On his blog Becoming, hospice physician and Episcopal priest Steve Thomason recounts some of his memories of what happened at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest on 9/11/2001.
For me, it was the first day of seminary in Austin. We were in a plenary session where the entire seminary community had convened in the auditorium, listening to a physician-priest speak of his experiences of work. Someone walked in and interrupted the presentation, saying a plane had hit the World Trade Center. The speaker continued until the dean of the seminary received word of the second plane. The dean did a remarkable thing, giving us an hour to attend to our own lives in the midst of this confusion, then reconvene in the chapel for a time of communal prayer. When we reassembled, the dean led us in saying the Great Litany. It is a rite nearly 500 years old, and its comprehensive commendation of all aspects of life to God remains, along with a keen sense of our own shortcomings dependent on God’s love and mercy to make sense of this broken world, renders the Great Litany, I think, as one of the great works in the English language. To be sure, it has its place, which means it is not quotidian in its purpose, but it offered perspective on a day such as that, and I have posted it below, for your reflection, if you so desire.
From there we went to the refectory for lunch, to be eaten in silence, as we were invited to continue our prayers individually, and then to class. For those of us just beginning our seminary experience, that meant returning to the chapel for an afternoon with Russell Schultz, the professor of liturgical music. Future afternoons would be lively, humorous and instructive in the field of church music, but on that day, Russell had the wisdom and grace to frame the day, not with more speech, but with music which might speak to us at that moment in the lyrical language understood by the heart and soul. It did, and I will be forever grateful for his gift.
He played Rutter’s Requiem, and in doing so, afforded us an opportunity to turn from anger or fear and lean into the soulful awareness that hope can prevail, even in the face of death. That opus is not at all “smooth”–it has plenty of dissonance, which is what that day held, but the resolution of resurrected light is offered, nevertheless, even when we cannot hear or see or smell it at the moment.
It was odd for me to read this piece last night, since I was there that day in Austin, and since I sat in Steve’s living room that day with some others from my junior class, watching the terrible falling of buildings on live television, suddenly feeling helpless, distant, microscopic, numb. Knowing something seismic was shifting right underneath us.
Odd, because you remember what you can. Some things you don’t remember unless someone else gets you started, so thanks, Steve. I’d forgotten all about Rutter and Russell Schulz’s enormous generosity of spirit; about the pervasive silence at lunch in the dining hall – how unusually monastic that felt; about the urgent tone of our dean, Durstan McDonald, calling us to prayer in The Great Litany. How that Litany felt both dusty and durable at the same moment, and how I leaned on it and let God’s Spirit work through it.
I’ll add to this mosaic that Christ Chapel was left open for several of the next nights, and that it was finally in that place, at 3 a.m. the next morning, alone, by the light of a single candle, that the jangling confusion temporarily subsided and the emotion was finally unstoppered.
My children are too young – they hadn’t yet come into the world – but one day they’ll ask about it: not just the facts, but the mood, the tenor. I have no problem talking about drugs, sex, any of the the many things you hear parents dreading. And I don’t really even dread this. But it will be singularly humbling to have to be the one who will explain just how dark men’s hearts can be.
Then, if I’m on my game, I might remember to add that humans can be just as spontaneously amazing and heroic and helpful and inspired and faithful as they can be evil. That I would rather live in realistic hope than pointless desperation. That we pray at all times, sometimes with the greater, more earnest persistence. That we get the privilege of remaking community after others have tried to break it.
And that, it seems to me, will be more than enough to have said about it.