Thursday, December 20, 2012

On reading Rahner in the emergency room

Several years ago, on an 8-day retreat, my director asked me if I had seen something in the news. (The papers were laid out every day in the library, so it was perfectly possible to have done so.) "No," I told her, "I never look at the news while I'm on retreat.  It's a distraction for me."

"Ah," she replied, "but sometimes you read things differently on retreat."

I didn't read the paper while on that retreat, and haven't since, but her question has stuck with me. It surfaced again this week when I found myself treated to an ambulance ride to the Georgetown Medical Center emergency room.

I've given Advent its due.  Last week I gave an Advent evening of reflection, the week before I went to an Advent retreat.  I've written Advent reflections (here, here and here). It's been fruitful, reflective.  Still, I would like to suggest that if you are really looking for a potent extended meditation on Advent, you try hanging out in the emergency room for a while.

I've been re-reading Karl Rahner SJ's Advent homilies, in which he suggests that we are always in Advent, always living provisionally, waiting for what we see only dimly now, but know will one day arrive with a breath-taking clarity.  I read Rahner — and thereby Advent — differently in that liminal space, waiting on a gurney literally in the doorway between the damp winter day outside and the warmth of the ER, waiting for what I could see only dimly.

The ER is by its nature a provisional space.  Admittance is provisional.  I waited on the triage nurse's decision as to whether I merited a bed.  Diagnoses are provisional.  I waited on the X-ray results.  Treatments are provisional.  Would I be able to walk once my foot was immobilized?  To be comfortable in that space, I had to be willing to be, as Rahner would say, comfortable with the provisional.  To be willing to surrender autonomy as well as certainty.

Can I be comfortable with the provisional, not as a some-times thing, as it was in the ER, but as a way of life?  I looked at the exhausted woman who has returned for the third time today, still not knowing what is wrong. The provisional has stretched her reserves beyond her capacity. The young father with his wilted toddler son, draped over his shoulder, pacing and waiting to be seen.  On a pilgrimage that takes him round and round the waiting room.  This is not an easy choice.

Can I read Advent as less of a waiting space filled with comfortable chairs and soft music, and more as a provisional place that pulls and pushes us at paces we may not prefer?  Too fast. Too slow.

Provisionally, yes.

I'm still in the provisional - off to see the ankle/foot specialist tomorrow to get a better sense of the damage. The photo is of my foot, but that's not the ER!  I'm in the lobby of the Georgetown University hotel, waiting for Crash Kid to come pick me up.  And if you must know, I slipped on the stairs between Old North and the Dahlgren chapel and landed badly.


  1. Oh Michelle - no! I'm so sorry you fell. I am not surprised that you found these reflective thoughts. Truly Ignatian, truly God in all things!

  2. Michelle, so sorry about your injury but thank you for sharing your thoughts while in the ER as they are very nourishing for us. Prayers for a quick recovery.

  3. Denise J4:15 PM

    Michelle -- I am so sorry you were hurt, but glad you recovered for Christmas. As a graduate of that wonderful university, I can personally attest to the fact that not one staircase on that beloved hilltop has a staircase comfortable and easy to climb. All the steps are either too short, too tal, too wide or too narrow. But I am very glad you fell on outside Dahlgren, and not down the infamous Exorcist stairs.

    1. I was glad not to have fallen down the Exorcist stairs, too! And I'm told by my offspring that the number one reason to get "GERMed" at Georgetown is to fall down some set of steps which are old and therefore non-standard. Hoya Saxa?

      But I will be glad to be more mobile again! Merry Christmas!