Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
September 24, 2001
Each person is precious
The act of terror leads us to be attentive to our personal fragility
The following is Archbishop Thomas Collins' homily at the Sept. 18 Prayer Service for the Victims of Terrorism
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
With these words the poet Yeats expressed his vision of the violence of the last century.
The terrorist attack of September 11th draws us to reflect upon the renewed horror through which evil so dramatically breaks into our lives.
It is difficult to grasp such an act of evil. The fact is so astonishing not in its visual impact — for we have seen before in movies and on television images similar to those of the past few days - but in the awareness that this is not any movie: it has actually happened in reality, and real persons have died and been injured, and real persons grieve loved ones.
It takes some time simply to absorb the enormity of this evil action, and then we need to reflect upon it, and ponder what it means.
There is no place here for facile explanations. Faced with the reality of such evil and suffering, we, like the friends of Job, are wise at first to sit in silence.
Suffering and evil cannot be grasped with language. In the end, God speaks to Job out of the tornado, and asks him questions that situate his experience of evil within a new perspective.
In the fullness of time God definitively addressed the reality of evil and suffering not through explanations, or words on a page, but by sharing in our suffering, in the passion of our Lord Jesus.
"Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. " (Philippians 2: 6-8)
We need, nonetheless, to see and interpret the meaning of this act.
We all need to reflect upon it, so that we can learn. We need to be attentive, to discern in the horror of this act insight into our own personal lives, and into the path ahead for ourselves and for our society.
First we must be attentive to the personal suffering.
Each human person is precious. The violent extinction of the lives of so many causes a wound of unutterable pain.
Not only have thousands of people died a horrible death, engulfed by terror, but their families are plunged into the most profound grief.
We think especially of the children, so many of whom are now bereft of their fathers and mothers, their sisters and brothers. For many it will be the first encounter with death, and for many more, the first encounter with sudden violent death.
In due time we will learn the number of those who have perished, and its size will be stunning: but each person who has been killed or injured through this act of evil is a precious individual, a child of God.
Faith allows us to see beyond the context of this life, from which these victims were brutally taken, to the fuller life, the true destination of us all.
The act of terror leads us, as well, to be attentive to our personal fragility: we all know what is like to come to work in an office, or to fly on an airplane: such experiences are part of the solid routine that sustains our lives.
We do not think of the possibility of the end of life, as we go about our daily round.
In an extraordinary way, these events remind us of our fragility.
In ancient times people were fully aware of that, for they knew they were constantly at the mercy of plague and war.
Because of the wizardry of our technology, we can become secure in an illusion of invulnerability. But each of us may come to the end of this brief earthly journey at any time.
As an ancient monk said to the king as a bird flew through the open window from the stormy dark outside, through the warmth of the throne room, and out the other side: so too is our brief passage through this life.
The psalmist tells us what that means: "O Lord, teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart. " (Psalm 90:12)
Our life in this world is fragile. We do not have many days, and each passing day is lost forever. We need to fill each one with what really counts, love of God and neighbour.
We must be attentive, as often we are not, to the hard, cold fact of evil. It is not for anyone but God to know what was in the hearts of those who did this, and their personal culpability, but the act is pure evil.
No political, or religious, or economic grievance — whether just or not — can justify mass murder. This is evil. It is an act of darkness.
It should also help us recognize the other abundant examples of human evil in our world, far away and near at hand, which go unrecognized because they are not as spectacular as a terrorist attack.
Each of us is graced with the power to choose, and God invites us to choose good: to love. Inextricably connected to that is the power to choose evil.
As the ancient Christian writer of the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, so perceptively asserts in the first sentence of his book: "There are two ways, the way to life and the way to death, and there is a great difference between them. "
Immersed in a sea of influences, of personal, political, economic, social and religious circumstances, we yet are graced with the power to follow the pathway to life, and we are called to shun the way to death.
The death with which we should most be concerned is what the Apocalypse calls the "second death " — the moral death that is the result of evil action.
None of us can avoid physical death, come when it may, but we are free to turn from the second death.
We can more easily see evil in the actions of others, as in this horrible act, but we must be attentive to our own capacity for evil.
We pray that the leaders who are charged with making the political and judicial decisions that lie ahead will act wisely, and we know that every humanly imaginable precaution will be taken to prevent a recurrence of what happened this week.
Justice must be done. But it would be tragic if the poisonous urge for vengeance allows the perpetrators of this act of evil to succeed in having set off a continuing cycle of violence, for years and years to come, destroying countless further innocents.
This is a time to look to our own hearts, and to ask God for the grace to act rightly, and to confront the powerful inclination to evil, which is found within each of us, and within our society, and which cannot be mastered without the grace of God.
John Henry Newman was right when he wrote: "Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man. "
Suffering, fragility, and evil: these realities press upon us when we encounter an event as dramatic as the recent horror in New York and Washington. But these are the dark shadows on our world, and we need to attend to them always.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us the way to nullify the power of evil. He speaks of blessings, and His beatitudes are utterly realistic, rooted in a world of hunger, injustice, grief, violence, and war. The path he presents to us is one in which we do not simply confront evil, but replace it with its opposite.
As a wise spiritual teacher once said, if a box is full of salt, it cannot also be full of pepper. So we are called to fill this world with a life lived according to the beatitudes, leaving no room for the evil that so flourishes amongst us.
In the Gospel, immediately after presenting the alternative to a world of injustice and evil, Jesus issues a challenge to his disciples: you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.
It is for each individual, and for all of us gathered in community, to so fill the earth with actions of goodness that the causes of violence are removed.
As we come together, reflecting on the disintegrating power of violence, we are one in our desire to comfort those who suffer, and to learn in a practical way from our heightened awareness of the fragility of life, so that our lives may replace evil with good.
We can, however, go beyond simply learning from this event, no matter how much it teaches us about the way to fight evil and to live rightly. We can reach out in prayer, and effectively intercede with God, that those who have died may be granted eternal rest in the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem, and that those who grieve may be comforted.
We come together to pray in solidarity with the families and friends of those who have been killed and injured. We are far from them physically, and we do not even know them personally, but we are one with them in prayer.
And we pray for those who have died.
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
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