‘Angels’ help us find meaning in trauma

August 14, 2013

It turns out that the “mystery priest” who attended to Katie Lentz, the accident victim pinned inside her collapsed Mercedes Benz after being hit on a Missouri highway by a drunk driver on August 4, wasn’t an angel after all — just a man with a religious vocation, going about his duty as a priest.

His identity has been revealed as the Reverend Patrick Dowling, a Roman Catholic priest of the Jefferson County diocese, who was in the vicinity of the accident because he had been filling in for a sick priest in a neighboring parish. In a National Catholic Register online post, Father Dowling recounts that he parked roughly 150 yards from the accident scene, asked the sheriff for permission to approach the victim, and upon encountering Lentz, anointed and then prayed with her. Father Dowling also reported that he moved away from the crashed vehicle and stopped to pray the rosary in silence before departing the scene.

The initial story about the “mystery priest” went viral because of speculation that the priest was an angel whose divine intervention enabled the 19-year-old student to be rescued from her vehicle.

Believers in miracles posted the story on social media and celebrated it as evidence of God’s presence in our midst. Some even suggested that Lentz was touched not by a mere angel, but by Padre Pio, the 20th-century stigmata-bearing Italian saint who was canonized in 2002 under Pope John Paul II. Non-believers, skeptics, and warriors against religion responded in kind, noting that the additional tools needed to effectively remove Katie Lentz from the wreck arrived shortly after the “angel” prayed with her, and that the priest’s contribution to saving the teen amounted to calming her down while the rescue team did its work.

But now that the mystery priest has been identified as neither angel nor saint, but as the aptly named, flesh and blood Father Dowling, has this news left the international audience of the mystery priest’s supporters disappointed?

Regardless of whether the ministry at the accident scene was the work of man or angel, the observed effects of his intervention are the same: Katie Lentz’s vital signs improved enough for the rescue crew to continue the work of releasing her from the wreck. To her, it probably matters little (or not at all) that Father Patrick Dowling hails not from heaven but from Missouri (by way of Ireland). And some may argue that the priest’s prayer and anointing were the true miracle, not his mysterious appearance at the scene. For miracle-seekers following the story, however, the news that an ordinary priest intervened, rather than a celestial messenger, undoubtedly strips away some of the communal thrall of the miraculous.

And minus the riveting, collective sense of awe that a perceived miracle elicits, aren’t they left somewhat scattered in their individual attempts to make sense out of the tragedy of the wreckage, much like gawking bystanders at the roadside?

This shift in perspective from a sense of privileged access to the thin line between life and death to a more speculative view—the transition from witness to spectator—is similar to the typical experience of the crash survivor him or herself. As just about anyone who’s been involved in a serious car collision can attest, there is a strange, transient sense of intimacy with death that follows from an accident. We ask: How can I so naively go about the business of living when death is hovering so close? Why did I survive when others don’t? The eerie sense of living on borrowed time beckons the survivor to reach for new or renewed meaning in daily life: I’ll patch up tattered relationships, commit to my values, start praying, eat healthier, be a better parent, and so on. This post-traumatic insight strikes as intensely as a thunderbolt but fades almost as quickly. Before we know it, the after-shock of the accident gives way to phone calls and emails with the insurance adjuster and appointments with the chiropractor. The accident becomes a story that explains how my car got totaled and why my neck hurts.

Which is why it makes sense that we’d want angels to enter into this picture. In the Judeo-Christian tradition angels can appear in human form, bearing a message or enacting a deed for a purpose ordained by God. They are God’s representatives, and they are reminders that we are all eventual travelers across the thin line of mortality. The appearance of a guardian angel in a story is the difference between an anecdote and a revelation.

As individuals, and as a culture, we construct meaning through our interpretations of the events of our lives. Some of us believe in encounters with providential messengers in the manner of It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey, who was led by his guardian angel to discover the richness of his ordinary experiences. Even in American secular culture, our talk about angels refers to them as mediators or emblems of our highest virtues. When President Obama, echoing Abraham Lincoln, spoke of the need to encourage the “better angels of our nature” in his remarks following the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, his rhetoric was aimed to inspire unified efforts in the work for racial progress. He was appealing to our capacity to make meaning out of pain and devastation.

Katie Lentz reportedly sustained severe injuries requiring several surgeries, and she very likely faces a daunting recovery period. She also will need to come to terms with the reality of her trauma, creating some kind of meaning out of the permanent effects of a drunk driver’s criminal recklessness. In the tasks of rebuilding her life, she deserves all the help she can get.

And so I’m in agreement with Father Dowling, who offered these comments regarding the rescue efforts that enabled Lentz to be lifted out of a crushed Mercedes-Benz and, airborne, carried away for treatment:

I think there may have been angels there too and, in this context, I congratulate the fire team from New London and Hannibal, the Sheriff/deputies of Ralls County, the Highway Patrol personnel, the helicopter team, the nurses and all who worked so professionally. God has blessed your work. I hope the credit goes where it is due.

Lynn Joyce Hunter is a therapist who works with low-income children and their families in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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