The National Catholic Review

President Obama called the earthquake in Haiti an “incomprehensible tragedy.” He’s right. But is there any tragedy that is comprehensible? By what measure do we comprehend something like this? What could ever make it so understandable that we can eliminate from our hearts and minds the cry that surfaces again and again, the cry of why?

I am a Catholic priest. On the day the earthquake happened I was trying to answer an email from a young woman who, after the suicide of a close friend, had begun to wonder how the God who loved her was compatible with the church’s doctrine about hell. I had also received a message from another friend who was also questioning the compatibility between the Christian God and the suffering of the innocent. He was quoting something I wrote: “I cannot worship a God who demands that I tear out from my heart and my mind the question of why the suffering of the innocent happens”.

I remember a debate I had with Christopher Hitchens in which he was frustrated when I kept agreeing with him that things happen that make it reasonable to despise a God that demands a blind acceptance of the goodness of His will. Then this horror in Haiti happens…What am I to say to myself about the question that will not go away: why?

I will not suppress the question. I want to face the horror as it is, without tranquilizing consolations. Officials keep coming out assuring the victims of the tragedy that their “hearts and prayers” go out to them. Prayers? To Whom? To a God who could have simply prevented this from happening?

The church was not spared anything. The cathedral collapsed killing the archbishop, seminaries and convents were destroyed, killing future priests and dedicated religious sisters. The pope’s representative was saved because he happened to be outside his collapsing residence and is spending a second night in the garden with surviving workers from his office. To what kind of God can one pray in such circumstances?

Only to that God who, as St. Paul wrote, “spared not his own Son” the pain of the cry of why. If he gave his Son to die for us, Paul argues, it is impossible that he should refuse us anything that will help or bless us, since he has nothing he values more than His Son (cf. Romans 8, 32). I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to peak. I can only accept a God who “co-suffers” with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.

But faith or no faith, Christian or not, our humanity demands that the question “why” not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete

Comments

vladimir stepantsov | 1/30/2010 - 2:05pm
9:20 And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk: 21 ? ?? ?????????? ??? ? ????????? ?????, ?? ? ???????????? ?????, ?? ? ??????????? ?????, ?? ? ????????? ?????. 9:21 Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 8:07pm
Every where we meet the Cross... Did you see the slide show photos from Haiti? There is a photo w/ five Crosses standing tall in the ruins. Archbishop reminds us that the suffering people of Haiti are the "broken and bloody body of Christ". I think , the people of Haiti , with Christ,call out: why have you forsaken me? I think it is Christ calling for our Love, just as you say, PS.
Marie Rehbein | 1/17/2010 - 12:59pm
Beth,
Others have responded more eloquently than I can, but I will offer this.  We have knowledge, material, and the ability to communicate.  These come from God, and it seems to me that it is God's intent that we use these gifts to our mutual benefit.
 
We no longer live in The Garden, blissfully unaware of the realities of the universe, able to leave everything completely in God's hands.  We do not have the ability to prevent all suffering-nor should we expect to have it; suffering obviously does something that no amount of happiness can do, which is to make us aware of God-God does sustain.  However, what happened in Haiti, unlike the Indonesian tsunami, need not have been as devastating as it was. 
 
Predictions of the earthquake potential of that place were disregarded.  People were trapped there by their economic circumstances and geography.  No money ever seems to be available to prevent tragedy, though somehow it always comes forth in abundance when something like this happens. 
 
The devastation caused by this earthquake is evidence to me that we all have a long way to go before we are actually doing God's will with the gifts we have been given.  In any given day, not only when we encounter a tragedy, we make decisions without taking into account God's perspective.  Could it be that not only is walking with those who are obviously suffering a form of praying, but that all the ordinary things we do are also praying so long as they are done conscious of God's presence and will?
 
How many times, for example, is thought given to the possibility that God expects us to prevent Global warming?  We have good evidence that it is possible.  We have the ability to change our ways.  However, the discussion on the matter does not take that perspective.  It dwells on conspiracy theories and suspicions that it is a manufactured fear intended to destroy the economy or foster totalitarianism.  This unenlightened, selfish, and short-sighted perspective virtually guarantees that our God given gifts will be squandered and that much more suffering and Godly sustenance will be forthcoming.
 
We inflict a lot of suffering on ourselves, and it truly is not appropriate to accuse God of having brought this upon us.  We can pray "why?", but we should be prepared to accept the real answer.
JANICE JOHNSON | 1/16/2010 - 11:47pm
Thank you, Maria and Beth for your thoughtful questions and comments on prayer.  I don't have much to add to what you have already said and to what you already know.  I do think, Beth, that you are the answer to the prayers of the parents, spouses, children of the prisoners that you minister to.  I worked for a number of years in Child Protective Services with clients whose loved ones were incarcerated. often on drug charges.  The people left behind truly suffer.  They are often too poor, too intimidated and too unsophisticated to advocate for their loved ones.  Moreover, the incarcerated family member often is imprisoned far away from the family, making it extremely difficult for them to visit.  You are a stand-in for them offering the love, support and advocacy that they are unable to accomplish themselves.  I sense your passion in your ministry and I surely commend you for what you do,  You are a person after my own heart.
The Anglo-Catholic mystic, Evelyn Underhill, wrote about the power of prayer.  One point she made was that we humans need prayer as a means of building solidarity amongst us.  When we pray for one another we are demonstrating and reflecting the love of Christ and we grow closer to him and to one another in the process  In that spirit let us pray for one another -for the courage, perserverence and faith we need in whatever we are called to do. 
Anonymous | 1/16/2010 - 9:43pm
Cyrstal: right you are,also.
Anonymous | 1/16/2010 - 9:26pm
Sorry - I meant to write "the one prayer"
Anonymous | 1/16/2010 - 9:25pm
But the God of the OT and Jesus in the gospels did intervene and often changesd situations drastically, and the one prauer Jesus offers us is one of petition.
Anonymous | 1/16/2010 - 8:58pm

Beth: You raise I very important point. This is my response-
Fr. John Hardon SJ on Prayer and Suffering-
"What do I do when I suffer prayerfully?
Now that is a new term, I suppose. When I suffer prayerfully I do many things but especially these:
First, I see that behind what I endure is not the person or the event or the mishap or even the mistake (as obvious as these may be). I acknowledge that the real active agent responsible for my suffering is the mysterious hand of God. When David on one dramatic occasion while on the road, was being insulted by a certain Shimei who cursed the king, called him a scoundrel and an usurper and began to throw stones at him, David's armed guard exclaimed. "Is this dead dog to curse my Lord, the King? Let me go over and cut off his head!" But David would not let him. "Let him curse," he replied. "If Yahweh said to him 'Curse David.' what right has anyone to say 'why have you done this?' Perhaps Yahweh will look on my misery and repay me with good for his curse today." David was inspired by Yahweh.
First, then, when I suffer prayerfully, I recognize that God is behind the suffering and I humble my head in faith. Second, when I suffer prayerfully, I trust that God has reasons for permitting what I endure and that in His own time and way, the experience now suffered will eventually somehow be a source of grace. What David did in the Old testament, Christ, the Son of David, not yet born, enabled him to do by anticipation because of the mystery and merit of the Cross. If ever we are tempted to doubt the value of suffering patiently, according to the will of God, we have only to look at the Crucifix. Talk about value in suffering! But the value derives not from physical or spiritual pain. It comes from the Infinite God who showed us - this is God teaching us - by His own passion and death how profitable prayerful suffering can be. The most important single lesson mankind has to learn is the meaning of suffering and its value. It took God to teach us. And He has to resort to the extreme expedient of becoming man and suffering Himself to prove to us that suffering is not meaningless: that it is the most meaningful and valuable experience in human life.
For reasons best known to the Almighty, once sin had entered the world, grace was to be obtained through the Cross, which really means, through the voluntary acceptance of God's will crossing mine. This voluntary acceptance on our part is what the Father required of His Son as the condition for opening the treasury of mercies. It is still the condition today for conferring these blessings on sinful mankind".
And then...
"Other things being equal, the more my prayer life is crucified, the more meritorious it becomes. The more what I say to God is combined with what I offer to God, the more pleased He will be. The more my petitions to the Lord are united with sacrifice willingly made, the more certainly what I ask for will be received.
There is such a thing as cheap prayer. I call that comfortable prayer. There is such a thing as dear prayer. I call that sacrificial prayer. I don't know where the idea came from that the essence of prayer is just praying and presto, we have satisfied our prayerful duties and can go on to other things. Not at all. Prayer is an ongoing enterprise and its continuance is especially a prolongation of what I say to God (which may not be much) with what I endure and suffer for God (which can be very much)".

Beth Cioffoletti | 1/16/2010 - 3:36pm
Yes, Marie, I agree.  But what about the prayer of those of us who accompany those who are suffering?  What is our prayer?  Could it be that walking beside those who suffer, not abandoning them, is the prayer itself?  And isn't it interesting that this kind of prayer does not involve invoking God for intervention, and yet, in a way, is a sort of intervention?
 
That being said, walking with those who suffer involves entering into their suffering, and needs sustenance in itself.
Marie Rehbein | 1/16/2010 - 11:07am
Prayers are not for God to intervene to change the way of nature, but to sustain us as we face inevitable, and sometimes excrutiating, suffering. 
Beth Cioffoletti | 1/16/2010 - 7:15am
I am often confused by prayer, as in “I will pray for you”, or “Give us victory/success/ a win!”.  And yet I pray.  I, too, ask for God’s direct intervention into situations of extreme suffering and anguish.  Does God hear these prayers?  Does God answer?  More often than not, it seems to me that God is silent, and all we have is each other.  This moment. 
 
I’m also not sure about what happens after death.  Whether or not the dead are in “a better place”, I don’t know.  All my faith gives me is that our lives do have meaning and purpose (even though I may not have a clue as to what that meaning and purpose is) and that God is, somehow, with us.  Does that make religion a “crutch” or opiate?  Or a new way to live without fear?
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 8:11pm
Sorry. Itis Archbishop Dolan to whom I refer above.
Pearce Shea | 1/15/2010 - 7:17pm
Jim, again I think you've gotten the premise off. Yes, what has happened in Haiti is horrible. You might just as easily argue that a God that permits abortion is a God who reneges on his promise. So it's not singular, not by a long shot. Innocents have died en masse for as long as there have been enough innocents around to die en masse. 
 
But like I said, you've got the premise wrong. God does not promise us a good life. If he did, then Pat Robertson and everyone else who thinks our success and failures are tied closely to our holiness. This is manifestly untrue. God promises us salvation if we are willing to work for it (and perhaps even not then).
 
Certainly the enormity of a tragedy can overwhelm the capacity to understand that the dead are in a better place. That's what the love, support and compassion of fellow human beings are for. We were made for, really, for our capacity to love God first before all others, often by loving the least among us. The survivors in Haiti may not feel God's Love, but it is our job to stop moaning and pulling our hair out and do our best to show our fellow brothers and sisters precisely that love that they cannot feel.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 5:46pm
This will not go down well with a lot of people here.  But it is events like this that point out that we are more focused on this life rather than the next.  I believe it was the Lisbon earthquake that was a watershed event in the thinking about God's providence. It was one of the more horrific events in history.  If as Catholics, we believe in salvation and God's providence, then whatever happens on this earth in terms of a terrible tragedy is really insignificant compared with the lost of salvation for even one person.  If people let something like what just happened in Haiti move themselves away from God, then they are the losers.
 
Certainly, we are obliged to do our best for the poor of this world, and those afflicted by not only this tragedy but other misfortunes as well.  But maybe we should look on it not just as a tragedy for the victims of the earthquake but also as a test of ourselves.  As a result of things like the Haitian earthquake, we must choose and I am not talking about how much money we donate or how much time we spend providing help.  But are we also being tested?  Do we believe in God and salvation or are we focused only on the things of this world.  Do we believe that God in His infinite wisdom and love will take care of the victims in the way that means the most to Him, for the victims and for us.  Or are we going to doubt Him or disbelieve in Him or even worse, disdain Him.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 4:07pm
Jim: But faith or no faith, Christian or not, our humanity demands that the question “why” not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 4:01pm
1 Corinthians 13 "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal". Jesus himself asked why.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 3:52pm
Who are we to demand explanations of God ? ( And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?). That was the point.
Anonymous | 1/15/2010 - 3:22pm
Annie Dillard writes, in Holy The Firm:

His disciples asked Christ about a roadside beggar who had been blind from birth, " Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" And Christ, who spat on the ground, made a mud of his spittle and clay, plastered the mud over the man's eyes, and gave him sight , answered, "Neither this man has sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest to him." Really? If we take this answer to refer to the affliction itself-and not the subsequent cure-as "God's work made manifest,"then we have, along with "Not as the world gives do I give unto you," two meager, baffling and infuriating answers to one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in Sam Hill is going on here?

The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we are all vitims ? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the street for people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flame faced children, to remind us what God can-and will-do?

...Yes in fact, we do. We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and steal a nickel's worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God's blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God ? ( And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?). We forget ourselves, picnicing; we forget where we are. There is no such thing as a freak accident. "God is at home," says Meister Eckhart, "We are in the far country."
JIM MCCREA | 1/15/2010 - 3:43pm
“We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and steal a nickel's worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do: churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God's blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God?”
 
We are people who want to take God’s word seriously:
Luke 11: 9-12
"And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? “
 
That’s who we are supposed to be.  And God is supposed to do God’s part.  The esoteric pablum you stated above is thin gruel indeed to those thousands of people who have lost everything, including lives, in the enormous incomprehensibility of Haiti in the here and now.
It would be better to say nothing at all than what you said from your safe perch outside of the devestation and utter disaster.