Living in the “Tragic Gap” of Heartbreak:

A September 11th Reflection


The deaths now approach 3,000. 

2,752 in New York.  41 in Pennsylvania.  184 at the Pentagon.

Nearly 300 of the dead were on the four planes that crashed in those three places.  More than 400 first responders – firefighters, paramedics, police officers – gave their lives in the aftermath.  Some are now dead because of the dust they breathed. 

At least 1,600 people lost a spouse or partner that day.  Nearly twice that many children lost a parent.  Countless others lost friends and loved ones.  Caught up in this litany of loss, the rest of us, all of us, in this beloved country and all around the world – we lost something, too.  At the very least, we lost some of our illusions.  At the very least, all of us, lost a part of our hearts.

Christians, Jews, Muslims – people of many faiths do generally agree on one thing: the need for human beings to have compassion for one another, especially when we lose heart.  On September 11, 2001, we Americans suffered a huge blow to our collective heart of hearts.  In the days that followed, people all over this planet had compassion for us, suffering in solidarity, heartbroken with us.  To suffer is, literally, to allow – to let ourselves be disillusioned, to admit to ourselves that not everything in life is sweetness and light.  Darkness, bitter pain, loss, death are all real.  There will be loss of heart.  Heartbreak comes to us all.

During this year’s 9/11 observance tears still flowed when remembering the trauma.   In the eight years since that day, still more wars and conflicts have broken out.  What are we to make of all this heartbreak?  Where is God?  And how are we as people of faith to respond? 

As a particular kind of Christian called Episcopalian, I look to Holy Scripture and to the Book of Common Prayer for help with the hard questions of life.  The second letter from St. Paul to the church in Corinth offers me some help.  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” Paul says.  God has reconciled us “through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:17-20). 

The mission of the church, according to the Episcopal Prayer Book, “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (p. 855).  And yet, although Christians may say we are in the restoration or reconciliation or forgiveness “business,” how will we ever, how can we ever forgive such grievous sins against our common humanity?  How can we be ambassadors of reconciliation when we are get so thoroughly broken-hearted?

In his article “The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap,” Parker Palmer begins with a story about Basim, an Iraqi who recently worked as an interpreter for American troops.  Basim’s attempts to bridge the two cultures brought death threats against him and his family, forcing them to flee their homeland.  Was it naïve, Basim was asked, to think you could stand in the middle like that?  “If reconciliation is going to happen,” he said “there must be people who are willing to stand in the tragic gap and help the two sides understand each other.” 

This image of the tragic gap has become a way for Palmer to speak of the kind of faith and hope we need in our 21st century world.  His words, as usual, encourage and inspire me.  Listen to some of what he says:

There is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken.  But there are at least two ways for the heart to break – using “heart” in its root meaning, not merely the seat of emotions but the core of our sense of self.

The heart can be broken into a thousand shards, sharp-edged fragments that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain.  Every day, untold numbers of people try without success to “pick up the pieces,” some of them taking grim satisfaction in the way the heart’s explosion has injured their enemies.  Here the broken heart is an unresolved wound that we carry with us for a long time, sometimes tucking it away and feeding it as a hidden wound, sometimes trying to “resolve it” by inflicting the same wound on others.

But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean.  Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.  This, too, happens every day.  We know that heartbreak can become a source of compassion and grace because we have seen it happen with our own eyes as people enlarge their capacity for empathy and their ability to attend to the suffering of others.

Transforming heartbreak into new life is the aim of every religious tradition at its best, as witness this Hasidic tale.  A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts?’ Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”  The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts.  So we place them on top of our hearts.  And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the (Muslim) Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” 

In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross.  It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate.  In its simple form, the cross embodies the notion that tension can pull the heart open.  Its cross-beams stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down.  But those arms converge in a center, a heart that can be pulled open by that stretching, by the tensions of life – a heart that can be opened so fully it can hold everything from despair to ecstasy.  And that, of course, is how Jesus held his excruciating experience, as an opening into the heart of God….

If we Christians want to contribute to the healing of the world’s wounds rather than to the next round of wounding – and we have a long history of doing both – much depends on how we understand and inhabit the cruciform way of life that is at the heart of our tradition (from Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Volume XXIV, Number 2, March/April 2003).

I have come to believe, in the midst of my own heartbreak, that the world needs this kind of Christian witness.  I know that real reconciliation can happen through a broken open, cruciform kind of Christianity.  Real Christians, it seems to me, just go about their business – restoring one another and the world to health and healing, to the very shalom of God, in the name of Christ. 

 In the midst of your own heartbreak, what have you come to believe?


For more about Weavings, go to www.weavings.org

For more about the work of Parker Palmer, go to www.couragerenewal.org



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s