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On February 27, this email arrived in my inbox: "After the Christchurch earthquake last September you informed your readers in your column in the Herald that you had thanked God that no one had been killed. Please tell your readers in your next Herald column what you said to God after last week's earthquake, in which at least 150 people (including two babies under 1 year old) were killed."

Last Saturday came the follow-up: "You use your position of power as a columnist in New Zealand's largest newspaper to promote your personal views then - when they are challenged - you refuse to answer. Don't you think you have an ethical responsibility? Don't you even have the courage of your own convictions?"

Now, the author wasn't to know that my wife and I were on a 10-day holiday by the seaside in one of the best-sited motels in New Zealand, about 30m from the whispering sands of Gisborne's glorious Waikanae Beach - and that emails were the last thing on my mind.

I suppose this reader, being a professional man, has accepted the term "act of God", which is a legal term used to describe "those events which are outside of control of humans and for which no one can be held responsible and which cannot be prevented" - one of which is an earthquake.

Since God has nothing to do with the advent of earthquakes - or fires, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions or tsunamis for that matter - I rather prefer the legal term "force majeure", which defines "an event that is a result of the elements of nature, as opposed to one caused by human behaviour".

So after the latest Christchurch upheaval, I thank God that in a city of nearly 400,000 people, in which an earthquake struck at its busiest time of the day, the death toll is likely to be only about 200 and many square kilometres of the city are still standing and largely unaffected.

Compare that with the Lisbon (population 250,000) earthquake of 1755, in which 100,000 citizens died and six magnificent cathedrals were reduced to rubble, and the Kobe quake of 1995 in which 6700 people perished, and we surely have cause to be grateful. And to whom can we express gratitude, save to the creator and sustainer of the universe?

That is not to diminish in the slightest the enormity of the loss of life and property and land damage wreaked on our second-largest city. Every single life lost is irreplaceable and priceless, and those who are left - families, friends, colleagues, neighbours - suffer the worst trauma known to mankind.

For myself, even after reading the millions of words in the newspapers and watching hours of outstanding reports on television, I am still unable to grasp the magnitude of this human calamity. Nor can I find the words to describe what I think and how I feel about it.

Nor can my cousin, who lives within a few kilometres of the destruction but whose home escaped (for the second time) all but a few breakages, and who is providing accommodation and transport for less fortunate folk. I asked her how she was and all she could say was that she found it impossible to comprehend. I know that the disaster cast a pall over our holiday, a vague feeling of disquiet (I'm not into guilt) at living and dining and lazing in luxury; every time I go to the toilet or have a hot shower or sit down to a home-cooked meal, I am aware of those who are living without those basic necessities.

So my wife and I found comfort at a special prayer service on the Sunday after the quake at St Mary Star of the Sea church in Gisborne, led by parish priest Pa Yvan Sergy and his assistant, Father Matt McAuslin.

We said to God: "Today so many people are afraid. They wait in fear of the next tremor. They hear the cries of the injured amid the rubble. They roam the streets in shock at what they see. And they fill the dusty air with wails of grief, and the names of the missing dead. Comfort them, Lord, in this disaster. Be their rock when the earth refuses to stand still, and shelter them under your wings when homes no longer exist.

"Embrace in your arms those who died so suddenly this day. Console the hearts of those who mourn, and ease the pain on bodies on the brink of death.

"Pierce our hearts with compassion, we who watch from afar, as the poorest on this side of the earth find only misery. Move us to act generously this day ... and to pray unceasingly for those without hope.

"For though the mountains leave their place and the hills be tossed to the ground, your love shall never leave us, and your promise of peace will never be shaken. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth."

That's where God is in all this.