Paris is an iconic city for the world – a witness to freedom and democracy – the city of light. It is a culturally diverse city as are many American cities and is a beacon of tolerance in an increasingly intolerant world. The United States, and particularly New York, knows the experience of terror that Paris has once again witnessed. It is a blessing to see the people of the United States stand in solidarity with the people of France.
It must have felt like no stone of Paris’ great buildings would be left upon another, that all would be thrown down last Friday night in the 11th Arrondisement at the Bataclan concert hall where at least 89 died after being stormed by four gunmen, at La Belle Equipe, where at least 19 died in gun attacks, at La Casa Nostra pizzeria, where at least 5 died in gun attacks, and in the 10th Arrondisement at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, where at least 15 died in gun attacks.
At the same time, on the northern outskirts of Paris, 80,000 people had gathered to watch France play Germany at the Stade de France, when three explosions were heard outside the stadium. Three suicide bombers were found dead.
Parisiennes were out enjoying themselves on a typical Friday night in the French capital. All was right in their world until soon after 9:00 PM when the violence, the carnage began.
What begets such unfathomable, unspeakable violence? What turns the heart of a mother’s child to such rage and hatred that he or she would take the life of another mother’s child? What is the source of such evil? Where does it come from?
Great thinkers have spent their lives searching for such an understanding. To one – Augustine, who wrote in the fourth century – anything that had being was good. For him, the loss of good receives the name 'evil,' for evil always injures, and injury is a deprivation of good. Evil, then, is like a moral hole, a nothingness that results when goodness is removed. Just as a shadow is nothing more than a "hole" in light, evil is a hole in goodness.
But where does it come from? How does it become a part of our nature? Augustine observed that evil could not be chosen, one can only turn away from the good. To Augustine, the source of evil is in the free will of persons – a perversion of the will, turned from goodness.
Make no mistake, evil is real. It is a spoiled goodness made possible by our free moral agency as rational creatures. Evil is not something present, but something missing, a privation of that which is good.
Curiously, the possibility of evil also makes a greater good possible. We are part of a world in which true moral decision-making and the development of virtues is possible in humans, manifest by character formed through growth, through perseverance, and through struggle.
What may be hard for us to appreciate is that when viewed as a whole that which appears to be evil, ultimately contributes to the greater good.
Virtues like courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, caring, sensitivity, comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, honesty, suffering in the face adversity, submission, obedience, even love – could not exist without the presence of evil. Just as evil is a result of acts of will, so is virtue.
Last Saturday, as I strolled through my neighborhood, a man walked up to a group of musicians who were playing a bass, a violin, and an accordion. An exchange occurred between them and then, the violinist rose from his chair and stood next to the accordionist and they began to play La Marseillaise – the French National Anthem. Its sounds pierced the neighborhood. For a moment, some turned and stood still. It was a window into the better angels of ourselves.
A little later, as I entered our local market, a small group of people were handing out a flier, encouraging shoppers to buy from a list of food items; perhaps an extra item or two, to donate to those who suffer from want, from hunger, from need. And you know, shoppers were participating, yet another window into the better angels of our selves.
After last Friday’s tragedy, built upon what increasingly feels as the new normal of our lives, the feeling that not one stone of our great buildings will be left upon another; all will be thrown down, must feel so real.
We think about our own lives at a time like this and reflect on our own blessings – the gift of those in our lives, our opportunities for service, and the joys we experience in our hearts, and at our tables, and in our homes.
And at the same time we cannot but help to pause and think with great sadness about those whose lives were destroyed or filled with hurt from such unspeakable violence in Paris, Beirut, in a plane blown from the sky.
We wonder, and sometimes we even dare to ask, how is it that we are so fortunate, so very blessed in this life, and yet others must experience such tragedy?
Unfortunately, there are no adequate answers to this question. It is yet a part of the great mystery of our lives. There is no blueprint for us to read to make the answer clear. There is no secret code to decipher to render the mystery instantly comprehensible.
Yet we can come to understand some of it if we are willing to journey in goodness with one another and be agents of service in a broken world.
It is our call to love generously with all our hearts, minds, and souls and to love each other as ourselves. And in so doing we are able to create circles, endless circles of love and build and share lasting memories of the heart. This is the stuff of life that makes life worth living and weeping for and celebrating.
It is that privilege of knowing and experiencing generous love that allows us to rejoice and celebrate the blessings of our own lives. It is that same privilege allows us to shed tears for those we know or those we will never know.
Our sadness, our sorrow, even our tears are coping gifts. They allow us and give us permission to express the depth of our feelings. And they well up in us each time we realize the temporariness, the impermanence of our existence and those we love. But while much is passing away, much remains. There is a beginning, there is a here and now, and there is a future.
By grace, life goes beyond the immediate and leads us into a future, to a place and time where we are all knit into one fabric and all things are brought together again. This gives us hope and strength and the courage to live out our lives faithfully, even joyfully.
The meditations of our hearts are our opportunity to enter into dialogue with the eternal, to offer our deepest most heartfelt concerns and needs, and to claim the promise of life. In our meditations is strength for our hopes, a place to leave our burdens, the promise of unconditional love, and the promise of renewal in the days ahead.
I am convinced that out of love we were created. Through love, we are redeemed. With love, we are sustained.