by Mark Roosien
Natural disasters are never purely natural. What is a disaster for some is often a mere inconvenience for others. When diseases turn into pandemics and fireworks turn into forest fires, those who suffer the most are the poor, while the actions (and inactions) of the rich and powerful often magnify the ill effects of nature’s ferocity. St John Chrysostom, preaching in the aftermath of an earthquake that struck the city of Constantinople in the year 400, reflected on this fact from a spiritual perspective:
Where are the rulers? Where are the great saviors?…If someone should be asked why the city was shaken, even if he wouldn’t say [it], it has been agreed that it was because of sins, because of acts of greed, because of injustices, because of acts of lawlessness, because of acts of arrogance, because of pleasures, because of deceit. Whose? The rich. (trans. Sewell)
For Chrysostom, the sins of the rich directly provoked God’s wrath manifested in the earthquake. Writing after an earthquake rocked El Salvador in January 2001 and claimed the lives of nearly a thousand people, liberation theologian Jon Sobrino struck a similar note, but from a more empirical perspective. Discussing the protracted suffering of the country’s poor because of continued failures of the powerful to take action, he writes:
What national vision do the local rulers and oligarchies, the empire and the international banking system have to offer? Compared with the gravity of the situation, what we have is laziness and negligence, rivalry and stubbornness. (Where was God?, 68)
Sobrino argues that these two ways of reading natural disasters, ancient and modern, spiritual and empirical, need not be strictly separated. Just as in Chrysostom’s time, today we realize increasingly that the language of collective sin can be justly applied to the human greed and negligence that can turn calamities into catastrophes, especially for the poor.
It is precisely the language of collective sin that the church has traditionally employed in its liturgical responses to natural disaster. Liturgical “disaster prayers” in both Western and Eastern Christian traditions consistently depict natural disasters as God’s judgment on collective sin. But in these prayers, the collective sin is no one’s but “ours,” that is, those of church praying the prayers. The following is one of ten collects sung during litanies on rogation days in the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite, part of a ritual of supplication for good harvest and against natural disaster:
O God, our sins offend you, but our penitence placates your anger! Regard graciously the entreaties of your people, and turn away the stripes which our transgressions justly deserve. (From the 1952 Roman Ritual)
One can find similar prayers in the Byzantine Rite, the liturgy of my own Eastern Orthodox tradition. This hymn, also no longer used today, was chanted in processions on days commemorating earthquakes in Constantinople:
You raised up, O Lord, the day in which you chastise us with justice;
with fear, we prostrate ourselves before you, saying:
Holy Master, Our Savior, have mercy on us! (Typikon of the Great Church, January 26)
These are just two examples from the substantial corpus of liturgical disaster prayers that has largely fallen into disuse, even as churches (The Episcopal Church, for example) have begun to create new liturgical prayers to respond to the disasters of our own day.
It is easy to understand why these old prayers have gone extinct. They reflect a theology of natural disasters as divine retribution for sin, a version of theodicy that has in many ways been discredited. Yet these prayers sustained Christians facing natural disasters for centuries and should not simply be ignored as outdated or “medieval.” Can such disaster prayers and rites teach us anything today, when simplistic theologies of divine retribution have been shown to be lacking, but when we recognize that “natural disasters” are often not so natural after all?
I want to argue that the posture of collective repentance that these lost liturgical prayers display can be instructive for churches seeking to respond liturgically to the calamities we currently face. I use the word posture intentionally, as a word that captures the bodily and multisensory nature of liturgical participation: physical orientation, bodily gesture, active listening and affirming, and directed speech. Such a posture need not be expressed only by prayers with questionable theology, and can be embodied in ways that stretch beyond the confines of the liturgical rites of the church.
The Christian posture of collective repentance in times of disaster has its roots in the Hebrew prophets, such as the prophet Amos. Commenting on an earthquake that struck Palestine in the mid-eighth century BCE, Amos chastises his rich and powerful audience, “orienting” them toward the poor and disenfranchised:
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
And bring the poor of the land to an end…
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and every one mourn who dwells in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? (Amos 8: 4, 8 RSV)
Amos and other biblical authors envisioned a cosmos in which natural disasters were profoundly linked to collective sin, and could be remedied only by repentance, reconciliation, and reparation. Similarly, John Chrysostom claimed not only that the earthquake in Constantinople was caused by the collective sin of the rich and powerful, but that collective repentance caused it to cease. Following his comments quoted above, he praises the faithful in attendance for taking to the streets to sing psalms and hymns of repentance as the city shook:
Again, if someone should be asked why the city was made firm, it is agreed that it is because of the singing of psalms, because of the prayers, because of the vigils. Whose are these? The poor’s.
Chrysostom knew that the rich and powerful people he criticized for bringing about the quake were not among those who repented in the streets. And he knew that those who repented were not personally responsible for the earthquake. Nevertheless, he claimed that their collective repentance was effective in mitigating the disaster.
What this suggests is that the call for the church’s collective repentance does not depend upon the personal responsibility or sins of those within it. There is an ecclesiological claim here: the church as a whole has a responsibility for repenting on behalf of the world. The theology that lies at the root of this claim was articulated vividly by Dostoevsky through the person of Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. In a key passage, Zosima is speaking to his fellow monks in one of his final meetings with them:
When [a monk] realizes that he is not only worse than others, but that he is responsible to all men for all and everything, for all human sins, national and individual, only then the aim of our seclusion is attained. For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all men — and everything on earth, not merely through the general sinfulness of creation, but each one personally for all mankind and every individual man. This knowledge is the crown of life for the monk and for every man. For monks are not a special sort of men, but only what all men ought to be. (Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)
Dostoevsky’s Zosima articulates the systemic nature of sin: one’s own personal sins are part of a vast web that implicates everyone, albeit unequally. This web of sin and injustice extends even to non-human creation. As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air, and in all forms of life.” Forgotten liturgical prayers for disaster, while they may contain a problematic theology, nevertheless express the deeper truth of the intertwining of the cosmos and all humanity, rich and poor, guilty and innocent. The church stands at the center of this web and through collective repentance seeks to purify it, and use it for the benefit of all.
The posture of collective repentance embodied in these lost prayers can be seen, therefore, as a posture of solidarity. It “orients” the church towards those who bear the brunt of the tangled web of sin that is exacerbated by the particular sins of the rich and powerful in so-called “natural disasters.” We may not consider ourselves to be individually responsible for the sins that perpetuate needless suffering and death, though as individuals and institutions we must do the work of soul-searching to determine if that is actually the case. By embodying a posture of collective repentance, we, as the Body of Christ, take upon ourselves on the mantle of responsibility to heal, to reconcile, and to repair. Through ritual actions and prayers of repentance in times of disaster, the church is invited to offer itself in service to those most afflicted by natural calamities and to denounce, through the act of repentance, the collective sin that exacerbates those afflictions.
Mark Roosien received his Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from Notre Dame in 2019, and is currently Lecturer at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is an ordained deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. You can find more of his writings here.