9/11/01: Hell in Manhattan

9/11
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(Note: This previously unpublished article was written on September 14, 2001, from the office of Fr. John A. Perricone at St. Agnes Rectory in Manhattan, some two miles away from Ground Zero.  Much of the horror of that day has faded. Even more so, its urgent lessons. Much of America seems to have moved on to even greater follies.) 

I sit here writing this piece coughing on the fumes of hell. Though I sit some one hundred blocks from ground zero of Manhattan Island, the winds shift and billows of that smoke of death stretch all the way to my room at St. Agnes rectory—and to every one of you, wherever you sit in this beloved nation of ours, now supine before an Islamic monster. For the evil that growls at us now sits on the doorstep of every person in America, and of the world. More importantly, it proves to over-intellectualized Americans that indeed evil exists. It kills. It corrupts. It demands a daily war against it, sometimes even requiring our blood.

This enormity presses upon us like a sumo wrestler sitting on a sparrow. No American can escape either its immediate horror or its irrepressible lessons. The numbing body count of over five thousand deaths has violently shaken Americans from their sybaritic slumber. America’s eye, ever roaming for still more titillating satisfactions, has been forced to blink, only to open and focus again upon eternal truths, as though for the first time. America, long trampling upon precious moral absolutes so that it could gorge itself on carnal delights, might be coming to an end. A near-Hiroshima at the tip of Manhattan Island might compel Americans to walk away from their orgiastic spasm and see things as they are. Even the fatuous intellectuals who supplied cover for the unbridled hedonist may be given pause. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, nothing focuses our attention more than the fact that any one of us may be next for the terrorist.

One awfully smart and terribly sophisticated television journalist asked an expert a question with childlike wonder, “Do you truly believe that God or religion can offer anyone solace at this time?”  She was genuinely bewildered. It is a bewilderment born of nonstop decades of aggressive secularism settling in the souls of most of our cultural elites, a secularism that closeted religion and uncloseted vice. When Barbara Olson’s parish priest preached the sermon at her Requiem Mass some days after her plane was crashed into the Pentagon, he spoke about Satan. One of the media commentators remarked that Satan had not been mentioned with such seriousness in his recent memory. He was right. Words like “sin,” Satan,” “saintliness,” and “virtue” have all been made to sound slightly eccentric by secularism’s totalizing reach. It is no surprise that it has tunneled deep within religion itself. More than a few priests are slightly embarrassed by the vocabulary of religion.

But this secularist house of cards was dealt a blow on Tuesday, September 11th.  The effective swipe was not a dazzling bon mot by some academic, but rather the silent gestures of New York City firemen. As they stumbled upon the dead bodies, many removed their helmets and made the Sign of the Cross. That act of piety was louder than the sonic boom created by the World Trade Center’s collapse. All at once it was not some atavistic tic of the cultural underclass; it was a tower of strength envied by the cultural overclass. The innocent journalist’s query might well become the fossil of a time now past; of a hollow ideology, sterile and mendacious. September 11th proved that the future belongs to the simple, godly men of the Sign of the Cross.

The death pit at the edge of Manhattan Island is not a pit at all. It is not, as the nihilist Nietzsche wrote, a matter of “staring into the abyss, and the abyss staring at you back.” It is a hill. It is Golgotha. Catholics need to teach this exquisite truth to the world. The death pit is Golgotha’s hill because Christ hanging on Golgotha’s cross saw September 11th, 2001. He saw it and hung there till His consummatum est would make it possible for each one of us to lay our crushed hearts in His. 

In the Divine alchemy of His sacred wounds, our wounds are transfigured into our strength. Our paralyzing fear is swallowed in the mighty words of the Word made Flesh commanding us, “Be not afraid.” To the world’s amazement, and the rage of wicked fanatics, the very catastrophes meant to decimate us only embolden us. Not by an Olympian show of will, as in Nietzsche, but through humble acceptance of grace, as in Christ’s mercy. At Golgotha we are trained to fear nothing but sin, and even that we can conquer through the Cross—a conquest not obtained through the sheer grit of a warrior in the ancient Roman Imperium but through the Christ’s infinite benevolence showered upon us by His Roman Church. 

Yes, it is only sin that is catastrophic because only sin can take happiness from us—the happiness Who is God. Death cannot. Suffering cannot. Isolation cannot. Loss of loved ones cannot. Certainly 9/11 cannot. All of those things are dreadful, no doubt. But on the Cross dread is smothered by Love, and when eyes open after the tears have dried, we meet the eyes of God. In those eyes there is only triumph. For none of those dreadful things are more powerful than Christ.

Alongside the victory of Golgotha, there is the glory of defiance—a defiant bravery that fears nothing. It gives vincible man a divine Invincibility. This is why saints laugh at the times when we cower. No time more than now do we require defiant bravery. Nothing on earth could deliver that.  Only Golgotha. W.H. Auden expressed this elegantly:

We can only
do what it seems to us we were made for, look at
this world with a happy eye
but from sober perspective.

As I cover my nose now from the acrid fumes wafting over Manhattan, I think of Aquinas’ remark in the third part of the Summa. He is commenting on how Our Lord endured an assault upon all His senses on Calvary so that His sacrifice would be perfect. Even His sense of smell was invaded by the stench of Calvary, with its daily fare of rotting corpses torn down from their crosses by hungry dogs. Golgotha then, Golgotha now. America needs to know that triumphant truth of our Holy Faith.

Otherwise, that stench will never be anything but suffocating stench. That pit of evil will never stop staring back at us, as only evil, widening and widening, unbearably.

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

By

Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.

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