‘Why did this happen to us?’

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A long unremembered quote from Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit and anthropologist, popped into my mind the moment I read the Scriptures for this 19th Sunday in ordinary time. Here it is: “Someday, after mastering the wind, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God, the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

As worthwhile as these hopes may sound, my hunch is that they will probably not be fulfilled, at least not in the age in which we now live. Two reasons: first, in our period of history we are too absorbed with ways to destroy our planet. Secondly, given enough time, nature always triumphs in the end. Yes it does!

As you will read in the Scriptures for this Sunday, there are several graphic references to the violent powers of nature: Elijah the prophet is standing at the entrance of his cave on Mount Horeb, sheltering himself from the approaching forces of nature: hurricane winds crushing the rocks; following this, an earthquake, then an overwhelming fire. But Elijah assures us that God is not present in these natural catastrophes. Suddenly, however, Elijah perceives a soft whispering sound. He covers his face and says: “Ah, at last, God is present in this place.”

The interpretation of this short passage seems clear: we seldom sense the presence of the sacred in moments of terror, natural or man-made. Nature itself, of course, follows the patterns instilled in the universe by God from the moment of first creation. Of course, we humans sometimes find ourselves crosswise with nature’s powers, but God obviously means no evil intent; nature does what nature was created to do.

The Gospel passage also depicts similar moments of terror on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus’ disciples are on their way across the water when they encounter a violent storm and fear they will drown. Jesus suddenly, silently appears on the waves and assures them that they are not in harm’s way. The God of the storm is also the God of quiet and safety. Their small world grows quiet and peaceful.

These two frightful events and many others like them that have occurred throughout our history often raise puzzling questions for us regarding the divine power of God as it relates to human life on Earth. Natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes occur consistently. Many will naturally ask, “Why did this happen to us? Why were the houses on our side of the street destroyed by the tornado while those across the street were left unharmed?” The tendency for many people who are affected by such natural disasters is to assign a malevolent divine cause. After all, God is all-powerful; God controls the universe. At the same time if they are spiritually-minded people, they are also convinced that God is a God of love; God means no harm to his earthly creatures. So, you can begin to see the spiritual dilemma people of faith often experience.

Julian of Norwich, the English Christian nun and mystic, still offers us a glimmer of hope in the midst of natural fears. She writes: “And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be exceedingly well.” Our world is soaked in mystery; our task is to discern it.

Aug. 13 Scriptures

1 Kings 19: 11-13

Romans 9: 1-5

Matthew 14: 22-23

The writer formerly served the Anchorage Archdiocese. He now lives in Notre Dame, Ind.


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