Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Tragedy and Triumph

Father John J. Lombardi

One man chose evil actions; another chose magnanimous deeds. One man filled with vile; another with virtue. One chose violence and vice; another valor and right.

Jesus Christ Himself describes the valorous man: "No greater love hath a man than to lay down his life for another" (Jn.15:13).

Last week at Virginia Tech, 32 people were gunned down. Amidst the tragedy there was triumph. The tragedy came in the slayings of innocent students and teachers in Blacksburg, and with it, triumph of the human spirit-in the heroic response of some. What are some lessons of Virginia Tech?....

The tragic man was Cho Seung-Hui; the triumphant man was Liviu Librescu. While the killer was spraying gunshots around and seeking entrance to a room full of people, this man, Mr.Librescu--who survived the Holocaust decades ago--kept the door shut with his body in front of it while students escaped by a window, and took a spray of bullets and was killed while saving others. Now, he was a man like all of us, but: this particular man answered the call to valor, courage, command and confidence.

Some may feel deeply the tragedy of the whole situation and, in particular, that this Holocaust-survivor lived thru that evil only to be gunned down meaninglessly last week. But, perhaps, there is another way to perceive this: perhaps he survived the Holocaust because he was "allowed" this to perform virtuous action in Blacksburg to save other lives: triumph. Obviously we should not lighten the tragedy-aspect-there is evil in the world and it is aggressive (see below). But amidst evils, sometimes, good may come of it.

Now, as we read the quote of Jesus above about His call for a man laying down his life for another, we may be used to applying and interpreting it as to both men and women equally. Okay, fair enough. However, does Jesus mean it also more directly for each of us men in particular? After all, St Paul describes a man loving his wife in heroic fashion (Eph. 5:24ff), as Christ Himself laid down His own Life for His Bride, the Church. And, also, all the men-apostles laid down their lives in martyrdom. So: this seems to be an essential characteristic of men-to lay down their lives for, shall we call it "The Three C's of Courage": for community (other humans), for country, for Church. Do you?

What are some other lessons of Virginia Tech? What is evil? Theologians since St. Augustine have defined evil as "the privation of good-prvatio boni". That may sound, well, theological, kinda' sterile-especially in regard to the Virginia Tech slayings. But I thought of that definition in regards to this evil event, and thought some more. Perhaps this definition means, re-interpreted: things are not perfect, people included-and when things are decaying, are vulnerable, anything may happen-evil included. There is then always the possibility for evil to occur, take over and ensue within imperfect beings. After all, we know even good people can do bad things. There is both a lack of perfection and a privation within many-and unless a being is perfect, in any given moment darkness can fill the void. Thus: we must constantly convert ourselves to the Lord, to perfection-where things cannot go wrong-at least as best we can plan and prepare for that-always being in the Lord Jesus Christ. Privatio boni may also mean that every being, by nature, may have some good within it-even the most evil person, and thus we must pray and help those persons involved in evil, or evil actions, to re-collect, re-member their being-in-God, the Supreme Being. Privatio boni may also mean that when there is this privation, this lack of goodness within a person, the evil (principle, force of spirit) may take over more the being, or person, and thus compel them to act in bad ways. Upshot: "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). Now, some scattered quotes I've heard (can't remember the speakers about V.-Tech and comments: "All have dealt with fear, but heroes use it as rocket fuel to act"-- What a wise observation! So: use your fear to impel, inspire and instigate you to act for good. Don't get dissed, dis-compelled or paralyzed by your fears: "Perfect love casts out fear" (I Jn. 4:18). Fear and courage, darkness and light cannot co-exist in the same mind and heart of a person; so keep casting out the fear and embrace holy courage like Christ, the Apostles and other heroes.

"These heroes are not thinking about themselves selfishly, but they are thinking of others, of the common good. There is a silver lining in all this-there are still heroes in today's world"-Love is selfless and causes us to "come out of ourselves" - "our self-imprisonments and constraining false containers of self (see II Cor 3:16ff)--to act for others-even to lay down our lives for them. Do not be imprisoned by your incompleteness, but be selfless.

"We need mentors and heroes in our culture and in our circles of influence."-.We need, simply, men and women of valor and courage to show and exemplify to others the way to freedom and love, i.e., "Don't tell me, show me;" and "It's more caught than taught" and "Deeds not words." In other words, Love in action is an antidote for evil in the world, so "rise to the occasion"! One of our Mt St Mary's professors said that it is good to know that, at Virginia Tech, some "stood up"-and reacted bravely-not only Mr. Libresu but also a student who did a similar action and saved others, and who himself survived. It is good to know, the professor said, that a campus community fosters such courage.

"A killer doesn't get like this overnight":--Yes, true. Like good persons they are formed, or, in this case, mis-formed-by violence in video games for instance, in contemporary culture's glory of machismo, in lack of love, in isolation, thru amalgamation with evil forces. We must learn to detect the signs of mis-information and be courageous to help persons stuck in it, even if it means embarrassment or miscues. Always be teaching others thru word and example the Way to Light and Love.

"We have to name good and evil in our world today."-Because of a culture of non-judgementality and immersion in violence (there are over 200 million handguns in the USA today), have we grown despondent and immune to some evil forces today? Don't.

"Tsunami of carnage." -this is one description I heard of the slayings, and it is forceful and right on (as best I could detect), as it shows the force of evil in our lives when it is unleashed and undetected. While we may sometimes have command and control of our lives, sometimes, evil manifests in serious and assertive ways. While we may be sad in the face of evil manifestations-we are human, after all-always remember: we are in a struggle against evil and principalities and darkness (Eph 6:12). Instead of coddling youth-with a me, me, me style of constant demanding and giving-in-to-we need to teach, role model and develop heroism. How many of us require or expect good actions and manners and even heroism in others and our youth today-or do we simply acquiesce to dumbed-down actions and attitudes? Heighten the expectation of love and more likely souls will "rise to the occasion".

"There is a difference between explaining behavior and excusing it." While possibly explaining that the Virginia Tech killer may have been neglected or that he was a loner or that his brain functions (serotonin) didn't function properly (and so forth, however true), we need remember that culpability does not always rule out free will--choosing harmful actions. How can you take full responsibility for your own actions and continue to be awakened so as to know and freely choose what you are doing-not evil, but good?

For further reflection:

Just think-and respond, point blank: Are you choosing cowardice or courage in your life? Do you remember the story of that virtuous hero in New York City, months ago who saved another man who fell into a train track with an onrushing subway train fast approaching? The heroic man covered the other guy with his body and saved his life as the train sped over both of them. In an instant the hero made a decision to use his body-lay down his life-for another. Was it his nature-a virtue developed within him over time-that helped him do that action, or just sheer instantaneous free will reaction? Maybe both, but: How do you develop valor and courage in life to, as the Coast Guard motto has it, always be prepared (Semper paratis)?

In the wake of this tragedy let us pray to our Crucified and Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ to come into all hearts to revive us to new life. Let our response be: our constant conversion to Jesus Christ; to be in solidarity with all the victims and their families; and also for Cho Seung-Hui, that he, too, be redeemed, like the Good Thief on the Cross, in some merciful way.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi