By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK
Appearances can be deceiving. This overworn adage being so because, human nature being what it is, we must often be reminded of the foolishness, and sometimes the danger, of judging reality purely by what is palpable to our sense of sight.
To our eyes the seeming solidity of the Earth upon which we tread and supporting that which we build seems dependable enough. It’s a pretty good working hypothesis. I take walks and run quite often. When jogging on the trail I have to keep a pretty good eye open for roots or holes lest I take a nasty spill. It’s because the ground is soft and more gentle on my joints that I avoid paved surfaces. But even those need repair after winter melting and refreezing opens up potholes once again.
One need only briefly linger around a construction site or by the waterfront to see the hidden structures necessary deep in the earth or undersea beneath every building or pier which serve merely to buffer the effects of settling.
Depend inadvisably we do, all the same, upon the monumentality of structures, the grander the better, to give ourselves a sense of importance, perhaps more so for the benefit of others than ourselves.
Each man’s “castle” is his home. Many families measure success by the size of their mortgage. The bigger the better, according to some. Hence the pyramids of Egypt, the palaces of Versailles and Caserta, the Coliseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
We sometimes lean too heavily upon that which is prone to failure and lose our own sense of self in the process. Hence the rumored suicide of the architect responsible for the massive pile of stone in Rome along the Tiber and very close to St. Peter’s, the Palace of Justice. It began to crack and settle soon after it was unveiled. Critics of the architect’s lack of provision precisely for a solid foundation to support the monumental edifice, to include a parliamentary inquest, dogged him until the end of his life. As recently as 1970 a restoration process was made necessary by faults revealed after the Second World War.
It seems the lesson here might be should never lose ourselves in our work. A difficult challenge for human architects. Only the Creator is above criticism for the reason that His handiwork alone is never uneven in quality or beauty. It is God Himself however who forbids us to build our house on sand. He wasn’t speaking, of course, of the poor victims of the massive earthquakes in Turkey and Syria this month. The tragedy reminded us all that we cannot depend upon anything created for ultimate stability and that Earth, despite appearances, was never designed to ever be quite solid beneath our feet. Certainly not by the One who made it out of nothing.
A New York Times account attempted to limn the nearly indescribable horror:
“The earthquakes were horrific on their own. First — shortly after 4 a.m. local time on Monday — came Turkey’s strongest quake in more than 80 years, followed hours later by an unusually powerful aftershock. The latest death count is more than 5,000 and will probably rise.
“Compounding the damage are three existing crises in the region where the quakes hit, near the Syrian border in southern Turkey: first, Syria’s civil war; second, a surge of refugees into Turkey because of the war; third, economic problems in both countries.”
The cold winter weather has added immeasurably to the tragedy as a vast number of rescuers work across the quake zones, sometimes with bare hands, to rescue those still alive. As I write, the death toll has surpassed 11k and rising. Difficult humanly to comprehend.
As the videos flooded the internet, we saw the ground shaking with buildings toppling upon it, crumbling like a children’s playthings and trapping sleeping occupants within. Building after building came down, crumpled like matchsticks by the force of the angry Earth.
Those who live in places at greater risk, as must we all, plan for the worst and hope for the best. But there are many who in poverty still use structures that are not retrofitted. This latest shaking was historic, akin to a previous tragedy in the same region in the 1990s killed 17k. With many more injured as well.
History and statistics do not render an ongoing horrific experience any less so. We pray and send aid, with many rescue teams converging on the affected areas from all over the world. We mourn and pray for the dead as I did at holy Mass in the aftermath, while celebrating and giving thanks for each person saved. In particular it is the sight of children being brought alive out of the wreckage that gives hope, no matter how some of them may have to struggle in the future to live on as orphans.
The witness given by the victims themselves serves as a reminder that helps us all. As their world around them crumbled, and what was once the security of homes, stores, and offices became instead a threat to life as they tumbled to the ground, we saw and heard them call out to God. They acknowledged in their moment of great need under existential threat in prayer a truth that joins our humanity to theirs: The spiritual is more solid than the physical.
In the midst of death and dying we realize most readily what the Lord meant when He urged us to build on solid rock. Not upon the physical elements forged in the Earth’s core by fire or the sediment left after the floods. Instead, He urges us to build on Him alone, that the house He has given to each one of us of soul and body may survive the forces He set at play in creating or the final fragility and impermanence of flesh itself. The eternal soul needs more than what we can see.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it” (Matt. 7:24-27).
The One who made the Earth and all that is in it Himself here reveals its only seeming solidity. That which provides a firm foundation wonderfully is Christ, whom we see, and hear and receive through His Church. For that reason, we also say that the Body of Christ is the foundation we can trust for our lives. We can go securely to the Church always for everything in Christ that the world cannot give.
“Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).
Jesus Christ is the Word which passes not away. And receiving Him present in the Eucharist is the foundation for life now and eternally, from which no floods, earthquakes — no threat — can separate us. For this reason, He is in the sacrament, our “viaticum,” the One who goes with us, and in whom we go when we pass from this life.
“It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 60:63).
Whether by natural disaster or the mortal limits of the body itself, however our lives end, it is faith alone, persevering, which gives access for us to the solidity of God Himself, the spiritual from which the physical came and to which it goes, we pray, one day forever.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Thank you for reading.