Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Hurricane

Before time runs out on this, a few thoughts on Gustav.

I couldn't help remembering as I hunkered down outside, evacuated from New Orleans, in my first hurricane, and awed by the flying branches and snapping trees, Benedict's words in Barangaroo, Australia:
What do we discover? Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption. Some of you come from island nations whose very existence is threatened by rising water levels; others from nations suffering the effects of devastating drought. God’s wondrous creation is sometimes experienced as almost hostile to its stewards, even something dangerous. How can what is "good" appear so threatening?
The sentiments exactly, I imagine, of quite a few people here in God's beloved South. Maybe not from island nations, but parts of the U.S. below sea level. So, how can what is good appear as so threatening?

Ultimately of course, the answer is sin. Benedict points to the movement of the Holy Spirit over creation, and the need for the earth's stewards, us, to recover our place as respectful caretakers of the world. Unless we are in tune with the creative impulses of the Spirit, even as we govern the earth, we will only hurt her. As Hopkins' eloquently wrote:
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew-
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will made no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her.
Walker Percy had his own answer to hurricane season in The Last Gentleman. Near the beginning of the novel, he introduces his theory:
Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people too felt better in hurricanes -- though it must be admitted that he had studied only four people and one hurricane, evidence hardly adequate to support a scientific hypothesis. On real robin does suggest a spring, however.
The narrator describes a time with a girl, Donna, in Newport. During a hurricane, they hear the crying of a baby and for two hours spend time caring for and feeding it, sustained by a certain inner euphoric feeling. During this time when time condensed into the sacrament of the moment, "everything was yellow and still and charged with value." These are moments, I would guess, that we have all experienced, moments when disaster suddenly sharpens us sensually, for sure, so that we, as the father and son in McCarthy's The Road, experience the taste of peaches as a flavor beyond their wildest imagining. But also spiritually, so that our hearts and spirits are brought to bear on those nearest to us, and on that which is most needed in whatever the dire circumstance is. Such moments become "charged with value."

Now, whether or not we accept Percy's explanation rather than Job's or anyone else's, his point is that while the terror that comes from a hurricane may be the result of sin and evil, with the cross as our paradigm, it is now conversely most often within these terrible moments that love and concern and peace and many other human values often shine through. As Gordon Wenham has taught us in his careful chiasm of the flood narrative in Genesis, the central point of the entire narrative is in 8:1, "But God remembered Noah." While floods may come as the result of evil, God remembers us. And his memory of us, which alone maintains us in existence, also draws us towards that proper stewardship for which we were created.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

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