That morning we entered what Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams called "the school of death," where we learn everything there is to know about speaking of God. For this reason, it is important to say a few words about our near-death experience that day. Before the collapse of the second tower, we had been evacuated from our building, and were picking our way through a landscape that looked like nuclear winter. Utter negation of life. Everything in sight was blanketed in the grayish powder of the south tower's previous collapse. Ankle deep in steel shards, pulverized glass, and the detritus of lost lives, we were heading south on Greenwich Street when we began to hear people scream "Here it comes!"
At first a low rumble, then louder, and louder. Then the vibration under our feet began to swell like an earthquake. But the air overhead crackled as well, like the sound of military jets breaking the sound barrier. The two merged, from above and below, and the whole earth thundered. And then the screaming, wailing, crying, stumbling stampede--the numbing images that you've all seen on TV...
There is something about being confronted with your own certain and immediate demise, one hundred stories high, barreling down on you in a way you are completely helpless to do anything at all to stay or stop, that has the effect of teaching surrender. In the direct apprehension of mortality, you can feel the life within you instinctively leaping to offer itself up. In that moment you know life does not belong to you. You must go--give it up; give it away. That is your life's ultimate tendency and destination. I discovered in those seconds that giving life up will be my last act.
I know it will all come flooding back--a year too overwhelming for the mind to absorb, but not too big for the soul whose capacity, this year has shown, seems bottomless. It will be hard. Very hard. But I also anticipate a bittersweet beauty.
Five days after the attacks, I began working with other religious leaders to carve out a useful ministry for St. Paul's--"the miracle chapel" that stood, unscathed, on the eastern perimeter of the WTC site. Together, we made St. Paul's Chapel a sanctuary for the thousands who poured into Lower Manhattan to conduct the rescue, recovery and clean-up operation: Truckers, crane operators, sanitation workers and so many more. Volunteers who, in some cases, came to the city for the first time to find remains of people they never knew. At St. Paul's we fed them (over half a million meals), gave them sleeping quarters, comforted them, massaged them, counseled them, worshipped with them, and built a spiritual community where everyone was bathed in mutual gratitude. I hold in my heart so many faces from the recovery effort; so many people from towns all across America who sent clothes and medicine and boots; so many rainbow-colored letters from schoolchildren to rescue workers. Work in the Pile and then the Pit went on ceaselessly around the clock and we too, were there to support our newly found family until the last remaining emergency worker left the site in early June.
The author stands in front of a signed 9/11 memorial poster. Photo: Krystyna Sanderson
Why will I be in Washington this year, when last year I was standing in the shadow of the north tower as it collapsed? Because I want to be on my knees this September 11, praying with others from all over America and the world in a cathedral that reflects the inclusivity of my experience at Ground Zero.
This September 11 has become for me an Ash Wednesday; the week a Holy Week with its own peculiar ritual reliving of death and resurrection. The National Cathedral is one place that is creating, over thirty-six straight hours, room for that sort of prayerful observance. This observance will recall how death, in the end, reveals the faith: that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not height, nor depth, nor things present or things to come, nor principalities, nor powers. Nothing.