“There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death, and the difference between these two ways is great” (the Didache).
The recent and not-so-recent spate of school shootings, and the killings in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and other locations should be a wake-up call to America. This kind of thing has been going on for quite a while and with escalating frequency. One has to wonder if America and the media have ears to hear and eyes to see, or if their perception is so distorted that they are missing the obvious. As Struther Martin’s warden character said to Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke character: “What we got here is failure to communicate.”
Flannery O’Connor said that her stories of grotesquely violent characters were efforts to shout loud enough for hearing-impaired America to hear the message of God’s grace.
Maybe the media is communicating in spite of itself. Maybe the message is so plain on its face that the American people will get it even if the media transmitting the screaming, streaming video doesn’t. Maybe we need to turn off the sound and just look at the pictures when we watch the news. What we see is men doing what comes naturally, unimpeded by any sense of moral absolutes which can only come from an absolute source. And absolutes are something America will absolutely not tolerate.
The killers seem to have the common traits of hopelessness and despair, which built up to an angry explosion of violence. Though some of these cases may involve truly psychotic individuals, it would be hard to make the case that most of them fit that diagnosis. More often than not we are witnessing the manifestation of a sickness of soul rather than of the brain. Though a spiritual sickness, it is just as natural as a physical disease and may even cause physical and mental illness. It certainly brings death to the victims and often their assailants, too.
Natural man with a fallen nature is not the mythic product of Rousseau’s Enlightenment imagination, the noble savage who still inhabits the thinking of our secular world. He is man on a downward track that can only end in death and destruction, unless redeemed, transformed and sustained by supernatural grace.
In stark contrast to the hopelessness, despair, and violence that has burst upon them, among the families of the victims in Lancaster we see evidence of the fruits of the Spirit as, even in their pain, they exhibit evidence of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These are people doing what comes supernaturally in the face of almost preternatural evil. Only grace, the life of God within them, can explain their ability to resist the force of the storm and not be swept away by their own hate in response to the brutal murders of those they loved. We have seen this grace before at work in the families of those killed at Columbine and in other places.
The Amish of Lancaster are so radical a witness to grace that the nation is stunned into an almost reverent awe and silence. What sustains them? It is nothing natural. Only the Spirit produces this kind of life, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and prays for the one who has murdered their children in cold blood. What we got here is communication: a holy communication that transfigures natural men into supernatural children of God. Let us pray that we become such witnesses, the floodgates of God’s grace open upon the world.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Stephen Pohl is a graduate of Towson State University with a degree in Theater Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are members of St. Gabriel's parish.