Gerson: How we should pray — faith gets many of us through times of crushing  tragedy

Washington Post Writers Group
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — One thing we learn from tragedy: that there is always more to come.

We experience the death of a loved one, the suicide of a friend, the suffering of a child, and the harshness and pain of the world break in, unannounced and unwelcome. Few have been spared, and then only temporarily.

But sometimes there are moments when we experience tragedy, not individually, but collectively, as a country, in events that seem too terrible for a single day. This is what happened in Las Vegas, with bullets from the sky, bringing death, sudden and unearned. In days to come, we may learn the dark reasons or manias that produced homicide on such a scale. We will also hear more stories of self-sacrifice, as friends helped friends, and parents instinctively reached out to shield the bodies of their children. "They're 20," said one man. "I'm 53. I lived a good life."

All of us who interpret events for a living look into the abyss of tragedy and tend to see reasons for what brings us comfort. For some, it is passage of a law. For others, support for a religious or philosophic belief. The alternative, after all, is impotent silence. Some of these insights from the abyss may be profoundly true. But they are mainly about us. What matters more is the grief and loss of families, and the defiant remembering of each life. This will be the proper focus of the next few days.

That said, I do come at these events from a religious perspective, as some of the victims surely did, and as some of their loved ones surely do. The Christian faith involves a whisper from beyond time that death, while horrible, is not final – that the affirmations of the creeds and the inscriptions on tombstones are not lies. And for many, this hope is a barrier against despair.

Yet faith also encompasses something deeper and more difficult – what theologian Jurgen Moltmann has called "God's terrible silence." In that silence, only the scarred God, the weak and victimized God, the God of the cross seems to communicate. Not in words, but in a shocking example of lonely suffering. Christians turn to a God who once felt godforsaken, as all of us may feel in the nightmare of loss.

At this type of moment, even those with tenuous ties to religion offer their thoughts and prayers. But how should we pray? Concerning grief, as many can attest, it is not strength or struggle that matters most; it is perseverance. And that is as good a thing to pray for as any, for those who cannot see a future without their friend, without their child. Our attention is temporary; their suffering will not fade easily, if ever.

For the rest of us, there is the short, fragile unity found in sympathy. It is a good thing to take a break from hate and strife, to remember the victims and survivors and to recall our common vulnerability and humanity. There is ultimately no isolation from evil and death. But there is solidarity in facing the worst of it together, by caring for these people, our people, in their hour of loss.

Grief, it's been said, is the price of love. And events like this one naturally turn our minds to those we love. We are reminded by tragedy that life is temporary and precious. We hold others briefly in our arms, and try to reach out and shield them from harm. But it is the uncomfortable truth of our nature that our days together are counted and finite. And we should find a fierce pleasure in each one of them, even in those we think are the dullest and worst.

As time passes, of course, both our unity and sense of life's fragility will fade, which is also a truth of our nature. But they are somewhere, just below the surface, waiting to be summoned by joy or grief.