Friday night, we brought our granddaughter, Gianna (pronounced “Jahna”) to the St. Patrick’s Parish Nativity play. Gianna remained rapt for the entire performance, needing an occasional gentle restraint from wandering too far up the aisle. A teen choir accompanied the players; there were twirling, dancing, singing angels, a trek around the church with a donkey for Mary and Joseph only to be turned away at several inns, sheep singing with shepherds, a tall, lanky, twelve year old yellow star leading three Magi to the cradle and the tiny Holy Family in the stable. All of the players were ardently earnest; everyone sang. We stood to cheer for them at the end. Gianna didn’t want to leave.
St. Patrick is a small, inner city bilingual parish. The parishioners span a wide cross section of Providence life from all ages, colors and abilities, almost none of them affluent. Prison tattoos can be seen on some of the men, who are attending with their families. These men hug their wives and kids frequently; some have packs of cigarettes in their shirt pockets. St. Pat’s has a soup kitchen and help for the homeless at a food pantry called Mary House; there is a small Eucharistic adoration chapel in a converted office trailer with a year round 24/7 vigil. Pretensions are rare. There is no cry room; children make children noises: beautiful sounds. We are reminded of our first parish as adults in Maine, St. Joseph’s, because of the community life, joyful music, love and peacefulness of the assembly. We have come home again.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.. W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”
The Children of Newtown
I have been to Newtown many times. My old company had a lumberyard there about three miles from the Sandy Hook School. Much has been written about the perfect New England village with the friendly coffee shops and picturesque woods, fields and upscale homes of NYC professionals. All of this is true, yet it is a town like any other. Like yours and mine with the imperfections, well hidden family troubles, anxieties and small betrayals, as well as love, joyful sounds, Christmas lights and festivities. And schools.
Evil visited Newtown a week ago. Books will be written about the deterioration and lack of funding for mental health facilities and support; about semi automatic weapons such as the AR-15 with hundred shot clips (for which I can see no earthly rationale for circulation in the general population, just to be clear – they have only one function); about bullying and Asperger Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders; about the sad necessity for fortress schools; about the crushing of some children who never recover from their parent’s divorce and withdraw into a killing isolation; about the failure to identify evil before it pounces full throated on the innocent; about a fascination with violence within our entertainment, within ourselves. It seems to me a confluence of these things created Adam Lanza, a weak, cowardly and wounded boy/man; they afforded him the facilities to make a decision for evil. All of these aspects merit full analysis to uncover a passageway to enable us to perform our most basic human function – to protect our young.
I think also, we need to be thinking about Pope John Paul’s Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), a 1995 encyclical in which he decried a “culture of death” which has inculcated itself into our attitudes and practices, almost without notice anymore. This dark culture misconstrues freedom as license, leading to “this eclipse of the sense of God”, and devolving ever more into narcissism, materialism, hedonism and utilitarianism. Adam Lanza was the product of his personal and familial pathology, but he also was the effluence of the milieu in which he swam. A “culture of death” according to John Paul most specifically reveals its morbidity as a war of the strong against the weak, be they handicapped, old or unborn. “The first to be harmed are women, children, the sick or suffering and the elderly.” Adam Lanza was harmed. From that he made increasingly easy decisions to inflict his rage and pain on others more vulnerable: one evil act cascading into the unspeakable – a definition of evil.
Perhaps Eugene Kennedy, cited in Peggy Noonan’s column, put best what should be our response to all of this (in addition to seeking preventative solutions). What good can we take from this senseless act? Newtown reminds us of “the mystery of being alone in the world as it is and as we are… with cracks running through it… from small disappointments to blows of the heart.” But it “revealed the goodness of normal people, which is seldom celebrated” when the teachers sacrificed their lives trying to shield the children. Ms. Noonan says that we will attempt to respond politically to “take actions that will make our world safer, and this is understandable. But there is no security from existence itself.” As Professor Kennedy put it, the answer is to “plunge into life … we have to engage in life and take it on with all the risks it entails or we won’t be alive at all.” “It is better to suffer pain than to live in a world in which you don’t allow yourself to be close enough to anybody to have the experience that’s bound to give us suffering. Love guarantees suffering.”
Kennedy concludes, ”we’re all on a hero’s journey… the hero faces challenges along the way… entering the forest each day without a cut path, and finding our way through is what we are called to do.” Here, says, Ms. Noonan, Mr. Kennedy suggests that faith offers not an explanation of tragedy, but the only reliable guide. “Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’ That is not a metaphor.”
“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Isaiah 49:15
The response at St. Patrick’s Church was not to be embittered or paralyzed with sadness over inexplicable tragedy, but to embrace the life given to us. At the conclusion of the pageant, Rita asked our four year old Gianna if she wanted to be in the nativity play next year when she turned five. I suggested that she could practice really hard and be the donkey. Never lacking ambition, Gianna told us she wanted to be Mary. Mary, the Christ bearer, who within her carried Love, is the call to all of us at this time of the year. To hold within us Love, and to do what that Love calls us to. For when it comes down to it, that is all we have.