During a retreat at an abbey outside of Charleston, South Carolina I met two women I will never forget. The woman in the hat is Polly and the woman in front of her is Felicia.
On the first night of the retreat we were asked to share our experience of a group meditation and, when it was her turn, Felicia said she didn’t participate because she doesn’t close her eyes in group settings. I remember feeling a sense of compassion for her in that moment because I assumed only an experience of real trauma would cause someone to be so fearful around strangers.
Later that same evening Polly mentioned “the incident at Emanuel” and – while she didn’t explain or expand on that remark – at the next break I immediately sat down beside her.
“Polly,” I said, “do you attend Mother Emanuel Church?”
She looked me right in the eye and enunciated every word as she said “I was in the room.” I tried to meet her gaze but my own eyes filled with tears and all I could say was, “I’m so sorry.”
“Felicia,” Polly continued, gesturing to her friend across the room, “lost her son right in front of her.” We both sat there in stunned silence before I said softly “…to someone you invited into your Bible study…and that’s why she won’t close her eyes with a group.”
“Yes,” said Polly. “We were praying and right before it happened I saw a light I thought was the Holy Spirit but found out later it was a laser.”
Google ‘Mother Emanuel shooting’ and you’ll see what hatred can do. You’ll see the headlines and the horror, but what you won’t see is the way these women are attempting to rebuild their lives through truly unshakable faith and a willingness to forgive.
“He told me he left me alive,” Polly said of the shooter, “so I could share the story.”
Polly and Felicia had come to the abbey in search of a way to heal in a sacred setting that would allow them to be alone with God. They wanted to step away from the world in order to better handle the world – a true gift of monastic retreats.
In Lesson 155 of the Workbook, Jesus speaks of “a way of living in the world that is not here, although it seems to be.” The idea is that in between rejecting the world (the path of the monk) and embracing the world (the path of the rest of us), there is a middle way in which we adopt the content of the monk’s life and the form of everyone else’s. In other words, we “walk to God,” but we walk a path in which we look like others, so that, as a result, they are inspired to follow by our example.
This is what struck me about Polly’s story. According to the shooter, her job was to be a walking reminder of the pain of that awful day. Thus, she seemingly had only two choices: She could have isolated herself into a cocoon of misery or she could have infected everyone around her with it.
But Polly, along with Felicia, chose a different way. Rather than being ambassadors of heartbreak, they have chosen to be ambassadors of healing. While I doubt you’ll ever read about either of them in the news, they live with the quiet eyes and serene forehead that inspire those they touch – and I’m so grateful to be among those touched by them.
On the final day of the retreat, when we were all sitting in silent meditation once again, I was thinking of Felicia and praying for her and her son. As I was reflecting on her strength and her example of forgiveness, I opened my eyes, fully expecting to meet Felicia’s gaze from across the room. To my surprise and delight, however, that didn’t happen.
Her eyes were closed at last.