Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sept. 11 and the Second Death

Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Francis of Assisi, The Canticle of the Creatures (1225)


I could have died on Sept. 11, 2001.

From January 2000, I worked in Soho, Manhattan, as a copy editor for Risk Waters Group, a publisher of industry newsletters and magazines whose niche was financial information technology.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Risk Waters was sponsoring a trade conference at Windows on the World, the restaurant located on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. There were 16 employees from Risk Waters in attendance, among them the conference planners, advertising managers, and editors and reporters. David Rivers, the editorial director, was my boss. He was there.

I could have been a reporter, and I should have been a reporter, but I was not. David hired me in the hope that I would become more than a copy editor, but it quickly became clear that I had no desire to do anything else but correct mistakes and improve badly written articles. Although I was a competent copy editor, I showed no enterprise or initiative beyond basic proofreading, editing, and layout. The truth was I had no interest at all in financial information technology. I did not feel like talking to, much less mingling with, the leaders of financial companies or the vendors who supplied them market data and trading technology. Sensing this, David left me alone to proof copy and lay out pages, an arrangement mutually agreeable to the both of us. I never had to leave the office for anything.

I was not a reporter. That is the only reason I was not with David and the 16 men and women of Risk Waters at the World Trade Center that beautiful blue morning. That is the reason why I had leisure, as usual, to attend morning prayer and Mass from 8 to 9 a.m. with the Franciscan friars at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street in midtown Manhattan. I was leaving church and riding the subway heading for Soho when the planes hit the towers. When I arrived at the office around 9:20 a.m., everybody was looking out the large window of the conference room. From where we stood, we could see, two miles to the south and southwest, the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning like colossal smokestacks. My parents made frantic phone calls to the office, urging me to get out of Manhattan immediately. After no more than 20 minutes, I was heading for the subway and riding back to Midtown. Again I was underground, this time when the towers collapsed.


It would be hours before I could get out of Manhattan and back home safely to Babylon, N.Y. When I arrived at Penn Station, I found out that all railroad service had been suspended. Like thousands of people, I was stranded and left to wander in the vicinity of the train station until it was deemed safe for the railroads to ferry passengers out of the city. Strangely enough, I was calm, very calm. (It was not until I got home and watched the endless replays of horror on the television that I became deathly frightened.)

Not knowing what to do, I did the only thing I could think of, and I returned to the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and went to confession in the lower chapel where I had attended Mass earlier. Then I prayed for some time. From one of the church offices I called my parents to let them know I was stranded. Then I wandered up and down the bright, warm sidewalks, listening to car radios sounding the worst news I ever heard -- war on the United States -- and darting in and out of cafes, pubs, and delis to see the televisions beaming the worst images I ever saw -- attacks on New York and Washington. Gradually I migrated to the other Franciscan church by Penn Station, St. John the Baptist Church, administered by the Capuchin Franciscans. I entered the Padre Pio Prayer Garden, dedicated to the visionary Capuchin priest and confessor of Pietrelcina, Italy, who was declared a saint in 2002. And the calm I felt settled into a certainty and determination beyond feelings or emotions. I realized that I was no longer going to live the way I was living. And the changes were going to come very soon.

Within seven weeks I quit my job. My family was furious. I didn't care. For nearly a year I had been considering whether or not to apply to one of the religious orders, to become a priest or a brother. In recent weeks I was getting near the turning point. On Sept. 11, 2001, my life was turned. And I began moving in a new direction, away from Manhattan, away from Babylon, to Baltimore, then Boston, and now to Brooklyn.


After Sept. 11, there were two fears. The first fear was the horror of death, the great many deaths, and the dread that mass death could still come at any hour. (In those first days after the attacks, anything seemed possible.) I escaped death, and I was out of danger, but I was more afraid than ever that I was going to be next. How human, how human. As those fears subsided, a composure, like the calm I felt in the Capuchin church garden, took over. With this composure came a quiet feeling of wonder that the first fear could not touch. But there was also a second fear, less like horror and more like anxiety, a subliminal sense that something was not right and could possibly never be made right. I worried that if I had died on Sept. 11, then I would have also died into the agony of hell, the second death. Although I had by that point become a conscious Christian, I was not yet living the life, in Christ, that God was giving to me, that God was longing for me to receive. This new life, I did not know it, did not understand it, did not have any clue how to recognize it. I was still living merely my own life at best, and I was living nobody's life at worst.

I have tried here to show you what happened to me on Sept. 11, when I came to the crossroads of history and eternity. You have now been given an insight into my passion for religious life.


Since the fall of 2001, I have reflected on my Sept. 11 encounter only twice before in writing. The first time was in the fall of 2006, while I was a student at Boston University School of Theology, when I wrote a theological statement on eschatology, or final things. The second time was two years ago, when I wrote a short poem that you can read on my other blog.

I am posting the theological statement on eschatology here because I have been thinking about the second death in the shadow of the absent towers and in the light of the life that, once upon a time, I never knew -- this new life I am striving to know.


One of the advantages of growing up in a secular environment was never having been subjected to fear of the traditional punishments of hell from threatening religious types. Thus I do not believe in hell as a place of everlasting torment for the wicked. That is too trivial a view of hell. However, I can conceive of hell as “something” much worse. From the age of ten, eleven, or twelve, I became aware of the possibility—no, certainty—of death, and once I could imagine the actuality of my own non-existence, of falling away into eternal unconsciousness, of “becoming” permanent non-being, I became afraid. Yes, I became terrified, absolutely horrified. Now and then this awareness, deeper than feeling, returns to me, and I am helpless with anxiety. I know there “is” a hell, and I discovered it when I was still a child.

I discovered hell before I discovered God. Maybe discovering hell was the first step on a graced journey with God into God. Hell, for me, is the total and irreversible absence of being; from this I now conclude that hell is the “condition” of absolute separation from God, who is the ground of being, the source of being itself. Since I have earlier stated that God is “deepest relationality” and “ultimate being-in-relationship,” hell as absolute separation from God also means total absence of relationship to any person and any created thing. Hell is the eternal “end” of all relationship that ever was and the end to all relationship that ever will be.

Thankfully, God has broken into my world and awakened my spirit. With my acceptance of Christian faith, especially the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have concluded that we need not be destined for an unspeakable end that is wholly the abnegation of being. I believe that Jesus’ victory over death in the resurrection shows that while death is an end, it is not the ultimate end. Corruption and utter non-being do not necessarily follow death. In fact, it is quite the opposite: death may now lead into perfection and the fulfillment of being. In Jesus Christ’s death, I believe God, Being Itself, experienced non-being, and somehow in this encounter we have been saved from that destiny so that we may now be renewed in being. I hold the hope that all will be saved from total and eternal annihilation of being, and the eternal loss that “is” hell will be no one’s fate. Together we are called to embrace and live into the wonderful being-in-relationship God offers us.

As a follower of Jesus the resurrected Christ, the first fruit of the new creation, I see myself as already living in the end of time, living beyond linear time. Like Karl Rahner and John Polkinghorne, I propose that although we may die at different times in this world, yet we will all arrive together in the new world on the last day, the day of the final resurrection. But I go a step further. Even in this world, I believe God is already pulling me gradually out of chronos into kairos, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally. Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, was an apocalyptic moment for me, and I believe that on this day God pulled me brutally but lovingly further out of chronos into kairos. You see, I was working for a financial publishing firm that was holding a conference breakfast in the World Trade Center that morning. I did not attend that breakfast, because I held a desk job in our offices a couple of miles away from the World Trade Center and did not need to be present. If I had held a slightly different editorial position in my company, I would have been in that restaurant at the top of the North Tower, above where the airplane hit. Mercifully, I would have asphyxiated from all the smoke before the tower collapsed.

Repeatedly I have had occasion to think: if I had died that day in the World Trade Center, would I have fulfilled my life’s meaning and purpose? Would I have been doing what I was most meant to be doing with my gifts? Would I have fulfilled my calling into a sacred way of life, of being-in-relationship? I believe the answer to all these questions would be no. The thought of hell returns to me when I think of Sept. 11. I fear I would have died into nothingness if I died that day.

In a way impossible for me to justify to you, I believe the hand of God stayed me from double death that day by “revealing” to me that it was time to live into the fullness of relationship to which I was called. Since Sept. 11, I have striven to live now according to the end(s) toward which we are coming. Although I had professed my discipleship in Christ before that day, since that day I have been returning with intentionality to the Word, the incorruptible source of our being.

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