This page usually involves thoughts and ideas that come from books or artwork and convey important Catholic truths. This time, I hope you will indulge the pastor for engaging in a much more personal reflection. Everyone who was alive at the time can never forget the events of September 11, 2001. An unforeseen attack on all levels of our nation—the blessings of prosperity (the World Trade Center), the defense of democracy (the Pentagon) and the rule of law (the White House/Congress)—led to what some have called the “end of innocence”: the idea that an ocean can protect the United States from adversaries abroad. The sheer loss of life itself, to say nothing of the blow to our sense of freedom and mobility, and the incalculable loss to the economy—which is to say, people’s livelihoods—ensured that life would never be the same. (That day, I was about to teach my students, in New York City itself, about Plato’s Republic, which describes three classes comprising a great nation: the producers, the guardians, and the “philosopher kings” who rule by reason. The parallels were, and remain, striking.)
One story rarely told concerns those who participated in the effort to recover what was left of our fellow citizens that day. So great was the heat generated that many people in the buildings were simply vaporized. For about three months subsequent to the tragedy, priests from the surrounding dioceses gave 24/7 coverage at ground zero, to bless these remains and comfort the rescue workers. We had to report to a special gathering point, don masks and protective gear, and be driven into the area, which was covered by what can only be described as a powdery substance that permeated everything. (The vehicles even had to be hosed down upon entry and exit.) Take my word for it. Whatever photos you’ve seen cannot begin to communicate the enormity of the destruction one beheld. Nevertheless, it was not so much the sights of that day I’ll remember, but the smell: a mixture of jet fuel and…well, you can imagine.
In the wake of death, disaster, and heartache unleashed on our country, how dare people of faith speak of the goodness, the wisdom, the beauty of God? In the eyes of the world, that day was evidence to the contrary, that goodness is elusive or at least subjective, that there’s no such thing as Truth with a capital “T”, and that ugliness is the rule in human experience. If beauty is the pleasure that comes through the senses and delights in the mind, there was none that day…
…that is, until someone pointed out a strangely shaped structure that survived the collapse of the Twin Towers, one that resembled, of all things, a cross. Was it a coincidence? A silly association? A psychological projection? Or was it, perhaps, the kind of beauty that transcends our ordinary measurement of “elegance”? Richard Viladesau writes:
The Christian message is not merely that God is lovely, but that God is love: not merely that God is beautiful and is to be found in the pursuit of what is attractive and desirable in the world, but that God is transcendently and absolutely beautiful and is to be found even in what to the world’s eye is ugly and deformed and unworthy.
Friends, God’s beauty is sovereign over creation: the finite delights of nature and of the human mind, but also nature’s destructive power and the human capacity for cruelty. How exactly will God bring about the victory of his Kingdom? We do not know. Will he? Of course. Let us pray that our efforts to alleviate human suffering and find God’s hand in creation may bear fruit.