faith and reason together offer us some insight into the mysteries, of which evil is one, of human existence.

Second, the mystery of physical evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery that unfolds. If we approach Katrina as a problem we will continue to demand answers to all our questions. The main question that torments us is “why”? Honesty requires that we honestly say there is no good, satisfying answer as to why bad things happen to good people. Katrina is not a problem but a mystery. This does not mean that we cease questioning and stop the search for understanding. Rather, when we say that Katrina is a mystery to unfold this prompts us to ask a different question. We do not ask the “why” question (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”) but we ask the “what” question. Specifically, we ask: “What do good people do when bad things happen?”

This crucial shift in questions is the beginning of a peace that flows from action and solidarity. If we re-main fixed in the “why” question, we become paralyzed and incapable of action. We play endless mind games. We are forever victims of bad luck, fate or a God who is powerless or indifferent to our plight. Doubt and confusion give way to anger, depression and despair.

If we can refocus to the “what” question – what do good people do when bad things happen? – we begin to break the chains of fear and victimhood. We are liberated to act in response to God’s grace. Grace builds on nature. We are also liberated to be for others. A sense of solidarity overcomes the isolation that reduces the universe to the puny self. We are drawn out of ourselves. We become other-remembering and self-forget-ting. This dynamic brings us back to the heart of the Gospel: It is in dying to ourselves that we truly find God and ourselves. Of course, this sounds strange to the ears of a culture at-tuned to looking out for No. 1 and the need for self-promotion.

Let us return: What do good people do when bad things happen? Good people are not overcome. We strive to higher levels of service, generosity, heroism and valor. We do not give in to the pettiness and smallness of spirit that prevents us from reaching out to others. We are not frozen by fear and locked into a self-pity that keeps us from keeping on with life.

Hurricane Katrina has taught us many lessons about what really matters. We have come to see how fragile is life. So quickly can all of our material possessions and well-tested routines be swept aside. Things that seem so solid have evaporated into air and been washed away in the fury of rushing waters.

We also have come to experience what it means to be a pilgrim. We often talk of our faith as a journey. For many of us this is no longer a metaphor but a deep reality. It is our faith that keeps us together and moving forward. Earth is not our lasting home. We are made for heaven and glory beyond this passing world. We are alien-residents whose final rest will come when we rest in the One who is our true peace.

Finally, we are reminded how much life is connected to life. The myth of individualism has been exposed. We cannot live on our own. Dislocation means dependency. We recognize the limits of our abilities and resources. We come to appreciate the generosity and gifts of others. We come to see how little control we have over others. In the end we must recognize that being in the presence of others is a gift. What gifts we have received from all who have helped us in the last few weeks. No doubt more gifts will come to us in the future. May God give us the grace to be gifts to others in their time of need.

This has been a time of testing for all of us. Like gold, we are being tested in the fire of this great destruction. But the Christian message is one of hope. As an Easter people, hope is our message. Hope is that which carries us forward to proclaim even now, more than ever, alleluia.

Father William Maestri

Have the people we chose to govern us and spend our tax revenues done enough to help those in need? What can you do to shame them into action?


At 12/30/2005 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

The problem with Catholicism is that it can't really answer any of its own questions. Sure, we're all connected in society, we need to help each other, we should not give up under adversity--these are all HUMANIST ideas. You don't have to be a Christian of any stripe to figure that out. But where's the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-goodness deity in all this? The word Father Maestri falls back on is the same they always use: Mystery. Well it's no mystery to me. We are all part of the natural world, and it is natural for hurricanes to spin dangerously through the gulf and kill things in their way. Period.

At 12/30/2005 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Tim -- I appreciate your contribution to the humanist perspective. I knew this would be a controversial post.

I don't disagree with your viewpoint, but I would caution that a strict literalist interpretation of scripture is just as potentially misleading from the Christian perspective as it is from the humanist perspective.

Language is imprecise -- an attempt to make meaning of things that are by their very nature unknowable. How can we know who we are without using the tools at our disposal, crude though they are.

The word "God" itself is so loaded. You use the word deity. Isn't this just a metaphor for the very essence of whatever it is that connects people together?

Whether Christians, Jews, Muslims, humanists, Buddhists or animists, all people seek to find hope and meaning in life. I count myself among those who accept that our tools are crude, but that they help to at least shape an outline of understanding.

As long as one doesn't accept the symbols as gospel truth, I think it's okay to use those symbols to describe the essence of existence.

True -- hurricanes are inanimate objects that show no mercy. But for most of those who lost loved ones, it is important to place that loss within some context of meaning. Would they not attempt to do so, then life would be meaningless and cheap beyond the physical product of the contribution a person makes to the world.

I, for one, without being a religious zealot, prefer to believe that there is more that connects people than a learned calculation of cause and effect. There are many ways to describe that connection, but none of them are perfect.


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