On Sept. 11 a year ago, I and twenty-five other theologians and church leaders were in downtown Manhattan at 74 Trinity Place, the street that becomes the east side of the World Trade Center plaza. The plan was for us to gather there at 8:45 a.m. and then proceed to Trinity Church's television studio on the fourth floor for an all-day taping of four meditations on the shaping of holy lives. The form of our meditations on that subject would take a radical turn, beginning at 8:48, when the first plane flew into the north tower.

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 spend a lot of time wondering what this year's September 11 will be like. How much will I long to see those I almost died with a year ago? How much will I long to be with my family, whom I almost never saw again?

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

I am a New Yorker, and for the past year, my life has revolved around New York City: its spiritual life, its hopes for renewal. Yet despite this bond to St. Paul's, to New York, to the place where it all happened, on the anniversary of 9/11 I will be in Washington, D.C. This strange twist is representative of the whole year. The past year has led me, daily, away from the familiar, from the known into the disturbingly strange, from the comfortable into the broken, the painful, and the challenging.

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.

The service in Washington will begin at 8:00 a.m., but be broken--ground to a halt--by the somber sounds of the great bell in its tower clanging at 8:48. I anticipate reliving our shock and paralyzed helplessness, but this time with all the subsequent knowledge and experience we did not have at 8:48 last year. Precisely this sort of dramatic reminder seems absolutely vital to me. The impulse to cover it over or sentimentalize and not remember just how it felt is to fail ourselves, and invite such a calamity's repetition. And how soon we are liable to forget.

We'll read the names of the lost, a ritual which--interspersed with prayers, music, and silence assigned in segments to many different faith traditions--will last until about 6:30 in the evening.

And finally, at night I will join many others in remembering what we have been given. This will take the form of a sacred, interfaith gathering telling stories, woven with music, of the heroic self-sacrifice of so many ordinary Americans. We'll end the day recalling how we all, for a time, became one, hurling ourselves into helping one another, and in the process discovered a connection to one another and all who suffer violence. We will hold up our candles to remember when our hearts were cracked open by shock and grief; and when love and self-sacrifice became so consuming it left no room for selfishness, and therefore no room for fear.

I am reminded of the words of Baha' u' Allah, founder of the Baha'i Faith, which will be read that night:

My calamity has become my providence.
Outwardly it is fire and vengeance;
But inwardly it is light and mercy.
I anticipate with dread reliving the catastrophe and its horror. But I thank God in advance for the inward light that has shone through the darkness and pray for its transforming mercy on our souls, our communities, our churches, our world.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad