On this day in 1980, those now known as “the four churchwomen of El Salvador” were brutally raped and murdered. Their bodies were found in these shallow graves two days later. And yes, I did place the grisly photo there for a reason.
A few weeks back, the New York Times published an excellent account of the story as part of their “Retro Report” series on the website. It is worth your time – 13 minutes -to watch this video. You can find “Killed in El Salvador: An American Story” here.
And yes, it should be distressing to all of us – all of us – to learn or to be reminded of the involvement of the US government in this event. We have a complicated history with El Salvador during that era.
The four women, Ita Ford MM, Maura Clarke MM, Dorothy Kazel OSU, and Jean Donovan lived and worked among the poor and destitute. The following words from Jean Donovan, the only lay person in the group always goes straight to my heart, particularly at this time of waiting during Advent.
The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave…. Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave. I almost could, except for the children, the poor bruised victims of adult lunacy. Who would care for them? Whose heart would be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.
We have many creature comforts and conveniences, as well as distractions and demands in our lives. It is easy to look away, it is easy in fact, to never look in the first place. Hence my choice of a single photo for this post.
During this time of Advent, we are called in fact to wait and to watch. It can be boring, it can be distressing. And to do otherwise might cause more spiritual harm than many of the things identified as “sin” in the world. Hannah Arendt’s remarks on the “banality of evil,” in which she reflects on Adolf Eichmann’s involvement in the Holocaust come to mind. She wrote about how he was a dutiful servant, with some ambition – not simply an anti-semetic ideologue. (A great link to explore Arendt and her work is here.)
Today’s Gospel should remind us of what we “see” and don’t see, of what holds our gaze and what causes us to turn away – and possibly to never look again, as Jesus says:
Turning to the disciples in private he said,
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Our Advent journey is meant to have us see it and hear it, even when – perhaps most especially when – we do not have the patience or courage to wait, to watch, to see and to hear.
The Four Churchwomen of El Salvador, as evidenced in Jean Donovan’s words above, waited, watched, they saw and heard – and it cost them their lives. So much might not be demanded of most of us, but make no mistake, remaining anything other than present – ¡Presente! – is not an option.
Ultimately, if you can’t stare at the Cross, deeply gazing at the Creche is not possible.