Thanking Ignatius for nudging us toward gratitude

Story and Photos By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

St. Ignatius was on to something foundational about the spiritual life.

In the 1500s, the founder of the Jesuits – and the Spiritual Exercises – insisted that his new colleagues use a daily “examen” to review what they had done or what had happened to them during that day, and they should never forget gratitude – being grateful for those graces, small and large, they had received from God.

Even on the darkest day, St. Ignatius said, God is there in what might appear to be the rubble of our lives.

It is difficult to move past the shock and profound sadness of a building of concrete and steel, that seemingly out of nowhere, pancakes and causes the deaths of three construction workers and injures dozens of others.

Making sense of an unspeakable tragedy – such as the collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel under construction at Canal and North Rampart streets – often falls to the men and women who serve as chaplains for the New Orleans police and fire departments.

The NOPD has four chaplains, one of whom, Joe Cull,  is a lay Catholic who has served the department for 15 years.

Cull and his colleagues – Faith Berthey, Byron Putnam and Ken DeSoto – collaborated last week on what they have been trained to do, helping construction workers, family members and first responders deal with their fear, loss and grief.

“One officer I talked to said he had seen bombed-out buildings in Iraq, so he was used to that type of devastation because he was a veteran – but it was still hard on him,” Cull said.

“It’s sad,” Cull added. “All I try to do is listen and support them and try to assist them in any way I can. Primarily, I’m there to be present and listen. We can pray if they want to pray. Some people don’t care to pray. Primarily, we are there to walk with them through this time.”

As I see it, at least three examples of gratitude immediately come to mind when reflecting on the collapse.

The first was triggered by the photograph of an unidentified member of the federal Urban Search and Rescue team walking with a flashlight inside the crumbled building – somewhere between the upper floors – looking for any signs of human life.

The “zoomed-in” nature of the photo made the collapsed  concrete floor and ceiling appear even more menacing, poised to fall depending on the next shift in the wind.

Heroes? There was one hero to be thankful for, and we’ll never know his name.

The second example of gratitude is timing. Everyone understands that a building under construction is at its most vulnerable when it is not yet completely tied to its main support beams.

But what if there were an undetected fault in construction that would have gone unnoticed for years, only to have the building come crashing down with hundreds of guests sleeping inside?

Thank you, God.

The third example of gratitude is that the collapse did not claim more lives. Looking at the building, it’s hard to imagine how more workers did not lose their lives. The collapse happened at 9:11 a.m. on a Saturday morning. What if it had pancaked at 5 p.m. during a Friday rush hour?

Faith Berthey says she is amazed at the heroism of the police officers, firefighters and first responders who make an act of sacrifice every morning they ties their shoes.

“They are trained to do that, to be wherever they are needed,” Berthey said. “When they go onto a scene, there are no guarantees, but this is what they do.”

Berthey says she can’t believe the loss of life was not greater.

“Thank God it wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Berthey said.

She shared those sentiments with the mother of Quinnyon Wimberly, 36, whose body was still inside the rubble.

“I believe that something good has to come out of this – a greater purpose,” Berthey said. “What if they had completed this building – 18 stories – and then it was fully occupied and then it fell. She could see God’s hand in this, God’s mercy.”

Grace and mercy – in the midst of pain. There is no bringing back those three men, but perhaps what is learned in the investigation will save thousands of lives in the future.

Thank you, St. Ignatius.    

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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