During college, a professor with a flair for storytelling once detailed how Thomas Aquinas came to end his career. For those unfamiliar, the legend says Aquinas claimed he had experiences so miraculous at Mass one day that it led him to claim, “all I have written is like straw.” This brilliant man, who lived a life devoted to searching for Truth and produced hundreds of works, now deemed his life’s efforts insignificant in light of the visions. From that day onward, he wrote nothing more.
In similar manner, the priest celebrating Mass earlier today made a similar claim in his homily about the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. He echoed the popular sentiments that the events of last Thursday night were “senseless” and said our human urge to ask “why” was a matter of the heart, not the mind. We cannot comprehend the tragedy, so we confess in the shadow of something deemed too great for our beings that it is like straw.
My professor did not conclude that story on Aquinas by using the now-created image of a pious genius as something for us as enraptured first year theology students to strive for. The professor instead concluded with a warning as we entered into the unknown of dialoguing with God – “beware of any person who too quickly claims it is all like straw.”
The very journey of wrestling with faith, mired in thoughts that fail to answer the doubt, evil, and suffering we experience is important. Given enough time we know these can fade away, replaced by glorified visions and unspeakable truths that believers like Aquinas encounter. Recall importantly though, these only emerge after years and decades of struggle.
Individually and corporately, Americans quickly rush to claim mass shootings are “like straw” – and for this we must be wary. Unlike the master thinker who endures the pain of the wrestling, we desire to overlook the pain and prematurely admit incomprehension without even seeking to comprehend first. If, in the wake of these most recent deaths, we fail to undergo hardship in a search for answers, we lose another opportunity to save future lives.
Our search for “why” is only partially of the heart, in the sense human beings develop theodicies of why evil happens. Looking for “why” also comes from our knowledge that only a broken system allows massacres and the divine in us drives forward to a fix. The search for “why” is of the mind because mass shootings are not senseless; in light of American society as it stands, the reasons for Aurora are abundant.
Details still forthcoming, so I only conjecture about this specific instance – but these thoughts ring true generally for the violence in our nation.
Because no person should easily access high-powered, military-style assault weapons accompanied with stockpiled munitions and tactical gear. Fallacious appeals to the Second Amendment, driven by an out of control pro-gun lobby, should not continue to endanger this nation’s youth and the world’s conflict zones where guns seep into. Prioritizing one’s pleasure in hunting or marksmanship over the inevitable deadly impact guns inflict on the poor and marginalized is pure wrong.
Because the apparent failures of American healthcare only compound when mental health is the issue. Serial failings to those afflicted by illness that eventually manifest in violence directly result from inadequate attention and resources, not to mention compassion, guided towards those in need. Paradoxically, the attention mental illness does receive in constant cries to write off mass murder as the act of a “crazy man” or “psychotic break” harms public perceptions of those with mental illness and efforts at effectively treating the various problems.
Because young people upon graduating cannot be burdened with no employment prospects and skyrocketing student loans that eliminate a future. No child or youth should suffer from stunted educational systems that prohibit them from even fathoming a diploma. Hopelessness amongst young adults today transforms from comedy to endemic affliction, as we retreat into excessively individualized entertainment machines.
The “whys” expand in an ever-growing litany that, taken in composite, allows us to see how Aurora and other mass shootings are the opposite of senseless. Witnessed against the societal milieu of uninhibited guns and extolled violence coupled with a support system of education, healthcare, and social services collapsing as need rises and resources are slashed, these acts are almost sensible (although certainly never justifiable).
I returned to my professor’s words at Mass because I sincerely hope we heed his warning. Let us not be too quick to take the pain of Aurora and compartmentalize it in the “like straw” category of unattainable knowledge before seeking to answer “why.”
Because I am confident, even when we justifiably deem inexplicable violence “like straw” after sustained and painful interior wrestling, we will have saved lives through that struggle by enacting better public policy and increased compassion.