This essay appears in Beliefnet's new book, "From the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to America's Tragedy." For more information, click here.
The word "apocalypse" comes from the Greek for "uncovering' or "revealing." It is a stripping away of the masks and illusions that normally help us function in the world. The apocalypse of September 11, 2001, has revealed to us that, contrary to what our consumer culture has complacently asserted as our birthright--"the good life at a great price," according to one department store chain--life is not ours to own, or control. It is a precious gift, and a precarious one.
The fact that we take our lives into our hands whenever we get into a car or airplane, enter the elevator of an office building, or walk along a city street, is something we customarily set aside, in the interest of conducting our daily business. We need some sense of security to live at all, and in mustering hope and confidence after any calamity, we generally find that it is helpful to return as soon as possible to our ordinary routines. But now, having had our sense of security so cruelly stripped away, I think we will be better off if we do not ignore the lessons of this particular apocalypse. What can we say about the world that has been revealed to us, and our place in it?
We can't undo the unspeakable death that has been placed before our eyes, or will away the gruesome television images that are indelibly burned into our minds. But as we move beyond the shock and horror, we can examine ourselves and our culture in a new light.
American culture thrives on the promotion of material things. But after September 11, the voices hawking current fashions, the latest prescription drugs, top-of-the-line appliances and, technological wonders--voices that normally drown us in their ubiquity--were silenced. With remarkable disregard for the bottom line, television networks shoved advertisements aside and kept the news coming. And corporate executives agreed, recognizing that commercials would seem callous under the circumstances.
For a few days, the distraction of advertising was blessedly absent from our lives. We did not have to listen to anyone exult over a stain remover, a bathroom cleanser, or a new car as if these products were of genuine importance in our lives. During the week of September 11, it was easy to remember that relationships with other people matter far more than things. Now that advertisements are back in full force, it will be more difficult to remember, but it is worth the effort.
American culture promotes the imagery of violence, even as it seeks to ignore the effects of real violence on people's lives. Action film actors are cartoon figures, surviving gun battle, auto accidents, fires, falls, and explosions that would kill an ordinary mortal. Death is entertainment, especially when it's mostly the bad guys who die.
But now that the death of so many innocent people has been forced into our consciousness, we will do well to recall our own mortality in a meaningful way. The suggestion that St. Benedict made over 1,500 years ago, to "keep death daily before your eyes," can be a spiritual tool that helps us to value life, and those we share it with. Let petty disagreements go, kiss your wife or husband good-bye, send your kids off to school with a word of encouragement rather than complaint. It may be an ordinary Tuesday morning, but it is also precious time, because life doesn't last forever.
In the world revealed to us during the week of September 11, religion has a legitimate place. Recognizing this is especially important, in light of the appalling distortion of Islam that led to the terrorist attacks. We need not remain mired in bitterness, assuming that God somehow caused or allowed these horrible acts to take place. "Where was God?" is a question that naturally arises whenever we are faced with terrible loss. On the morning of September 11, I believe that God was where God has chosen to be, nailed to a cross constructed by human hands.
For me, the belief that God suffers with us helps explain the fact that disaster so often brings out our strengths, or as I wrote in "Amazing Grace," in a chapter on the word "apocalypse" that "we human beings learn best how to love when we're a bit broken, when plans fall apart, when our myths of self-sufficiency and safety are shattered. Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses, allowing us a sober if painful glimpse of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old."
It is a difficult task that is set before us, but it helps to realize that in the world revealed by apocalypse, destruction does not have the last word. It is hope that emerges, inviting us to believe that, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, it is not evil that prevails, but the good. If this seems far-fetched, hopelessly pie-in-the-sky, we have only to recall the firemen, police officers, medical personnel, and chaplains of New York City, who, when confront with unthinkable evil, chose the good. In the hope of bringing aid and comfort to people who were strangers to them, they gave up their lives. In the Christian tradition, there is no greater good than this.