God and New Orleans


There was no town like New Orleans.

It was reviled as a center of sin, but praised as a center of Catholic piety. It was defined by both the innovations in its music and the old-world touches in its architecture.

In songs and in literature, it has always been used to evoke the best in America culture — it was a key ingredient for William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Catholic novelist Walker Percy. Arlo Guthrie found America on “the train they call the City of New Orleans.”

And now it's gone.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” said Mayor Ray Nagin, breaking down on live television as he saw images of the destruction hurricane Katrina left in its wake. “We're looking at the worst natural disaster in American history.”

EWTN's Raymond Arroyo described life there now: “There are snakes, alligators, open gas and oil lines, live electricity, bodies, and sewage in this nasty pool that is weaving its way through our homes.”

The drowning of New Orleans is a focal point that stands for Katrina's massive damage strewn across four states.

It's hard to imagine the devastation. We've all heard the stories. A 70-year-old woman stranded in Biloxi, Miss., ventured out to find aid but rushed back to her ruined home when she saw dead bodies. Evacuees at Red Cross shelters in Alabama, asked what they need, answered “temporary work.” Whole families are wandering from place to place with nothing. But it's New Orleans that is entirely lost, and it's leading people to ask: Why?

Some religious believers have suggested that the hurricane was God's judgment on the city. Arroyo had a sharp answer to that.

“If it is, God's aim is off,” he said. “He drowned all the good areas — East New Orleans, Lakeview, Metairie. The French Quarter is five feet above sea level. It will most likely survive.”

Others blamed the wrath of the gods of nature for the hurricane.

“Now we are all learning what it's like to reap the whirlwind of fossil-fuel dependence,” wrote Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr., blaming Republicans in particular. “Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children.”

Those who blame our environmental wrongs for every natural disaster that visits us are twins with those who blame our sins: They are both convinced that the evils of man cry out for vengeance. The difference is that religious people rely on the Ten Commandments to identify our sins. Kennedy cited Nature magazine.

Others suggested that God isn't involved at all.

A National Public Radio commentator reported that the severity of hurricane seasons comes from natural changes in temperature over the Atlantic, then added: “If this was the result of intelligent design, then the designer has something to answer for. … Are hurricanes part of some mysterious design?”

Job and his friends ask similar questions — and God's answer is surprising. He catalogues the wonders of the world that Job can't fathom, from the stars to the oceans. But Job isn't won over until God describes a hippopotamus in excruciating detail. Only then does Job repent of having challenged God.

The message for us is clear: If we can't even understand a hippo, why do we expect to understand the grandest mysteries of the universe? God ups the ante in the crucifix, identifying suffering as the place to meet his love.

That's the conclusion Raymond Arroyo came to. He described the “small lesson” he learned from the destruction of his childhood neighborhoods, his home and all the photographs, books, music CDs and personal letters he has assembled in his lifetime.

“Ultimately, you're in God's hands,” he said. “The truth of the matter is, this is how we exist every day, but we live in the delusion that we're in control. Moments like this reinforce the reality of our fragile lives and the reality of God's awesome power.”

Arroyo is trying not to mourn his possessions but to cherish his family, who got out of New Orleans alive.

The Big Easy, the Cajun city of jazz, is gone. No one knows when or how it will be rebuilt. But it's best to apply Arroyo's lesson to New Orleans: God is a mystery, and life is his greatest gift. The streets, the elaborate graveyards and the clubs are a great loss — they are precious things that can never be replaced.

But the loss of so many lives is immeasurably worse.

Appropriately, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday said it best:

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans / And miss it each night and day? … I miss the moss-covered vines, the tall sugar pines / Where mocking birds used to sing. … But there's one thing more — I miss the one I care for / More than I miss New Orleans.”