I was in college in September 2001, just starting a new semester. I was up early on Tuesday the 11th, hoping to make it to breakfast before my 10:30 class. None of my roommates were awake, and I would have showered, dressed and left without any idea what was going on if I hadn't signed online for a quick email check. My mom sent me an instant message: "Turn on your TV." I did, saw what was happening, then went back to my computer and sent the same message to the only other person on my "buddy list" who was also awake. "OK, what channel?" he said. Doesn't matter, I typed back. Then I went back to the TV. When my suitemates woke up, they found me sitting in front of the television. We all watched, in shock, for a while. I remember seeing the television cut to a shot of the smoking Pentagon, the anchor scrambling to describe what she was seeing. And then I went to class. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time I didn't even consider not going. I even left early enough to stop by the dining hall. It was nearly empty, as it always was during breakfast hours. "Did you see the news?" I asked a friend I ran into there. He thought I meant something or other on the front page of the campus newspaper. I told him to go home and turn on his TV.
When I got to class, everyone was buzzing with news, or with questions. Some people had been in another class since 9:00, so they had no idea what was happening, and those of us just arriving were trying to fill them in. People with cell phones (not a given back then) were relaying updates from their parents and friends, or trying to contact loved ones in New York. Everyone had a different set of details (and no one said anything about Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden). The professor came in, slightly impatient with all the noise, and told us to settle down. And then we started class. At the next meeting of that same class -- a literature course, "Nature and Human Nature in the Middle Ages" -- that same professor stood in front of us looking pale and shaken and apologized for being so "flip" that Tuesday morning. "I didn't realize..." he explained weakly. "I didn't know yet how much..." What could he say? That day, though, he didn't seem glib or insensitive to me. In fact, it was almost comforting to have someone in authority insist that life would go on as usual, regardless of the insanity we'd just seen on the news.
I went back to the dining hall after class. Along the way I passed scattered students on their cell phones -- again, not such an ordinary sight in 2001 -- standing stock-still or wandering aimlessly as they tried to call home. There were a lot more people in the dining hall for lunch, and the story had only gotten more confusing. "How long did it take for the second tower to fall?" someone asked, and someone else said, "The second tower fell?" I'd been in class from 10:30 till noon; I didn't know either tower had fallen. More rumors swirled: "Somebody told me they were aiming for the White House." "I heard there are more planes they havent been able to track." And so on. I don't remember much grief, at that point -- just disbelief, shock. I dont even remember anyone asking, "Who did this?" Just "What next?" I just remember the whole campus almost giddy with the sense that This can't be happening. My afternoon classes were cancelled, either by the university or by the individual instructors. So I spent the afternoon in my room, watching the news with my roommates. Ordinarily we almost never turned the TV on, but that week it was seldom off.
By that evening, the true horror had started to sink in. And as that happened, I found myself heading to the Catholic chapel on campus for mass. I didn't often attend weekday mass -- too much work to do -- but that day it was the only place I could think to be. The chapel was full, as if it were Sunday. The chaplain prayed the heartbreaking words of the Mass of Reconciliation:
Father, all powerful and ever living God, we praise and thank you through Jesus Christ our Lord for your presence and action in the world.
In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your Spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together.
Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness.
We gritted our teeth to get through the Lord's Prayer -- as we forgive those who trespass against us -- and after Communion, a music student played Gounod's Ave Maria on the cello, and everyone wept. I went back to the chapel every day that week; it's the one thing I can remember from the days that followed 9/11. I didn't feel any pull to attend the campus "candlelight vigil" or watch the televised tributes. But I needed to be at mass, hearing that prayer for peace and reconciliation, grieving and praying with everyone else. And I think of that experience every time I try to answer Why religion? or What is Church?
Subsequent September 11ths have found me in different places -- including, in recent years, Manhattan high-rise office buildings. But I always go to mass that day. It's the one thing I can think to do with all my grief and anger and frustration. It's one thing that hasn't changed.
So as I plan my schedule for tomorrow, making sure it allows me to keep up that practice, I'm wondering: Have any of you made September 11 a personal Holy Day of Obligation? Has it intersected with your faith life? Did it make a permanent mark? What are your memories of that day -- if you want to share -- and what do you do with them now?
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.