While the horrific shooting of schoolchildren and their teachers was taking place inside the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday morning, my students and I were discussing the final chapters of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Here is one of the passages we paused over from Book XIII:
For this worldly order in all its beauty will pass away. All these things that are very good will come to an end when the limit of their existence is reached. They have been allotted their morning and their evening.
Later in the afternoon I sat with a young woman I am reading the Hebrew bible with in an independent study and we shared our reactions to the fascinating and soul-enlivening Book of Ecclesiastes, including these famous lines:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance…
When our conversation concluded I learned that two of my students had brushes with personal tragedy and disease this week. And then I clicked over to the New York Times website and was shocked to discover what had happened in Connecticut.
The profundity and lyricism of Augustine and the preacher suddenly seemed like far-off luxuries, misplaced bromides. In the face of twenty children dying at the hands of an armed man, accepting comfort by viewing loss as the inevitable, ordered consequence of life is offensive, cruel, false. The children in Newtown had not begun to “reach the limit of their existence.” It was still the bright morning, not the “allotted evening,” of their young lives. As President Obama said in his emotional remarks on Friday afternoon, these young souls “had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
There is no way to understand tragedies like these in an ontological framework of the cosmos. This is what the Onion was trying to get at in its well-intentioned but, in my view, awful parody of how Americans are responding to the Connecticut massacre. The traditional religious responses to loss — it is God’s will, God works in mysterious ways, blessed is the righteous judge, there is a time for everything — are inapposite here. They seem to avoid the the matter, or to gloss it irreligiously. A godless, heinous act is a perversion of the natural order, not a reflection of it. That is the desperation and horror we feel when contemplating the bloody scene inside the elementary school: the sense that nothing but nothing can make it make sense.