It is hard for me to write a blog this week. So, I offer the words of James Martin, S.J., who posted these words on his facebook page the night of the tragedy:
Why do we pray in times of tragedy? Many people have asked me that through social media. I can only offer my own perspective.
We pray in tragedy because we are human beings and we feel the human need to express ourselves to God. It is impossible to stand before the Creator and not feel the desire to pour out our hearts and give voice to our sadness, our frustration, our confusion, our anger, even our doubt and despair. Even Jesus on the Cross, feeling a sense of abandonment, cried out to the Father, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We pray because we are human.
We pray in tragedy because God desires our honesty. God wants to be "nearer to me than I am to myself," as St. Augustine said. God wants to know what we are feeling, like any close friend would, and so we know that we can be honest with God. Think of Mary and Martha who rush from their house to see Jesus after their brother Lazarus has died, and cry out, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!" They are being honest with someone they love.
We pray in tragedy because we know that God can "take it." God has been listening to prayers for as long as human beings have been conscious of the divine. The psalms are filled with expressions of joy, gratitude and wonder, but also of sadness and anger and confusion. One entire category of psalms is the "lament psalms." "How long, O Lord?" begins Psalm 13. God can take it.
We pray in tragedy because we need help. We need help in knowing what to do, in trying to find a way forward, in seeking insight and wisdom. Or simply to continue living. We need God's grace, which the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once defined as "God's self-communication." We need that.
And the Christian prays to someone, Jesus Christ, who fully understands our suffering because he lived it. To paraphrase St. Paul wrote, we do not have a God who is removed from our sufferings. We do not have a God who pities us, as some wealthy person may pass a homeless person on the street and say, "What a shame." No, we have a God who suffered as we do, in almost every way. And who suffered a violent death. So Jesus understands us not simply because of his divine nature. That is, not simply because he is all knowing, all loving and all compassionate. But because of his human nature as well. He understands us because he was one of us.
How does God answer our prayers in tragedy? For some, it comes in feelings of comfort and peace. For others, through insights and clarity. For others in more visible ways: a phone call from a friend, a note that consoles, a Gospel reading that comforts. For others, in the relationship itself. That is, simply recalling that you are in relationship with God can be a comfort. In the case of great moral crimes, that is, suffering caused by human beings, like the killings in Paris (and elsewhere: Lebanon, Syria, and other places), we may be moved by God to act: to combat hatred, to work for peace, to lessen suffering. This is one way God moves in the world: by inspiring people to act for good. In other situations, like natural disasters and illnesses, that is, those events not caused by human beings, we may be moved to donate money for relief efforts, to comfort the victims personally, to be present to the one who suffers. In such ways are prayers answered.
Sometimes, though, it is very difficult to see how God is answering our prayers. And of course this is where faith comes in. I do not pretend to know how God answers prayers. Sometimes I don't understand things myself. Often it seems that my prayers aren't answered. But I don't need to understand God to believe in God.
The believer prays because he or she must. And the believer believes, and knows, and trusts, that God hears. And listens. And loves.