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Wrestling with tragedy

Fr. Lou DelFra | Thursday, November 4, 2010

I didn’t know Declan Sullivan personally, and don’t presume to write about his tragic death from any personal insight into Declan or the circumstances of his tragedy. I can only write as a member of his community at Notre Dame, and as one who has experienced other inexplicable tragedies — whether it be student deaths at the high school where I taught, or over the years here at Notre Dame, or indeed among my own family and friends. The wounds from these experiences all seemed to throb and ache again as we experienced the loss of Declan last week.

Memories resurfaced of sitting in church pews, dressed in uncomfortably formal suits, stunned into silence as music and prayer swept around me, half-joining in, half-wondering why we were praying to a God who let this happen. I remember moving through tears, anger, stoniness of heart, numbness, near heart-rending sorrow for the family up front. And I remember some laughter, as stories were told of the deceased’s best and humorous qualities, moments that momentarily seemed to bring the deceased, and our affection for him, back to life, and so moments that finally ended in a sobering remembrance that we had lost him. The finality and incomprehensibility of a young person’s untimely and unnecessary death was always waiting there, when the laughter and the stories and the music and prayer inevitably quieted.

A friend just pointed out a line to me from St. Augustine’s Confessions, after Augustine experienced the death of a close childhood friend. As is so often the case, I found Augustine’s words resonant with the deep movements of my heart:

“Not in pleasant groves, nor in sport or song, nor in fragrant bowers, nor in magnificent banquetings, nor in the pleasures of the bed or the couch; not even in books or poetry did my soul find rest. All things looked gloomy, even the very light itself … Thus I remained to myself an unhappy lodging where I could neither stay nor leave. For where could my heart fly from my heart?”

And so, I realize that these weeks ahead — even while the initial shock of the tragedy may begin to fade — are filled with questions, confusions, lingering, refusing-to-go-down-quietly sadness and anger. Some spiritual darkness — including often a demand for an accounting from God that can scare us by its aggressive boldness before the Almighty, whom we have sometimes been taught to reverence unconditionally, preferably with no questions asked.

It’s just that most relationships don’t grow that way, no questions asked, no hard feelings expressed, no challenges thrown down.

I found myself this week dwelling on a few Scripture passages that speak to what I am experiencing, trying to deal with a tragedy with a God who seems reluctant to provide any comprehensible accounting for it. One passage from Genesis in particular comes to mind – Genesis 32: 22-32. Jacob spends the night wrestling with an angel (though some translators believe the original story depicted Jacob wrestling with God himself, until later editors found this too unbecoming). The account is stirring in many ways, but the point that grips me now, in the wake of Declan’s death and the lingering anger and sadness it leaves behind, is that God does not prematurely end the bout with a pounding of his all-powerful fist. Instead, they wrestle all night, with neither able to gain the upper hand. Are we really allowed and able to wrestle with God? In fact, as day breaks, it is God, not Jacob, who first wishes to relent, asking Jacob to release him. But Jacob — perhaps consumed with an anger I find only too familiar after the unjust loss of life — refuses, and finally, mysteriously extracts a blessing from God. Although it must be disclosed that Jacob departs from the encounter with a limp, it is perhaps a small price to pay for the spiritual space he has won in the relationship, an openness with God that resulted precisely from Jacob’s willingness to speak his piece and duke it out: “I saw God face to face and my life was spared.”

The expression of anger, frustration, confusion and sadness to God is part of our religious heritage as God’s People. Indeed, Abraham and Moses will make disputing with God, especially where they feel injustice has been perpetrated, including and especially injustice by God Himself, a relatively routine occurrence. God desires our most authentic selves. In times of injustice and incomprehension, this means that God desires our complaints, our anger, our sadness, our numbness or our agitated restlessness. And God responds to us, even if the response is not a straightforward answer that makes sense of our tragedy and restores what we have lost. If it is difficult to express these words yourself, pick up Psalm 5 and its demand to be listened to: “Hear my words, O Lord, hear my cry for help.” Read Psalm 13’s expressions of impatience for a meaningful answer: “How long Lord? Have you forgotten me? How long must I carry this sorrow in my soul?” Or Psalm 17’s insistence that a terrible injustice be righted: “Hear, Lord, my plea for justice. From you let vindication come.”

In wrestling with God, in being ourselves most authentically before God, bringing to prayer all the emotions, demands and loss of this past week, and of earlier losses remembered through the loss of Declan, we might reach, not a satisfying explanation (for what explanation would return Declan to us?), but perhaps what is ultimately our surest hope: God is not absent at all. God is with us in our suffering. God will always hear us — even if we are looking for a fight.

This week’s column is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, Campus Ministry director of Bible Studies and Director of Pastoral Life for ACE. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.