A Field Hospital In The Heart of Manhattan – UPDATED

A Field Hospital In The Heart of Manhattan – UPDATED September 11, 2014

It was barely noticeable. Not much more than an autumn sniffle. At first.

Then it grew louder. Yes, she’s definitely crying.

I turned my head to the right ever . . . so . . . slowly. She was seated just two rows behind me and she noticed that I had spotted her. Her hands quickly engulfed her face; her eyes, full of tears, cast downward. I had never seen this woman before.

Mass was about to start. And I’m used to sitting quietly in my own spot. By myself. In peace. It’s the only few minutes that I get to myself all day.

So there I sat. Unmoving. Perhaps unmoved.

Well, the least I can do is say a quick prayer for her, for whatever’s troubling her. She’s an attractive young woman. It’s probably boyfriend trouble. An exaggerated emotional response to some minor youthful concern.

But the crying suddenly turned louder. It grew convulsive as she frantically began to massage her legs.

I sat there still, mulling over every possible response, questioning every possible motivation.

Finally one of the regulars got up and gave her an unrestrained hug. They spoke. While the conversation wasn’t clear from where I sat, the deep anguish was.

Finally convicted – I’m in a church for Pete’s sake, do something – I walked the several steps over to her and sat down next to her.

Anna was in agony. Her legs, pencil thin and fragile, radiated with severe, shooting pain. The look in her eyes revealed its depth. Her heavily accented voice trembled as she spoke.

Anna told me that she had just been discharged from the hospital. No pain meds were prescribed (how is that even possible?). She had no money for over-the-counter drugs (all too possible).

Mass was starting. I assured her that I would sit with her during the entire service. I also told her that it was ok for her to remain seated throughout – that she didn’t have to stand or kneel because of her pain (is that true? I was guessing). I handed her a missalette so that she could follow along. She thanked me by reaching out her hand to touch mine.

She tried to physically engage during the service. She struggled to stand. She pushed her body sideways to kneel. In the end, the pain was too unbearable and she sat back down.

But as the Communion antiphon was read, she gathered the strength to rise.  I was not much surprised.

She tightly clutched the pew, painfully, slowly making her way into the main aisle. I followed close behind to make sure that she didn’t fall, but I offered no physical assistance (why not?), even though we were quite a distance from the altar.

Reaching the end of our row, she was met by a kind, older gentleman, a stranger from across the aisle who had been watching this battle of spirit against flesh. He had raced over to meet her and he grabbed her under the arm.

Slowly – exceedingly slowly – they both made their way down the main aisle to newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop O’Hara (yes, we are very fortunate here). Then they circled back to my row, and I sat with her through the end of the service.

Her tears flowed easily once again, concerned that she would now be left alone. But three regulars came over. Money was offered. Shoe sizes were discussed to try and figure how best to replace the flip flops that would soon prove inadequate against the cooler, wetter weather to come. The kind gentlemen who had walked with her ran off to find someone to help arrange a return visit to the hospital. The several of us gathered around her then offered up prayers of healing, each in our own way.

I quickly left for work, leaving the others to tend to this wounded soul (was I concerned about spending too much more time, of getting too much more involved?)

These recent words of Pope Francis have been swirling in my head since:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

Yes, a field hospital. A hospital not only for souls who are spiritually hurting, but also a hospital for those who are physically hurting. You have to first heal all of the wounds.

On September 10, 2014, St. Agnes Church, in the heart of Manhattan, became exactly that. A literal field hospital for the wounded.

But I strongly suspect that this young woman’s wounds weren’t the only ones being attended to.


UPDATE: Anna made it back in on Friday, September 12. Walking with a cane, she was obviously in less pain although still hurting. Anna made her way to the alter on her own. Bishop O’Hara met her part of the way down.

Blessings and healings are all around us. We just have to take notice.




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