Tuesday morning began with deceptive banality: a visit to the gym, morning prayer, and a breakfast meeting. Walking south on Seventh Avenue, I noticed an uncharacteristically stationary group of New Yorkers. Someone said, "Look up!" I looked to see the World Trade Towers wreathed in smoke. I went back to the rectory to change into clerical attire and arranged for the parish staff to open our church, located just a block from St. Vincent's Hospital, a principal destination for the injured and dying. The rest of the day I stayed on the street, meeting ambulances, blessing the sick, commending the dying, and talking to people who waited.
There was an air of unreality about everything that was happening, the unreality manifested in the way that we accepted and seemed resigned to the most improbable and awful things. I met many of the ambulances as they delivered their patients to the hospital, and usually gave a blessing and
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touched each patient as I blessed them. As I stepped into the street to meet one ambulance, I casually glanced south and saw the towers aflame. After I had given the blessing and the patient had been taken away, I looked up again and the towers were gone. And I went on to the next patient.
It is certainly important that triage procedures relay clinically accurate information along the patient care chain so that proper care can be given immediately. But the crisp, clinical assessment seems, somehow, to mask the reality of what has happened. An ambulance door swings open, and a woman barks "Gurney!" The next EMS technician snaps, "Patient struck in upper abdomen with heavy object!" I look at the patient gasping for breath, straining against probable broken ribs and covered with a dense layer of fine, grey dust. Struck by a heavy object, indeed. He was struck by a building. He was struck by an airplane. He was struck by international terrorists. He was struck by hate. Those are some very heavy objects.
Touching is important. New Yorkers often don't like to be touched, and certainly there are important boundary issues to be observed in pastoral care. But, a couple of times, when I got close to a patient and gave a blessing, the patient would, after I had made the sign of the cross over him, reach for my hand, as if he were clinging-clinging perhaps to the cross, perhaps to me, perhaps to the God whom I try to serve. This was an occasion for touching lives.
Last night we celebrated the Eucharist for the repose of the souls of all who were killed. These days, funeral liturgies and memorial services are usually