Seven years ago this month, my 15-year-old cousin, Alex, was skiing with six of his classmates in the mountains east of Vancouver, Canada. The young skiers – bright students from a prep school in Calgary – were caught in an avalanche. All of them died. I flew to Alex’s funeral, the last of seven that week. In the front row of the crowded Anglican church, Alex’s parents sat with their four other children. At the end of their long, public grieving, they were numb, their faces nearly expressionless.
In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, I’ve wrestled with the same questions asked of me after Alex’s death: How could a good and all-powerful God let such a terrible thing happen? How can a just God let the innocent suffer? Theologians group such age-old questions under the category of “theodicy.” Our persistence in asking these questions tells us that easy answers (such as “it’s God’s will” or “they are in a happier place”) are elusive, and – when offered – can compound the hurt.
God created a world governed by physical laws. Part of the joy of being human is discovering these laws, admiring their genius and figuring out how to use them to make our lives better. Such human endeavor is possible because these laws are consistent and predictable. They make possible, for example, jet aviation, medical interventions, weather forecasts, building construction, power generation and wireless communication.
But we can never fully master nature because we are not God, the master of all. For God to suspend physical laws when they can cause harm would unravel the fabric that makes our living and human progress possible. Physical laws that allow us to map the human genome also direct cancer cells to do what they do, which it is to multiply. Laws that help us launch a spaceship to the moon can also bring a mountain crashing down on us. Laws that allow us to build skyscrapers can also shake the earth on which they are built.
The disaster in Haiti reminds us that our choices can make natural calamities worse – or better. Mired in poverty, too many Haitians lived in ramshackle housing and on hillsides loosened by disastrous agrarian policies. The poor suffer the worst of nature’s fury because they lack the defenses that the more privileged enjoy. In our response to the suffering in Haiti – and elsewhere – we must not only tend to immediate needs, but work toward long-term, systemic solutions to human misery.
In the wake of human suffering, we turn to faith for solace and meaning. The Old Testament Book of Job has often been my tutor. With him, I voice my complaints to God, whether in anger, desperation or exhaustion. Far from sacrilege, such heartfelt pleas show that one’s relationship with God is real and alive. More than giving us answers, God invites us to live the ultimate questions. In this messy but very human journey, we define who we are.
If we follow Job’s lead, the rant must eventually end, and we, like Job, must bow before the mystery of human living in all of its joys and sufferings. God is God; we are not. We fall silent before Holy Mystery. The answer, we learn gradually, comes not in a neat formula of words but in a Loving Presence who assures us that we are not alone and that all will be well. When we comfort another by word or by presence, we reflect God’s faithful love to us.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ embodies divine faithfulness. While God does not promise a life without suffering, Jesus on the road to Calvary reveals how God is always with us in our trials. In the dawn of Easter, we learn that death, violence and loss do not have the last word. Meeting his friends, the risen Lord appeared in all of God’s glory, but remarkably with the wounds of the Crucifixion still apparent. Somehow, in the life of God, our wounds are not forgotten or blotted away, but redeemed and part of a new creation. We glimpse that re-creation when we let our own suffering become a font of compassion for others in need.
The memory of that crowded church in Calgary now merges with television images of crowds of Haitians gathering in Sunday prayer on the streets of Port-au-Prince, their open-air cathedral. Taking their Sabbath rest from removing debris and burying the dead, the people sing and dance, their voices and bodies raising to heaven both their sorrows and their praises. In Calgary and Port-au-Prince, I glimpse redemption before the final victory of heaven: It comes in the form of a supportive community of friends and strangers who together dare to live the questions and lean into the answers in this beautiful but precarious world.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ’88) is executive director of campus ministry. He can be reached at obrienkfgeorgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It . appears every other Friday with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.”