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Starting Point

A message from heaven


A couple from our village died in the events of Sept. 11. Active in the Congregational church, Bob and Jackie were kind to everyone and were very much in love in what was a second marriage for each of them. She was in her 60s, and he was closer to 80. They were flying out to California for the wedding of one of her sons. Theirs was the first plane to hit the tower in New York.

Their house sat empty for many months, watched over by the man who had done yard-work and other tasks for them for a number of years. Eventually the heirs sold the house. And the car was to go to the caretaker.

But there were no car keys. Plans were made to remove and replace the door locks and the ignition. But then a package arrived in the mail. It was Jackie’s purse, retrieved from the rubble at ground zero. The purse was intact, and the car keys were inside.

Now the caretaker drives the car around town. Sometimes, in a store or restaurant, he will pull the car keys out of his pocket, hold them up, and say to those around him, “Here is a message from heaven.”

Here is a message indeed, telling us that life is full of surprises, that blessings come in unexpected packages, that continuity underlies even the most abrupt and radical endings, that some things remain whole even under the deepest, ghastliest ruins.

This is a small town whose residents have deep Celtic roots. That means a good story is irresistible to them. I’m not absolutely sure this story is true. The part about the purse and the car keys, I mean. But everyone I’ve asked says it is. And as Carl Jung said, “Even a lie is a psychic truth.” We certainly want to believe. We want to think that those who have died can still care about us and do small favors for us. Or that God occasionally works little miracles that make us sit up and take notice. Especially in a place like this, where the geography is almost magically beautiful while daily life can be gruelingly difficult, we thrive on such tales of wonder. They remind us to never let go of the thread of hope. Steeped in such stories, we learn to stand away from the cliff edge of despair. We live in a perpetual state of open expectation because we’ve seen and we’ve heard that anything is possible.

I’m hoping that this story tells a truth about reality, and that its essence will be repeated in all the areas that look so hopeless now. I hope we find some car keys under the rubble of the sex abuse scandals and the priesthood crisis in the church. I hope there’s an intact purse somewhere in the Middle East and that someone finds it and mails it to us soon. I hope we hear some message from all the children who have died from our sanctions in Iraq and our bombing in Afghanistan. I hope that underneath our national budgetary decisions, which give money to the military and take it away from the poor, some sign emerges telling us that we are not entirely morally bankrupt, that change is possible. I hope that some gift appears that will allow us to move forward out of our present attitude of national self-righteousness and thirst for vengeance.

Whether the car key story is true or not, some of us are betting our lives that the gospel story is. We’re counting on the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection to carry us through this broken world. We’re relying on the Holy Spirit to teach us how to be of service in the midst of so much suffering and delusion, to be agents of change and witnesses to a larger vision, one grounded in union and blossoming in love.

Mary Vineyard lives in Lubec, Maine.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002