The recent shooting in Aurora has left us all stunned and in shock, yet in a way unsurprised. We are almost accustomed to hearing about these “senseless” massacres in all kinds of places: schools, malls, even homes...and now movie theaters. Many of us have asked, “Why does this keep happening?” promptly followed by, “How can we stop this from happening again?”
And we have already heard several of the common answers pouring forth from media outlets or coworkers and friends: “The man was simply psychotic.” “He was on drugs.” “He was imitating the Joker.” “Who knows? But we need higher security measures, more regulations, more laws, even more censorship...”
If, however, we truly allow ourselves to stay in front of the tragedy of this event, the deepest and most urgent human questions begin to emerge from our awakened hearts and become immediately more pressing: What is life? What is my life for? Is there any true meaning to life, or is it just random? Is reality good, or ultimately ugly? Though we all feel these questions emerging, how many of us distract ourselves from them, and instead find ways to simply cope with a life experienced as “just one damned thing after another”? But our silence in front of these most basic and fundamental questions of our own human existence reveals a nihilism that is subtly invading all our lives.
This nihilism is not an abstract philosophical nihilism, but the seeming meaninglessness of our very own lives – yes, even us Catholics: the daily confusion and lack of certainty about anything, the apparent triviality of our jobs, the boredom of our relationships, the empty routines of our days, and the forgetfulness of our very own hearts, and what they truly yearn for. Not only is it a reduction of reality, but ultimately it is a reduction of our very selves in the worst way.
This “subconscious nihilism” – as subtle as the air we breathe – is extremely powerful, but is not essentially different from the nihilism which caused that “senseless” act of massacre on July 20, 2012. Was this horrendous act simply a result of one man’s isolated issues? No. It’s just the next logical step. This incident – along with the numerous deplorable shootings of recent years – is a symptom of something broader, in fact, the true face of this nihilism that is claiming us all as a society.
We’ve pointed fingers long enough. The problem is not an external one – not him, or her, or them – but has to do with our own hearts, our own “I,” our very selves. Where then can we go for this nihilism within ourselves to be conquered, to find the truest help for us and for our society? To whom can we turn so that our hearts don’t remain numb to life? What will truly change us and generate us, even to the point of giving us “a clear and loving perception of ourselves, charged with awareness of one’s destiny and thus capable of true affection for self,” as Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the movement Communion and Liberation, has so often repeated? This gaze of tenderness and affection upon ourselves and our hearts is not one which we are very familiar with, but it is one that is so desperately needed in the midst of our creeping nihilism. From where can we experience this gaze? Is it once again more laws, more regulations, higher security, more censorship that can awaken our hearts in this way?
As the infamous nihilist in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” makes clear, “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He threw everything off balance. If He did what He said, then there's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then there's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
This happened. In the words of Samuel Aquila, Archbishop of Denver: “In the chaos of the moment, people poured from the movie theater into the darkness of the night – the darkness of confusion, of ambiguity, of despair.” He continues, “Only Jesus Christ can overcome the darkness of such evil.”
In a world in which hope has become merely another word, and the certainty of any true meaning or value in life is considered impossible, a world in which faith has been reduced to moral code and pious devotions, Christ stands as the only source of hope, the only One who saves life, Who answers the needs of our aching hearts, Who gives everything true meaning, Whose love and gaze is capable of sustaining us and our lives, and even saves death. For it is this Jesus of Nazareth, resurrected from the tomb, Who, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “is God made flesh...the greatest miracle of the universe: all the love of God hidden in a human heart, in a human face.”
Yet how does this God-become-man Jesus not remain abstract for us, mere pious feelings, or beautiful words? In his book, “At the Origin of the Christian Claim,” Msgr. Giussani explains:
“It would be impossible to become fully aware of what Jesus Christ means if one did not first become fully aware of the nature of that dynamism which makes man human. Christ presents Himself as an answer to what ‘I’ am, and only an attentive, tender, and impassioned awareness of my own self can make me open and lead me to acknowledge, admire, thank, and live Christ. Without this awareness of what I am, even Jesus Christ becomes just a name.”
Christ makes no sense to us until we take our own heart seriously: these irreducible needs for beauty, justice, love, truth, friendship, happiness, and freedom. But it is precisely these needs that have been awakened in us in the face of the recent tragedy. And it is only Christ Who saves and responds to these needs.
For, there is something even worse than death: living a long life of quiet desperation. The awakening of these urgent questions within us is already a sign of His saving presence working in our lives. Only He can conquer our nihilism.
Jonathan Ghaly is a member of the ecclesial lay movement Communion and Liberation, which was founded in 1952 by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, whose cause for canonization has been officially opened. Jonathan taught high school theology and Church History for two years, and now lives in Denver, Colorado, where he sells real estate. To contact Jonathan, email him at [email protected]