The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Most of you who are reading this will remember exactly what you were doing on the eleventh day of this month twenty years ago. If you are a young reader and do not have a personal memory of the day, you have surely seen images and heard about it many times.

I was a junior in college north of Boston in the fall of 2001, and on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, my roommate Peter and I were getting ready for our first class—econometrics, if I recall—when we heard that a plane had crashed into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. Initially we held out hope, along with the newsmen, that it was an accident. Soon, however, the second plane had hit and it was clear we were dealing with a terrorist attack. All remaining classes were cancelled and I spent the rest of the day, like everyone else, in anxious conversation with friends and family, saying a lot of prayers, and watching replays of the falling towers over and over again. Stunned and tearful, we tried to come to terms with what had happened.

Mysterium iniquitatis

For all the specificity and clarity of the memory of 9/11, in a deeper way what happened that day remains opaque, eluding the human capacity to make sense of it even twenty years later. We can of course explain the technical details of how 9/11 happened, such as security oversights, the personal history of the hijackers, and the strategy they employed that Tuesday morning. At its core, though, evil is in itself unintelligible: it is that mystery of iniquity to which Catholic tradition refers—something inescapably dark, ever to leave us wondering, “Why would someone do that? How could someone do that?”

Philosophers define evil as nonbeing—a deprivation, or “privation,” of the due order and rationality that good human action demands. While any particular evil action may to a degree be explained—someone, say, may be consumed by a disordered and insatiable pursuit of pleasure, or blinded by a disordered and twisted understanding of justice—there is always something fundamentally “off” about a sinful act. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all experience this, even if in less sensational ways. Do we not often ask ourselves, “Why did I do that?” when we know we’ve done something wrong? Saint Paul himself described the experience memorably: What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate (Rom 7:15).

Mysterium fidei

When we encounter the mystery of faith, on the other hand, we confront a reality so profoundly interesting and satisfactory to the human mind that it can be relentlessly pondered and loved. In fact, all the individual mysteries or truths of the faith that we contemplate—the twenty mysteries of the Rosary, for example—are (to borrow a classic metaphor) like the refracted and individual colors of a rainbow which are all contained in the pure white light of the central mystery that is God himself. As one Dominican theologian I know has said, we call God a mystery not because he is incomprehensible but because he is endlessly comprehensible. This is why the beatific vision, or the state of seeing God in heaven, will last forever. No angel or saint will ever be bored with gazing at the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the moment, as Father Garrigou-Lagrange has written, “we do not see how infinite goodness harmonizes with the permission of evil, even of unspeakable malice. We know indeed that God does not permit evil except for a greater good, but we do not clearly see this greater good. But in heaven everything becomes clear, particularly the value of trials we ourselves have suffered.” By looking at God we will also, finally, fully understand the deep meaning of all the mysteries of our faith, especially the Incarnation and the Passion. We will see how all of our own prayers, how every Mass, and even all the suffering God has permitted throughout human history has contributed to his glory and our salvation.

Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Hope

This year September 11 falls on a Saturday. As is our custom here in the pages of Magnificat, we feature a Mass in honor of the Blessed Mother. She stands as a radiant example that evil is not the final word. She is one who, as the day’s Gospel describes, dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built. In the midst of the profoundest of sorrows Mary remained serene and confident in the redemptive love of God. She knew that, for all its injustice and horror, the death of her innocent and divine Son was his hour of glory. “While the mystery of evil is profound,” Pope Francis said, “the reality of God’s love poured out through Jesus is infinite and victorious.”

9/11 will not be the last tragedy our country or world will know. We will continue to face moral evils (including our own personal sins), natural disasters, and, as we have learned, pandemics. But whenever we experience our human limitations to understand, prevent, or solve problems, we can always turn our mind to the goodness of God, trusting that one day he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain (cf. Rev 21:4). Yes, he will make good on that promise: Behold, I make all things new.