One year ago I visited El Salvador for the 25th Anniversary of the UCA Jesuit Martyrs. My heart learned of great pain but also of great love.
Now the attacks in Paris and Beirut remind me that I can always relearn the harsh lessons of the nature of our world and our humanity.
In her book For the Time Being, Annie Dillard talks about stepping outside of the safe caves we live in most of the time to stand in the wind of reality. I often want to run from this wind carrying news of more deaths; I want to slam my thumb into the radio to cut off the stream of suffering and jump back into my privileged cave to comb the pain out my windblown curls. I don’t want to stand in front of the 8 crosses representing the Jesuit Priests, their house keeper, and her daughter who were brutally murdered in a rose garden in San Salvador, on a calm morning, 26 years ago. Maybe I cannot always stand in the storm that is a full realization of the way things are. However, neither can I stay in my bubble of college papers and tests.
Dillard says, “A little at a time does for me–a little every day.”
Thomas Hardy says, ” If a way to the Better there be, it exact a full look at the Worst.”
Below is an essay I wrote upon my return from El Salvador a year ago:
Handprints on my Bleeding Heart
After turning only a few pages of the photo album I felt physically sick. Image after image of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter as they were found on a bright morning almost exactly 25 years earlier filled the pages and my being with a disbelieving mixture of horror, pain, and incomprehension. Bloodied bodies on green grass and tiled floor, mutilated faces, destroyed fingers, cracked skulls, and inhuman forms accosted my eyes. A slice of brain in the blades of grass, I could see the corpus callosum just like in my Neuroanatomy textbook. The men’s bodies were too familiar in trousers and Polos my grandfather might wear. The face of the fifteen-year-old girl, my sister’s age, was sickeningly peaceful pressed to her mother’s blood soaked body. I could not continue to look; yet neither could I desist in turning the pages. A quote on the wall said that we must present the truth no matter whom it may offend. I value truth.
Yet, how do I find truth? There are lies and confabulations, there are different perspectives, there is a grapevine of altered realities. How do I sift through them all?
A woman standing above the resting place of Monseñor Romero’s heart, a man who fought during the war and knew the murdered martyrs, a nun who found skinned bodies outside her door and dogged faith in her work, women outside a cathedral in the center of San Salvador, a young woman crying in a shower. We all have a story. I value stories.
Truth comes through acceptance of all stories, of listening to the different views to construct a picture from people’s hearts.
The man who distracted me from the pain of leaving El Salvador sat in the middle seat, had a forest green felt cowboy hat, and had to say his name three times over the roar of the airplane engine before I understood: Reuben. He told me his story, or at least pieces of it. I could not catch all his words of the war, of young boys pulled into gangs, of disappearances, of warnings to not believe it all, of visiting the United States where his 9 year old son urged him to stay because it was “demasiado peligroso” (too dangerous) back at home. Yet, it did not matter if the sound waves produced by his Salvadorean tongue reached the hair cells in my American ears, for his heart spoke through his eyes. It did not matter if I understood, because I listened. I value listening.
How do I listen? I listen with another hand in mine, with my reflection in another’s eyes, my heart-rhythm beating a hemiola against theirs, with my hands doing the same work and my lungs breathing the same air and my soul feeling the same pain. I value solidarity.
I wanted to touch every one of the 30,000 names on the memorial wall with my fingers, with my lips, with my heart. Dust worked its way into the creases of my finger prints after just the first few rows of names, my digits working like a blind woman’s to find the answer to this list of death that my heart could not comprehend. I can do nothing for the dead and disappeared but remember, but I can still do something for the living. I value being a woman in service of others.