Confronting Loss, at Benedict’s and Elsewhere

Humankind+has+long+wrestled+with+the+question+of+theodicy%3A++Why+a+good+God+permits+evil+and+suffering+to+occur.

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Humankind has long wrestled with the question of theodicy: Why a good God permits evil and suffering to occur.

There’s a memorable scene in the 2006 movie Last Holiday that I often show to my Senior Religion classes when discussing the topic of suffering. In the movie, the main character Georgia Byrd (played by Newark’s very own Queen Latifah) is diagnosed with a brain tumor and is told she has three weeks left to live. In utter shock, she goes to church the next day and in the middle of singing with the choir, bursts out asking God, “Why me?” She proceeds to improvise words to a song. “I don’t understand…I followed your Commandments, Lord! Why did it have to be me? I never cussed my boss out or messed around, even though my sister did! Why in heavens’ me?”

The entire congregation, inspired by her vibrancy, starts singing along “Why?,” as she proceeds to dance down the aisle. This scene puts to music a centuries-old phenomenon known as theodicy, which is when one attempts to understand why a good God permits evil and suffering to occur. Latifah’s singing is an echo of the ancient story of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures, who is one of the first biblical figures to ask why God allowed him to suffer so intensely. 

I’ve found my experience of the last few weeks resonates profoundly with Latifah’s fictional character and with Job. After several of my students lost parents and grandparents, and our community lost two of our beloved teachers, I feel the weight of this question, “Why?” On top of this, the news of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash and the reality that my ailing grandparents don’t have much more time to live only increases the burden of this question.

In the midst of all this pain and suffering, our community has attempted to make sense of what we are experiencing. I’m constantly moved by the way that we are able to come together and support each other. Whether it be when Ms. Stephanie Kranz asked to use my classroom to set up breakfast for Spencer Vespole’s family before the Memorial Service, or taking fourteen buses to Jersey City so the whole school can mourn the loss of Bill Petrick, to finding out how many teachers are taking on extra workloads to cover for Bill and Spencer’s classes—I must admit there is something truly exceptional that keeps our community together in such a way. 

In addition to this, several members of the community have shared inspiring thoughts, stories, and messages during Convo and the funeral/memorial services. We are often reminded that Bill and Spencer are in a better place now, and that they continue to be present in the community spiritually. It is consoling to remember the funny stories about them, and to celebrate the beautiful example they left behind. 

And yet, none of this clears up the question of why a good God, the God who claims to love us and “remain with us” unconditionally (cf. Matt 28:20), would allow us to go through one loss after another. Why would God allow such a passionate young teacher to die? Why would He take another who could have continued dedicating his life to education?

As a recent SBP alumnus said to me in a text message, “all people keep telling me is that God knows why He does certain things, but honestly, I feel like I’m at a point where I need way more than that. I can’t settle for ‘God knows why He’s doing these things.’” 

His text reminded me of a passage from God at the Ritz, a book I often read with the seniors in Religion class, by the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete. In his chapters on suffering, Albacete claims that “suffering is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” He decries sentimental “band-aids” and explanations that attempt to settle the profundity of the question “why?” 

“I reject that attempt to suppress the questioning—totally, strongly, passionately, completely, unreservedly. At no time will I cease asking why. To ask why is to be human. To those who tell me to shut up, to accept without asking why, I respond ‘Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?’ I hope my last word as I drop dead is this question.” 

As much as I believe that those who die are spiritually present, and as much as I cherish the memories, none of that can take away the pain of losing them. No consolation is enough to satisfy my need to understand why God allows these events to transpire. 

Albacete comes to the conclusion that this question must become the start of a journey, a journey that—if we intend to progress along it—requires that we invite others along the way with us. And it is here that Albacete posits that God can enter in. While God might not ever speak to us from a cloud or  text us as to why he allows these things to happen, Albacete points us to the image of Christ crucified. “God never promised to explain or ‘fix’ all of our suffering, but He did promise to take part in our suffering with us.”

Was it not Jesus Himself, while gasping for air on the cross, who asked His Father, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). The event of the Crucifixion demonstrates God’s willingness to enter in the midst of our pain to “co-suffer” with us, and to walk with us on that journey toward discovering the meaning of it all.

Christ died about 2,000 years ago. How is that supposed to help me while I’m dealing with what’s going on in 2020? All I know is that I need the love of Christ crucified to take flesh, to manifest itself today in my daily life. And I already see that happening through friends like that alumnus who are bold enough to live the fullness of his theodicy, without settling for cheap, partial answers. 

I share this pain and this question with the rest of our community, hoping to find the Mystery take flesh in each of your faces. Let’s take up this journey and co-suffer together, asking that the Source of our exceptional unity make Itself evermore tangibly present. 

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