NEW YORK -- When a partially-collapsed construction crane began teetering from a Manhattan high-rise a block from the home he shares with fellow Jesuit priests, the Rev. James Martin said he felt fear and concern -- for him and his neighbors -- as Hurricane Sandy battered New York City and the East Coast. He posted a photo of hectic scene on Twitter, while a friend shared a video of flooding near the Jesuit house in Cape May, N.J, one of his favorite places with some of his most loved people. "Really depressed about this," Martin tweeted.
Usually, clergy members like Martin, an assisting priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church on New York's Upper East Side, are the ones comforting the afflicted. But when buildings are swaying, debris is flying, and the lights begin to flicker, even they get a bit distraught.
"Natural disasters are difficult to understand. For even the most devout person who may be faced with a catastrophic loss, it can really shake them," Martin said on Monday. "It's one thing to read about this in a theology book. It's another to have your house swept away."
As Hurricane Sandy barges through the northeastern U.S., what are people of faith to make of it? Is it a punishment from God, as some pastors have already declared? It it a test? Will everything be OK? Pastors, rabbis, imams and other clergy have been inundated with these kinds of questions and requests for prayers. The answers are complex, and vary among faiths.
"I always tell people, 'Sadness over suffering is natural and human. It's nothing to be ashamed of,'" said Martin. "Part of the process is allowing yourself to go through these emotions. For the Christian, we have a God who became human and understands our suffering. Jesus was crucified, he understands what it means to suffer and live a human life."
"In first-century Palestine, he would have to deal with things like droughts and floods. It's important for Christians to understand that God suffers with us," Martin added.
Martin said he is thinking about the Biblical story of the Storm at Sea, where Jesus is crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples as a strong storm begins lashing the boat, threatening to sink it. Jesus, tired from teaching, falls asleep, and the disciples try to wake him up to help them. "He wakes and stills the storm, which everyone wishes he would do today," Martin said.
"The point is, Jesus was right there with them on the boat. We can sometimes in retrospect look back and see how when God was with us through the support of friends and family. The deepest part of ourselves, our soul, is where God is close to us, giving us courage, hope and faith."
But many Christians and people of all faiths would ask why, if God iall-knowing and created the Earth and life, he would cause the kind of suffering a hurricane or any natural disaster is bound to create. It's a question Rabbi Harold Kushner, the former head of Temple Israel in Natick, Mass., has spent decades exploring.
"How do you understand what is happening to you?" said Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People after the death of his son from a premature aging disease. Speaking from his home, where the electricity had just gone out and more storm-related problems were likely to come, Kushner, 77, said he had come to understand "God as moral," but "nature as not."
"Nature is value-free," said Kushner, a rabbi of the conservative Jewish tradition. "It can't tell the role between the deserving the undeserving. God's role is not to decide where the hurricane goes and how severe it is. God's role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience."
Kushner, whose most recent book, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, explored how humans can spiritually survive terrorist acts and natural disasters, said that he is recalling the story of Elijah and the mountain in the Book of Kings as he copes with Hurricane Sandy.
"Elijah goes looking for God. The Bible tells us there was a great wind, but God was not the wind, a great quake, but God was not the quake. There was still a small voice telling Elijah what to do," said Kushner. "God created the laws of nature and does not interfere with them. If someone is saved by a miracle, in cave or something, it is not God's miracle, it is by chance."
Similar stories of difficulty and perseverance can be found in the Quran, said Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim cleric and dean of academic affairs at Houston-based AlMaghrib Institute.
"How does one explain evil? If God is all-knowing and all-just and merciful, why are there murders, rapes and typhoons? Philosophers and theologians of all stripes have grappled with this," said Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and regularly teaches on the East Coast.
"In Islam, there's no such thing as pure evil. Every action of God may be pure good or may have some good and negative, but there's always a benefit to every action of Allah, whether we understand it immediately or not," said Qadhi. "It is by combating evil that we show goodness. Were there no poor people, how could people show their mercy? Were there no hurricane, how could we come together to help each other and be neighbors?"
"Somebody might ask, 'Why would God do that?' Firstly, we cannot understand God's wisdom. Allah tests us in this world to give us positions in the next. It is by answering those tests that we prove our faithfulness," said Qadhi, who added that the Quran says "Allah never burdened the soul with more than it can bare."
"The Muslim by nature is told to be an optimist. Our prophet said 'I love optimism.' He always looked at the bright side, as in, 'There is another day, another dawn,'" said Qadhi.
Martin, the Catholic priest, said Christians should have a similar outlook. "Suffering is never the last word in the Christian world view. "There is no cross without resurrection."
Click through the slideshow to read prayers from different religious traditions:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (from Psalm 46) (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Living God, our refuge and strength, even the wind and sea obey your voice. Put the wind back in its place, and say to the sea: Peace! Be still! Fill us with great faith, and save us from the surging water, so that we may tell the good news of your saving love; through Jesus Christ, our hope in the storm. (based on Mark 4) (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Now thus says the LORD, your Creator: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. (from Isaiah 43) (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
God our help and hope when waters rise, you brought Israel safely through the sea. Sustain all those who seek to save others, so that they may repair the ruined cities, raise up the former devastations, and be the restorers of streets to live in; through Jesus Christ, our eternal savior. (based on Isaiah 58, 61) (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
God of wind and water, stillness and storm, your Spirit sweeps over the surface of the sea. Give us faith to seek you in times of trouble. Reach out your hand to us when we are sinking so that we may believe and worship you; through Jesus Christ, Sovereign and Savior. (based on Matthew 14:22-33) (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Holy One, you are our comfort and strength in times of sudden disaster, crisis, or chaos. Surround us now with your grace and peace through storm or earthquake, fire or flood. By your Spirit, lift up those who have fallen, sustain those who work to rescue or rebuild, and fill us with the hope of your new creation; through Jesus Christ, our rock and redeemer. (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Almighty and everlasting God, You are strength to those who suffer and comfort to those who grieve. Let the prayers of your children who are in trouble rise to you. Hear our prayer. We claim your promises of wholeness as we pray for those who are ill or are suffering loss and long for your healing touch. Hear our prayer. Make the weak strong, the sick healthy, the broken whole, and confirm those who serve them as agents of your love. Hear our prayer. To everyone in distress, grant mercy, grant relief, grant refreshment. Hear our prayer. As we begin to rebuild, we commend our neighborhoods to your care. Give us strength of purpose and concern for others, that we may create a community where your will may be done. Hear our prayer. God of compassion, you watch our ways, And weave out of terrible happenings wonders of goodness and grace. Hear our prayer. Surround those who have been shaken by tragedy with a sense of your present love, And hold them in faith. Though they are lost in grief, may they find you and be comforted; Through Jesus Christ who was dead, but lives and rules this world with you. Amen. (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Lord, all around us the waters are rising. I feel so helpless, for I cannot stop the rain from falling or the waters from rising. I feel so powerless, for the current is strong and my body is tired. I feel so empty, for our possessions are floating away or anchored in the muddy water. Lord, all around us the waters are rising. Grant me your strength, since mine is somewhere downstream. Grant me your patience, since mine is drowning. Grant me your perspective, since my loss is in replaceable things, not irreplaceable grace. Give me eyes to see how precious your gifts are: family and friends, faith and mercy. And Lord, when the waters rise around me in my spirit, and my faith and hope are swept downstream, help me to remember how you got me through this flood. In Your Son's name. Amen. (via Presbyterian Mission Agency)
Assailed by afflictions, we discover Dharma And find the way to liberation. Thank you, evil forces! When sorrows invade the mind, we discover Dharma And find lasting happiness. Thank you, sorrows! Through harm caused by spirits we discover Dharma And find fearlessness. Thank you, ghosts and demons! Through people's hate we discover Dharma And find benefits and happiness. Thank you, those who hate us! Through cruel adversity, we discover Dharma And find the unchanging way. Thank you, adversity! Through being impelled to by others, we discover Dharma And find the essential meaning. Thank you, all who drive us on! We dedicate our merit to you all, to repay your kindness. -- Gyalwa Longchenpa via Beliefnet
"Definitely we are from Allah and to Him is our return. O Allah, grant reward in my calamity and grant in its place a good substitute".
"O Allah, let it rain around us and not on us. O Allah, let it rain on the peaks and mountains and the rivers and at the forests". (Tirmidhi, Bukhari, Muslim)
"O Allah, let it be a mercy and not a punishment. O Allah make it a beneficial and not a destructive wind."
Adonai, bless me with courage Help me gain strength from You Life has a way of handing us surprises That take an amazing amount of courage to overcome Create in me a clear and steady focus A heart that is filled with the awareness that Adonai is with me On the sunniest day and in the darkest night I will be whatever life demands of me Courage is my knowledge of You. -- Anita Rosenberg, from WRJ's Covenant of the Soul (via Union for Reform Judaism)
O God! We are weak; give us strength. We are poor; bestow upon us Thine illimitable treasures. We are sick; grant unto us Thy divine healing. We are impotent; give us Thy heavenly power. O Lord! Make us useful in this world; free us from the condition of self and desire. O Lord! Make us brethren in Thy love, and cause us to be loving toward all Thy children. Confirm us in service to the world of humanity so that we may become the servants of Thy servants, that we may love all Thy creatures and become compassionate to all Thy people. O Lord, Thou art the Almighty. Thou art the Merciful. Thou art the Forgiver. Thou art the Omnipotent. -- `Abdu'l-Bahá (via Squidoo)