by David Pence
"You thunder your judgments upon me, O Lord; you shake all my bones with fear and dread...
If you discovered iniquity in the angels and did not spare them, what will become of me? The stars fell from heaven, and I, mere dust, what should I expect?...
There is no holiness where you have withdrawn your hand, O Lord... no helpful strength if you cease to preserve it. If you forsake us, we sink and perish; but if you visit us, we rise up and live again. We are unstable, but you make us firm; we grow cool, but you inflame us."
(from the 15th-century Imitation of Christ)
The earthquake in Catholic Italy on August 24, 2016, has now claimed 300 lives. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day, immediately followed by a tsunami, may have claimed 100,000 lives. Why such horror in a world ruled by God?
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) scoffed at a fellow philosopher, Leibniz (1646-1716), who had taught that all natural disasters work toward the Good because the world created by an all-powerful rational God is the best possible world. Voltaire countered that the Lisbon quake might provide work for the stone masons, but not the children buried in rubble or drowned by the seas. Voltaire, the rational Deist, said there is evil in the world and there are accidents which do men harm – deal with it.
What does the Christian say? Let us partially agree with Voltaire. There are evil forces in the world and they often act against us. There are impersonal natural forces in the world which often act against us as well. Thus is the world structured. Death is always close. Life is a gift, not a guarantee. The spiritual world has many death-dealing agents. Nuns who care for the sick can be wantonly murdered. The physical world has certain natural situations in which the most virtuous and innocent of humanity can be killed. Be careful at the side of a cliff. Be wary of the ocean shore on a stormy day. We live in a world full of both spiritual evils and impersonal natural events which can be the death of us. Be vigilant and you might be spared, but even the most vigilant can be destroyed. When news arrived that eighteen were killed from a tower falling in Siloam (in southern Jerusalem), Jesus said:
"Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13)Life is spiritual warfare in which many are slain. The physical world is both full of gardens where we can flourish, and places where the earth will swallow those in the vicinity. Five miles above the earth’s surface and a few miles into its crust, there are no gardens – only consuming heat below or searing cold above where life has no chance. This is our reality; very violent indeed. If there is a lesson for the living from the death of innocents, it is to keep a holy fear -- a sense of the holy -- of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
The physical world has been structured replete with violence since the beginning. The Universe teaches us there is a life and death struggle of much more powerful entities than ourselves. It teaches us that we can perish. Be vigilant, be aware. Draw close to Him who is Life Eternal. He is the one whom we should both fear and love:
"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!" (Luke 12)