Thursday, September 11, 2003

On September 11


I know I don't have the wisdom to know what to say on the second anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, I'll share a few things that have spoken to me.

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem in 1862, the most wrenching year of the Civil War. That September, at Antietam, more Americans were killed in one day on our soil than ever before or since. In fact, only the losses we suffered on another September day, 139 years later, approach their numbers. Her poem may have been written about a personal sense of loss or the nation's, then or now:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--

This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--

John Donne's meditation on death and the fellowship of mankind (written in 1623 after a long illness and in a lifetime that had witnessed firsthand the destruction of war, plague, famine, and street violence) was quoted often in the aftermath of September 11. Sometimes it is quoted too briefly, making it seem like cliche instead of illuminated truth. Here is a longer selection, from Meditation XVII:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

In context, Donne also refutes those who would say we are wrong to wallow in the pain of others. We do not beg or borrow misery, he says, for the pain belongs to us. Donne compares us to chapters in a book ("one author," "one volume"), chapters that are not torn out in death but translated by God into a better language.

Praying for those still in their Hour of Lead,



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