On Friday night, November 13, 2015, from 9:20 to 9:40 p.m., six places in the city of Paris were attacked by suicide-bombers and gunmen. People rooting for their team at a soccer stadium, people listening to an American rock band at a famous theater, people washing their clothes at a laundromat, and people sharing their time together at neighborhood restaurants were the targets. Among these were those in wheel chairs attending the band concert at the Bataclan concert hall. Jane Wilson, who herself was shot there, told her friend Mary Sheridan, “They corralled the wheelchair spectators on the first floor balcony and shot them each individually.”
Who were these attackers? What caused them to do it? One view that I heard on the John Batchelor show the next night was that their motivation was like that of the Greek Achilles, who risked his life by ruthlessly fighting against the warriors of Troy so as to receive the honor, and especially the fame, that came with it from his fellow Athenians. However, these Paris attackers had a motivation extracted from a religious ideology that called not just for a violent struggle in war but also a ruthless destruction of anything and anyone opposed to their belief. They have the belief that afterwards a “God-like” society would be established on earth. And they, by sacrificing their lives for this purpose, whether by their being killed by their opponents or blown up by themselves, would be the heroes of such a struggle and forever remembered. Moreover, they believed that the more they could kill, the greater would be their fame.
How is one to stop this? With no risk to ourselves, we are using drones to take out key persons of ISIS. Seeing that their financial wherewithal has to be destroyed, one politician said, “bomb the [expletive] out of” the oil fields seized by the Islamic State. Others have called for not just a proxy war fought by other countries, but for “more boots on the ground”—namely, for our own citizens to be going in there and killing these ruthless, religious murderers.
Yes, there is such a thing as a just war, and those who sacrifice their lives to defeat our enemies in such a war are indeed heroes, and deserve to be honored. If they are never given fame, we can at least keep them in our heart out of a sense of gratitude.
But another thought came to me the next morning. Thinking about so many lives in Paris being maimed and even destroyed, and having the view that their destruction was a case of a wrongheaded pursuit of religious heroism, I prepared for Mass. Looking through the Missal, I found a votive Mass that seemed most appropriate. It was entitled: “In time of war or civil disturbance.”
There were two alternate prayers for the beginning of the Mass. One was: “O God, author and lover of peace . . . defend against every attack those who cry to you, so that we who trust in your protection, may not fear the weapons of any foe.”
Of course. There indeed is a need of bravery against our foes.
But then I looked at the other opening prayer. It calls on God to “crush wars and cast down the proud,” yet not by crushing our foes. Rather, it asks that God will be “pleased to banish violence swiftly and from our midst to wipe away all tears, so that we may all truly deserve to be called your children.”
Not war against our enemies, but a change in heart in both them and us is what the prayer asks for.
Does this seem to be weakness? Yes, it does seem to be. But there are stories where prayer is not the weakest force but the strongest. Listening to National Public Radio last week, I heard a Puerto Rican woman tell a story about her mother. The woman said her family was the first of the Puerto Ricans to occupy the apartment building. Later, two more families came, both from the same area of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, the two families had been in a long standing feud, and they brought that feud with them. Because of it, they even resorted to cursing one another, not in words but in signs, like putting dust or pennies at the other’s door, and as a final blow, marking a grave with signs of a curse. That was the final outrage for the Puerto Rican’s mother. She went to each of their apartment doors and banged on them. When one did not answer, she shouted, “I know you are in there. You have to stop this. You are disturbing my children.” The voice from inside came back and in English said, “Mind your own business!” So the Puerto Rican woman’s mother decided on another approach. She went to her own apartment bedroom, her “war room,” opened its window, and loud enough for her two neighbors to hear, she began to read passages from the Holy Bible. For almost two days she did this. Then, as the daughter recounted, one of the feuding families moved out. A little later, the other family did, too. When the daughter, who was very young at the time, went outside the apartment, she found on the ground rolled up pieces of paper. When she opened them, she found they were pages from the Bible. She then realized that her mother not only “heralded” the Word of God to these two feuding neighbors but she also “hurled” the written word of God at them too. “In weakness there is strength.”
There is also the story of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. When she was fifteen or so, she read in the paper about a man who was arrested and convicted of murder. She read that he showed no sign of repentance. So Thérèse resolved to pray for him with all fervor so that he would repent and go to heaven. The day of his execution, he mounted the scaffold, and just before putting his head in the guillotine, he reached out, grabbed the cross from the priest who was praying for him, and kissed it. Upon reading this, Thérèse was convinced that her prayers contributed to his conversion.
And what is my point? As powerful as wars can be, and as great as the hatred behind them can mount, more powerful is the work of God, which we can call upon by our prayers. When Paul was troubled by a thorn in his flesh and asked to be delivered of it, he heard Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” On receiving these words, Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Why do I write this to you who are CUSANS? Two reasons. One is that you personally can identify with those who were killed. As you have read, some of them had disabilities just like you. They had no means to defend themselves; they could not overcome their attackers.
The other reason regards your own disability. Every day you are reminded of what you cannot do, or perhaps reminded of what you used to do faster, or more easily, or with less effort. Now you could say, “Oh, forget it,” or you could say, quite bravely, “This is my weakness, Lord. So as you said to Paul, may you say to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
But you could add, “Lord, may this, my disability, be my kind of sacrifice and my kind of heroism to defeat the enemy.” And going one step further, you could say, “Lord, may this today, that so reminds me of my weakness, also remind me to make it the kind of sacrifice that St. Thérèse made for the conversion of that man. May my disability be the kind of prayer and sacrifice by which you ‘crush wars and cast down the proud,’ and the kind of sacrifice through which you will be ‘pleased to banish violence swiftly from our midst,’ and ‘wipe away all tears’ so that we—the terrified and the terrorist—may be converted and ‘truly deserve to be called your children.’”
This I wish for you. And, presuming you will be reading this letter around Christmas, may I also wish you what is written in the communion antiphon of the same votive Mass, “In time of war or civil disturbance”:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, says the Lord. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”