Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11 + 10

Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, an event now almost universally referred to by its numerical date – “9/11.” I suppose we all have our own uniquely personal memories of that day. At the time, I was an Associate Pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York City. Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began beautifully. After Mass and breakfast, I walked over to John Jay College to vote in the Primary election for Mayor. Walking home from voting, I looked up at the perfectly blue, cloudless, late summer sky and observed that, on such a beautiful day, I should force myself to get out of the building long enough to take a nice walk in Central Park later in the day. (It seems almost everyone, when recalling that morning, remembers what a beautiful blue sky it was). When I got to my office, my fellow associate startled me with the news of an accident (as it was initially then thought to be) at the World Trade Center downtown. I went back to the rectory to turn on the TV to catch the news, and then “in real time” (as we now say) watched, with ever escalating horror and anxiety as (to use yet another cliché of that day) everything changed.
Soon even the corner Starbucks shut down, as police barricades went up, closing our street to regular traffic. From the self-enclosed world of an assisted-living facility in Brooklyn, my 99-year old aunt telephoned, concerned for the safety of those she knew in Manhattan. For days we went around in a daze, staring at the vacant place in the skyline, as military jets patrolled the now grimly gray, but otherwise empty sky. We watched over and over again as TV told and retold the story, punctuated by occasional accounts of heroic courage and poignantly loving final conversations – powerful lessons not just about how to face death, but how to live a life that makes sense,
Meanwhile, my scheduled Saturday wedding went on as planned – followed, however, on Sunday by a Prayer Service for the lost at a neighborhood firehouse. And then, we mourned, For weeks, we were a city of funerals. Filled to capacity on that first Friday of national mourning, the Paulist Church in New York mourned as part of one united nation. A few days later, our church was filled again, this time in mourning for a much loved member of the parish choir, who had perished in the heroic struggle to recapture United Flight 93.
Walking around the city during those days that stretched into weeks, past churches and firehouses draped in black, past posted pictures of missing persons who would never be found, I pondered what Abraham Lincoln famously called “the mystic chords of memory” that bind strangers to one another as fellow citizens of the same nation, even as I also contemplated the familiar phrases of classical tragedy, repeating to myself the words of the Greek playwright: “Upon the heart sorrow falls, memory’s pain, and to us, though against our very will, even in our own despite, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”
Ten years have since passed. In a threatening and insecure world of warring nations and clashing civilizations, we have been reminded, once again and ever so seriously, that the benefits of human community and civilized life do not come free or cheap, and that the challenging social and political imperatives of domestic and international security and peace are a permanent part of the human picture and demand our attention and intelligent engagement. It is indeed by the grace of God that we will gather on Sunday, September 11 - as we do, Sunday after Sunday, by the grace of God – not, however, the god of playwrights and philosophers but the God who has spoken to our world, once and for all, in his Son Jesus and who now challenges us to follow him into his kingdom, touching deaf ears to hear his words and mute mouths to proclaim the faith that makes hope possible.

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