A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


In remembrance

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.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

My day of remembrance on 9/11 will be to stoke and nurture my hatred of the islamo-fascist beasts who perpetrated that atrocity, and to vow that I will never forgive them until and unless they all, to a man, ask for forgiveness. And of course that will never happen, since some of them are dead. I won't be holding my breath.

Bob:Do not make your forgiveness conditional on your enemy's actions. Maybe one day you will wish you could forgive them. You don't want your peace of mind to depend on them.

What we should ponder is that many worse atrocities happened than 9/11. What makes 9/11 is that it hit home and took us out of our comfort zone. The holocaust was thousands of times worse and it does not approximate the impact of 9/11. It is only valid when it is personal.The other major point, as Mollie alludes to when "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those" was being recited by her community. That is we showed that we have trouble being Christian and more epithets were thrown at Islam than olive branches and more guns were shot than entreaties for peace. God was leading us to destiny again. God was on our side and we were right and never wrong.Way more than those other crusades where it cost nothing, the quest was on again to conquer and convert others or they were going to hell. More effort was given to send a team of preachers into Baghdad than to prevent a preemptive and unjust war. Big potential lesson. Not learned yet.

Mollie, thank you for sharing your story. Telling stories is one of those things that makes us human. They hold mystery and lessons. They are teaching moments. One of the messages buried nicely in yours is And then I went to class. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time I didnt even consider not going Although the context was different, I think it mirrors the decision I and my wife made at the time and I still think it the correct thing to have done.I can only hope that someday America will be able to begin to dismantle the gates it has put up around itself since then and be able to live at peace with both itself and the rest of the world's nations.

Claire:Your comment,Do not make your forgiveness conditional on your enemys actions. Maybe one day you will wish you could forgive them. You dont want your peace of mind to depend on themthough well intentioned, is one I've heard before. My issue with the idea of forgiving someone unrepentant is that the "forgiving" would be completely meaningless, would it not?Bill:As always I respect your thoughts; this time, however, I must admit that I do not fully understand what you are saying. Perhaps you could elucidate?

To follow up: I did go to mass this morning. The readings for the mass (an elementary-school event) were chosen specially for the day, with the Beatitudes from Matthew as the Gospel. But the readings assigned to today in the cycle are also quite pertinent, especially the Gospel: To you who hear I say, love your enemies,do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,pray for those who mistreat you...then your reward will be greatand you will be children of the Most High,for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful."

My clearest memory is from a Mass we celebrated that day with the school kids in the parish where I worked in a DC suburb in Maryland. The children were seriously frightened and frankly the pastor wasn't helping. I played the guitar before Mass and during Communion and there was this second grade red headed boy who kept turning around and looking hugely gratefully at me for the music: it signified for me how intensely upset the children were. I didn't have a tv and so I didn't see what most people saw over the next few weeks: the endless loop of the plane hitting the second tower, the collapses. I've often wondered how damaging those pictures were for kids.

Bob:As I see it, it means not harboring hard feelings towards them, and not wishing that bad things happen to them. Separating the acts from the people, and remembering that they are our fellow human beings anyway. Letting go of that hard knot of resentment. It's not easy.

Thank you, Bob, for your consideration. Mollie gave the words of Jesus above. As always the words of Jesus are piercing challenges. When we do good to all, not only are we true children of God, but we become what we ought. We fulfill the potential in us for love and we turn swords into ploughshares. Our beings turn into love as we strive to become children of God who shines the sun on the just and unjust. Certainly, the complete picture is not seen in this life, especially for those who have been terribly tortured and murdered. Yet we enter into their sufferings and pray to a merciful God to make all whole again.

Bill:Heard and understood. I do agree with your last statement:Certainly, the complete picture is not seen in this life, especially for those who have been terribly tortured and murdered. Yet we enter into their sufferings and pray to a merciful God to make all whole again.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment