How can we go on after tragedy,
when life will never be the same?

Question: Some time has passed since the attack on the United States on September 11. Coming to terms with what has happened seems impossible. How can I begin to think about resuming my life when so much has changed, forever?

Friday, October 5, 2001 was a beautiful sunny day in New York City. A sister I know who is a New York City police chaplain invited another priest and me to go to the Great Kills Landfill in Staten Island. That's where they are bringing the remains of the World Trade Center by trucks and barges to be sifted and examined by an army of people from various government agencies. The sister goes to visit the people who are working there; they are very dedicated people doing a hard job, and she said they would welcome seeing a couple of priests. So we went.

The top of the landfill is a surreal scene. The grey debris from the tragedy is everywhere. A mass of ruins. Nothing seems living there, except the people dressed in white, picking carefully, quietly through the debris, almost in slow motion.

There is a trailer in one corner, with an American flag flying over it, and that's where human remains are stored till they can be identified. So we went there and prayed for the victims of the September 11th tragedy. It was Friday afternoon, after all, the day another tragedy took place long ago.

Words from the Prophet Habakkuk9-11 may throw light on what we are experiencing today. Habakkuk is not a major Jewish prophet; he has left us only a few pages. But they describe very forcefully a tragic event that befell him and his people. Babylonian armies swept into Judea unexpectedly; they brutally destroyed everything in their path, and then vanished as quickly as they came.

They were "terrible and dreadful," says Habakkuk, "having no laws but their own. Swifter than leopards were their horses, keener than wolves in the night. Like eagles they dove to devour, they fell on us like a stormwind. They laughed at our fortresses and then veered away like the wind and are gone." (Habakkuk 1,7-10)

The prophet, filled with anger and bewilderment, complained to God about it. We are not a perfect people, he says, but do we deserve this? You can still hear anger and bewilderment in his words from centuries ago.

"How long, O Lord? I cry for help
But you do not listen!
I cry out to you, 'Violence!'
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look on misery?
Destruction and violence are before me." Habakkuk 1,2-3

God is silent.

And the prophet cannot bear the silence. Like a guard, Habakkuk says, I will take my place at the watch-post and wait until my distant God answers my complaint. Finally, God speaks:

"Write down the vision
clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
If it delays, wait for it,
It will surely come, it will not be late." (Habakkuk 2,2-3)

It's important when we face tragedy to learn from others who have faced it. Look at the prophet's anger and bewilderment. Isn't that what people experience when tragedy strikes?

Then, there is the silence of God. Doesn't that accompany tragedy too? Why did you not prevent it, we ask God All-knowing, All-loving, All-Wise? Why do you seem unconcerned? Why did it happen? But God does not answer.

Jesus on the CrossDespite the droning noise of heavy machinery moving the debris, the landfill at Great Kills is a silent place. It is covered with the silence that accompanies tragedy. The silence of Calvary.

Workers at "Ground Zero" the other day discovered two steel beams in the wreckage shaped like a Cross. They stopped work and reverently set it up amidst the ruins. They took it as a sign that God was there in that tragic place.

Yes, God is there and the Cross is his sign. The Cross is always a sign of God's silence. How silent God was on Calvary at the death of Jesus. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cries from his tragic Cross. No answer came from heaven above.

When God finally speaks, as he does to the prophet, he does not answer questions. He re-affirms his promises. Rewrite the promise in your heart, God tells him, believe again, hope again, hold on to a vision of life. It will surely come. I bring life, not death, God says.

When God's answer came to Jesus, it was not as an explanation, but as a gift of new life. When all seemed lost, Jesus was raised from the dead.

Tragedy is a time that we bear the silence of God, but also a time to rewrite his promises in our heart.

The Book of Habakkuk ends with the prophet's prayer, that we could call

A Survivor's Prayer:

I hear, and my body trembles;
At the sound, my lips quiver...

For though the fig tree blossom not
nor the fruit of the olive fail
And the terraces produce no nourishment.
though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet will I rejoice in my saving God.
God, my Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet swift as those of hinds
and enables me to go upon the heights.
(Habakkuk 3,16-19)

See also: How do we deal with evil and its tragic consequences?
and When the Towers Fell, by Maureen Skelly, SCH, police chaplain in New York City
and Retreat in Time of Sorrow,
a virtual retreat directed by Columkille Regan, C.P.

This "Ask a Catholic" response was taken from a homily by Fr Victor Hoagland, C.P.
delivered for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time on October 7, 2001
at St Mary's Church in Colt's Neck, New Jersey USA

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