When unspeakable tragedy occurs — the sort of tragedy which now afflicts Phillip Walsh’s family — a natural question arises. Is God absent?
It’s not a bad question. By that I mean it’s not a sinful question. In fact the question arises quite often in the Bible, especially in the psalms. Our Lord was quoting from one of those psalms when he cried from the cross: Eli Eli lema sabachthani?
Is God absent? is a good question to ask — and now I mean an appropriate question to ask — when we find ourselves in the middle of affliction.
But when we are onlookers, I think it might be the wrong question. When we are bystanders to another person’s suffering, a better question, I think, is How can I make God present?
In some ways, that is a scandalous question, but ours is a scandalous religion. God repeatedly makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on creatures. The Scandal of the Incarnation. The Scandal of the Nativity. The Scandal of the Cross. The ongoing Scandal of the Eucharist.
This strange dependency of God, despite His omnipotency, is evident in a different way in this Sunday’s Gospel:
Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
No faith = no miracles. He will not work alone.
So, in the face of unspeakable suffering, when God is apparently absent, it falls to us to make Him present. Or more precisely, to make His presence known.
In the first place, this is achieved by intercessory prayer. We should not underestimate the power of the prayers we pray for others. Pope Francis likens it to “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity:
It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people.
Evangelii Gaudium, 283
And then, of course, God also expects us to act on His behalf. Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, in the words of St Teresa of Avila.
In practical terms, that means that when a friend or acquaintance is afflicted by grief, we need to be present. Whether that takes the form of a visit or a phone call or a letter is a matter of discernment: prayerful dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
But we need to overcome the temptation to stay away. To give people space. To pay our respect from a distance.
We don’t need to formulate the right words. We don’t need to contrive the right emotional posture. We just need to be present. When we are present, with our prayers and with our affection, then we have an answer to that question. God is present insofar as we are present.