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:
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