The National Catholic Review
Margaret Silf
I had never been inside an ambulance before. I didn’t for a moment expect to discover that night what the inside of an ambulance looks like. But that’s lifeone minute we have an agenda, the next minute our best-laid plans lie in pieces all over the floor of our lives. That’s supposed to be one of the things that makes God laughpeople who make plans. I guess I should say that as we sped through the streets to the emergency room, I saw the events of my life passing in front of me, but no such thing. In fact, let’s be honest, the cause of the drama was not nearly so serious as it might sound, and deep down I knew that. I was inside an ambulance more as a result of medical overkill and family panic than for any other reason.

Instead, as we sped through the deepening twilight, a line from a song I had recently heard for the first time drifted through my mind, a song by the St. Louis Jesuits, with the refrain:

O Beauty ever ancient, O beauty ever new:
You, the mirror of my life renewed, let me find myself in you.

It was this image of the mirror that was nudging at my imagination. I found myself thinking that if only I could catch a glimpse in that mirror, I would somehow see God.

It reminded me of a story by Hans Christian Andersen that tells how Satan once made a mirror that shrank the reflection of everything that is good and enlarged all that is bad and ugly. One day this mirror slipped from Satan’s hand and shattered into a million fragments. A great storm blew up and these fragments were scattered all over the earth and blown into the eyes of earth-dwellers, who from then on could see only a distorted view of life.

God, in Andersen’s telling, was deeply saddened by this, and when the time was right God caused One to come forth from among us who reflected the true image of God. Wherever this One passed, people saw things once again in their true perspective. They saw God’s love, compassion and grace beaming back to them, even through their fear or pain or loneliness. The best in human nature loved this mirror of God, but the worst within us was jealous and could not bear so much truth and beauty. We plotted to kill the One. We shattered the true image, and it too broke into a million fragments. And wherever a fragment lodged in human eyes, that person would catch a glimpse of God.

I was surprisingly calm as we approached the hospital. Through a high rear window I watched the topmost branches of the trees swaying above us, and I focused on the two headlight beams shining in from my daughter’s car, as she followed us down to the hospital. Maybe God’s mirror was coming into focus. Maybe that happens most readily when we are laid low.

What followed was 24 hours in a ringside seat at the circus of life, with nothing to do but watch events unfold around me.

There was the lady in the next bed, several years younger than I with just about everything wrong with her, while I, as it turned out, had nothing at all wrong with me. I soaked up something of her quiet courage, her uncomplaining fortitude in the face of all the procedures the medics were about to perform on her. I noticed how her attitude of acceptance brought out the best in them too.

There was the old man who arrived ranting and raving and lashing out at everyone who approached him. Elderly mental infirm, he would be labelled. I noticed how two young nurses ventured close to try to calm him, while others had walked away in frustration. Their firm but respectful handling of him eventually drew forth a degree of cooperation where there had been only abusiveness.

There was the girl who was sure she was dying, and her frightened young husband, and the bewildered junior doctor who could discover no medical symptoms or causes for her fears. I noticed the patience with which she tried to unravel the mystery, and I saw the patience of God.

There was the lonely man across the ward, who was very vocal about how he had been left waiting too long for attention. Was it just a doctor he needed, or had his whole life turned into a waiting game, wondering whether his distant children, his forgotten friends, his preoccupied neighbors would ever realize how much he needed a human touch?

There was the relative who was carrying on a heated argument at the nurses’ station, demanding priority, insistent that his own story should take precedence over all others, as an exhausted nurse tried to reason with him and explain how triage works.

It was the same nurse who, 12 hours later, after a grueling night shift, would come to my bedside with a smile and a cup of tea and the longed-for words of reassurance: All is well. You can go home.

I’ve seen more kindness and goodness here tonight, I told her, than I could ever have imagined. Well, she answered, we are just mirrors really. What we encounter is what we reflect back. When patients are considerate to us, it’s easy to be kind back to them. The trick is to be kind to those whose inner goodness has been distorted by pain and fear and breakdown. That’s harder....

Harder? That’s not hard. It’s impossible. But as I smiled back my gratitude to the nurse, I think I caught a glimpse of the true mirror in her eyes, twinkling back to me. I think I saw God.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and the Catholic Press Association award-winning The Gift of Prayer.

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