Listen To Article
New York City may not be the most secular city around but like lots of this world’s larger cities, neither does it bristle with religious fervor. Bow your head to pray over your meal at Gramercy Tavern and you may find some fellow diners furtively glancing over at so curious a site. That’s why something my wife and I experienced a month ago was so striking. But first a little background.
I visited Ground Zero along with my wife in mid-March 2002 on a Sunday morning. Just six months after the terrorist attack on 9/11, it was amazing how much of the site was cleared of debris. In fact, “the pit” was nearly empty save for the last support pillar from the south tower and the last of the debris there. While staring through the chain-link fence along with a dozen other onlookers that Sunday morning, we witnessed the solemn removal of the remains of the last firefighter who had been found just that morning. The honor guard brought the flag-draped stretcher to a waiting ambulance and all the workers there that day lined up along the ramp that led down into the pit–they all saluted as the ambulance departed. That’s how our Sunday began. It ended with a happenstance ducking in to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral that evening only to catch the closing number of the Vienna Philharmonic that was playing a memorial concert for 9/11. The last selection was Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which bookended our day in a most startling way.
Flash forward thirteen years to last month when we returned to the World Trade Center site and visited the newly opened 9/11 memorial museum. The whole museum is thoughtfully and well done–it is also the quietest museum I have ever visited. Across the better part of 3 hours, we never heard anyone speak above a whisper.
But it is the first thing you encounter that was as arresting as anything. As you enter the first part of the museum, you encounter a darkened space with several wide pillars onto which pictures of people’s faces from that Tuesday in September are projected. As you look at the pictures–so many people, hands over mouths, with their faces turned upward to the horrors on high in the Twin Towers–you also hear excerpts from interviews of people recounting the day. “I was looking out my window and . . .” “I was near Wall Street when I heard this explosion and . . .” “I was in Times Square watching the giant TV screen along with so many others and . . .” The images and the recordings play in a repeated loop that takes about 5 minutes to get through. But just before the recording stops and the images go dark for a few moments before re-starting, the last thing you hear person after person after person say (one after the other) is “So I just started to pray . . .” “I prayed . . .” “I prayed . . .” “I prayed.”
Of course there are no atheists in foxholes, as they say, and the attack on New York now nearly 14 years ago brought everyone to an in extremis moment. Even as churches filled up (but only for a few weeks) in the aftermath of 9/11, so also some of the prayerfulness that gripped people that day likely faded too. Still, how striking it is to enter a museum that is likely to see untold numbers of visitors from all over the world in coming years only to be confronted with prayer immediately upon entering. Even people who find it possible to live more days than not without reference to a wider frame of spiritual reference–people who may be checking that “None” box on Gallup surveys about religious affiliation–know somewhere deep down that what we see around us is not all that there is. There are realities we cannot control, events we cannot head off, situations in which a help (and a Helper) are needed into which no human being can enter.
This blog will appear two days before Ascension Day 2015. The “Session of Christ” is one of the least known of Christian doctrines even in the Church, but our belief that Jesus Christ is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” is one of our deepest Christian comforts. Christ is there with the Father, the firstfruits of our also having a place in the Father’s kingdom and New Creation but Christ is also there as the Intercessor in chief for his people. He is praying for us. He is interceding for us. And there are moments in most people’s lives when something about the possible reality of that is a needed belief–the belief of having Someone on our side to receive our prayers and pass them along to the One in charge of everything. Maybe it’s Calvin’s semen religionis, Augustine’s God-shaped hole in the human heart, the embers of God’s image still glowing faintly in even the most secular of people. Whatever it is, it can be an encouraging phenomenon to witness.
Back in the museum about 45 minutes after encountering the opening display of pictures and recordings, we saw inside a glass case the mangled, rusted, charred remains of the axe found along with the last firefighter removed in March 2002–my wife and I are very certain it is the same firefighter we saw removed that Sunday morning. He was one of so many who died there that day. So when I looked at that axe in the case, I thought of him and his family who still mourns him. And I prayed.