by Caryn Tennant

When the news reached my ears that Paris had undergone terrorist attacks, it was difficult to get it out of my mind. “Pray for Paris” was the trending line across social media. It was interesting to me that the world responded with prayer.

The shock, the grief, the anger and the question, “Why?” will be felt by many. What drives people to such evil? While the focus was placed on Paris, there are many other cities and countries ravaged by violence, poverty or both. The tragic slaughter of 147 students in Garissa University, Kenya by al-Shabab, occurring just one day before the Paris attacks is just one other example of inhumanity. Elsewhere, hunger is the killer. Recently, I saw photos of Karamoja, Uganda which has the lowest development indicators in any region in the world. Here natural disasters, drought and malnutrition are the terrorists.  Why is the world so messed up?

I am sure that many people, especially when directly targeted by these things, do not feel like praying as urged by the hashtags and Eiffel tower blurbs. It is difficult to see how God’s presence could permeate such sadness. I say this because I feel one with those – both religious and secular – who might wonder, “Where is God?”

That Saturday when the news broke, I was house-sitting in Mowbray and I just happened to be a couple of houses down from a Catholic Church. I decided to walk there in the early evening as the Cape Town sun danced prettily in the still street. A comforting smell of braai smoke filtered through the air as I imagined a family somewhere enjoying each other’s company. Mowbray was a corner of quiet while the rest of the world was in chaos.

When I arrived, I was told that the church would only open in half an hour. So I sat on a bench in a small rose garden. Despite the restlessness I had felt all day, I willed myself to pray. Thirty minutes to spare meant that I could pray the Rosary. This is not a thoughtless, repetitive prayer, but a vivid contemplation on the life of Christ. I chose to pray the Sorrowful Mysteries – a reflection about the trials that Jesus faced.

The first Sorrowful Mystery is the ‘Agony in the Garden’. The Rosary is a prayer of petition while drawing us into communion with Christ as we relive His moments on earth, identifying with His mercy and love. All the while reflecting, Mary, His Mother prays for us and gives our petitions to Jesus so that we might draw closer to Him. Just as a friend can pray for me on earth, so Mary (and all the Saints and souls in heaven) can intercede for me. They are especially useful prayer partners because they are directly situated in the presence of God.

Now, while I was praying in the garden of roses, I was aware that this was a synchronous image to Jesus being in the Garden of Gethsemane, the first Sorrowful Mystery. This brought me deeper into how He must have felt the night before the Roman soldiers would brutally murder Him in front of many congregations of people.

In this garden, Jesus was alone. His friends were there, but they were sleeping.  Aware of His fate, Jesus couldn’t sleep. Although He knew the necessity of His death, He had a moment – a very human moment. He asked that this “cup might pass Him by” – that God, the Father, could perhaps spare Him. And then we are told that He wept.

The fact that Jesus was a perfect, sinless human being can cause us to downplay Jesus’ humanity. In theological terms, Jesus is a hypostatic union, a crazy combination of being 100% God and 100% man. He was God’s Son, a human being, made of the very same material and emotions as me. Bones, hair, sweat, blood, fear, love, humour, personality, likes and dislikes. Someone needing comfort, security, friendship and happiness. A human subject to pain and to humiliation. Yes, He was perfect because He was God’s Son and He knew that His heinous death would redeem sin and cover the darkest of evils, but in this garden, hours before His death, Jesus wept.

He felt not only His own pain, but the pain of generations before Him, the pain of every soul reading this article now and the pain of a messed up world. He felt the cries of the people in Paris begging for answers. He felt the pain of despairing yells, “Where is God now?”

He felt it all. And He wept.

Eventually the church doors opened. Before getting up, I was aware that between the fence and I was a bustling world. People on bikes, restaurants and petrol stations, the thinning creeper letting me glimpse into the divide where some align themselves to a religion and some loathe it. For many, the Church is just a church, a building, a shell, not the Body of Christ.

I remember my sister telling me about one of her days travelling in Europe. She was walking with a new friend who was a self-admitted atheist. As they passed a cathedral, she decided she would go in to behold its ancient architecture and pray. But as he looked at its historic walls, he expressed that he had no desire to go into what he could only appreciate as a ‘monument’, sharing that it holds no profundity for him. She respected his opinion, but often looks back to that conversation, marvelling at how this church for him was stripped bare – truthless and aweless.

As I walked into the church, I thought of how bizarre it might seem to someone else. Why seek God in a world that is clearly godless? Doesn’t the evil of today prove God’s absence?

But for me, walking into a church, no matter what frame of mind I am in, houses the mystery. Through worry and doubt, love and peace, God’s presence is to be found. The walls are made by human hands, yes. Some church buildings are ribbed by centuries of art while others cannot boast beauty or age. Regardless though, the tabernacle, the small box-like thing above the altar, bears the Eucharist. This is the beating heart of every Catholic Church. There the flow of Life throbs every day of the year (save for the window period between Christ’s death and Resurrection). My Mom taught me the power of being in Christ’s presence when she used to take me to the Schoenstatt Chapel as a child. There, she would make her prayers known and show me that whether we were celebrating or mourning, Christ would be there waiting for us. She didn’t tell me this, but she modelled this faith in the simple act of arriving.

This memory is a proclamation of faith I carried with me upon entering any Catholic Church, especially when the doors of the Mowbray church opened. As I kneeled and looked to the dome bearing an altar and the cross at the heart of the church, I felt God’s presence and I smiled. While the building is plain, it still reflects truths about who God is. Jesus, on the cross, a raised ceiling emphasising God’s greatness, windows filtering the sun through the walls, seeming to bring the world into the church so that there no longer is a divide. At the Mass, we are given strength to go out. The Mass is missionary in nature, so we never have to feel this divide. We can take Christ’s presence with us into any darkness there might be.

I didn’t see anything new – no visions, no wonders. All I saw was what it was. An ordinary building made by human hands for the sake of faith. A building where anyone can pray. A bit of God’s beauty reflected in the design. And the knowledge that God will visit every building and every heart that is open to receive Him. I knew that just as Jesus wept in the garden that night, Jesus will weep with us.

I was reminded there that the mystery of evil in this world will never be greater than the mystery of God’s love. The world is a mixture of bad and good, light and dark. We are in a battle of choosing sides. Will I team up with the darkness or will I shine in spite of it?  Will I close my heart in anger at the sight of evil; or will I let Jesus weep with me when my heart is broken?

The walk to the church had been uncomfortable in light of the day’s events, but my steps home were different. The peaceful rustling of trees in the night air, the garden and the dome of the church revealed to me that beauty has a definitive role in the world. Its purpose is to spark hope. It is made by God to draw us into relationship with God. Although it may be experienced amid complexities and pain, any glimmer of beauty – no matter how ordinary – reminds me that Christ is near and so I continue to pray and I choose to hope.

About the AuthorProfile from Caryn

Caryn Tennant

My inspirations are the smell of croissants, Pope Francis and café interiors. I have had too many hometowns, but currently I’m living in Cape Town where I finished my BA degree and am now teaching English at a high school. My bucket list includes studying theology, speaking Spanish in Spain, and running a half marathon.