Jesuit Father James Martin on Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless after Newtown School Shooting

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Jesuit Father James Martin offered this reflection on “The mystery of pain, the solace of faith” in the New York Daily News after the tragic Newtown school shooting on Dec. 14:

I write these lines within hours of hearing about the horrific shootings in Connecticut, and I write them from a retreat house in New England, a place of prayer. I also write them at the invitation of this newspaper.

The question on so many minds and in so many hearts is: Why?

It is an age-old question, one that believers have been asking, struggling with, raging at, and weeping over, for many centuries. Why would God allow something like this to happen? It is what theologians and saints have called the “mystery of evil.” It was asked in another form recently, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when many lost their lives.

In this case, however, and in all cases involving children — especially the violent deaths of children — the question takes on even more poignancy and greater urgency.

As a believer I need to say this: There is no satisfactory or adequate answer to that question. It is, to use another ancient phrase, a mystery. That word is often used as way of avoiding complex problems, but in this case it is true, and the thoughtful believer knows this in his or her heart: There is no answer that will take away our grief or fully explain how a good God could permit this.

Anyone who tells you that he or she has an answer to that question (for example: it is a punishment for our sins; it is the result of a vengeful God; it proves there is no God; or it demonstrates meaninglessness in the universe) does not offer a real answer. For no answer will satisfy in the wake of such agony.

Yet, as a believer, I also need to say this: That it is a mystery does not mean that there aren’t perspectives that can help the believing person in times of tragedy and sadness. For me, there are two things have helped me in facing tragedy:

First, as a Christian, I believe that violence, suffering and death are never the last word. God promises us eternal life, and will give us that life just as he gave it to his Son, who also died a violent death. “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them,” is the prayer spoken at Catholic funerals. God, I believe, has already granted all those who were killed eternal rest and perpetual light.

This does not take away our sorrow, but it can offer us hope for those who have gone before us. It also offers us the hope of being reunited with our loved ones in the fullness of time.

The second thing, or person, I turn to is Jesus. We do not have a God who is removed from our sufferings. When Jesus went to the tomb of his good friend Lazarus, whom Jesus would soon raise from the dead, he wept. Why? Because he loved Lazarus, as he loved Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha.

Jesus understands what sorrow is. Jesus understands pain. Jesus, I believe, weeps with us. Our God is not an intellectual abstraction or a philosophical theory, ours is a God who has lived a human life. This helps me during times of sadness. Jesus is with us in our pain, not standing far off.

The two perspectives are really one. The God who weeps with us also promises us eternal life. And the God who promises us eternal life weeps with us. For our part, we can work to end violence, to console those who remain and to build a more loving society.

For those who are not Christian but who are believers, like my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, I would not presume to offer a perspective, but I might still say that we all believe in a God who loves us, who is love, and who therefore weeps with us. On this we might begin to find some common understanding. For those who are not believers, I might say that in the wake of such horrendous tragedies, our hearts are called to compassion, to support the families and friends of the victims; and our sense of morality impels us to work for an end to such appalling violence.

There may not be answers that will satisfy, but for the believer there is God, who is sorrowful with us, who offers us eternal life, and who moves us, through our hearts, to build a more loving and compassionate society.

New York Daily News; image via Regis University

7 Responses to “Jesuit Father James Martin on Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless after Newtown School Shooting”

  • Tom Malone:

    With reference to Fr. Martin’s article on making sense of tradegy, I offer a poem I wrote in the aftermath of 9/11.

    Where was God on 9/11?

    Tom Malone

    Where was God when people were crying,
    and falling, and burning, and praying, and dying?
    Where was God when the blood dimmed tide
    overwhelmed his people and swept them aside?
    Where was God when the rescue squad
    showed no greater love.
    When firemen rushed to their certain deaths
    to save people trapped above.
    Where was God while families searched and prayed
    and lost hope that a loved one might still be saved.
    Where was God when warriors fell
    not in battle, but in offices turned into hell.
    Where was God? Where was God?
    God was there,
    there in the conflagration,
    the inferno, the hell fire, the blast,
    when the buildings, mortally wounded, quickly collapsed.
    There in the rubble,
    in the smoke, and the dust,
    at ground zero, at the impact, at the instant of death
    was God,
    calming, comforting, consoling, loving,
    and joyfully welcoming
    His children home

  • David Rojas:

    I have found comfort praying the rosary too. In line with your reflection, Mary suffered immensely, even, I think, after our Lord’s ascension.

  • Tom Sheridan, S.J.:

    Thank you, Jim. Beautiful. I would only add this. To ask, as many have done, “Why would God allow something like this to happen?” really poses the wrong question. To ask why God could allow it implies that He was free to do something to prevent it. But the fact that He made us free human beings means that God set limits to His own freedom. That does not “solve the mystery of evil.” It merely restates it. The question then is why did He make us free, i.e. free to accept His love or to reject it. And that is the big question.

  • Patricia:

    I believe in a God who weeps when humanity abuses the great gift of “free will.”
    I believe in the immensity of the love of a God who chose to create us as humans capable of sharing God’s love. We are not puppets, mere playthings of a God who pulls strings. No we are what we are – free.

  • Joe Tetlow, S.J.:

    As in everything so far, Jim Martin is spot on. That is, he hits the dot in the middle of the target. Then he goes on to make a cross on all the other concentric rings – giving them a blessing, too.

  • Peter B. Ely, S.J.:

    What James Martin says makes good sense, especially that a great mystery lies here. In reflecting on this question for many years, I have concluded that to say God “permits” these evils to happen doesn’t do justice to the interaction between God’s will and ours. “God permits” or “God allows” makes God sound like a guilty bystander who could have intervened but didn’t. Better to think of God as a loving but grieving parent who sees his children abuse the precious gift of freedom he has chosen to give them. Our freedom is a terrifying gift. Exercising it can make us less than human; without it we would not be human at all. And God wants us to be fully human.

  • kim:

    God weeps with us. I hear this often. But if I am weeping and God is weeping, then who is doing the liberating?