NATURAL DISASTERS do not "mean" anything. Creation has been evolving for millennia, during which time on our planet alone continents have been formed and submerged, mountains risen and deep chasms riven in the thin earth crust on which we live. That any human being happens to live in a particular place at a particular time when a natural disturbance occurs is their sheer misfortune, not the intended action of a unfeeling God. A volcano or earthquake may be disastrous when it happens, but could, in the fulness of time, herald benefits for a future generation. All that is available to people at the time is the response to the disaster.
Right now, the events in Assisi invite response. How can we react constructively and what are the lessons to be drawn? The loss of life, livelihoods and homes demand the first claims on our attention. We can mourn the dead and pray for their souls. We can exercise compassion and charity in enabling the homeless to be sheltered and to rebuild their houses. We can ensure that building materials for reconstructions are appropriate to the conditions (not, for example, replacing wood with concrete which cannot withstand earth movements, as had happened in the Basilica). Then there is the artistic and spiritual reconstruction to consider. Perhaps the loss of irreplaceable art works can be compensated for only by the recovery of the aesthetic tradition which has been superseded in recent years by "nonsense" art — selfglorying art designed to shock and make money. The Church was patron of the arts in Assisi at a time of material poverty unimaginable these days, yet today's concrete, minimalist churches can barely rise to provide works which uplift the imagination and gladden the spirit.
In drawing spiritual lessons from the event, perhaps Assisi provides the clue. "Rebuild my church which is everywhere in ruins" may have been divine inspiration for St Francis, and the irony of it cannot be lost on those stumbling through the rubble of the Basilica, but it can equally be addressed to all the faithful.
Was the Church of the 12th and 13th centuries in a more decayed state than that of today, when received opinion calls this society, which has developed over two millennia of Judaeo-Christian culture, "post-Christian"?
Perhaps St Francis is praying for us now, not so much to rebuild his material legacy as the spiritual heritage he has bequeathed.