Last Friday, I walked the streets of Manhattan, thinking that I was bringing closure to the path I began traveling with you in January of this year. What occurred was way beyond closure and completely different than what I expected.
As you probably already know, I prayed to be released from all my expectations for this pilgrimage. I wanted to experience whatever God (and you) wanted me to experience. Yet, as I walked through the city, to your home at St. Francis of Assisi Church, your firehouse – Engine 1, Ladder 24, and downtown to the sacred space of Ground Zero, I felt empty. Sure, I was present physically and mentally. I enjoyed meeting the delightful and loving Dorothy at St. Francis, and the so-very-young rookie firefighter, Andrew of Engine 1. Yet, as I traveled the streets that you once traveled, I felt as if my spirit had left me. I was just a body and mind, moving through the streets, emotionally removed from the persistent tugging I have felt you pulling on my heartstrings during the last eight months. In fact, as I entered the church on Barclay Street, where the firemen had laid your lifeless body after the South Tower fell, all I could really feel was enormous gratitude for the fact that the church was air-conditioned! The city was so hot on Friday – so humid, muggy, and sticky. Perhaps symbolic of the intense weight of disappointment I felt as the minutes of the day slipped away from me without one tear, without any warm glows within, without feeling as though I had accomplished anything.
I lingered in the church vestibule, at first in hopes that my perspiration-soaked clothes might dry a bit, but then to light a candle in your memory and softly mumble your prayer. Even in doing so, my self-interest would not shake, and the terror of the judge in my head entered with an unrelenting gavel. I watched as a middle-aged, worn and haggard woman went from statute to statue, clinging to them in desperation – first Mary, then Jesus, then back to Mary again. I stood there and judged her. Was she putting on a show for the other people present? Or maybe the show was for God? Immediately disgusted with myself and the inner voice of judgment, I left the building.
Thinking I could run from myself by continuing to move physically, I crossed the street to a beautiful, round volunteer to ask where I could find Panel S-18 (where your name is printed, along with other first responders). She gave me directions and we spoke briefly about the area. As I thanked her, she drew me in for an enormous hug, to which I bristled in response. I rarely stiffen at the offer of a hug from anyone, but perhaps I felt unworthy of her kindness at that moment. And now I wonder… Was that you, Mychal? Could it be that you were using her to let me know that God loves me despite everything going on inside of my head and not going on inside of my heart!?!
Still feeling empty, I arrived at the panel where your name is printed. I placed my hand on the letters and prayed your prayer again. Nothing. Eight months of building this relationship with you and all I could feel was that I had blown it. I had failed to open my heart to whatever awakening had awaited me on the streets your city, and to experience the love you carried with you everywhere you went. In my desperation, I called a fellow seminary pilgrim and shared my grief with her. She listened intently and validated my lack-of-feeling by sharing a similar experience. And then she said something to me that gave me the key to unlock the gates of understanding that loomed so massively immobile around my heart all day long: “Jessie, I truly believe that your journey with Father Mychal is far from over. In fact, I think this is just the beginning.”
Those words helped me to realize that I never really surrendered my expectations for the day to God. I prayed the words, but I still entertained my own desires as I imagined what the day would look like and feel like. My desire to impress others, to impress you and to impress God had taken over; and God responded by shutting me down. I see now that He wanted me to call my friend and hear the real message of the day – that this relationship with you, my brother Mychal, is only just beginning.
Through you, Mychal, I have been given the gift of trust in God’s guidance. You were not perfect. You experienced loneliness and doubt, just like anyone else. And yet, you kept on going, doing the next thing as it was presented to you, and showing others the love of God by following His will.
I thank God for placing you in my path. I thank God for nudging me to call my friend. I thank God that Friday’s pilgrimage and the last eight months were just the beginning.
“That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up. You put one foot in front of another. You get on the rig and you go out and you do the job – which is a mystery. And a surprise. You have no idea when you get on that rig. No matter how big the call. No matter how small. You have no idea what God is calling you to. But he needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.”
– From the last homily of Father Mychal Judge, given on Monday, September 10, 2001 at the FDNY’s Engine 73, Ladder 42 firehouse in the Bronx, New York
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