Reclaiming Collective Repentance: What Can We Learn from Lost “Disaster Prayers”?

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.

9 comments

  1. thank you for this…I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and writing on disaster rituals (so many of which are large, public events difficult to manage for these months of pandemic).. But the prayer language – the words – remain so important, with all the presumptions about the source of disaster, human sin, and the naturalness of natural disasters (as you point out). There is an old Anglican prayer (previous prayer books) that was left out because it was deemed out of touch with modern reality – interesting how versions of it has made its way back into the prayer life of many these past 7 months (the point being not this particular prayer or its theology – but the presumption that we would, in our modernity, be far beyond the need of prayers for plagues!):
    In the time of any common Plague or Sickness. (1662)
    O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in
    the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion again Moses and Aaron; and also in the time of King David, did slay with the plague of Pestilence three score and ten thousand; and yet
    remembering thy mercy didst save the rest.
    Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality;
    that like as thou didst then accecpt of an atonement, and did command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    1. Lizette, I am intrigued by your mention of “disaster rituals.” Could you give an example or two? Do you mean things like erecting “plague columns”?

      1. Hi Rita – the term “Disaster Rituals” is a rather large body of rituals, rites and liturgies (of which the Dutch are the masters – see the extensive volumes in the Liturgia Condenda series). I started by looking at roadsie shrines and how folks coped with ‘unnatural deaths’ by erecting these grassroots memorials, generally at the place of death. But disaster rituals would also include things such as the rituals that took place at the World Trade Centre for months after 9/11; the civic vigils and memorials for the endless shootings at schools and religious houses, the silent processions of Northern Europe as mourning for and protest against act of violence, etc

      2. Thanks, Lizette. I see now what you mean. You know, the Museum of Biblical Art some years ago (when it was in NY) once held an exhibit of roadside shrines. Ena Heller, who was then the director, told me it was one of the most popular exhibits they ever had.

    2. Lizette,

      Thank you for your insight and for calling our attention to that profound text from the 1662 BCP. It’s fascinating to me how these old prayers are being examined again and revived. I have done a lot of work on Byzantine disaster rituals and prayers (esp for earthquakes) and notice that the go-to biblical references are almost uniformly from the Old Testament, just as in this BCP prayer. I’ve been wondering, and maybe you could think along with me: what is it about disasters that puts Christian communities in this mode of thinking about history, in a sort of linear mode of covenantal give and take, call and response? What does this impulse do to the eschatological valence of liturgy?

  2. I am glad you wrote this article, Mark, because it has challenged me to think again about “taking responsibility” for collective evils that are not of our own making. I will be honest. When Pope Francis suggested that the faithful should fast in response to the abuse crisis, at the time when it was coming into focus (very belatedly) at the Vatican, I met this suggestion with resentment. It seemed to me that the clergy should be doing the fasting, not the laity. It was like they were once again expecting the laity to bail them out — this time spiritually — just as we have been paying the bill for the huge financial costs of the scandal and costs in terms of loss of credibility for the faith. There is another side to this too, however, which your article is helping me to see, namely, that evils we do not make still require a collective response. The clerical abuse crisis is a special case, as it is not a natural disaster in the least, but a social cancer causing a spiritual disaster, yet perhaps it is right to take up the cross regardless of who is at fault. Thank you for an interesting review and thought provoking discussion of the issues.

    1. Rita,

      Thanks for this very thoughtful comment. You’ve put your finger on something I’ve been wrestling with too, and in a case in which the gap between guilty and innocent is wide and evident to all. I think we need to be able to be truthful and name who is at fault and who is not, especially in situations of clerical sexual abuse. And I also wonder, as the church tries to welcome and care for those who have been victimized, how it could make space for people who simply cannot participate in such an act of repentance. I can imagine that, for many, the thought of doing repenting for something someone did to you–even if in a church-wide way– would feel incredibly wrong and even exacerbate the trauma they’ve suffered.

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