Searching for the meaning of Sept. 11

Published June 1, 2002

New York

She was supposed to have died, but had switched with a colleague, and now the flight attendant pointed at the pit. “This is hell,” she said. It was very early in the morning and the woman, who smelled of alcohol and was drenched in tears, seemed beyond the comfort of the attentive priest at her side.

She had nothing to do with Trinity Institute, a conference for clergy and laity convening at nearby Trinity Church, except that the priest accompanying her would attend the gathering.

But her experience symbolized both the need of many visitors to New York to see “hell,” – the World Trade Center site, and the cry implicit in the conference’s title: How Then Must We Live? Spiritual Formation in a Broken World.

It was Trinity Institute’s 33rd annual conference. To speak about how to live from Trinity Church’s broad nave, was a tall order, as the speakers admitted.

The priest counseling the crying flight attendant had difficulty assuaging her pain, and there was perhaps a similar struggle at the institute.

The first speaker was publishing veteran Phyllis Tickle, who apologized for any presumption. “Whatever I may say, or fail to say,” she said, “I feel strong soft gratitude that we are here, that we are gathered in this place.”

Then she told a story.

It was 1863. Eight civilians had been slaughtered by a Confederate colonel named Witcher. Through her husband, Ms. Tickle’s family tree includes Witchers, and the family would visit the “cool, silent” cemetery where the victims of the slaughter were buried. During the visits, “Mamaw,” as the family called their maternal guardian, would eventually stand alone in the graveyard, “stopping a while before a void into which no words can go.”

Only once did Mamaw put words to her feelings, and surprising words at that: “It is good to be here,” she said.

Ms. Tickle came to Ground Zero last October. There was a light mist from buildings being cleaned of dust and ash and she noticed that she and others were “leaning into the ashy mist?receiving it like a baptism.

“I heard Mamaw’s voice. ‘It is good to be here.'”

Parker Palmer is a Quaker, a writer, teacher, and activist, who emphasizes educational reform. But girding his work is a nexus of ideas on the soul – which, unlike most of us, he takes the trouble to define, if not in its form, then at least by its functions, of which he says there are four: to keep one grounded, to connect to all life, to tell the truth, and to pass along the vital gift of life.

People who are not grounded, remain unconnected, lie, and hoard do not lack a soul, he said. Rather, the soul is a “wild animal,” and “exactly like a wild animal, the soul is also essentially shy. We know that if we want to see a wild animal the last thing we should do is run crashing through the woods screaming for it to come out. We must walk quietly into the woods, sit at the base of a tree for a long while sometimes, breathe with the earth, and eventually this precious wild thing we seek may put in an appearance.”

Sharon Daloz Parks is associate director of the Whidbey Institute for Earth, Spirit and the Human Future.

She introduced her concept of “the commons” – the meeting places humans choose. However, she made the commons more abstract. “The commons is always both a place and an aspiration,” she said.

Ground Zero has “become a micro-manifestation of the new commons,” which is, of course, global, complex, and not always friendly.

Day one of the conference came to an end – but not before the showing of a video in which Trinity staff related their September 11 experiences. Priests asked questions of God, and others spoke of the darkness after the fall of the towers and the booming crescendo of collapse:

“Huddled in that corner with my wife and child, I thought this was the end.”

“I remember a woman’s blouse going by the window.”

“I was just thinking of the communion of saints, that phrase, the communion of saints, that I was witnessing this mass death.”

Andre Delbecq is a professor at Santa Clara University, where he was dean of the Leavey School of Business for 10 years. At the pinnacle of his career, Mr. Delbecq began studying the world’s spiritual traditions. Now he directs the Institute for Spirituality of Organizational Leadership at the university.

“I’d like to spend a little time finding God across the street, on my side of the commons,” said Mr. Debecq. He moved furthest from the issues raised by the Trade Center’s remains up the street, gazing instead out of the great bronze front doors of Trinity Church down Wall Street. He spoke about the spiritual habits of successful people – in this case, Silicon Valley executives.

But he talked first about place, and what a “thin” or “holy” place was. A place was made holy by years of prayer, suffering, and great energy, he believed – including the energy characteristic of Wall Street.

Calling the leaders of private industry “eagles,” Mr. Delbecq asked, “What could I learn from observing the behavior of mature eagles who fly, people of spiritual maturity who lead in those kinds of circumstances?”

In times of turmoil, these leaders “move into an elegant pattern of shared discernment,” talking to the parties involved, listening to the ignored, taking counsel. He recited a litany of the “right spiritual stuff” that such leaders had to possess-and it sounded more like the qualities we expect from priests than power brokers: Openness. Humility. Patience. Willingness to fail.

“How do they do it?” he asked gently. “These are people of deep prayer,” both traditional contemplative prayer and the highly unusual rite of praying “the agenda of their day,” he offered.

Roberta Bondi is the author of numerous books and professor of church history at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She began her talk with a story of the “good old days” of 1950s America, when people were safer, life was simpler and led by happier souls whose roles were neatly defined and precisely followed. She summed up the era with a catch phrase her audience completed in unison with her: “The family that prays together, stays together.”

“Then came September 11,” said Bondi, and “a shock we still can’t seem to get over.”

Christian formation was to some degree about giving people tools enabling them to “follow Jesus’ great commandment” to love the Lord with our whole hearts. “Nobody comes to Christian formation whose heart has not been pretty well formed very early” through human relationships, she said.

She turned to a key question for those who have sought a nuanced response to being attacked. “What does it take to form Christians who are primarily able to respond to the events of September 11 out of love, rather than out of anger, panic, or hurt, or despair?or opportunism, or jingoism? One primary thing we can do is attend a lot more carefully to our storytelling.”

So she rewrote her opening story. 1950s America was a difficult time, unique with problems that probably seemed insurmountable: racism; homophobia; sexism; religious persecution; unreported domestic abuses; archaic attitudes toward mental illness; the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As the conference moved into the closing panel discussion, it seemed the speakers had strayed from what the pilgrims ached to hear, for what the flight attendant craved to understand.

But then again, Ms. Tickle had made considerable impact with her distant Civil War story – and she had said that it was too early to meet the subject head on. Asked how long it would take Americans to incorporate the events of September 11 into their collective experience, she stated confidently: “100 years,” basing her number on life in Eastern Tennessee: her family still talked of the Civil War, but less as she aged.

Were the pilgrims disappointed? Not likely. There were two giveaways for people attending the conference. One was a ticket to the public viewing platform overlooking the WTC site – the one on which the flight attendant had stood. The other was a tour of St. Paul’s Chapel. Both were popular.

The ministry at St. Paul’s has been off-limits to the public, but to many people of faith it resides at the harrowing, heartfelt junction of loss, memory, and meaning. Seing St. Paul’s was a very important experience for people who came to New York from out of town.

“That’s not voyeurism. That’s pilgrimage,” Ms. Tickle had said earlier in the conference, addressing criticism often leveled at Ground Zero visitors. Nathan Brockman is managing editor of Trinity News and of Trinity Wall Street’s Web site.


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