Seek grace, or they died in vain

September 17, 2001|By Kathleen Feeley

IN THE middle of a great national conflagration 138 years ago, Abraham Lincoln said: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ..." Looking down on the soldiers buried at Gettysburg, he vowed that their deaths would bear fruit in "a new birth of freedom" and that our democratic government would perdure.

In 1863, we were still a new nation, and the survival of democracy was at stake in a country divided against itself.

As we, today, look through the billowing smoke and contemplate the lives lost in this terrorist conflagration, perhaps we also should "highly resolve." But our resolution must be to a different end. The survival of democracy is not the grave concern that it was during the Civil War. We know that our democracy will survive.

So what can we, individually and as a nation, resolve that will honor these beloved dead? What will assure the grieving families that these dead have not died in vain?

Retaliation - fire for fire, blood for blood, vengeance for outrage - will not accomplish this. Yes, our nation needs to find, bring to trial, and punish all those responsible for this mass destruction of human life and property. When that is accomplished, the scales of justice will be righted.

But we must go much beyond this. These innocent people will not have died in vain if this attack - this savage wound to our country's national pride - is examined with humble admission that all is not well in the country we love.

The men and women on those hijacked flights, the people working in the twin towers and at the Pentagon, the rescue workers who answered the first call for help - these men and women are a microcosm of America. Surely they were of various ages, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, economic classes.

Any reader of this article could have been one of the victims. That fact should impel us to reassess the meaning of life. Considering these spiritual axioms might be a place to start:

"Not by bread alone does one live." Many of us are so concerned with material things that we sacrifice family obligations, physical and psychic health and moral integrity to achieve more and more possessions. Am I called to decrease my need for material things and deepen my spiritual life?

"You know not the day nor the hour." Most people presume that they will live until old age. The ancient Greeks picture the three Fates - one spins, one measures, one snips - symbolizing that one's life can be cut off at any time. How can I live my life fully, each day as it comes, so that if I die "before my time" - as we sometimes express it - I will have completed the tapestry of my life?

"And God saw that it was good." The creation accounts in Genesis illuminate the goodness of our world. But we, as a nation and as individuals, consume and do not replenish. We deplete the ozone layer. We pollute our waters. Perhaps seeing our world besmirched by terrorists' smoke will lead me to increase my efforts to cherish the earth and share its bounty.

Flannery O'Connor, a 20th century fiction writer, peopled her stories with characters who believe that they are in charge of the universe until some violent action causes them to view life differently.

In an essay, she explains: "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work."

Americans are hardheaded. At times our national pride thickens our skulls; this inhibits our critical thinking and blocks our ability to be self-reflective. This violent terrorist action could lead to a moment of grace for those who reflect deeply in the aftermath of this national trauma.

Many commentators are speaking of the way the lives of all Americans have been changed by this terrorist attack. They cite decreased freedom because of increased security measures and the loss of a feeling of personal security.

The region of deeper and more significant change lies in the human spirit. It is to that depth that this traumatic event should call us. The changes that this cataclysm effects in us, and, through each of us, in our country, will truly signify that these dead have not died in vain.

Sister Kathleen Feeley is a former president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. She is now a professor of English there.

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