The very heart of the very last hour of the daily rhythm of prayer, both in the very ancient and contemporary rites of the liturgy of the hours, is psalm 91, especially these lines:
“For you he has commanded the angels,
to keep you in all your ways,
they will bear you upon their hands,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Ps 91:11-12
I learned some deeper meanings to these words in the last weeks. Bear with me, as I try to explain.
Since the very day hurricane Matthew hit Haiti three weeks ago, I have been on many caravans by land and boat with our team, to bring help to so many people that we know around the country.
The stories of what we encounter would fill volumes. Just yesterday we returned from a hard but beautiful journey to Maniche. Tomorrow we are off to La Gonave.
I went by air just once during these weeks, on a helicopter to bring food to a remote place named Baraderes.
Unlike our medical teams that work in Jeremie and Dame Marie, I had not seen the vast extent of destruction in the south of Haiti by air.
So last week, I decided to make a reconnaissance tour by helicopter. I knew it would be troubling and sad, but I was sure I would gain even more insights and ideas as to how to help.
Since it was not a working trip, and we would not be unloading rice or having to fight hungry crowds, I decided to fill the four remaining seats of the helicopter with a few of our many physically challenged staff: those who lost a limb or the use of their limb, during the earthquake of 2010.
They are exceptional members of our team. They soared high above the tragedy that severely wounded them seven years ago, and are phenomenal people because of their suffering, sacrifice and hope.
And they work very hard, and bring to our team the spirit of determination and heroism.
Because of limits on their balance and stamina, they are not usually invited on disaster missions. So I wanted to give a few of them a chance to have a helicopter ride and soar over tragedy, once again.
So, one week ago, off we went. Well buckled in. Hovering first over the expansive Port au Prince and then over the wide, blue sea.
I sat with Andres, the pilot, who had me wired up to listen to him and the tower. About 20 minutes into the flight, and told me we were at six thousand feet and fighting a strong headwind.
As I watched the beautiful and rugged turquoise coastline, and the deep green mountains far below, I began to daydream.
I remembered how forty years ago, my brother Kevin, who is a helicopter pilot. flew to New York one brilliant autumn day to whisk me away from the seminary and take me home for a few days, the trees ablaze with their brilliant and final colors below us.
It was spectacular. Not the normal way to pop off to Connecticut to see mom and dad. It seemed, in fact, pretentious to travel from Long Island to Hartford by helicopter, like an overdone scene from “The Great Gatsby.” But it was fun.
It was also educational. Kevin explained how the chopper worked, and I especially remember that he pointed out the value of wings on a plane: if the engines failed, you could still ride the air to an emergency landing.
It wasn’t that way with a helicopter. A mechanical failure spelt disaster.
I looked at the sea far below, sorry my mind had strayed to something so unpleasant as a failed helicopter, and enjoyed the view of turquoise depths.
Suddenly the helicopter seemed to struggle.
Andres was starting to sweat.
He turned off my speaker so I could not hear anything, and I watched him through the corner of my eye, talking forcefully to the tower.
We turned around.
We were starting to descend.
I wanted to ask Andres what was happening, but oddly, I decided that it was none of my business.
Denial was a helpful first medicine.
No matter what I didn’t know, I knew we weren’t looking for a Starbucks.
I took out my well-worn rosary and prayed myself to calm. This is the time-honored and best medicine.
Shortly afterwards, Andres flipped my headset on again, and told me one of the two motors of the helicopter had a problem, and we had to make an emergency landing.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God!” ….You know the rest of the prayer.
The discussion with the tower got a little agitated. They were panicking, alerting other aircraft, warning of fire, etc.
Andres finally had to ask the tower to stay calm or leave him to himself.
He said he could not afford to be afraid or even start to panic, and that the tower was inducing fear in him.
He asked the tower to stay calm and controlled, or shut the radio off. It was forceful but cordial.
Andres insisted that he could reach the airport runway.
He kept giving the tower his status:11 km out, altitude 5000 ft. 7 km out, altitude 4000 ft. 3km out, altitude 3000 ft.
Tower asked if he was sure he could make the runway, and he said he was sure.
At 2km, tower asked “How many people are on board?”
He said “Six”
Tower said: “When you land they have to be prepared to run in case of fire.”
There was a pause.
Andres said: “Four of them have only one leg, and the priest is hardly a sprinter.”
There was silence from the tower.
“Please repeat. We don’t think we heard you right.”
“You heard me right. Over.”
The runway was in view.
One, two, three, …and still coming… Were the fire trucks ready to meet us on the runway?
I kept saying my beads. And then I said this prayer:
“Dear God, for the sixth time in as many decades of my life, I am ready to die if the moment is now. If this is the time, I accept it. I accept, but I do not understand. Not with all the work that needs to be done, especially now. But I also tell you this. I do NOT accept that I invited these four friends to have a new adventure, a once in a lifetime chance, and that, after having been crushed by tragedy once already, they will now die in a ball of fire, in public display, at the airport. This I DO NOT ACCEPT. Amen.”
Down we went.
My beads were passing faster through my fingers, and my fingers stopped altogether, as we made a graceful landing.
Firemen and women were aiming their hoses at us, just in case.
I shook Andres’ sweaty hand, and congratulated him for his calm and disciplined skill.
He could not speak, for emotion.
My four friends, having no idea of what happened, thanked me profusely for the trip, and were astounded at getting such a kind reception by so many fire trucks.
Off we limped and hobbled, including me.
When we got back to Tabarre to resume our work, I went to the chapel alone and said a quiet prayer of thanksgiving.
What almost happened to us, shook me to the bones.
As I was leaving the chapel, the voice inside me that I know very well said: “Wait. Don’t go yet. Not so fast.”
I knelt down again, and waited.
Heaven said to me: “That was a nice speech just before landing. I liked it a lot.”
“Did you mean it?”
“Yes, of course I meant it.”
“I know you meant the last part, protesting the death of your friends in fire. That I know for sure. But did you mean the first part, that you are ready to die?”
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you were able to say the first part of the prayer in your mind, because you were able to say the second part of the prayer in your heart. Was the first part also in your heart?”
“I am not sure.”
“I like that answer better. You can go now. By the way, I admire your kindness to your friends.”
Psalm 91 was a consolation to Jesus during his great suffering.
It obviously was not a physical promise.
He would have been lucky if instead of being crucified, he had just stubbed his toes against a stone.
Psalm 91 also did not apply literally to my four friends, who dashed not only their feet, but their entire legs to oblivion.
And yet we were put gently down. And these words really do give great comfort. We learn that we are not alone, and that we are very much guided and helped.
Jesus Spirit was not crushed by his suffering, but was triumphant, no matter what happened to his body.
The spirits of Andral, Felicia, Clarisia and Ti Robert were not crushed by the earthquake, no matter what happened to their bodies.
Andres was not dashed against the stones of panic and fear, emotions which could have provoked our physical deaths.
And I was saved in the chapel from a smug sense of pride, which can never bring any good to anyone, anywhere.
We are loved, we are guided, yes we get hurt, and sooner or later and we die. But we are loved and we are guided.
What blessed news.
Thank you for being in our lives, for your care for us and the Haitian people we serve, your care from up close and from far away, and for your midnight prayers.
They count a lot.
Together we rise up in the face of this newest national tragedy, the wake of hurricane Matthew, guided by the higher angels, and by what is best and the highest in each of us.