A Sermon Delivered at First Parish Church in Beverly on September 16, 2001
As many of you know, each week Charlie Wainwright leaves his family in Topsfield and travels to Washington, DC where he works. His spouse, Candy tells me he is doing his part to make the Internal Revenue Service a kinder, more compassionate institution. Charlie was at work when the plane hit the Pentagon. I have asked him to be a part of this service. The words he speaks are ones he wrote while in his apartment in Washington.
I begin with the words of Loren Eiseley. They are from “Singers of Life”:
“…on the edge of a little glade with one long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly. The light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing,…on an extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in its beak. The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents who flew helplessly in circles…The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. It gulped, whetted its beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still.
It is 9:04 AM, Tuesday 11 September 2001. I have just arrived at the parking lot of my office in Greenbelt Maryland to begin my working day. I notice my friend Pascal locking up his car and decide to park next to him. As I park, the DJ on the radio announces that there has been an unconfirmed report of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. A breeze begins to stir in my soul.
We walk into our building, going our separate ways. I am skeptical that such an event could have actually occurred. I search the web for news. Though I try every site I can think of, none respond. I seek out my colleague Steve in his office. He has heard nothing. Then he gets a call from his wife: “A plane has hit the World Trade Center”, he repeats. “Probable terrorist attack”. A second colleague tells us another plane has crashed into the second World Trade Tower, and that yet another may have hit the Pentagon. Chills, like a turbulent wind whirl around my mind. I struggle to absorb the amount of damage and death such news represents. When the radio announcer describes the tower at the World Trade Center collapsing, the tempest in my mind becomes unmanageable. I can no longer stay at the office. I leave for my apartment in Bethesda.
I take side roads home, partly because of the increasing volume of traffic on the Beltway, but also because of the melee of my mind. As I drive, I learn more from the radio. I learn to my dismay that two of these planes originated in Boston. One, American Flight 11, I have taken no less than five times over the last eight years on my way to Sydney Australia. Another, United flight 77, is my normal flight to the west coast from Washington. At my apartment, I turn on the TV just in time to confront the horrible vision of the second World Trade Center tower collapsing in on itself. My mind storm is now in full force. I sit helplessly watching the unfolding story. I think I was in a complete state of shock and anguish.
The announcer suggests that those who feel a need should give blood. An excellent idea, I think. I know the Bethesda Naval hospital is not far from my apartment, so I walk to the subway and buy a ticket. As I wait for the train on the oddly empty platform, a faceless voice drones “The Metro is under an extreme security alert. Pentagon, and National Airport stations are closed”. It feels like wartime.
I leave the station and head for the Bethesda Naval Hospital. It could be a beautiful Sunday afternoon were it not for the roar of F16 Fighters streaking across the sky and the clatter of army convoys snaking along the road. At the entrance to the hospital, a line of cars and trucks wait patiently while a group of military police inspect each car with a Bomb detector and do an identification check. Before getting by this checkpoint I am challenged and searched. The MP directs me to building 10, where another MP challenges me at the main entrance. Without military ID, he says, I will not be allowed into the hospital. He directs me to the National Institute of Health across the street.
I wait about two hours to give blood, and then return home. The images of crashing airplanes and crumbling buildings continue to etch themselves indelibly into my mind. The gales grow ever stronger.
I stay in Washington for the next two days, though I accomplish little. Things are not as they should be; the constant roar of military jets, the lack of traffic, trucks loaded with caskets bound for the Naval Hospital are constant reminders that life has changed. The unearthly feelings I am experiencing continued unabated.
On Thursday, I board a train to Boston. As we pass lower Manhattan, I see smoke billowing from the hole where the World Trade complex used to rise. Traveling along Long Island Sound, I see a trail of smoke hanging low over the water. My winds return. There is nothing I can do but pray for the uncounted spirits of the people buried in the debris. I cry.
“Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.
“No one dared attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic that had been violated, that they knew. The raven was a bird of death.
“The murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
“The singing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.
“For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush.
“And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing.
I am beginning to come to terms with this tempest in my mind. The Navaho people know it as the spirit of their braves killed in battle as they take to the sky and inhabit the canyons and mountains of their homeland. It is the deafening silence I experience in my silent moments on the cliffs of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. It is the eerie peace I experience at the Gloucester Fisherman’s memorial. Now, it seems, it is the still winds I experience in Washington and lower Manhattan.
My internal anguish is subsiding. In its place I feel as if I am stumbling through endless spiritual debris. Instead of the concrete dust and bits of bodies at the Pentagon, I face layer upon layer of unraveling consequences that I must face and address: The safety of my wife and children, the future of my career, the state of my nation. Oh God, there is so much debris.
“The birds sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven”
“…for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”
And so are we.