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Staining the Silence

July 6, 2011

For my second “guest post” here at Vox Nova, I had originally intended to write on one of several subjects that have claimed my interest lately, such as the application of Catholic Social Teaching to the rebuilding of local economies. I also considered offering a reflection on one of my favorite devotional books. I thought maybe something on de Caussade’s “Abandonment” or da Bergamo’s “Humility of Heart” might be appropriate.

But life has a way of hammering the cruelest twists into our finely wrought plans. You see, last week a close relative of mine was in a one-car motor vehicle accident. Worse, she was over the legal limit for alcohol. Worse still, it was her second DUI in nine months and she now faces jail time, heavy fines, and many years without a driver’s license. As has happened so often before, the disease that lurks in her mind like a caged beast has broken its bars and ravaged her hopes for a different, better life.

A confession: For the past three years I have only been able to muster one prayer. It is offered for a select few people in my life and goes like this: “Guide and protect them, O Lord. Keep them healthy in mind and body. Kindle in them the fire of your love, and give them peace.” I first composed this prayer when my son went off to fight in Iraq, during the so-called “surge” of 2007. At first I prayed specifically for his safe return; but it soon occurred to me that prayers for safe returns had been offered by thousands – tens of thousands – of parents whose children had come back from Iraq or Afghanistan maimed or dead. What right did I have to ask that my son be spared? More to the point, could I even believe in a God who might answer my prayer while ignoring the pleas of all those others? And so, I stopped asking. Instead, I composed the most generic of prayers – one that has as much to do with a disposition of heart as with the circumstances of life and death.

My son did return safely, only to go back once more and return safely yet again. He served honorably in a dishonorable war, and came back whole. Was it grace or luck? Should I thank God, or thank my lucky stars? I didn’t know then and today I’m no closer to the answer. I do know that I’m still praying that prayer. But this week, in the wake of another loved one’s brush with death, I’ve had to ask the grace-luck question all over again, including its implications for the proper allocation of my very real thankfulness. In this morning’s newspaper, there’s a story about a young man who was killed last night in a one-car auto accident. Was anyone praying for him? Was anyone protecting him? Was his death just bad luck or some awful form of grace? If I give thanks to God for saving my family member’s life, does another family have the right to assign him the blame for their crushing loss?

I know that the Scripture calls us to “give thanks in all things,” and that “my ways are not your ways.” I also know that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and that “there is an appointed hour for everything.” No one gets out of here alive. But in between the sunshine and the rain, in the decades or moments before those appointed hours, there are questions. There are even doubts. Most of us don’t have the time, the capacity, or the will to dive deeply into scholarly debates about theodicy and the interplay between free will and grace. We collapse into bed after long, busy days. We think about work, food, sex, family, and the bills. We read when we can, pray when we’re able, and mouth easy answers not because we believe them, but precisely because they are easy. We take the questions that flummox philosophers and set them aside; at least until we’re confronted with the reality that life is far more complex than we would like to think. I am confronting that reality this week, and I’m sorry to say I have no real or satisfying answers.

In moments like this, I often find solace – or at least simple companionship – in poetry. This week, my companion has been a poem by Mark Jarman titled “Five Psalms,”which reads in part:

First forgive the silence

That answers prayer,

Then forgive the prayer

That stains the silence.

Excuse the absence

That feels like presence,

Then excuse the feeling

That insists on presence.

Pardon the delay

Of revelation,

Then ask pardon for revealing

Your impatience.

Forgive God

For being only a word,

Then ask God to forgive

The betrayal of language.

  1. Julian Barkin permalink
    July 6, 2011 10:20 pm

    In my opinion, I think that it was your strong prayers for your son that kept him sane and whole admist that immoral war. Just imagine what your son’s fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God. Imagine if no one cared about his spiritual self while away and he was left to defend for himself against other colleauges/soldiers of opposite mindset, and only his physical gear as his companion and self defense. So you deserve thanks, for keeping him in your prayers and in God’s mind, prayers … um don’t know what is the appropriate word here, maybe “hands”?

    • July 7, 2011 10:24 am

      Julian, thank you.

    • JDE permalink
      July 28, 2011 7:33 am

      “Just imagine what your son’s fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God.”

      So those who died, or were permanently maimed, or will spend the rest of their lives suffering from PTSD – they simply weren’t fortunate enough to have someone praying for them? God stands there, wringing his hands, saying, “Gee, I’d like to help you, but there’s nothing I can do – no one is praying for you.”?

    • July 29, 2011 8:22 am

      Just imagine what your son’s fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God.

      Exactly the same? Any reason to think God takes any notice of prayers or decides only intercedes on behalf of those being prayed for? Does God not watch all from the smallest bird to the best of men? Assuming God does intervene it is nothing short of evil to suggest He only helps those who have others asking for it rather than those that need it.

      • brettsalkeld permalink*
        July 29, 2011 9:11 am

        “Blessings not just for the ones who kneel . . . luckily.”

  2. Ronald King permalink
    July 7, 2011 5:07 am

    Mark, Your prayers are acts and statements of love that unite you to God and those you love. I think that is all we can do and hope that our prayers strengthen the relationship with God for ourselves and those we pray for. In the end, love is the greatest gift. Thanks to God that those you love have you.

  3. July 7, 2011 7:42 am

    Powerfully said, Mark. I find myself in the same boat, more or less convinced that philosophy and theology cannot answer this question. I’ve reach the point that I’ve stopped thinking of God as intervening in the world in a way that materially saves some and allows the harm or death of others. The God on the Cross doesn’t eradicate suffering and death; He humbly embraces these and shares them with us.

    • July 7, 2011 10:59 am

      That is precisely my view. The alternative is to believe that God’s will is either wholly capricious or hopelessly inscrutable. I have a friend who often speaks of “God’s plan for our lives,” a catch-all phrase into which he shoehorns all the good and evil that attends to or afflicts us. My response is that 30,000 children die of malnutrition in this world each day, many of them in the dust, like animals. Can I believe that they are each simply living (or dying) out God’s unique “plan” for them? Can I believe that while also believing that God’s “plan” for me includes a lucrative new contract, a great bargain at the new car lot, or even the safe return of my son? No.

      You have it exactly right. When someone speaks of “God’s plan,” I say: Look at the Cross. That is God’s plan … for me, for those I love, for those children in the dust, for all humanity. The god of capricious and inscrutable plans isn’t the God we serve. That god’s name is Moloch.

      • July 7, 2011 11:56 am

        It reminds me of the Flannery O’Connor statement “People like to think Christianity is a warm blanket, when in reality it is the cross.” Still, I think we must also pray expecting miracles. Matt 17:20 with even a tiny bit of faith we can move mountains. That is out of the mouth of Jesus.

        Mark, I could relate to your internal debate regarding what to pray for when your son served. I had the same dilemma when my loved ones served. I decided to continue to pray and pray for those Iraqis and Afghans as well.

        I conclude that many times when we pray, we pray to be God. We want to control outcomes, we want to tell Him how to do it. Sometimes the only prayer I can say is “your will be done and give me the grace to accept it.”

      • July 7, 2011 2:05 pm

        Sofia, YES! Since my most recent personal encounters with these questions have had to do with alcholoism and its effects, I have learned a lot about “control” and the need to abandon it in order to heal. It’s not for nothing that the first of the 12 Steps is “we admitted we were powerless …”

  4. Phillip permalink
    July 7, 2011 7:53 am


    These are profound questions. I lost a friend several months back to a drunk driver. The driver was on the freeway headed south in a northbound lane. My friend was involved in her local parish with faith formation, visited hospice patients with her dog and was starting the process to become a foster parent. A note by a friend of the drunk driver found Googling the accident stated that the drunk was looking forward to a comic book convention the weekend after the accident.

    Hard to understand. If she had been a few minutes delayed or (less likely knowing her) a few minutes early, she would not have died.

    There is mystery in this. A mystery that, as Kyle notes above, cannot be answered with our reason. Only Faith, in time and through prayer, will begin to make sense of it. That and, as noted again by Kyle, by uniting this pain with the Cross in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    • July 7, 2011 2:09 pm

      Philip, I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. Thank you for your moving observation.

  5. SAF permalink
    July 7, 2011 8:06 am

    Yes, Mark and Kyle. Very powerfully said. I don’t have anything to add except that I agree, and you’re not alone in this.

  6. July 7, 2011 1:29 pm

    Thank you for this, Mark. Great post.

  7. July 7, 2011 2:39 pm

    Mark: you have shown the tragic beauty of love to me in this post. Thank you.


  8. Roseann Buchanan permalink
    July 7, 2011 3:31 pm

    Beauty that is revealed in dark mystery….no doubt.

  9. Anne permalink
    July 8, 2011 2:51 pm

    I sympathize, no I empathize, with everything you say, Mark, but setting aside the hope of answered prayer for specific needs goes against everything Christians have been doing since the first crowds began following Jesus. Most did so in the hope of healing, and not of some spiritual or existential problem as modern writers so often claim, but of plain-out painful or debilitating physical suffering. The healings when they came increased their faith, but they initially had enough faith to believe he could heal them. So what do we do with that? Turn it all into metaphor? How, when even today hundreds of thousands of pilgrims daily make their way to shrines all over the world in the hope of one thing: not to be told Christianity is the cross, but that their faith offers them hope, hope for both eternal life and a merciful end to their sufferings right here on earth? Are they wrong?

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      July 9, 2011 12:21 pm

      Anne, I don’t discount the possibility of miracles. But if the word “miraculous” means anything at all, it means an exceedingly rare, supernatural intervention into the ordinary world of suffering and death. One can believe in miracles and still have to account for the fact that Christians lose their jobs, homes, health, and lives exactly as all other people. The question is: does God orchestrate all of this? Is he a divine Poobah capriciously and inscrutably playing puppetmaster with the fates of men and women? I think not … and I can say that while still holding out the possibility that God sometimes intervenes for his own purposes, which are altogether just and righteous.

      Your question about healing in Scripture places the emphasis in the wrong place, I think. The question isn’t why people sought healing from Jesus. The question is why he healed them. Did he heal everyone who asked? We don’t know. We do know that he healed some who didn’t ask, such as the man who was possessed by demons. If Christ healed him, a man who didn’t ask, why didn’t he heal everyone who didn’t ask? Why wasn’t our Lord’s time here on earth known as a period when all human suffering and death disappeared? I would suggest that Jesus healed in order to demonstrate his own power and attest to the identity he claimed for himself. He wasn’t healing for healing’s sake, but so that those crowds – and we – would come to believe, with Peter, that he was the Christ, the son of the living God.

      My struggle with this is conditioned by my own experience, of course. My father, the godliest man I knew, was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 42. He left a widow and three teenaged sons. A few years later, my mother, a woman of insuperable faith, was struck by a debilitating heart disease. She has suffered with her condition for almost 30 years, remaining faithful (and joyful) throughout it all. Was this “God’s plan” for my parents’ lives? Was God responsible for manipulating the physics that brought a tour bus into contact with our family car, killing my dad? Did he will giant cell myocarditis on my mother, and then arbitrarily refuse to heal her for the next thirty years, in spite of an unending chorus of prayers? No. God didn’t do any of those things. Instead, through the Cross, I know that he was with us in our suffering after my dad’s death. And he has been with my mom like a dogged friend for thirty years.

      Are the sick “wrong” to ask for healing? Of course not. A thirsty man is never wrong to ask for a drink. But let me ask you: Is God wrong for not answering those prayers? After all, if one has the power and the opportunity to relieve suffering, isn’t there a moral obligation to do so? So, is God on the hook? I can say “No,” because I don’t think he is in that business, except in extraordinary circumstances, and not for reasons that make sense to us.

  10. Mandy Cat permalink
    July 10, 2011 11:15 am

    I have always found most of the tenets of organized religions inexplicable (except as an unappetizing gumbo of superstition, power politics, wishful thinking and misogyny) but the idea of intercessory prayer on behalf of certain people whom we ourselves happen to know is the most offensive. Apparently God emcees a sort of Celestial American Idol contest, where the participants with the most votes win. Good news for the sweet Catholic mother of nine devout children but not so nice for the homeless guy dying alone in a charity hospital ward.

    • Mark Gordon permalink
      July 10, 2011 3:22 pm

      For the record, I wouldn’t associate myself with these sentiments. I don’t think cynicism is an adequate substitute for the “tenets of organized religions,” and most of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “spiritualities” I’ve encountered include more than their fair share of superstition, power politics, and wishful thinking.

  11. Jonathan Delafield permalink
    July 28, 2011 7:56 am

    Have you considered the more logical explanation – that there is no one there to whom you are praying?

  12. July 28, 2011 10:34 am

    You’re asking some bold and unsettling questions here, which is great. I’ve thought about these questions, too. The conclusion I came to is that there isn’t any all-powerful deity watching over us yet refusing to help. The world has made much more sense to me since leaving god-belief behind. Now rather than praying for a god to change the world, I try to change things myself.

  13. July 28, 2011 12:13 pm

    The atheist’s answer is still the simplest and most persuasive: Suffering happens because there is no god, no cosmic overseer dispensing justice. There’s only randomness and the impersonal forces of nature, which sometimes act in our favor and sometimes against.

    The only ones who are there for us in times of tragedy are our fellow human beings, and we must rely on each other if we want to make this world a better one.

    It’s not the most comforting answer, but it has the benefit of being true, and contains no mysteries, no paradoxes, no unsolved contradictions that simply must be accepted on faith.

    • moondog permalink
      August 3, 2011 7:33 am

      DrDave, I agree with your sentiments, but when you quote someone else, it’s common courtesy to indicate such. Your entire comment is a quote from’s Ebonmuse who wrote the post “They Have No Answer” based on Mark Gordon’s post here.

  14. M.Z. permalink
    July 29, 2011 8:31 am

    Admin Note: Mark is on vacation. Typically we have contributors who write the post approve comments. I’ve decided to approve the comments since they are innocuous and Mark is unavailable. If you write on other forums that your comment is unlikely to be approved, why on earth should we approve it? We have, because it is innocuous, but submitting comments that you believe only have a 50/50 chance of approval is by definition trollish behavior. Rest assured that none of us live in a bubble and are well familiar with these devastating retorts. (And yes that was sarcasm.)

  15. Mark Gordon permalink
    July 31, 2011 2:30 pm

    M.Z., thanks for approving comments in my absence. Calvinists and atheists are the two classes of people with whom I no longer engage in debate. In my experience, they are both dogmatic, inflexible, uncharitable, and unwilling to acknowledge any ambiguity, paradox, or even apparent contradiction in their own points of view. My time and energy is too limited to waste on those who have all the answers anyway.

  16. Ronald King permalink
    August 3, 2011 9:21 am

    God does not dispense justice. God instills justice.


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