Do you suppose the small gathering at Gettysburg that 19th century afternoon appreciated the lasting impact of the words scrawled on the back of an envelope spoken by a son of America’s heartland? Perhaps not.
In the end, it was the plain rightness of the way the words fit the occasion that made them immortal. How modestly they captured the emotions of a scarred nation and honored the people who were not there but whose lives, and indeed their deaths, remain in the enduring heart of the nation.
Although no book of history is likely to enshrine them, I had not just one, but two such experiences a bit more than a week ago. Each left me with insights and feelings and ideas that ranked with the historic power of the iconic address at the Gettysburg battlefield.
Two clerics of varying rank, age, and experience each did a very daring thing. They addressed a time where, on levels from parochial to national to global, emotions are being tapped and people of good will are finding themselves on opposing sides not of their making. We hunger to heal or to banish or at the very least to understand those emotions just a bit better.
The miracle of it all is that the remarks, and even the seeming asides, threw remarkable light on the things that were in my heart and I suspect, those of many of my neighbors.
Cardinal Dolan came through the cold and snow to mark the preview of the Centenary of the Church dedicated May 5, 1918 and, on that day, declared the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer a National Historic Landmark. Also on that day, the Dominican Friars of St. Vincent Ferer marked the 50th year, Golden Jubilee of their life among the neighbors of the area now designated as the East 60s and 70s.
By no coincidence, the Cardinal had come to signal that the evolution continues. The Cardinal told of his morning’s celebration of the funeral of a hero immigrant, soldier and “savior” to at least four of his Bronx neighbors. “Do you know the name Emmanuel Mensah?” he asked. He repeated the story we had read in the newspapers and seen on television news reports. A ground floor resident, Emmanuel could easily have escaped the inferno that had engulfed his apartment building. But he went back time after time to rescue those less fortunate. When his charred remains were found days later in the ashes of the building, the Ghanan immigrant/newly minted citizen and Marine PFC delivered his most eloquent testimony about what really matters. The Cardinal captured that message in stunning simplicity as he said, “Emmanuel knew that life was not just about him.” To me, a Gettysburg moment.
Earlier at a morning gathering of volunteers, Dominican Pastor Walter Wagner encouraged a dialogue on the subject of a nation hungry for Conversation in a time of Confrontation. He encouraged us to explore how to move from isolating parallel statements to unifying human exchange. Invoking heroes of the past, he cited Abraham bargaining with God on behalf of his contemporaries of Sodom and Gomorrah. The surprise was that it turned out to be that the outcome was not so much defusing God’s outrage but instead awakening his own capability to understand and forgive. He called on the group to join in a pilgrimage which might be described as progressing from Robert’s Rules of Order to a system of speaking and listening with lasting and deeply human benefits. Another Gettysburg moment that day.
Walking home that evening I already sensed that something unique had happened. But it has taken more than a week to discover that I had been given an infusion of insight with the potential to be a sort of “gift that keeps on giving” should I work to take its lessons on board.
I already guessed that “getting” the messages was one thing, but it was up to me to make it happen. One of the requirements would be simplicity. Don’t succumb to the lure of distraction. Don’t fall for the shiny object that is held out to take you away from the home truths you know are the real message. Don’t fall for the temptation to think that unity happens easily or that it is not worth whatever it takes to make it work.
My “Gettysburg Moments” have shown that conversation, honestly practiced, has the power to disarm confrontation. And above all the simple truth that heroes are recognized as people who know “It’s not just about me.”