The first time I read Father Kevin O'Neil's "Why, God?" published in the NYTimes on Christmas of 2012, I was speechless at the article and how it moved me, and every time since, re-reading the article when I was feeling down gave me solace and perspective on the nature of tragedy, pain, and suffering.
My whole life, I couldn't answer the question of "Why?" If there was a true and just God, why would he allow such terrible tragedy to happen, from the separation of families at our border, to the genocide of the Rohingya in Burma, to the close family and friends that have lost their lives, to the awful things that have happened in our own lives. Suffering does not seem to stop, or be doled out righteously.
Father Kevin put it best with this question of people's faith: "How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn't seem to do the loving thing?"
Rev. Timothy Keller wrote "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering" to answer the same question: "I tried to understand why so many people resisted and rejected God. I soon realized that perhaps the main reason was affliction and suffering. How could a good God, a just God, a loving God, allow such misery, depravity, pain, and anguish?"
The question we ask all the time, from the skeptic who doesn't believe in a higher power, to the person who grew up their whole lives in a temple or church, is "Why?" We ask the question accusingly, because what we see, we perceive as unjustified and not righteous. The Book of Job, in which Job is punished for seemingly no reason, and doesn't seem to answer this question either, only that Job learns to trust God at the very end.
But in "Why, God?" Father Kevin offers an answer that I found uncommon, reassuring, and ultimately, liberating.
"The truest answer is: I don't know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger."
To have someone of his position just say the words "I don't know," to express even his lack of knowledge and doubt over something so difficult to explain, I don't know, felt revolutionary to me. I've looked for answers my whole life and been frustrated when they haven't been spoonfed to me, when a single day or even hour's toil hasn't been enough to get me what I need. Father Kevin, however, doesn't stop here:
"I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don't look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don't expect comfort to come from afar."
It's in this moment of the article that I think to myself "why I am I asking 'Why?'" The question of "Why?" is accusatory and implies there is something unnatural about what is going on. If suffering were something unnatural to the human condition, something entirely wrong, then we would be an entire society and culture of unnatural beings, of robots. We are not. The natural tendency of the human condition is to look away when people suffer, to push away and reject when we ourselves suffer, because suffering is inherently terrifying in its anxiety and uncertainty, in its pain. And even if we could answer the question of "Why?" What will having the answers solve? What will that change?
The question we have to ask is "how?" There are a multitude of inevitable things in life, but certainly among them are pain and suffering. We can try to minimize pain and suffering and try to "do something" to alleviate it for future generations and others, so certain tragedies never happen again. But how does that help the sufferer in the moment, the person in the furnace? How can we suffer well, and help each other suffer well? Father Kevin's answer is this:
"The God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago...God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God's presences."
When Father Kevin's younger brother, Brian, died, Father Kevin says that he "experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh." Even though they couldn't answer the question of "Why?", they were God's presence of unconditional love to him. "They held me up to preach at Brian's funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong."
Published on Christmas day, Father Kevin's final two paragraphs try to answer the topic of what Christmas truly celebrates. First, he defines mercy using another theologian's answer: "entering into the chaos of another." For Father Kevin, "Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I had a discussion with my minister, Stephen, the other day, about one way Christianity stands out in its tackling of suffering - and it was the fact that God suffered with us through Jesus Christ. He was the first among sufferers, and suffered profoundly, and let us know that we are not alone, that we are all in these trials of pain and suffering together.
But I digress. It is in the final two paragraphs that Father Kevin truly liberates the reader, and makes us realize this: we don't need to answer the question of "Why?" We have something that's far more meaningful, and it is in his personal experience that Father Kevin phrases it:
"I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love's presence to someone else, even as they are love's presence to me."
Like Father Kevin, I cannot answer the question of "Why?" I don't know everything, but even if I did, like Father Kevin, "no matter what response I give, it will always fall short." What this article taught me was that I didn't need to be right, and it wasn't even important for me to be right about that question. Because even if I am, that won't help anything, won't change anything.
How I can make the difference I personally want to make is to be an unconditionally loving presence like Father Kevin, who sat with a family from Peru who just lost a 3-year old girl in silence, and prayed with them, even though he knew little to no Spanish. The difference I want to make is to let people know that "they are not alone in their suffering and grief." The difference I want to make is to lead the way, to show that I, too, am always needy for God's mercy and grace, to show my own story of suffering and pain and give them strength.
I don't think I am this yet, but in some way, I want what I do with my life, and hopefully many things I do with my life, as a teacher, doctor, parent, husband, and friend, to be this: "an unconditionally loving presence [that] soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. That is a gift we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God's love is present and Christmas happens daily."