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Solace in the face of horror

Second Reading
Solace in the face of horror

Fr Kevin Hegarty

On September 11 2001, I and some friends sailed to the islands of Inishkea which lie off the coast of the Mullet Peninsula. The islands are uninhabited now, the few crumbling houses a moving memorial of a hardy people who won a precarious livelihood from the sea until October 1927 when a terrible storm, which resulted in the drowning of ten of its young men, broke the spirit of the community. There are remains also, on both islands, of an earlier civilisation, a Christian settlement which dates back to the seventh century. 
It was a mild September day, rich with the mellowness of autumn. On our journey we saw a baby seal which had just been born. For over two hours we explored the island, picnicked and talked of what was important to us.
And then a mobile phone rang. It broke the peace of the afternoon. It conveyed news of a deeper shattering, a shattering of apocalyptic proportions. Two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. The stuff of horror movies had become real. Terrorism had reached a new level of atrocity. There seemed an unbridgeable chasm between our experience and the gruesome drama unfolding in that great city across the Atlantic from us. I though of some words of WB Yeats:

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

We feel helpless in the face of such horrors. Can we trust again in God or in the fundamental goodness of humanity?
The ultimate failure, for the Christian, is to despair. Our faith is based on the hope of the Resurrection. On that day in September 2001, I recall drawing some hope, admittedly inchoate, from the proximity of the primitive early Christian crucifixion slabs.
They pointed to the central reality of Christianity that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ has triumphed over the evil, pain and tragedy of the world. Margaret Hebbletwaite, in her moving book ‘Motherhood and God’, records how when her eldest son was born, her husband Peter welcomed him to the world, and said the facts are friendly.
Yes, the facts are friendly, though this can be difficult to discern at times.  Scripture readings in November are often scary in their evocation of wars and plagues. Underlying them, however, is the conviction that good triumphs over evil. We can fail to appreciate this because we do not take enough time for reflection. The Welsh poet RS Thomas puts it well: “Life is not hurrying onto a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”
That brightness is the presence of God in ordinary things. The French philosopher Simone Weil expresses it clearly: “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty….  It is also like a sacrament.”
Sean Ó Faoláin, as editor of ‘The Bell’ in 1940, asked a number of people to describe the loveliest thing they had seen. The artist, Mainie Jellett was one of the group and she wrote as follows:
“In County Mayo I was on the sea shore. I crossed a great expanse of gold coloured sand. I climbed over rocks to a long promontory with sand banks. As I got to the end of the promontory, there was a stretch of fine, deep green grass. The mounds were the graves of unbaptised infants. There was a bigger mound, which may have been the grave of a shipwrecked sailor. The scene gave an intense feeling of peace, dignity and the uttermost simplicity. The sun was brilliant and the sea ultramarine blue and white. One felt the everlasting beauty of life and death.”
Wherever we find love, joy, beauty and peace, there is the presence of God.