(I wrote this yesterday in light of the horrors in Las Vegas, but didn’t feel ready to hit publish until today. Praying that there be peace on earth that begins with me.)
I woke up this morning like much of America did, most likely. A blinking icon on my phone indicating a new WhatsApp message from my sister: a mass shooting at a country concert in Vegas. 50 shot, 20 dead. I swallowed a horrified gasp and re-directed the attention of my curious pint-sized audience. As the minutes past 6 am rolled by, the number climbed steadily, sickeningly, and after the school rush had settled, I sat down in front of my computer to, what? To watch amateur video of people being slaughtered? To read opinion pieces, gleaning information about the deranged killer? To form an opinion of my own?
After 20 minutes I slammed the laptop shut, feeling sickened and drained. Sick and tired of consuming stories of death, violence, and terror like so many electronic anti-vitamins, weakening the human spirit with a kind of paralyzing despair over the state of the world.
If the primary target in a terrorist attack is the physical crowd being preyed upon, the secondary victims fall along more etherial lines, stricken with horror from afar, overwhelmed by fear as they observe the chaos and confusion from a distance, wondering, if only to themselves, “could it happen here next?”
I scooped up the two year old and drove to our parish for an unplanned stop at daily Mass. An unfamiliar man with a strange hairstyle walked in halfway through the liturgy of the word and slid into a pew halfway up the church. My mind immediately started conjuring images of violence, and I mentally calculated the distance to each exit door, formulating a hypothetical escape plan should bullets start flying.
That is sick.
And that is exactly what the devil, that great and primary terrorist, wants for us: fear, consuming anxiety, distrust, and even hatred of our fellow man.
If I couldn’t keep my focus on God in the place where, in just a few minutes, He was about to become truly and physically present, then the enemy has won a decisive victory in my soul.
The reality is that none of us know the hour nor the circumstances of the end of time: our individual deaths. It could be an easy breezy commute home from work one night ending in a crunch of guardrail and a blinding flash of light and broken glass. A heart attack in the workplace. A freak accident at home. The slow crush of cancer. Or, yes, a hail of bullets from a madman’s weapon.
The only real control we wield in this life is over our own hearts.
And I am asking myself hard questions about my heart today, about whether I’m willing and likely open it up to a friend in need, a child, a stranger in distress, my spouse, or even someone I really can’t stand…do I navigate my day with an eye towards drawing in the lost, the lonely, and the grieving? Do I make myself available to a meddling neighbor, a grieving co-worker, a struggling friend, even a distraught looking customer service rep? Are there things in my life that take precedence over the precious human souls whom I encounter every day, all day long? Even if only online or in Costco?
59 people lost their lives last night in Las Vegas, as the current tally stands, including the shooter himself. Each one of them met their Maker under the most tragic and unanticipated circumstances, their lives cut violently and senselessly short while tapping their feet along to live music and enjoying adult beverages and a temperate desert evening. I imagine each of their loved ones are running through the “what ifs” of the events leading up to the concert. What if he had missed his flight? What if she hadn’t gotten the time off school? What if I’d given her something besides concert tickets as a birthday present? What if I’d begged him to stay home?
Terrorism wants us to believe that the world is a dangerous, hostile, and unpredictable war zone. That none of us are safe, no matter where we go. That the end is near.
And the truth is, we are at war in this world that is not our home. And at any moment, death, that final enemy, may come for any one of us. It could be something as innocuous as choking on a piece of food or something as horrific as a rain of bullets from the sky, but all of us are going to die one day.
The real question I should have been pondering during Mass this morning was not “how far away is the nearest exit?” but “What is the state of my heart? Am I ready to meet Him?”
The answer to that question should be the only thing capable of terrorizing us.
Take a moment today to lift up the people of Las Vegas in your prayers. And spend a little time this evening performing an examination of your own conscience.
The greatest evil any of us can face is an eternity of separation from God. This vision towards eternity should be the motivation behind our actions, our words, the way we live our lives, and the way in which we love each other. Terrorism will be defeated not by force, by law, or by political evolution, but by conversion of hearts. One soul at a time, one time-consuming, eternally-conseqential personal encounter with God after another.
May God give us peace, not as this broken, sin-wearied world can give, but the peace He alone can deliver. And may our eyes be lifted from our screens and the minutia of our own little daily dramas to truly see the people who we encounter, because, in the immortal words of C.S. Lewis,
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Technology fades. Babies are born, college degrees are earned, companies are founded and fold. Terror campaigns rage and wars begin and end. But eternity is forever.
“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28