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9/11 & the Way of the Cross
by James M. Kushiner
I will never forget the images of terror I saw on the morning of September 15, 2001. On September 6, I had left Chicago for Scotland to join a group of Orthodox Christians from the British Isles on a pilgrimage to the island of Iona, and thus on 9/11 was living in a remote retreat center without television or radio.
I heard about the terrorist attacks only by word of mouth on 9/11. I only saw newspapers the following day. It was not until the following weekend that I had access to a television, when I arrived back on the Scottish mainland and checked into a bed and breakfast in Dumbarton, my mother’s hometown on the Clyde.
I studied the image of impressive twin symbols of commercial and political strength standing side by side, towering over a river that flows into the Atlantic Ocean nearby. Two plumes of smoke rose up following an attack by devotees of terror and destruction with no respect for the lives of the innocent. Many inhabitants died. Some survived the attack, and 200 of them were carried off into slavery.
Slavery? That morning I found myself in Dumbarton Castle, studying a modern artist’s rendering of the Viking sack of Dumbarton in 870.
In my room the night before, I had seen on BBC television for the first time the images of the World Trade Center towers burning and falling to the ground—the parallels between the images were stunning.
Dumbarton Castle sits on twin plugs of volcanic basalt rising up on the Firth of Clyde where it flows out toward the Atlantic. The ninth-century fortress depicted in the painting was the capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde, and Vikings from Dublin found it an irresistible target.
The Vikings were the terrorists of their time, raiding and burning villages and killing and enslaving people all over the coasts of Europe, though they terrorized for plunder and territorial gain and not religion or ideology. No one was safe from their attacks, and no one knew when they would strike. Even the strongest could lose their families, property, and their own lives in a few hours.
Even the beaches of tiny Iona have soaked up the blood of those slain by Vikings. They first attacked Iona in 794 and badly damaged the monastery, returning seven years later to gut the abbey, and again five years after that, when they put to the sword 68 monks near what is now called Martyrs Bay.
Finding the Cross
Near Martyrs Bay, in the early afternoon (about 8:00 A.M. in New York) on September 11, I and six other pilgrims boarded the ferry for the five-minute ride to the Isle of Mull. There we walked inland for a couple of miles to a silversmith’s shop. I had promised my wife not to spend money on souvenirs, but I decided to buy her a silver cross anyway. This little journey was out of character for me. I really don’t shop, especially if I have to go out to do it. Yet I found myself on Mull with the shoppers.
The early-afternoon autumn air was fragrant and still as we passed grazing highland cattle and picked and ate a few wild blackberries just ripened in the early September sun. At times we walked silently down the one-lane road under a sky that turned from hazy to cloudy to sunny several times during the walk. There were no cars.
Coming from the city, I felt the absence of sound; the silence of the empty countryside slowly swelled until I felt engulfed by it. In such a setting, each word of occasional conversation seems to take on dramatic importance. What word do you utter to break such breathtaking silence? Something from the morning news? Any spoken word that breaks such silence commands attention and scrutiny.
Lagging behind the others, I took a small prayer book out of the pocket of my rain jacket. I had resolved to start saying the daily office of prayer during the retreat. Christians from the beginning have observed daily offices of prayer. More than a thousand years before Mohammedans decided to pull out their prayer rugs and face Mecca five times a day, the Psalmist wrote, “Seven times a day I praise thee” (119:164).
The offices are seven in number and begin with sundown: vespers, compline, matins, first, third, sixth, and ninth hours. These are known as the canonical hours, the points of prayer by which a day is marked.
Outside of monasteries, few Christians pray any of these hours, so much has the habit of regular prayer faded from our lives. Given the things we must accomplish each day, it seems like a waste of time to say the same prayers over and over. The old notions behind some of the hours seem quaint and outdated—who, for example, really pays attention to sunrise anymore?
The full daily offices of prayer as prayed in monasteries add up to hours of prayer each day. But I had brought with me the Daily Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, which severely abridges the daily offices for busy lay people—it’s a prayer book for the handicapped, like me. I read belatedly from the midday psalms:
Save me, O God, by thy name, and vindicate me by thy might. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For insolent men have risen against me, ruthless men seek my life; they do not set God before them. Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. . . .
And then the traditional prayer for noontime, the time of the Crucifixion:
O Christ God, on the sixth day and hour, thou nailed to the Cross the sin which rebellious Adam committed in Paradise: Tear asunder the bonds of our iniquities and save us. Thou hast wrought salvation in the midst of the earth, O Christ God. Thou stretched out thine all-pure hands upon the Cross; thou gathered together all the nations that cry aloud to thee: Glory to thee.
After these brief prayers, we arrived at the shop of the silversmith, a spacious shed near her house.
We spent nearly an hour in the shop studying and fingering variations on the cross and other jewelry. I finally purchased a silver “highland cross” necklace for my wife.
The Good Death
On the walk back to the ferry, we found that a sturdy stone church that had been locked when we first passed by was now open. It was a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) church.
A man outside said a funeral was going to be held there in a while and that the church would be overflowing with people coming from all over the islands and the mainland. There was nothing remarkable about its stone walls and simple but strong pews, but it did seem odd to be watching a little-used, remote country church on a beautiful September afternoon being set up for a funeral.
When we left the church, the road seemed quieter still. In what felt like the calmest spot on earth I walked ahead of some of my companions. It was now about 3 o’clock, and seeking the presence of Christ, I began to pray the prayers of the ninth hour, which commemorates the death of Christ on the Cross at that time:
O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, thou hast led us to the present hour, in which, as thou hung upon the life-giving Tree, thou didst make a way into Paradise for the penitent thief, and by death destroyed death. . . . We implore thine unending goodness: Spare us, O Lord, according to the multitude of thy mercies, and save us for thy holy name’s sake, for our days are passing away in vanity. Take us from the hand of the adversary and forgive us our sins. . . .
I couldn’t help but think of the penitent thief and of the man whose funeral would shortly be held in that country church: The good thief had been presented with the Christ crucified and embraced him, petitioning him for mercy. The man who died and was to be buried that quiet afternoon, had he chosen to put his destiny in the hands of Christ? Had he been prepared for death, or did he die suddenly, without time to prepare? Was his the “good Christian end” we often pray for, or did he die in regret or fear? Did he have his heart set on paradise, or was he content with the things of this world?
Earlier that morning we had observed the commemoration of the death of John the Baptist, which falls on that date in the Julian Christian Calendar, observed by some of the Orthodox Christians in Britain. John had little time to prepare for his death because Salome demanded of Herod that his head be given her right away.
Many, young and old, strong and infirm, die, like John, sudden and unexpected deaths: in war, in floods and hurricanes and tornadoes, as the victims of accidents and crimes, from blocked hearts and burst arteries. Some of them do not fear death, for they see it as a falling asleep in Christ. Death has no sting for those, like John and the good thief, who live in Christ.
I walked the last mile with the elderly wife of an elderly priest. She was the choir director for our pilgrimage group and was anxious that we make it back in time for choir practice before supper. We were going to rehearse music for a Panikhida scheduled for the next evening, September 12: It is an Orthodox memorial service for the faithful departed, and we had planned to remember our departed loved ones during the pilgrimage.
One of the doors on the ferry’s loading ramp would not close, and we finally arrived back at the retreat house at nearly 5 o’clock, too late for choir rehearsal. We went to the meeting room for late tea, but everyone else had gone and the tea was lukewarm. One of our retreat leaders, a journalist, came in and asked us if we had heard the news from America (it was about noon there). I couldn’t imagine what could be so pressing.
He told us that terrorists had flown two airplanes into the World Trade Center and a third into the Pentagon. Both towers were down and thousands of people had certainly been killed.
The thought of the terror inflicted upon those thousands of innocent victims compounded the anger, anxiety, and doubt I felt coursing through me. The other pilgrims—I was the only American—stunned and saddened, tried to comfort me. They were not detached from the effects of terrorism, having endured bombings in their own country. Their sympathy was real. Still, I was alone in a way, for I hadn’t met any of them until the previous weekend.
After a solemn supper, it was announced that the prayer service we had scheduled for the next day—the memorial prayers—would be held in an hour, and we would pray for the victims of the attack as well as those of our own departed loved ones we wished to remember.
Before the service, most of us wrote down the names of departed loved ones on slips of paper to be given to the priest. I wrote the names of departed family members who had come from this part of the world. Fr. Columba, an Orthodox priest from Edinburgh, gave a moving and compassionate homily about how death relentlessly comes to us all. It is our true enemy and does not discriminate, but it is an enemy we need not fear if we are in Christ, for his Cross has put down death. Our sure and certain hope is in Christ, who raises the dead.
We sang the service, unrehearsed, as best we could. I remembered relatives who had fallen asleep in Christ: my grandparents, as well as my three sisters who died in their thirties and early forties, some suddenly, some after long illnesses. I thought of the thousands who faced terror and death in the towers in New York and in the Pentagon, victims of a vicious assault on innocent civilians. I remember most of all these words from the service that I read that evening: “Grant unto me the home-country of my heart’s desire, making me a citizen of paradise.”
After the service, the choir began to disperse. The choir director noticed the tears in my eyes and kissed me on the cheek as would a mother. Who could not but weep on that day? For all the dead, for death itself, for the terror of death that man has brought upon himself.
Death & Sorrow
The next day, we went on the Island Walk sponsored by the Iona community. We walked past Martyrs Bay, and paused at the War Memorial commemorating locals who gave their lives in the World Wars, pausing in silent remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attack of the previous day. Some five hours later, after a trek to the beach where tradition says St. Columba first landed, we ended the pilgrimage walking on the Street of the Dead, which took us into the cemetery outside the chapel of St. Oran.
I read the stones: “In Loving Memory” of so-and-so; “Our Dear Baby”; here were the places where families laid to rest children taken by disease, young men taken by drowning, deaths expected and unexpected, sudden and lingering, by illness, war, accident, and old age. Some of the markers were no longer legible; some were barely standing; others were cracked or crumbling, on the brink of disappearing from the sight of the living.
Later that evening, we held the memorial prayer service as originally scheduled. Going in 24 hours from one memorial service to another, walking the abbey and the cemetery, I felt that death was hanging heavy on the world and that perpetual sorrow has been the lot of man from the beginning.
Jesus himself wept at Lazarus’s tomb. But his was not the weeping of bereavement, but the emotion of a hero who saw his beloved lying in bondage to death. He wept for our weeping. Surely our Lord saw in this death and all deaths the devastation wrought by an enemy. Surely some who saw the dead on September 11 were moved by both sorrow and anger at the same time as they saw in the deaths of their loved ones the works of a hateful enemy.
The enemy seems to have triumphed, and like Martha we ask, Will we indeed rise again? I know that Christ rose from the dead, yet I don’t see why that should mean that anyone else should rise from the dead, that God must undo what we have done to ourselves. Why should he?
I believe that we shall rise because he who did rise says that he will raise us up. If he says it, I believe it. I only know it because I know him. There is nothing otherwise that tells me that it must be so. We shall rise only because he loves us in a way we cannot fathom. St. Paul said as much when he prayed that the Christians in Ephesus would have their eyes opened to see the height and depth and breadth of the love of God for us in Christ. Our resurrection is far beyond reasonable expectations.
From the day I arrived in Scotland I had been most struck by my encounter with the Cross of Christ, especially in the midday and mid-afternoon prayers. The Cross reminds the human race of what we did and also of what we need. On Thursday evening, September 13, when we sang the vespers for the Feast of the Holy Cross, one of the hymns proclaimed:
The Cross is raised on high, and urges all the creation to sing the praise of the undefiled Passion of him who was lifted high upon it. For there it was that he killed our slayer, and brought the dead to life again: and in his exceeding goodness and compassion, he made us beautiful and counted us worthy to be citizens of heaven.
In the ancient tradition of the Church, Christ is said to have trampled down death by death: His dying was the instrument by which he destroyed the power of hell. Christ entered Hades, and its gates did not prevail, as he led out from there those subject to sin and death.
In the apse of my home parish, there is a fourteen-foot icon of the Resurrection: Christ is grabbing the hands of Adam and Eve as he tramples down the gates of hell under his feet. In the background, along with other Old Testament figures, there is a young lad clothed in white, holding a shepherd’s crook: He is the righteous Abel, slain by Cain, the first one to die in the pages of the Bible. I can’t help but think of the grief of Adam and Eve as the first grief in the world at the death of a loved one. Yet all this is overcome by the Lord in his Cross and Resurrection.
Early the next morning, September 14, we ended our pilgrimage by praying the Divine Liturgy of the Exaltation of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross in the thousand-year-old chapel of St. Oran, surrounded by the graves of many who have fallen asleep in Christ. After receiving Holy Communion, we met the 9 o’clock ferry to Mull and began the trip home.
After a quiet bus ride across Mull, we boarded the ferry for the mainland. Everything came to a standstill as the ship’s engines were cut. Everyone on board kept three long minutes of silence as a bell broadcast over BBC radio tolled through the ship’s loudspeakers for the victims of September 11.
After my visit to Dumbarton Castle, I walked less than a mile to visit my 86-year-old great-aunt Helen. After greeting me, she handed me a parcel, and said, “We’ll be needing to go to the post office to mail this to Madame. This is heather for Donald’s grave.” Donald, her husband, had been killed in battle on June 26, 1944, in Caen, Normandy, twenty days after D-Day. He had been a policeman in town when he was called up.
After the war, many French volunteered to look after the graves of the slain from other countries. Since 1947, a French woman, “Madame,” has been tending the grave in Normandy, and Helen has been sending her Scottish heather for the grave whenever it comes into bloom, usually in September.
Helen gave birth to a boy shortly after Donald was killed, a boy who grew up without a father. Helen had lost her own father in World War I. He also was killed in France just before she was born.
Later that afternoon, I walked alone to Dumbarton Cemetery to look for the graves of my great-grandparents and other ancestors. One of the graves that I hoped to find was that of John Auchterlonie, my great-great grandfather, born in 1844.
As a young man, John worked in the local shipyards. One day he and another man were working on a scaffold high above the Firth of Clyde when a rope broke and both men plunged into the cold waters below. John survived, but his friend drowned. When they recovered his friend’s body, they found in his pocket a New Testament. After the sudden and tragic death of his friend, John committed his life to Christ and became a well-respected preacher. He died in 1937 at the age of 93.
Once inside the cemetery, I found myself occasionally quietly singing among the graves—most marked with a cross, many with stone crosses—the traditional Trisagion prayers, sung at Divine Liturgy but also for funerals: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”
After more than an hour and a half of walking among the rows of upright monuments, many over six feet tall, I finally despaired of finding any of my ancestors’ graves. In the lengthening shadows of early evening, I stopped and studied the long, crowded rows of silent cut-rock pillars and slabs, some leaning precariously. The sound of traffic from the nearby road seemed to fade and the silence deepened.
The monuments stood like mute casualties of some plague, a war, or some evil spell, all pillars like Lot’s wife, frozen in time and space—yes, the great enemy of man is death, and these are its victims, the “slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more” (Ps. 88:5). As with most of our ancestors, their names are eventually forgotten and their graves left untended.
But they are all remembered by God, I thought. In the Orthodox funeral service we say, “memory eternal,” not referring to man’s failing memory—that would be a sad note to sing because as the generations pass, the dead are mostly forgotten, with rare exceptions—but appealing to God’s memory, that he will not eternally forget but will remember us: The thief on the cross said to our Lord, “Remember me, O Lord, when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
It is a prayer repeated in the traditional Communion service of the Church. In the face of the silent witnesses of the gravestones I can still say, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
As the shadows grew, I left the cemetery and pulled out the little prayer book from my pocket to pray vespers. It includes the song of the elder Simeon in the Temple: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people, Israel.”
My pilgrimage was nearly over. Early Monday morning I went to the airport, which I found clogged with passengers. I had been told to be there three hours before the flight. I went with my newly learned prayer book, knowing I could use the time there by stepping outside of it in prayer.
Almost four years later, on September 9, 2005, I saw Ground Zero for the first time. Standing in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel across the way from the World Trade Center grounds, I realized that I was looking at 9/11, once again, from a graveyard.
From St. Paul’s we walked to the south side of Ground Zero, where we happened upon a small press conference. My friend’s press credentials got us in just in time to hear former mayor Rudy Giuliani tell the audience about the steel cross that appeared in the wreckage at Ground Zero, as he pointed to it still standing upright.
Since then the site has been a meeting place for prayers and the cross has been a sign of comfort for the many who took part in the long process of searching for bodies. Masses have been said beneath the cross. Yet there are some who do not want that cross to remain there, or as a part of any World Trade Center memorial. They find it offensive.
They might succeed in having it removed, but even if they do, the Cross will still be there. For just as I stood at the foot of the cross on Mull at the ninth hour on 9/11, remembering the penitent thief, the whole world lies in the shadow of the Cross. The Cross stands at the heart of our suffering world, mystically present at all times and in every place, the new tree of a new paradise, our new and true homeland.
I was drawn to Scotland because it is for me another homeland, the home of my forefathers, out of sight and until recently beyond my reach. But I traveled much farther than I intended: There, watching from afar my homeland’s suffering, I was reminded of our true homeland, a paradise pledged to us in the Upper Room, a paradise in which the Cross has become a life-giving tree.
Paradise: that is what we have lost and what we long for. Nothing else can satisfy that longing. That is what Columba and the monks of Iona sought; that is what I and my fellow pilgrims sought.
Wherever we remember Christ’s death and Resurrection, and his pledge of paradise, whether in Chicago, Dumbarton, Iona, or at the foot of the steel cross at the World Trade Center, he is there. And thus in the midst of death we can cry out, in faith and in love, “Remember me, O Lord, when thou comest into thy Kingdom.” May he so remember us, and those we have lost, and those who died on September 11, and all the faithful departed, and may their memory be eternal.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.