Brutality or Beatitude?
“So this is where we are. Ashes, ashes, all fall down. How could I have forgotten? Didn’t I see the heavens wiped shut just yesterday, on the road walking? Didn’t I fall from the dark of the stars to these senselit and noisome days? The great ridged granite millstone of time is illusion, for only the good is real; the great ridged granite millstone of space is illusion, for God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real. The pain within the millstones’ pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other—for world and all the products of extension—is real, vaunting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones’ sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you can get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother’s body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.”1
Today, I would like to reflect with you on the depth of suffering. I quote the above in full (and encourage you read it, aloud if possible) because this passage conveys the stunning futility that sometimes overwhelms us as we travel through this life. Truly, we are all wayfarers (viatores) here on earth. There is vanity in even the most satisfying of worldly pleasures. There is emptiness in the midst of every moment. There is impermanence, there is corruption, and there is, inevitably, death.
I have recently been confronted, in a new way, by the reality of sin in this world. This has occurred through my reading of two visceral stories, both of which involve the suffering of children. There are many blessings that come with parenthood, but I now believe one of these blessings to be quite “mixed.” I speak of a most-intimate kind of pain, the pain manifested when you look at the innocence of your child and realize that there are humans in this world who willingly and joyously subject such helpless creatures to the most horrific acts imaginable.
Two Accounts of Evil
To ground what I’m talking about in reality, I will share the two stories. First, there is the graphic depiction of violence and inhumanity recorded by Bartolomé de Las Casas in his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. “The wretched Spaniards,” he recounts,
“actively pursued the locals, both men and women alike, using wild dogs to track them and hunt them down. One woman, who was indisposed at the time and so not able to make good her escape, determined that the dogs should not tear her to pieces as they had done her neighbors and, taking a rope and tying her one-year-old child to her leg, hanged herself from a beam. Yet she was not in time to prevent the dogs from ripping the infant to pieces, even though a friar did arrive and baptize the infant before it died.”2
Perhaps our first reaction is to balk, to assume that this sort of evil is not possible. Surely the author was exaggerating! But against this kind of reaction, let us recall the horrific violence plaguing nations throughout the world at this very moment. One locus of such violence is northeastern Nigeria, where the Boko Harem recently decimated the town of Baga. In a story about refugees who sought shelter near Lake Chad, I was struck to the core by the irreparable and seemingly insufferable acts that this insurgency committed, indiscriminately, against the residents. No person was safe. The militants denied personhood itself to their victims—individuals (like the Indians the Las Casas account) made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 9:6)2.5; and possessing intrinsic dignity.
The toll of such actions is expressed in all-too-human terms by the sobs of a little girl named Fatima,3 whose dead eyes reveal a sense of loss that few of us can imagine. I say “all-too-human” because we in fact fear to acknowledge such sorrow, and to grasp that it plays a central role in the drama of human existence. As Dillard sees it, we are “tossed broadcast into time like so much grass, some ravening god’s sweet hay.”4 She too speaks from the perspective of one convicted by the suffering of a young child: in her novella a girl named “Julie Norwich” is permanently disfigured by a plane crash. By admitting that we are unable to explain the mystery of suffering, Dillard’s awe-inspiring work mitigates against human pride. The comforts of our lives must not lull us into a false sense of optimism. Confronted by terrible cries of pain, and aware of the unquenchable thirst for love as it is daily ripped away from children by arbitrary men with arbitrary principles, I can do nothing but wonder. Wonder, pray, and ask: “Why, God? What can all of this suffering possibly mean? Does human life mean nothing? Does ‘humanity’ even mean anything, given atrocities such as these? ”
There are no easy answers. God’s designs remain mysterious—backlit, perhaps, by something superluminous—but shrouded in darkness nonetheless. We can, however, examine the humanity (or lack thereof) constituent in shocking and heinous acts, and by this examination approach the threshold of hope.
The Floor of Hell
In his Inferno, Dante presents us with a cosmic mirror for human nature and its interplay with the divine. Speaking of hell, he describes its base in cyclical terms. Here all is frigid. Human activity and warmth have degenerated into a mere parody of life. In the tale of Ugolino and Ruggieri,5 we witness the following:
“As a famished man chews his crusts—so the one sinner / sank his teeth into the other’s nape / at the base of the skull, gnawing his loathsome dinner.” (Canto XXXII)
This consumption is different from “eating.” It’s a kind of gnawing that doesn’t satisfy (cf. Mark 9:48). It’s a turning over and over again of the same thing with no result, with no meaning behind it other than force, plain and simple. This action isn’t just animalistic—it’s bestial.
What we have here is a vivid image of sin; what it means to be so consumed by your own plotting and scheming that you say to your fellow viator, “I’m going to make you into me, at my behest.” The floor of hell is an empty horror. Fully embracing sin means neither life nor death, but consumption without satisfaction. This is the paradoxical density of nonbeing.
The ultimate picture of sin is Satan himself. In the Inferno, this so-called “lord” is merely a stultified and drooling creature stuck at the bottom of a pit. Every other entity we encounter in the Inferno, wants to say something to Dante. Even Ugolino pauses for a moment to at least tell his story. In contrast, the beast of all beasts is all three chomping mouths.6 This perverse imitation of the Trinity means that Satan gets exactly what he wants. He gets to be the still point of his own little universe, an unmoved mover in a world of his own fashioning. There is no humanity in Satan, because there is absolutely no impulse to move outside the self. In other words, he has rejected God—the Being that is inherently relational, that inherently reaches out to humanity and the world—completely.
Ascending back to the world of time, history, and events, let’s talk about the greatest atrocity our world has ever known: the betrayal of the only human being united perfectly to God. What does it mean that Judas was given the power to hand Christ over to suffering and death? The deepest betrayal you can ever commit is to take another and make his/her image and likeness into an object, or even worse, an extension of your own desire (pornography incites this sort of sin). And yet, the Son of God allowed this exact sort of betrayal to happen to him, and experienced its effects fully as separation from God. Ultimately, it is here that we find hope. Von Balthasar, in Love Alone is Credible, points to the suffering of Christ as the very core of our salvation: “Indeed, it is in the God-forsakenness of the Crucified One that we come to see what we have been redeemed and saved from: the definitive loss of God, a loss we could never have spared ourselves through any of our own efforts outside of grace.”7 Talk about good emerging from evil, life from death, redemption despite the depths of sin!
When we ask what remains of humanity in Judas, in the perpetrators who killed Fatima’s father, and in the conquistadores of Las Casas’s tale, we find a way into mystery. But this is not a mystery that we can solve like a detective story. We can’t just stack up Judas’s agency and God’s agency and then make a judgment about who effected what. Rather, we must realize that Judas’s story is meant to show us that freedom and responsibility are part and parcel to what it means to be a human being. God allows atrocities to happen, true. But does God allow meaninglessness? To believe that, my friends, would be to miss the “foolishness” of the cross (1 Cor 1:18). The powerlessness of sin and the powerlessness of Christ are radically opposed. The one brings death, the other eternal life.
So let us, in a resilient “vaunting” of the human spirit, refuse to accept the glamour of evil. We can resist. We can show love, sharing of ourselves to one another without compulsion. We can, with Paul, fill up the sufferings of Christ in our bodies (Col 1:24), and bear witness to the suffering servant whom we worship with our own sacrifices. In the words of Lumen Gentium, 64: “On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified.” Where sin binds us to ourselves, love obligates us to others. But in the end, the message of the Gospel is the we are fundamentally loved. Humanity has been embraced by Christ, that is the good news!
 Bartolomé de Las Casas, Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, trans. Anthony Pagden (Penguin, 1992), 74.
[2.5] The Scripture quotations contained herein are from The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Seen in the video attached to this BBC article: “Boko Haram crisis: The victims who fled over Lake Chad,” Thomas Fessy, 20 January 2015.
 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, 44.
 See http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/circle9.html for a study guide on these characters.
 See the final Canto, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1001/1001-h/1001-h.htm#CantoXXXIV.
 Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (Ignatius Press, 1963), 93.
Note: I owe most of the content about Dante in this reflection to my mentor, Dr. Kevin Hughes (Villanova). Thank you for inspiring others to love through your passionate theological work.
Image Courtesy of Gustave Dore, 1885.