Memories of Murder and Meaning

Memories of Murder and Meaning


Nov. 16th, 1989: Murder. 

27 years ago today, Nov. 16th, six jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador. This was only one of many horrific acts seen during the tragic civil war that raged from 1981 to 1992. Massacres, assassinations, and disappearings…a lot of which was carried out by the military that received funding and training from the United States.  The martyring of these peaceful university employees and a 15 year old girl in 1989 helped to wake the world up to the horrors going on in El Salvador.


Nov. 16th, 2014: Meaning.

2 years ago I had the life changing opportunity to accompany Regis University’s president to El Salvador for the 25th anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs. The 48 hours I spent experientially learning about El Savador’s history, people, pain, and love deeply impacted me and taught me a lot about meaning in our world.


Nov. 16th, 2016: Memories. 

Soon after returning from my trip to El Salvador two years ago I wrote an essay addressing the question, What is meaning? Much of the content came from the raw experiences I had while in El Salvador and directly afterwards. From time to time I pull out this essay to read over it again because it reminds me of who I am and what I stand for. I have included the full essay below. Also, check out this essay about the insight I found about my values after my experience (shorter piece!).


Note: Sorry about the weird fonts. Working on getting that sorted out.


Sacraments, Bumping Souls, and Truth: My Magis of an Open Heart

( Written for Dr. Leininger and Dr. Bowie to fulfill the requirements for the course

Magis and the Search for Meaning, Nov. 30, 2014. Zoe Vlastos. )

Sitting at the center of a circle of seven young women and one wise man, connected to each through a touching hand, I offered up a prayer. I asked to not forget the stories and experiences and knowledge 48 hours in El Salvador had given me. I did not want to loose it all. My voice cracked offering up my second prayer. “My greatest fear is to not follow my heart,” my words quivered like the heart of a quail beating into the palms of cupped hands, “Please let me continue to follow my heart in all that I do.” Tears slipped down my cheeks, plastering curls to my face and dripping off my chin. There, in El Salvador, in that circle, I could feel my heart deeply tapped into the knowledge of who I am, where I am going, and what I am doing. I do not want to forget. Back in the hotel room I wrote, “Here I am open, wide open. I do not want to close off when I get home, for this openness is sacred and the essence of life.”


In her book “For the Time Being,” Annie Dillard talks about a bright newborn’s first encounter with a situation we all face, whether once in a lifetime or daily. She says, “A nurse unwraps him. He does not like it; he hates being unwrapped. He is still red…“Aaaa,” says the baby” (Dillard, 40). The baby screams when his wrappings are taken away, scared at the prospect of being vulnerable to his new world. However, Dillard continues, “As she finishes binding him in to his proper Thermos shape, the baby closes his mouth, opens his eyes and peers about like a sibyl” (Dillard, 40). Once again surrounded by his warm wrappers the infant opens himself to the wonder of the world.


            As a freshman at Regis the image of this baby’s unwrapping spoke to me deeply as I felt my own safety wrapping of family, friends, and familiarity being stripped away. I wrote,

“At a certain point, we must learn to step away from our wrappings while keeping our eyes open. When the baby did not have his soft blanket surrounding him he shut his eyes to the world and could not see the enchantment. It is easy, when pushed, to squeeze one’s eyes shut to the world and cry at the scariness of being vulnerable. The instinct is to curl into a ball or hide within our shell. Yet, if we do this, we cannot grow. When we step out into the unknown, into vulnerability, with our eyes open we will truly be able to learn, to grow and to live.”


At the time I thought mostly of the unwrapping as an academic and emotional phenomenon. I realized that in order to do well in school I would have to confront the fear of failure, to connect with others I would have to confront the fear of rejection. Now, I find that the ability to unwrap is also necessary to following the heart to know and to live truth.


I walked into the brightly sun-lit room with the long table and posters of smiling Salvadorian martyrs covering the walls with my heart wide open. I was raw, I was ready, I had left my wrappings behind but still had my eyes open to the beautiful world. But…I was naïve to the pain waiting in the pages of the photo albums, waiting to stab my exposed heart. At first my heart could not comprehend the images of bloodied bodies, inhuman faces, raw flesh, mutilated limbs, and split skulls that accosted my eyes. Then my heart begged to close off, to shut out the familiarity of the priest’s red stained polo shirts so like my own grandfather’s, and the face of the fifteen-year-old girl—exactly my own sister’s age—pressed to her mother’s bloodied back. I thought that reading about the massacre of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter had taught me the truth, but the pain in my heart that morning, 25 years after the fact, told me otherwise. Only when we open our hearts fully, lay ourselves raw to all experiences, can we know the truth of our world. Yes, a part of me screamed to close it all out in self-preservation, but a quote on the wall reminded me why I was there. ‘We must present the truth no matter whom it may offend.’

As a freshman I focused on the unwrapping of the flushed newborn. However, I now see Annie Dillard’s passage with a new focus. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition 2a of ‘unwrap’ says, “To open, unwind, or unroll (what is wrapped or wound).” Unwrapping implies an opening. Opening can be extremely disconcerting as it makes one vulnerable to all around. My freshman self greatly felt the scariness of opening my heart, without any protective wrapping, to the world. It is interesting to note that Dillard does use the word ‘open’ when talking about this baby, but only once his wrappings are securely back in place. The baby is defying the definition of unwrapping; he is open only when his protective covering is there. He has yet to learn to be open when unwrapped. The OED’s definition 1c of ‘unwrap’ is “To deliver out of, release from, free of, some envelopment; to liberate or set free.” Here we learn what the red infant has not; unwrapping does not have to be terrifying. Instead “unwrapping” allows us to “open” our eyes and our hearts. With the “envelopment” gone we are “free” to see more than only the range our coverings would allow. Although those wrappings were useful for a time as they helped us to keep our eyes open, at a point they became restraints from which we waited to be “set free.”

            A pumpkin muffin pressed into my hands by Father Fitzgibbons, the president of my university, passed on from an elderly woman who brings love in the form of baked-goods to mass every Sunday. I walk out the doors of Main Hall to sunshine and a view of the mountains. Standing at the heart of Regis I know privilege. In my hands I hold the delicate chance that my being has come to stand here, in this moment, instead of in the footprints of one of the other 7.125 billion humans on this rotating piece of rock. Patti—the secretary to the president—spoke of the unexpected gifts of giving a college education she never had to her three children. She said the essay I wrote about El Salvador helped her understand why the university sends students on trips like mine. To learn truth. To learn about the world. To learn about self.

            When we allow our wrapping to “liberate or set free,” we allow sacraments into our lives.

            Prince Ea, a young hip-hop artist from St. Louis talking about the recent events in Ferguson says, “Everyone is worried about changing this, changing that. What’s on the outside, right? But we have forgotten about that which is looking outside, which is ourselves. “Who are you?” is the question. Who are you in the deepest sense? …Figure that out. Because there will never be external peace if there is not first internal peace. As more and more people find themselves, mankind has the opportunity to transform into kind man.”

            Quotes from my journal during my El Salvador Trip: “I have been blessed with a heart that can hold much pain and much love.” “I am listening to my heart.” “This trip has been life changing.” “The handprint El Salvador has placed on my heart will never fade.” “I am here with my heart wide open and it feels like home.”

Annie Dillard depicts souls as grains of sand, which become more spherical the older they get. She says “As a sand grain tumbles along the riverbed—it saltates, then lies still, then saltates for those millions of years—it smooths some of these rough edges. When it lands, it lands hard. Wind bangs sand grains into one another on dunes and beaches, and into rocks.” (Dillard, 98) In order to grow, or to become knapped round, we not only must be thrown against many truths but we also must bump souls with others.

Connection in an Argentinian kitchen talking about mutual pasts struggling with eating disorders, listening to a dear friend whose painful story I would have to report to authorities if I worked for the university, a man on a plane headed for my home who told me the struggle of leaving his own, a travel crazed freckled girl at a conversation exchange in the heart of Buenos Aires who would become my best friend, sweet smelling hair pressed against my face as a story of anger poured through the shoulder shaking sobs and the tears that soaked our matching Northface jackets keeping away the cold of the night as our embrace shielded the horrors of the past, a young mother who’s eyes on her children spoke of unconditional love. These souls, bumping against my own, knap me round. Nonetheless, souls are different from sand grains for we can change our attitude towards the knapping. With wrappings in place other souls come up against only hard unknappable edges. Effective smoothing by the stories of other souls occurs when the heart is wide open.


Sitting in a small sanctuary behind the main alter of the chapel of Universidad de Centroamerica with pain still stabbing my heart like the rose thorns on the bushes planted in the garden where the martyrs bodies were found, I could not understand what I had seen in the photo albums’ glossy pages and had heard in the tour guide’s story of brutal cruelty. How could I make sense of this truth? What is the use of this pain in my open heart? How can there be any meaning in a life filled with such suffering?


            At the end of her honors thesis Peyton Lunzer says,

“Nothing is ever supposed to happen. It’s not supposed to rain in the summer and piglets aren’t supposed to die and no one is ever supposed to feel lost of afraid or alone, but these things happen all the time to everyone. That doesn’t make it okay or even necessary it just makes it what it is, it is what it is so we go on, we do our chores we try to sleep in tents at night we do things like this.” Peyton Lunzer (85)


After overcoming an eating disorder, doing well in college, having a life full of love and friendship and family, I believed that everything happened for a reason. After a semester of confronting Dostoyevsky’s images of child abuse and murdered infants, realizing the pain hidden in my friend’s tight hugs, and traveling into the truth of El Salvador, I know the weight of Peyton’s words. Our world is full of pain and suffering and loneliness and fear; this is our truth. Yet, our world is also full of joy and happiness and love and beauty; this is our truth. For some reason—one we cannot understand, for nothing is “supposed to happen”—these things go hand in hand. We cannot have one set of experiences without the other, and yet we cannot experience any of them fully without our hearts open, without accepting that the world “is what it is.” This is why I value truth. This is why I gritted my teeth at that wide wooden table and kept turning the pages with my heart, and eyes, open. This is why I lived in El Salvador as I hope to live the rest of my life. I deeply believe that without accepting the world for “what it is” one cannot accomplish anything. Without keeping one’s eyes open to the world when “unwrapped” into scary vulnerability one cannot find Magis. Without knowledge of our truth we cannot ask the question of “given the way things are, how ought we to live?”


I did not know her story, but I saw her choice. At the 25th Anniversary Mass a young mother—not much older than myself—exchanged tender smiles in peek-a-boo with her baby girl, expressed unconditional love through sleep inducing caresses to her boisterous boys, extended patience through her hands as they fed, restrained, offered, opened, supported, smoothed, and scolded, healing some of the wounds in my heart. Her love and grace showed me the reality of the words of a man who lived through the Salvadorean civil war when I asked how people keep going, “Salvadorean’s get up every morning and go to work.” People go on. People choose love, choose kindness, choose compassion. Simply because they can.


Even when all external control has been stripped from our lives, we are still free in our choice of attitude. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl speaks of this freedom when he says, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, 66) In the concentration camps of which Frankl spoke, in a young mother’s eye in El Salvador, in the patients recovering from psychiatric illnesses I saw in my summer internship I have seen this unexpected freedom. No matter where we are in life, no matter what others may do to us, we still have a choice in our attitudes and actions. We still choose how we will answer Prince Ea’s question. “Who are we in the deepest sense?”


Frankl says, “It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.” (Frankl, 67)


Frankl, a civil war veteran, a young mother at Mass all suggest that we have a choice. But what of it? What does this have to do with truth or following one’s heart or magis? For me, magis can only be accomplished by following one’s heart. When one can choose to listen to who he or she truly is in “the deepest sense”, and what he or she truly is drawn towards, and what the world call him or her to do, one finds magis. However, this is not a one time calling; the search for magis comes each day, each hour, each moment as we open our hearts in listening. Open our hearts. Open our hearts. Open our heart to the truth of the world. Open our hearts to the saltating souls waiting to bump into our own. Open our hearts to the sacraments peppered through the moments of our lives. Magis is opening ones heart to the world for “what it is” and, from there, making a choice of how to live.


Now we can ask and answer the question. “Given the way things are, how ought we to live?”

Talking of babies again, Dillard writes, “When a person arrives in the world as a baby, says one Midrash, “his hands are clenched as though to say, ‘Everything is mine. I will inherit it all.’ When he departs from the world, his hands are open, as though to say, ‘I have acquired nothing from the world.” (Dillard, 19) It is important to note two things about the later pair of hands in this quote. First, they have lived a lifetime of learning. Second, they have realized what I realized in Father Fritzgibbon’s gift of a muffin: we cannot receive gifts with our fists closed. Third, meaningful living only occurs when the hands, and hearts and eyes, are open.

            Yet, how do I not become overwhelmed by the sacraments placed in my hands, the pain placed in my heart, the self-knowledge opening my soul? There are too many places to be, hands to hold, hugs to give, essays to write, truths to discover, experience to live, stories to listen to, souls to bump into. How can I do it all?

            Dillard writes, “ “It is given to men to lift up the fallen and to free the imprisoned. Not merely to wait, not merely to look on! Man is able to work for the redemption of the world.” The work is not yours to finish, Rabbi Tarfon said, but neither are you free to take no part in it.” (Dillard, 202)


Her words seem to paraphrase the Prayer of Oscar Romero.


“We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted,

Knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It maybe be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.”



Works Cited:

Dillard, A. For the Time Being. New York: Vintage Press. 2000. Print.


Ea, P. [Prince Ea]. (2014, Sept. 1). What no one wants to say about Ferguson! Retrieved from

Frankl, V. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. 2006. Print.

Lunzer, Peyton. (2014). Cucumber island and after: on trauma, memory, writing, and healing. Retrieved from Regis University Library Database.



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