2016-07-27
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

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celebrated using white vestments because such services are understood to be part of the Easter mystery-that as Christ rose from death, so shall our dead rise, and so will we one day. That assurance makes the commemoration of the dead a joyful, Easter liturgy.

But this was not a time for victory, it was a time for sorrow, and so we used the black vestments. And we began with the ritual called the Supplication, for particular use in times of war, national emergency, or disaster. Its haunting words, "With pity behold the sorrows of our heart... graciously behold our afflictions... O Lord, arise and help us" seem more to touch the heart of the day than acclamations of triumph and victory. After the liturgy, I went back to the hospital and visited with four firefighters who had just been admitted to the hospital. Each one of them-sturdy young men all-was eager for prayer. One of them was being treated for a respiratory problem by lying on his back, head over the edge of the gurney, and having his nasal passages attended. I asked if he wanted a prayer, and before I could even finish the sentence, even with his airways crowded with paraphernalia, he eagerly assented. This is a day when people are reaching for meaning, reaching for each other, reaching for God.

And waiting. As the afternoon wore on, fewer and fewer ambulances arrived. It's not hard to determine what it means to have very few people brought to the hospital. The silence and the waiting completed the profile of this disaster and the picture which emerges is increasingly grim.

I write this the morning after the attack. I have just returned from the family triage center two blocks away, where people come looking for records of family and friends. I spoke there with a Puerto Rican family whose son worked on the 102nd floor of the first tower. As his mother looked at me, she gave me a glance that seemed to say, "Don't give me any nonsense about this being all right." I couldn't; there seems but a small chance that her son survived.

She showed me a picture, creased in the corner where it had fit into the edge of a mirror, positioned perhaps so that the mother could see her son first

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thing every morning. The young man sat on the sofa next to his niece. She withdrew the picture and she and her husband held it tightly, together. It seemed to be all they had.

A young lady approached me and asked, "Are you an honest-to-goodness priest?" I was unsure what sort of a cleric that might be, but I admitted my vocation and she took me to a beautiful young woman, married only a year and a half who spent an hour with me talking of her young husband.

Thankful she was-thankful that they had kissed before they left each other at Grand Central Terminal Tuesday morning. "Everyone keeps telling me," she said, "that things are going to be all right. They aren't going to be all right." She had spent an hour in the courtyard talking with others whose husbands and wives worked at the same firm as her husband worked, and had to leave, she said. "They just kept talking about how everything was going to be all right." She seemed to be looking for someone who could share--or at least hear--her agony that things would never be right for her ever again.

In the normal course of things, I would take a few moments now to conclude with some theological analysis, an orderly reflection before closing an article. Writers are supposed to do that. But I don't have time. I have to get back to the hospital.


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