I stirred in the blackness, a restless night of sleep. Groggy and dazed, I checked my phone to see if it was reasonable to get up, and read a push notification from BBC News that Christina Grimmie had been shot and killed in Orlando. All I wanted was to sleep through the night, wake up, have a nice cup of coffee with my parents, and enjoy a full, mild spring day in my hometown. Instead, I spent the next hour in screen-lit darkness, watching and listening to Christina.
I knew her work from my hours of perusing YouTube for the best acoustic covers of top 40 hits. She soars. She is small but powerful, built on a timbre that can raise bumps on skin, and she is fearless, putting herself and her talent directly in front of the people who watch her. In her videos and performances, you can see her grow up, see the blemishes on her skin, see her find her voice as her fingers move across a simple Korg keyboard. She is gone, I think, moments before her true breakthrough.
Waking up to tragedy is an everyday occurrence. But I fell back asleep, vocal riffs running through my sad, tired mind.
Another night of restless sleep, another push notification at 4:00 AM, another tragedy. Shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the city where Christina died hours earlier. The police chief there looks exhausted. He said, “just to look into the eyes of our officers told the whole story.” We would later learn that the shooting at Pulse was one of the worst mass shootings in US history. It was perpetrated by a man filled with hate and armed with guns which allowed that hate to penetrate LGBTQ bodies with bullets, piercing them and tearing their lives away.
The same day Christina was shot, the day before Pulse, I had a conversation with my cousin’s husband about who or what I thought God was. That is the question, I guess. There are at least two answers I feel confident in giving: God is real and God is love. This real, loving God and I dance within each other and with the world. We change rhythm and step constantly, revealing new truths, new challenges, new ways of being and seeing. God’s love and reality are revealed in countless beautiful places: within all of creation, in a loving touch between partners, through the voice of a girl singing to a webcam, beneath bright swirling lights, friends melting into each other, young and free and lovely.
Where is beauty in the midst of tragedy? In the midst of 22-year old YouTube stars and members of the LGBTQ community being murdered?
A Jesuit brother and I recently watched the 70th Annual Tony Awards. My investments in Sara Bareilles and Lin-Manuel Miranda demanded it. James Corden hosted and began the show speaking of Orlando: “Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced, and is loved. Hate will never win. Together, we have to make sure of that.”
The theatre community carried relentlessly onward during the awards, preaching energy, inclusion1, art, human ingenuity, the power of dreams, and, yes, beauty. “If you knew my story, my heaven and my hell, if you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell,” sang Carmen Cusack, inviting us to know each other and to share life. “I believe I have inside of me, everything that I need to live a bountiful life, with all the love inside of me I’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree,” sang Cynthia Erivo, claiming her own worth in the face of great adversity. Then Jessie Mueller sang, “To fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes,” making a bold declaration that she will reclaim a burning desire for love that she had lost.
And the newspapers, reporting on the Pulse shooting, filled their covers not with images of the dead bodies but with people locked in mournful, caring embrace. An image of pain and suffering, but also of beauty and hope. And the sun shines on. And our hearts beat. And air fills our lungs. And we respond in prayer and in action.
Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that God is beauty breaking through. The images we’ve been seeing in response to tragedies of these days and weeks show me that’s true. God did not inspire these killings, but God is somewhere in all this. Hatred is not God. Fear does not come from attunement to the divine. Fear is not God. Putting bullets into people is not God. God does not motivate death and destruction. We are not God.
And people of God know this: beauty breaks through and carries us right to the places which house the pain. Right to the center of ourselves, where a God who is real and who is love resides and wants to explode out into the world, transforming it, facing fear alongside us.