Theologizing isn’t the same as comforting in the midst of tragedy
Where was God in the whirlwind? Why couldn’t the God of the thunder and storm stop the terrible tornado? Why did the Lord of Heaven not give a haven for children? Where was the Harrower of Hell and why did he not halt the hailstones and horror that has hit Oklahoma?
No human has a heart if he has not asked these questions of God. Ever since Job challenged the Almighty, the human mind and heart have demanded an answer. Any merely human being must shake the fist and howl, “How can a loving and all powerful God allow such terrible suffering?”
Oh yes, we know the pat theological answer. Most human suffering is not caused by God but by selfish, lustful, greedy, and violent human beings. We also know the pat theological answer for human suffering in the face of the tsunami, the tornado, the hurricane, and the hailstorm. The theologian says with Saint Paul that the whole of creation “groans for redemption as if with the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22).
“Here is a mystery,” ponders the theologian – that somehow, nature itself is broken and wounded by sin. There is a fault line that is no one’s fault. The earth cracks, the waves crash, the weather roars, the winds whirl, the thunder breaks, the world shudders, and we wee humans shrink in fear, tremble with grief, and weep with impotent rage at the children drowned and the destruction wrought.
The theologian may theologize, and his answers may be true, but they do not comfort any more than Job’s friends do. We look for another answer too.
This is where perhaps the poet plays a part. A young Jesuit – a convert who gave all to become a Catholic – struggles with his own deep loneliness and depression. He is forgotten among men. He feels the fell of dark, not day. He is sent to a job he does not like and feels he cannot do. Lost and alone in his vocation and his love unrequited, he hears of a tragedy on the shores of his England.
So Gerard Manley Hopkins gets news of the wreck of a ship bound from Germany to America that hits a sandbar off the English coast in the midst of a terrible snowstorm and squall. On the deck as the ship goes down are five Franciscan sisters. The ship’s downing and their poor drowning seems a pointless disaster and an absurd accident.
Hopkins cannot rescue the sisters from the dark waters, but he can pluck meaning out of the mystery. His poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, ponders the mystery and meaning of tragedy and disaster. It is within this suffering that we connect most deeply with the suffering of God himself. It is within the tragedy that we see our own frailty and helplessness without God. Somehow in the terror and the tragedy God is there beside us – by his presence wringing meaning out of absurdity and mercy out of the monstrous.
Hopkins insists that God is in the midst of the whirlwind, fire, and storm, but he did not cause them to happen and does not rejoice in the suffering. Yet just as Elijah heard the still, small voice after the whirlwind, fire, and storm, so we watch and listen for the stillness after the storm and the presence of God – not stopping the terrible tempest, but being present in the midst of the suffering – present not only to comfort, but present also, more strangely, to lead us in ways beyond words, into the mystery of suffering in the whole world.
So Hopkins writes:
Be adored among men,
God, three-numberèd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
From the heart of the storm God reaches out, not providing easy answers or pat solutions, but offering us just what he offers us from the cross: a participation in the sufferings of the world, and a hard and terrible path to our souls’ redemption.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, SC. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.
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