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This past weekend, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati and their Associates spent four days together in a communal retreat. This sacred time of reflection was facilitated by Sr. Janet Mock, CSJ, who led us into thinking and praying deeply about our vows of poverty, obedience and chaste celibacy. During our day of reflection on the vow of obedience, Sr. Janet challenged us to consider our call to stand in the ‘tragic gap’, a phrase coined by Parker Palmer, an author and activist for social change. Sr. Janet offered us these words of Palmer for reflection:
“I think it’s pretty obvious to a lot of people that we live in very broken times; we live in times with lots and lots of gaps between the difficult realities of life and what we know to be possible humanly. We know that we live in a world at war. We also know that it is possible to live in peace…everyone would have their own example of what I’ve come to call these tragic gaps… One of the most important capacities [a person] can have is the capacity to stand in the tragic gap… It is not easy to live in this middle ground, in the space between what is and what could be…Standing in the tragic gap can be a heart-breaking experience. But instead of breaking into pieces the heart can be broken open into larger capacity, new possibilities and more life-giving responses to the struggles of our times.” (“Standing in the Tragic Gap, Parker J. Palmer).
In the days following our community retreat, some of my Sisters and I found ourselves standing in the tragic gap.
Saturday afternoon, Sister Andrea was out watering the flowers in our yard when a disheveled-looking woman, I’ll give her the alias Sharon, approached asking for help. She had recently come out of drug rehab and was now back on the streets and hungry. Andrea took the time to sit on the front steps with Sharon and offer a compassionate listening ear. They ended the conversation with an agreement that Sharon would return on Monday and Andrea would drive her to a rehab center.
Monday came, and no sight of Sharon.
Tuesday evening there was a knock at the door. Sharon was back, and lamenting the fact that she had not returned the previous day. She had now been on the street for 7 days. Myself and two other sisters from my community made her a sandwich and sat with her on our front porch. Sharon admitted that she had used drugs earlier that day, but was desperate to get back into rehab. We spent the next 45-60 minutes calling every homeless shelter and rehab center in city. We repeatedly received automated recordings or responses of “no room available”. There we sat in the tragic gap, between a woman reaching out for help, and nowhere to go.
It quickly became clear that Sharon may be in need of medical care as she was coming off her drug use. We made the decision to take her to the hospital. After a few hours in the ER, and several conversations with the nurse and social worker, we left Sharon in the capable hands of the ER staff and headed for home. We called the hospital the next morning and were told that Sharon had been deemed medically stable, had been discharged, and they could offer us no other information. With each passing day, I half expect to see Sharon reappear on our doorstep, but as of now, nothing.
I wish I had a happy ending to this story. I wish I could say that standing in the tragic gap resulted in the closing of that tense space and brought Sharon the healing she needed. But this is the reality of the tragic gap – even when we choose to remain there, most often the gap remains too.
So what difference does it make?
Perhaps the gap was not changed, but I was. When I hear news stories of addicts and overdoses, I will hear with compassion rather than judgment, bringing to mind Sharon’s face. I will more strongly advocate for resources for emergency shelters…or better yet, resources for programs that aim to break the cycle of poverty and addiction.
And I hope that Sharon was changed. I hope that, for at least a few hours, she knew and felt that she was worthy of love and care, despite poor decisions and past mistakes.
What tragic gaps do you see in the world around you? Where are you standing?