I was unprepared for what I would see as I headed to spend a few days on the site of Ground Zero in November 2011. Visiting the site again this week I am apprehensive about its impact. I wonder if a violent rupture is making way for transformed hearts about how we engage with the human family.
As I walked from the subway station past St. Paul’s Chapel its wrought fences were a billboard of hand drawn posters from people across the United States and the world expressing love and support for the efforts underway.
The walk from Broadway in lower Manhattan to Ground Zero is just one city block long. Walking towards Ground Zero had an ominous steely grey quality to it. Approaching the site I was struck by the quiet chill in the air of an otherwise frenetic, bustling city.
I knew this part of the city well from my years of living in the New York. I had stayed at the high rise hotel opposite the once World Trade Center. In 2000 I participated in a meeting on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center, finding it difficult to focus on the meeting when the panoramic view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty kept luring the eye. I had enjoyed the July Fourth fireworks displays in the harbor the early 1980’s. Now, a once bustling area was a scene of carnage.
Thousands of people stood pressed up against the high wire fences enclosing Ground Zero. They looked like the pilgrims I had seen at various holy sites around the world, reverent and filed with awe. But theirs was a desolate awe. The smoke and noxious fumes floating upwards from the rubble and still smoldering ruins had none of the fragrant smell of incense. It was like a funeral pyre.
I was there to be alongside my friend Rand who had been volunteering seven days a week as a chaplain working alongside the workers at Ground Zero. He led me through a secure entrance onto Ground Zero. Taking in the carnage I wondered what evil imagination had planned such destruction. Within a few minutes there was complete silence on the site. Part of a body had been recovered from the rubble. Excavation activities stopped and workers lined up in silence as the remains were carried from the debris. This was no ordinary work site. The reverence for the dead and those who loved them was sacred. I was walking on holy ground.
Over the course of those two days I spoke with endless numbers of firefighters and police officers. They had each known colleagues who had died in the attacks. Most of them had been on the site for weeks without a break. Many of them were experiencing respiratory problems caused by the toxic fumes from the smoldering remains of the buildings that had collapsed. At the fire house on the edge of Ground Zero there were wreaths and flowers alongside the photographs of the fire officers who had died on September 11.
The remarkable firefighters and police officers on the site revealed a richly textured face of human compassion and selflessness. Darkness and light seemed to wrestle with one another at Ground Zero. In those working there I experienced hands literally reaching out, delicately working in the rubble. Hearts were offered as if lighting a wick of hope. Like lighting candles in the dark, their actions seemed to cry out to the darkness, “We beg to differ.”
At the end of the second day, as I made my way past an exit area from the fenced-in Ground Zero work site, past police officers and sniffer dogs, I paused. I stood with scores of onlookers pressing up against the fence, looking in from the outside at where I had spent two days. I thought of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.
Chanukah is celebrated in the northern hemisphere at the darkest time of the year. The nine branched menorah, also known as a Chanukah, is placed in windows by way of pointing to the Light of the Holy One. The timing of the festival in the midst of winter reinforces the image of moving from darkness to light. Many of those who observe Chanukah understand the candles as offering a spiritual light enabling people to overcome difficulties, allowing them to move from places of personal darkness towards light.
In the Jewish mystical tradition light is synonymous with the Divine. Robin Levinson observes that one such powerful image is of the overwhelming energy of God’s light shattering the vessel that held it and scattering it into countless “holy sparks” that spread across the entire universe. So we find the mystical tradition of “raising holy sparks” connected with the mandate to Jews of tikkun olam – repairing the world.
Looking down at the Ground Zero site that afternoon in 2001 each team of workers was like the nine-branched menorah. This was no place for working as a solitary individual. Together they were shedding light, differing with darkness, repairing a rupture in the world. As I walked away with that image flooding my imagination I was crying.
The tears streaming down my cheeks were a common sight around Ground Zero. I wondered if others were coming away wondering how to be part of “holy sparks” of the Creator’s light. More than a cathartic response to the emotional intensity of Ground Zero, the tears were in recognition and acknowledgement of the internal shift on my spiritual landscape that came from being present at the site. Like most sacred places of pilgrimage the pilgrim comes away changed and transformed in some way because of being present in the presence of the sacred.
I returned to historic St. Paul’s Chapel where George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States. It had been transformed from a place of worship into a respite center for the workers at Ground Zero. A place of worship was revealing the meaning of service.
Inside cots were set up for workers to nap on, food was served to them from the kitchens of New York’s finest restaurants, massages were offered to exhausted and stressed workers many of whom had not seen home in days.
That night as I travelled on a train to rural Connecticut I realized that I was leaving a place where terror had ripped the veil of American innocence. I was heading to the bucolic beauty of a conference center alongside a river surrounded by the resplendent beauty of the colors of the last changing leaves of fall. My destination felt both like a dislocation from the reality of Ground Zero and a reminder of human beauty coexisting with it.
On the train ride I remembered some lines from Yeats – “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” I wondered, as I still do, how we will tread softly on the dreams of the Holy for the entire human family.
Perhaps the answer lies beyond the memories of the carnage of Ground Zero in the other story of Ground Zero. It was a story of people uniting in their common humanity across boundaries of religion, place or race. Selflessness was unassumingly assumed. Holy sparks of light were present in the determination to overcome the darkness of what had happened. Anger, loss and grief were giving way to oneness discovered in service and generous hearts at work.
I don’t know your memories and experiences of Ground Zero but mine were transformative. 9/11 and Ground Zero still beckon with the invitation to oneness that takes us beyond our own memories and into the well-being of all. We’re still invited to be holy sparks for goodness and repairing the world.
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