Grappling with tragedy


The word “tragedy” is so overused that its impact as a descriptive noun has diminished over the years. Yet, there is no other way to communicate what happened Tuesday at the St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church rectory.

Because of the bizarre circumstances of the fire that claimed the lives of the church’s pastor, the Rev. David Dingwall, and John Sterner, a patron of the church’s pantry, the Shepherd’s Crook, there is no way to make sense of what transpired. Hence, it is a tragedy.

That is, after all, what a tragedy is: an inexplicably horrible event visited upon the harmless.

Such things leave us struggling to end our bewilderment and to replace the emptiness with understanding, but as we try to comprehend the incomprehensible, we find ourselves saying it is a tragedy, because that is all we know.

It is a tragedy that people such as John Sterner have no place to go and that a free morning cup of coffee at the rectory is a significant event in that kind of life. It is equally tragic that his state of mind or personal difficulties placed him in such conditions that he came to be on Baltimore Avenue and Third Street Tuesday morning and somehow set himself ablaze before running into the rectory.

People can and will speculate why and how that came to be, but will never know. They especially will not know why Father Dingwall, a good man with a wife and three children, and who was in his upstairs office when Sterner entered the building, had to be a victim.

That all this occurred just two days before Thanksgiving makes this sad occurrence even more difficult to accept, but as spiritual leaders and philosophers have observed, there is no right time for bad things to happen.

They also have noted that as people ask why, they are better off with the question than the answer, because knowing why in situations such as this one would make us insensitive to the suffering that people such as Father Dingwall worked to alleviate.

All we can say is that it is a tragedy and we extend our sympathies to the families, friends and parishioners in their time of sorrow.

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