Mindful of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th Terrorist Attack on the US, I offer this ‘guided conversation’ on “Re-imagining September 11th and Befriending Death.” I shared it first with ministers of shalom gathered at Drew University yesterday for a one-day “report back” session after they had completed their 6-10 week shalom zone assignment this summer.
A Guided Conversation, as employed in Shalom Training, is a tool for reflection and a way to invite deeper dialogue. It is a progression of questions that takes each individual in a group on a journey. The method has four levels:
The theory behind this progression of questions is that it’s easier for people to climb slowly down a difficult cliff than to jump straight down in remembering what may be quite painful to share.
To prepare for the questions, I showed the trailer to the documentary “The Cross and the Towers” about how metal cross beams in the form of crosses were found in a cavern under the rubble of Ground Zero, sparking faith and controversy:
The four questions I posed to the group for remembering September 11 were these:
- Objective:Where were you when you heard what was happening at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. What did you see, hear, do?
We all shared various versions of being at work or home, hearing reports of an attack in New York, tuning into a radio or television news report, contacting family or friends, and being compelled to take some action or not. One member of our group was in a hospital room in the Congo, and tried to somehow connect that pain he felt in his body with the pain and suffering he was witnessing on television from afar. Personally, I contacted family members, left work and stayed glued to the TV set.
- Subjective: What did you feel? (where/when?) during the crisis? Our one-word responses included: fear, anger, sadness, compassion, hatred, compulsion, devastation, courage, nothing… Personally, I felt compelled to do something…but what? I waited for an opportunity.
- Interpretative:What does it mean? What is the connection to our ministry of shalom in the world? Where do you see this going on in life? In your life?
Since this interpretative level was included by many in our previous round of responses, I skipped this question and went directly to the fourth and most difficult question of the morning:
- Decisional: I decided to ask a hard question. “Imagine yourself stuck at the top of one of the Towers that was on fire, filled with dark smoke and in danger of collapsing. There’s no escape or rescue, and know you are going to die. You have to choose how it ends. Do you panic or sit quietly in the room, alone or with others? Will you suffocate from the smoke or flames? Do you hang outside a window for as long as you can and then jump? (As many as 200 victims chose to fall or jump to their death below rather than face the flames from above. Some of the “9/11 jumpers”, as they are called, fell together, hand in hand, or alone upside down, one was holding what appeared to be a cell phone…”
These were terribly difficult questions, and not all of us could go there. In our group those who were willing to imagine their death in this tragic situation responded that they would probably wait it out in the smoke-filled room; or fall ten seconds to a sudden death.
I was willing to pose such questions on the eve of September 11 because of my spiritual belief that we are called to “befriend our death” before we die. By imagining how our story on earth lmight end, facing that inevitable reality, and imagining what lies ahead, often diminishes the fear of death, lessons the ‘sting of death’ and frees us to live eschatologically in the moment, grateful for yet another day of life.
Henri Nouwen writes about “befriending death” in Chapter 7 of Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit
It seems indeed important that we face death before we are in any real danger of dying and reflect on our mortality before all our conscious and unconscious energy is directed to the struggle to survive…I think, then, that our task is to befriend death.
Imagine being spiritually able to live each day of your life as if it could be your last.
Minnietta was a courageous woman of faith who befriended death before she died on Saturday. Beloved wife of my friend Rev. Kent Millard, she died in their home after a struggle withpancreatic cancer. They were married for 48 years. “She is now free from a body which could carry her no further,” Kent said with deep sadness and joy.
Earlier this week Kent had written: “When Minnietta was in hospice, she said to our son: “I see how this book will end.” He asked “how?” Minnietta said: “She will just stop eating and drinking.” Perhaps she had a feeling that was the way the end will come. Minnietta has prepared us all well by designing her own memorial service where she wants everyone to wear bright clothes, have a girls dancing group dance in their angel costumes, sing some uplifting songs and have brief messages. Mainly she wants everyone to be joyful that she is free from this body which can carry her no further as she knows she will continue her journey of life on the other side…”
Minnietta’sobituary celebrates her life as “an accomplished stained glass artist, author, and spiritual guide and mentor for many people. Her beautiful and inspiring stained glass creations are found in churches, homes and businesses all around the world. In 2006 she wrote a book about her life journey entitled, A Closer Look: A Theology of the Ordinary about finding God’s guidance in the ordinary experiences of life. “
Minnietta’s life and death reminds me how fragile and contingent all our lives truly are. And how we are called to live eschatologically–with the end in mind. Such a spiritual mindset frees us to face both life and death with courage and meaning, accepting what comes our way with grace knowing that God is with us.
Again, Henri Nouwen writes: “Isn’t death, the frightening unknown that lurks in the depths of our unconscious minds, like a great shadow that we perceive only dimly in our dreams? Befriending death seems to be the basis of all other forms of befriending. I have a deep sense, hard to articulate, that if we could really befriend death we would be free people. So many of our doubts and hesitations, ambivalences and insecurities are bound up with our deep-seated fear of death that our lives would be significantly different if we could relate to death as a familiar guest instead of a threatening stranger.”
Another exemplary believer in eschatological living is Fr. Mychal Judge, the Franciscan Friar and NYC Chaplain to theFirefigherswho gave his life in ministry during 9/11, is an example of one who learned to befriend death before he died.
“I wonder what my last hour will be?” Fr. Mychal said in an interview in 1996. “Will it be trying to help someone, trying to save a life?”
“I feel [I am on] the train Home,” he wrote in his journal. “I am at peace finally. This is what You want me to do, Lord… You, You alone, brought me here. I have nothing to fear. Thank You, thank You, Lord !”
On September 11, 2001,upon hearing the news that the World Trade Center had been hit by planes, Father Judge rushed to Ground Zero. After administering Last Rights to some victims on the streets, he entered the lobby of the North Tower where fire fighters and rescue workers were organizing their efforts. Courageously, selflessly, he offered aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured and dead. When the South Tower collapsed, debris went flying through the lobby, killing many inside, including the Chaplain.
Those who found his body shortly after he died carried it out to nearby St Peter’s Church (where the famous 9/11 Cross now stands). There he was mourned by countless friends and remembered to this day.
Mychal Judge was designated as “Victim 0001,” recognized as the first official victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Other victims, of course, perished before him including air crew, passengers, and occupants of the towers, but Fr. Judge was the first certified fatality because his was the first body to be recovered and taken to the coroner.
Fr. Mych, by all personal accounts, was a genuine, joyful, compassionate and courageous believer. Self-identified as a recovering alcoholic, a gay man, and a Franciscan priest, Fr. Judge continues to inspire people from all walks of life by his simple message of love for God and others, with joy and grace:
“The wonderful thing is saying yes and accepting God’s grace. We could say no and walk away. But when we say yes and go forward, great and wonderful things will happen. It takes courage in the midst of fear, but you do it with the grace of God.”
“When I don’t know what’s next, I get down on my knees and pray, Lord, take me, mold me, fashion me, show me what You want. Then I watch and listen and it will come.”
For more wisdom from Fr. Mych, see https://www.worldhopecorps.org/2007/03/reserved-2.html
BBC journalist, Michael Ford,author of the biography Fr. Mychal Judge: An Authentic Amrican Hero, told me that a copy of one of Henri Nouwen’s books was on the chaplain’s night stand the day before he died. Perhaps he was reading Henri’s words about “befriending death.” Surely, Fr. Judge did so.
I concluded my 9/11 Re-imagining exercise and Guided Conversation by showing a clip from the documentary about Chaplain Mychal Judge: Saint of 9/11
“No matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea what God is calling you to do. But God needs you, he needs me, he needs all of us.”—Mychal Judge, 1933-2001
Lord, take me where You want me to go,
let me meet who You want me to meet,
tell me what You want me to say,
and keep me out of Your way.