Out of the Smoke of Poison and Death, Grace and Hope

Magnificat today excerpts an interview with Tiffiny Gulla,a composer and choreographer who was 29 years old on 9/11/01, working near the World Trade Center. In the fuller interview, she explains:

I was standing on the corner of Liberty and Broadway. I remember suddenly running through a smoke cloud down the avenue toward the water to get away from the building collapsing, but I hadn’t even realized it was collapsing. We thought maybe the collapses we heard were bombs exploding. The combustion from the smoke and inertia was throwing people against the walls and mailboxes but, for some reason, I was able to keep running and, at a certain point, I was “transported” four blocks ahead. To this day, me and some of the others having this experience don’t know how we flew so far ahead in a few seconds. But we all remember the blue-white lights all around us, which many of us believe were guardian angels. But I arrived home scared and confused. It was years before I could watch the footage of that day.

She wound up going back two days later and that, perhaps, made all the difference:

Yes. Someone needed to take care of packaging up our out-of-town employees’ personal effects in our corporate apartments downtown in Battery Park—they had all fled their apartments. Since I had already witnessed the carnage I did not want to put anyone else through the trauma, so I volunteered to go back in to work on this. But, by the third day of the aftermath, I was waking up with hugely swollen hands. I was also bleeding from the nose, and had other symptoms of toxic mercury poisoning, like many others. We went immediately into treatment to sweat out the toxins. But some of my symptoms remained. Within ten days, I got the worst possible diagnosis: scleroderma, which is an over-production of collagen. This is a fatal autoimmune disease, with mortality usually within ten years. It causes a hardening of skin and organs—a scarring of tissues, noticeable the hands and face, but the internal damage is worse.

In an interview on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she further remembered and reflected:

My life, although successful, was chaotic. My mother, in the throes of her second bout with cancer, had just moved in with me—with my brother, so we could take care of her. I had a greater desire for meaning and was ready for any change. So, on the suggestion of a friend, I went on an interview for this job with royal blue financial corp. (now Fidessa) in 2000. I was hired not necessarily for my resume but, oddly enough, because I was on an amateur national golf circuit, and my would-be boss loved golf! I thought, “Maybe Providence is at work here!” As a facilities manager, I did everything from running around with a real estate broker, dealing with lawyers, to finally renting the office space; I would then design, manage, and upkeep the offices and data centers. Two months into the job, I discovered that there was a chapel 50 feet from my office, Our Lady of the Rosary, the Mother Seton shrine, and I made that my second home. This was an answer to my prayer, which by then was becoming, “Lord, I want You to be my full focus.” Because I was working there, I was downtown on September 11th. And that brought this disease, which has put Him front and center, as I had asked. It was almost a relief to know I would have to depend on Him now.

In all the death and destruction and tremendous pain, she is filled with gratitude:

God had to take each one of my gifts and talents away one by one for me to see what the real Gift is. My life is no longer who I know, all my contacts, what I can do—because I can no longer do what I was able to do physically. Now my life is just Him, on whom I fully depend. I still work in finance, designing office spaces. I can’t play music anymore but I still have my voice and I am composing music with the help of friends. I have to give everything to everyone because I am so dependent. But if I had not already been in a relationship of dependence on Christ, accepting so much help would be unbearable. Instead, my friends are signs of Him for me.

May everyone find such peace, when it’s hardest to, and every day.

May His peace console those who continue to suffer on account of the attack on the United States 12 years ago today and may all those who were murdered rest in eternal peace.

Like the famous Ground Zero cross, Gulla’s testimony is a reminder that God, not evil, has the last word.

In the darkness, we are reminded, as St. Paul implores today, “to seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

From a homily today:

St. Paul is calling us to seek the things that are above, to seek the things of Christ. Jesus in the Gospel, in his restatement of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Plain, shows us how to seek what he seeks. He wants us to become spiritually poor, hungry, so sensitive and loving of others we grieve, and to live a type of life that will bring down hatred, exclusion, insults and denunciations for our goodness, just like his life did. He wants us not only to know the beatitudes but to live them, telling us that this is the way to eternal happiness in his kingdom.

We have to make choices here.

St. Paul tells us today that if we’re really going to seek the things that are above, we need to “put to death,” to execute, the parts of us that are earthly. And then he names them. We need to mortify, to kill, within us unchastity, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, fury, malice, slander, obscene language, lying and other sins. We need to put to death in us whatever kills us spiritually, whatever keeps us from looking upward to God. This requires heroism, the same type of heroism we see in Jesus, the martyrs, the saints, and the heroic men and women who gave their lives on United 93 to save others’ lives on the ground, or who ran into burning towers, or who stood in line for hours to give blood, or who sacrificed themselves in so many other ways. The Lord is calling us today to that same courage in life.

Fortitude helps Gulla live in gratitude, despite what she’s lost. May we, too, live in a constant awareness of the Light of faith in our lives, illuminating, as Lumen Fidei says, everything.

The Mass helps us to seek the things that are above. The expression, “Lift up your hearts,” during the Preface to the Eucharist Prayer is meant to become the imperative that influences our entire life. Today let us lift up our hearts to God and ask him for the grace to put to death whatever will keep us from seeking what Christ seeks, and experiencing forever the joy where those who us who have journeyed with him through the valley of tears will laugh and rejoice forever!


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