Last week’s mass murder in Connecticut was so appalling that we find ourselves trying to fit it into a theory, to blunt its emotional impact with rational gauze. That, more than cynical posturing, explains why people are so quick to spin interpretations. And they come thick and fast: This sort of thing is what happens to punish us for…
•lax gun control laws
•lax divorce laws
•the culture of death
•worldliness and lack of prayer.
I don’t know what these murders mean. I suspect that they mean nothing. By committing them, the killer struck a ferocious blow for Nothing. That is the point someone makes by killing the woman who bore him, then slaughtering random children, then killing himself: Being itself is hateful, and he wants to blot it out as much as he can. The “Anarchist” in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent began by embracing violence to bring on political change, then fell in love with his means and forgot his end: He developed a spiritual fetish for mayhem, bombs, and death. Since God’s very essence is His existence, this is the most comprehensive rejection of God that is possible.
Such a negation of the Good is so perverse that it doesn’t reward our thinking about it. Without good reason and solemn guidance, we shouldn’t read accounts of exorcisms, or autobiographies of serial killers—lest we open ourselves to the darkness that they contain.
Because not one of us is immune. Every sin we commit is a “No” that we say to Being. A soul that is damned is one that has comprehensively preferred “No” to “Yes,” typically because saying “Yes” entails a surrender: The greatest “Yes” in human history was spoken by Mary to the angel, and the way she said it is telling: “Be it done unto me….” Every act, however great, can only be good if it follows upon a surrender to the nature of things, to the moral law, a code of honor, a greater good than one’s own. That is why those who sacrifice to save the helpless are greater, and vaster of soul, than those who wield earthly power for petty motives. Saint Maximilian Kolbe renders Hitler…ridiculous.
The “glamour” of evil, when seen clearly in daylight, is a residue found in the toilet. It is squalid, and stupid, and vulgar. When we think of those killers who sought out infamy by public murders, the healthy response is not so much anguish but holy contempt. They wanted to make their names by blotting out the Good? Then their names are not worth mentioning. The very thought of them should make one want to hold one’s nose and flush.
They tried to do something. They failed. The Good survives them, and thrives—though wrapped as it always is in a crown of thorns. Let’s make that Good the subject of our prayers. Yes, let us pray for the victims, whose earthly lives were cut short, that they will be welcomed in heaven. But much more than that, let us pray for their families. How many of them will lose hope in life, lose trust in people, lose faith in God? I cannot conceive what I would say to one of these grieving people in person. I hope that none of them read this in case it seems presumptuous. But I think I know what the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit is saying to each of these battered, mourning souls:
Don’t let him win. He wanted to blot out life and hope, to bring more souls into the darkness he embraced. He wanted to spread despair, to blot out God, to drag each one of you down with him. Don’t follow him.
Rabbi Emil Fackenheim is famous for answering those who cited the Holocaust as evidence for atheism: “Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” Every birth of a Jewish child, he said, every faithful prayer offered despite the shadows, was a blow struck against the Shoah. The good rabbi had it right.
And yes, at some point much, much later, we should throw in a prayer for the murderer—that after really hideous suffering in Purgatory (and it’s okay for us to picture that, if it helps), he might save his wretched soul. At some point, that’s worth mentioning. But it’s unseemly to mention it now, as it was unseemly to put the names of the hijackers on the 9/11 memorial in Pennsylvania. Such “charitable” grandstanding is simply perverse, and can render Christianity repulsive. Prayers said for the killer should be said, but silently and discreetly. We should pray that the murderer and his Master will be frustrated even in this—in their wish to damn his soul. Grant Satan no posthumous victories.
For now, while grief is fresh, a decent regard for the normal human impulses God gave us—which include, as Aquinas taught, anger—demands that we mourn, and rage, and flush.
Mr. Zmirak’s book and other books relating to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.