by Phil Garrity
A woman is tugging on my shirt. On her knees, she screams through bitter tears, “How can you believe in a God who allows this?” Her child has died, and she looks to me for answers. Nothing can fill the void—no condolence, no platitude, no explanation. I search for words, but there are none. Her child has died, and my faith is barely breathing. Then I awake from the dream.
For years, the silence was deafening—an abyss I could never fill with words. So I covered it with action, with frantic attempts to patch the holes that God had left in the world. He was no Master Builder, no Grand Architect with a Plan. He was more of a senile grandfather; the kind who hands you a shoddy, half-broken gift, which you receive with a feeble smile and half-hearted “thank you,” knowing that you’ll probably throw it away and build for yourself what you had plainly asked for: a shiny, perfect world. I would help him back to his chair in the corner of my mind, telling him to stay there, to rest. I’d be back to visit him on Sundays, to sit with him quietly for an hour or so before leaving again. I had things to do, places to be. I had a mess to clean up that he was either unable or unwilling to do himself. And so I went, and God looked on.
I read, I wrote, I recited. I poured myself into studying the mechanics of poverty and disease, putting my sincere and unquestioning faith in science and medicine as the tools with which to finally fix the Big Machine. But the change I sought was not in these books. It was somewhere beyond this quiet classroom, out there in inner-city schools, in free clinics, under bridges. And so I went, and God looked on.
I taught, I bandaged, I fed them. I scattered myself between a host of community service projects, tidying the mess at the margins of poverty. But a quiet conviction that these gestures were not “enough” lingered. I needed to think bigger and reach higher if I were going to be the catalyst that would fix it all. So while my hands remained busy with the work, my mind slowly began to disengage, drifting from the homeless woman in front of me to the line of faceless vagrants stretching down the street to the countless millions in lands far away. The real need was somewhere beyond this small corner of the world, out there in earthquake-ravaged towns, in high mountain villages, in sick and coughing slums. College ended, and so I went, and God looked on.
I sheltered, I bathed, I clothed them. I buried myself in humanitarian relief efforts, living and working in the heart of the mess. And in my feverish haste of doing good, I lost myself. The lines dividing good and bad, right and wrong began to break. I had used those lines as walls to push against, to secure my footing and direct my blows. But now I was drowning in the gray wasteland of an undivided world, bailing water from a sinking ship whose holes I could not mend. The brokenness and confusion beyond me soon exposed the cracks within. Seismic anxiety and self-doubt shook the ground of my being, eroding my dreams of becoming a doctor for the poor. The anger and hostility I had sought to cleanse from the world welled up from within me, flooding my mind with self-loathing and fear despite my frantic bailing. Exhausted and without relief, I drifted into the sea.
And then God whispered, “Rest.” He appeared less decrepit, younger somehow. He spoke without words, gently awakening in me a quiet intention harbored deep in the silent water below—a desire to accept myself, even those broken parts of heart and mind that were upending my plans for who I needed to be, for what I needed to do. He led me to spiritual homes, to writers and thinkers in whose words I found refuge from the storm. They offered me a warm elixir to slowly cure me of my amnesia, to remember the wholeness that lay at the core of my fragmented self and world. They strengthened in me a courage to sit with those pieces, to let them build up and break down as they would, to no longer run from the storm. And so I stayed, and God stayed too.
I paused, I listened, I reflected. The intention grew as the waters calmed and dry land emerged from the fog. I spoke into the silence with trepidation, “How do we say ‘Yes’ to Life when there is so much to say ‘no’ to?” He pointed to a hospice class—a room of elders who shared stories of loss, sickness, and death. Looking into their faces, I touched a kind of pain and hope I had never felt before, not in all my days of searching the dark corners of the world. For now it was no longer about fixing, but about being with the other—setting aside my tools and together navigating the mystery of suffering. My interest in the mechanics of disease had faded, replaced with a deeper fascination with the experience of illness. So when medical school beckoned me, I withdrew my acceptance with days to spare, the last vestiges of my plan gently collapsing into the sand. I ventured out onto the open tundra of a life stripped bare of certainty yet pregnant with knowing. And so I went, and God went too.
Weeks later, I sat in an empty exam room; an aching knee had prompted me to visit my doctor. He entered the room, and I waited for a simple explanation, but he had none. “You have bone cancer,” he said, leaving me in the silence. I looked over to God, who was youthful, almost my age. He held my hand, his eyes gently weeping as tears fell from mine. “Come,” he said. “Walk with me.” He gave me the choice, and I gave him the answer, deciding to say “Yes” to Life, to follow Love. And so God went, and I went too. The year ahead of chemotherapy and surgery was our journey to heal the divides, to continue renewing the intention to accept those fragmented parts of myself with patient, quiet love. My hair would fall out, my body would weaken, and I would become a child again. He bathed me, he fed me, he healed me, again and again.
Another woman is tugging on my shirt. I raise my downcast eyes to meet hers, soft and glistening. Her son has died, but she does not look for answers. She holds the silence tenderly before whispering to me, “He is with God now, the one who holds us all in his loving embrace.” She strokes my feeble faith like she would a sick child. I do not awake because this is not a dream, but a memory. §
Since 2011, Phil Garrity has worked with Partners In Health, an international NGO that delivers health care in poor communities worldwide. This coming fall he will begin a Master of Divinity program at Boston College, where he hopes to continue exploring the intersection of psychology and spirituality in the care of the sick.