To Jesuit Priest Father Paolo Dall-Oglio

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Dear brother Paolo,

The news this morning told me you “may already have been shot.” I don’t want to believe it. I don’t want to believe it so I am writing you now, pretending you will read this, pretending the world couldn’t be that stupid to push you, of all people, out of itself.

PaoloI know you would say the world did the same to Jesus, so why not to you, his servant? Is that why you went back into Syria, to be like him? Is that why you walked down that street in Raqqa last week, looking for the hideout of the al Qaeda militants to plead with them to stop killing the Kurds?

When Stephanie asked you, before you left, not to take unnecessary risks, you told her, “I have been thinking of the words of the disciples to Jesus in the gospels before he died. ‘Must you go to Jerusalem?’ they asked. And the answer is yes — sometimes you must go to Jerusalem. You must go with your physical body in order to be there.”

To be there — there — between the anger and the hurt, between the Salafi and his Armageddon, between the bullet and its target, you stand your innocence. Did it already happen? Did you face him when he raised his gun to your wide chest, did you look at him with those tender eyes of yours, did you say, “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim,” “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate,” did you say, like al-Hallaj,

I see my Lord with the eyes of my heart;
I ask Him, Who art Thou? He says, “Thou.”

And the fighter, in the moment of your love, did he lower his gun, his eyes moist with recognition?

Yes! The centurion refuses to pound the nail! Pilate runs up, takes Jesus’ hand, begs forgiveness! The clouds part, they sit at a table, they share bread and wine!

Paolo, I do not call you foolish for going there. You had to. My prayer, like yours, is to the finger on the trigger — that it unclench its fright, that it remember its own innocence, as it was, so recently, on a baby’s hand in a soft-sheeted crib. Have mercy! Be mercy!

I remember sitting with you late at night on the desert cliffs outside your Syrian monastery, the great sweep of the Milky Way above us, talking about God, war, and love. I remember drinking wine with you in Barcelona next to Gaudi’s cathedral, raising our glasses to its happy spires. I remember when we painted a great peace prayer flag and stretched it across the gorge at the monastery. It filled in the wind like a spinnaker, and you, you stood on the rooftop chanting in your booming voice, “Allah ismuhu’ salam!” God’s Name is Peace!

I watched as you raised your arms up, turning in slow circles, heard your immense voice filling the canyon in all directions, “Allah isamahu’ salam! Allah isamahu’ salam!” and one by one we joined you, we humans below, calling out, reaching up, the sun in our eyes, “God’s Name is Peace!”

Brother, whether you lay cold and still now on a slab somewhere, or break bread with the people at a sunlit table, telling stories to lift their hearts, you live. You live in the brave, generous spirit you show us. May we be worthy of it.