The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 4, 2001


Old answers to unwanted questions

Thoughts on the tragedy in Newton

In the Catholic tradition, when a baby or young child dies, a Mass of resurrection is said in order to celebrate and give thanks that the little one’s soul is in heaven. There is no funeral Mass because, in a spiritual way, there was no death. Baptism removes a sin that was inherited, not committed, and until the age of reason, a child is believed to be incapable of sin, and sin is the only bar to entry into heaven. The belief that a child has been welcomed into heaven at the moment of physical death to join the angels and saints gives some comfort to the family left behind, but usually not enough. The parents of a child who dies will forever mark their lives by the death. Whatever came before will be tinged with awful innocence and, like light through a stained glass window, everything that comes after will be altered.

My nephew died when he was fourteen months old of an infection that his damaged heart made it impossible for him to fight. During the Mass before his burial I listened to the priest, and although I’m not a religious person, I hoped that his words would lift some of the pain that had descended on our family. When, after the Lord’s Prayer, he asked God to “grant us peace in our day,” I felt like he had read my mind. For the first time, the prayers I had memorized by sheer repetition before I even knew the meaning of the words (trespass, womb, temptation), broke free of the ritual that had kept them meaningless to me. Peace is not a slogan or a pretty idea. It is the opposite of grief, confusion and fear. Peace is relief from pain.

How often do we feel the kind of pain that threatens to overwhelm us? Not very often, since we live in a world of obstetricians and immunizations and clean water. There are emotional and psychological crises that medicine and technology cannot prevent, but disease, war and starvation, not divorce or depression, are what drive people to churches, pleading for peace in our day.

In other times, mothers had their children baptized the way we put helmets on them when they ride their bikes. With hope that they will be safe and in fear that something terrible will happen. The hope comes from the belief that the helmet really will protect them, and the fear from the knowledge that awful accidents do happen.

But, here and now, where death is not an ever-present danger, only unexpected, unpreventable tragedy can strike with the force of pain that science has made us unaccustomed to. Religion has lost its urgency in our culture, not because we don’t need God, since the nature of God is an abstraction to be considered quietly, but because we don’t need peace. We don’t need relief from overwhelming pain. Except, sometimes we do. At those times, when tragedy is a stunning blow, people look for answers to questions they never thought they’d have to ask. Those answers, usually found in religion, are very old and mostly forgotten. Not that baptized babies go to heaven or Jesus walked on water or even that God exists. But that grief after a child dies seems uncontainable, and in order to keep living, the ones left behind need to find peace.

And when other people’s children die, children just like ours, we get a faint sense of a devastating pain that we aren’t prepared for. We hope that by whatever means possible, divine or earthly depending on our beliefs, that those parents will be granted peace, if not today, at least in their lifetimes.

+YEAR+ The Carlisle Mosquito