We leave our warm beds, get dressed, and drive to our studio in the early, grey morning. It's as dark at 8:30 am as it will be in the late afternoon; this is the long dark trek through deep winter. Our boots clatter up the metal staircase and we unlock the loft; I make coffee and do some exercises and stretches, and then run up several flights of stairs, walking quickly down the long hallways. On the far end of the building a grimy window looks out over the city: white snow creating a rectangular patchwork of roofs; centre-ville in the distance; smoke billowing from industrial chimneys, and everywhere the tall verdegris spires puncturing the low grey sky, silent exclamation points rising from the hollow chambers of the enormous, nearly-abandoned churches that define each parish of the city of Montreal.
To the northeast of here, in a direction I can't see from the window, is a community of Haitians; I know one family, from the cathedral; the father is an Anglican priest, born in Haiti, who ministers to the French-speaking Anglicans in that part of the city. There are a lot of immigrants from the French West Indies here, and a number of them are Anglican. Today, looking out over these cold roofs in the opposite direction, away from the immigrant poor and toward the wealth of the city center and, further to the south, the United States, I feel their despair and sorrow like the brath of the incessant arctic wind on the back of my neck. I have read the deluge of predictable comments on Twitter and Facebook, tried to absorb the headlines and the awful pictures: "7,000 people have already been buried in a mass grave." I write a note to the person I know best in this family. Mostly, though, I'm numb.
People are asking why. They always do, when tragedy strikes, but it's a lot easier to package the story and wrap up our feelings when we read the biography of a deranged or angry killer and say to ourselves, "yes, I can sort of understand, he was traumatized, he was crazy, he went off his head because he lost his job and felt the world was against him" than when the perpetrator is the very earth under our feet.
Of course some have a ready answer. In Handel's Messiah, a few weeks back, I listened to the bass soloist singing words from the prophet Haggai, instructing the Jews to rebuild the temple after their return from captivity, and warning about the consequences of his wrath:
"Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts; Yet once a little while and I will shake the heav'ns and the earth, the sea and the dry land: And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come."
The Book of Haggai was composed in 520 B.C.E., after King Cyrus of Persia had decreed that the Jews could be released from their captivity in Babylon and return to Judea. Handel, writing his oratorio in 1741 (the libretto was actually by Charles Jennens) knew little more than the ancients about the cause of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or violent storms; "Divine Providence" was to be thanked for safety and victory, and "Divine Retribution," meted out to nations in the form of natural punishment or defeat in war, was to be feared. Even though we know now that we sit on shifting geologic plates, whose movement causes these natural disasters, self-righteous preachers still claim God's wrath, prophesy the apocalypse, and infuse believers with a conviction that the victims somehow deserve their "punishment." It makes me crazy, especially so because the worst offenders are Christian fundamentalists, who have managed to tar the entire faith and, incredibly, still influence politics and education -- even in the supposedly fact-based, "modern," and developed world -- with their misguided, retrograde, unscientific and often hateful beliefs.
There is a clear scientific "why": it's because Haiti is located in a region of active tectonic activity that results in earthquakes, tsunamis, and violent volcanic eruptions. But the spiritual "whys" - "Why have so many people died there?" "Why have they died instead of me?" "What can I do to understand and respond to such human suffering?" - which ought be at the heart of religious teaching and practice, have rarely been so since the time of Constantine, when the Church first became aligned with the power of the State.
More on both of these subjects in the following posts.