The National Catholic Review
Margaret Silf
Lisa and Louise had never met until the morning of July 7, 2005, when they found themselves sitting next to each other on the top deck of a No. 30 bus in London’s commuter traffic. They would probably never have spoken to each other even then, given that legendary British reserve, but events would throw them together. As the bus exploded and they sat side by side, frozen in survivor shock, they turned to each other. One had lost her sight, the other her hearing in the blast. They became the eyes and ears for each other as they groped their terrified way through the debris and din. It was a friendship that would endure. A friendship forged in hell.

Can something good really emerge out of an event as abhorrent as a suicide bombing? Or to put the question another way: Can God really be present where God appears to be so conspicuously absent?

Roughly four years earlier, a young nurse was asking herself the same question as she signed in for duty in a Manhattan hospital. When she came up from the subway, she was just in time to witness the impact of the second plane on the World Trade Center. Realizing that whatever was happening, it was going to demand all of her skills, she rushed to her workplace and began to minister to the injured and the dying as ash fell from the skies, shrouding Manhattan in a blanket of death.

As a neurological specialist, it was her task to assess whether a casualty had suffered head trauma or was only in shock. The judgment wasn’t always easy. A young black patient lay in front of her, a man in his 20’s. He made no response to any of her questions. It was impossible to tell whether he suffered brain damage. She focused on his eyes. She caught the slightest glimmer of response through these windows of his soul, into his shattered, sacred, inner space. As their gazes met for a moment, a tear slowly rose in each of his eyes, like the source of some deep and sorrowing river. Each tear flowed slowly, oh so slowly, across his cheeks, making two shining black rivers through the layer of ash that covered his skin.

Now the nurse, too, had no more words. For a moment she hesitated, then she stretched out her fingers and gently, reverently, touched the tears.

It was a moment out of timea moment that only God could have given. Something was released inside the heart of a broken man. He began to speak. He poured out his story: how he had been in the office with a colleague; how he had flung himself under the desk, but his colleague had not been able to do so. How he had watched his colleague die.

The nurse listened. All that was possible, or needful, was to stay with her own helplessness. When the world appears to be collapsing around you, and the landscape of your life is covered with ash, staying with the helplessness is really the only option. But staying with our own helplessness is the hardest thing! We take in the messages of our culture along with our mother’s milkor rather, we are taken in by them. Messages that tell us life has to work, and if it doesn’t we have to fix it. Perfection is the goal. Anything less is failure. We are accustomed to having life under control. If circumstances seize that control away from us, we fight tooth and nail to regain our mastery over that terrifying chaos upon which our fragile order perches so precariously.

And then the moment comes when there is nothing to be done. When the screams subside and there is nothing left except the silence of shock, then we finally come face to face with our helplessness. And then, only then, the miracle happens. As once Moses obeyed God’s command to strike a hard rock face in the desert, and a stream of living water broke forth (Ex 17), so the streams of grace still flow for us today out of the hardest rock that we can imagine.

My nurse friend, who has kindly given me permission to retell her story, did exactly that. In the face of the hard rock of nothing left to say, she obeyed some deep intuition that prompted her to reach out in a gesture of empathy and solidarity, and as soon as she did so, a cleansing and cathartic stream was released in her patient.

Perhaps Moses has something to teach us about that delicate balance between the ideal of moral leadership and the humility of helplessness. Who knows better than he the challenge of dealing with intractable problems?

Moses appealed to Yahweh for help. How am I to deal with this people? Any moment they will stone me!’ And Yahweh’s response: Go ahead of your people. Take the staff. Strike the rock. Water will come out. Go ahead! No problem is ever solved by the same mind-set that created it. Go ahead, toward a new mind-set, a new vision. And when you do, don’t trust in your strength, but stand face to face with your weakness. Only there will fresh waters break through. Lead the people, but lead with humility. Dare to touch the pain in both friend and enemy, for there you will recognize your God.

On these raw edges of human life, God reveals to those who dare to look the Calvary truth that out of brokenness a radically new wholeness can grow. Today, five years after America’s Zero Hour, Moses’ staff is still in our hands. How will we use it? To batter the problem or to touch the tears?

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living, and the Catholic Press Association award-winning The Gift of Prayer.

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