9/11 and the vulnerable Heart: a conversation

A few months ago I had a conversation with a young American friend, prompted by a blogpost which you can read here. He had grown up believing himself safe, believing that the USA would never be attacked because it was too strong, too well defended... and then, ten years ago today, he suddenly found himself in a world in which people working in their peaceful American offices could be blown up without any warning. Reading it made me realise that Americans of all ages must have felt - pre-9/11 - that they were especially strong and impregnable. That conviction must have been so deep in their national psyche, in their sense of self, that the attack on the twin towers must have smashed an equally deep hole into that self.

My friend agreed with this. He talked more about growing up with a sense that war would never touch him, that the USA was a strong and impregnable fortress. Yes, intellectually, he knew that even the Roman Empire eventually fell, but everything around him was telling him that the USA was safe and mighty. There were no obvious threats to national security, no possibility of invasion or attack. Pearl Harbour, attacked almost 70 years ago, was a military installation isolated from the continent; any wars in which American soldiers had fought had always been far from home.

And then came the attack on the twin towers, an attack carried out in the heart of the US, that killed thousands of American civilians just sitting in their offices - just like any other day. No preparation, no warning, no protection, no chance for any defence.

This made me look at my own experience, at what must be embedded deep within my own psyche. I was born only 18 years after the end of WWII. Most of the adult population at that time would have vividly remembered nightly bombing raids, whole roads and neighbourhoods devastated; real, daily terror about dying. My parents, in Italy, suffered all that plus German occupation, as did so many others from across Europe. Although the UK was not invaded this was a constant fear until the War's tide turned. All these memories were alive and I grew up with them; I also grew up in London with the IRA bombing campaign. For better or worse, and mostly sub-consciously, these were among my strongest formative experiences.

And so it occurred to me that this island may not have been invaded since 1066; we may have seen off everyone from the Armada to the Luftwaffe; we may definitely have won the war, but I believe - whether we want to admit it or not - that deep down we know that we can be attacked. We know how vulnerable we can be. The "blitz spirit" - regardless of any subsequent narratives - was not about being impregnable, or 'great', it was about surviving against the odds, prevailing and somehow coming through despite being severely battered and bruised.

Our conversation then made me wonder about the effect of 9/11 on my American sisters: not only if they shared my friend's experience, but especially in the light of our spirituality of the Open Heart, which centres on a Heart which is pierced and wounded, and therefore vulnerable. The actual piercing itself is about an attack on defencelessness, because you can't get more defenceless than a dead body. It isn't the only aspect of the Heart of Jesus, of course - we are also deeply centred on a Heart which is love, compassion, tenderness, and the Heart is also open in welcome and acceptance - but the piercing is central, fundamental even. The Heart of Jesus is open because it is pierced; the consequent living waters of abundant love, compassion and mercy could never have flowed from a closed, un-pierced Heart.

My friend's metaphor of the USA as a strong fortress also made me recall words from the closing conference for my probation (group preparing for final vows), from our superior general - an American. Having given our group the name The Open and Welcoming Heart of Jesus, with the devise (motto) - Through his wounds we are healed - she then expanded on both. At one point she said:

This Jesus, in taking on our humanity, has taken on our vulnerability. The word “vulnerable” means “open to being wounded”. It is the opposite of closing oneself off in protection, making oneself “invulnerable”, like a medieval walled city or a policeman’s bulletproof vest... and later: Once we have accepted our woundedness, our fragility, we open ourselves to the realization that it is through our fragility that God acts, our woundedness is the “place” of our redemption, the means God uses not only to act through us but to heal us, to heal our world.

Now, for the first time, I feel the significance of this reflection being written by an American in June 2003; less than two years after the 9/11 attack and only a few months after the invasion of Iraq. She can't have been immune from these events! And so there is a conversation in here that I'd love to have with my American sisters - and indeed with sisters from here and elsewhere - about our particular national psyches and narratives regarding our defence(lessness) and each one's choice of commitment to an open, vulnerable Heart. What might all this mean for us, individually and as a body? But first, of course, I need to have that conversation with myself...

My friend and I also talked about the post-9/11 rise in military recruitment, with many saying they wanted to fight evil, or defend their country, or fight for freedom throughout the world. In young Christians there was the desire to become a "soldier for Christ", fighting evil with good, hatred and violence with peace and love. Later, when I sent him the extract from the conference quoted above, he responded with the following message, which I share with his permission, and which feels a fitting way with which to end this post.

I think that message of the Sacred Heart is one that we need to hear, especially in my country. The way to healing is not through retaliating against the one who wounded you; it's allowing yourself to be wounded because you love the one who's wounding you. I don't know how that can (or should) translate to foreign policy; I honestly don't. But it's an openness and willingness to be vulnerable in love that we desperately need.