The newly reported vulnerability of the Washington National Cathedral, in the aftermath of earthquake, hurricane and now a falling crane, has deepened for me my memories of the importance of that place for me in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I don't usually do this but am reposting here an article I published 5 years ago in the issue of Weavings that focused on the theme of "security" in our spiritual lives
“Like a Child at Home”:
Seeking Safety in Post-9/11 Washington DC
(originally published in Weavings journal, Fall 2006)
Kathleen Henderson Staudt
On September 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks, a National Prayer Service was held at Washington National Cathedral. I was present at the service because my daughter was in the choir. Even the youngest choristers, boys and girls, had welcomed the invitation to sing as “something they could do” for the country in this time of crisis. We parents were proud of them, but we were also afraid.
We felt close to the tragedy, that Friday after the attacks, and vulnerable as we watched our children being escorted to the choir room, under tight security. Usually a familiar “home” for our families, the Cathedral had become a fortress. Security guards were everywhere. There were bomb-sniffing dogs. We knew President Bush would be in attendance, and the Vice President hidden away somewhere for safety. The Vice President was safe in “an undisclosed location,” but our children would be in the same building with the President, the vulnerable target.
Chorister parents knew that if our children were going to be there, we had to be there, too. One mother requested, and the White House promptly agreed, that there should be one ticket per family for the service, so each child could have a parent there. We knew it was irrational: if disaster struck it was unlikely we would be much help, but we needed to be in the building. Our children seemed fearless, eager to sing. It was not their fear that drove us; it was our own.
Parents sat together in a block of seats in the north transept of the Cathedral. All kinds of famous people, former presidents, political and military leaders walked by us, but we were focused on the area behind the grille work where the choristers were gathering.
“There they are!” one of the mothers whispered as the children appeared, lining up before their first anthem.
“They’re the only children here!” another parent exclaimed.
It seemed the place was filled with military uniforms. I noted eerie parallels between the choristers’ procession into the nave, as they turned the corner in synchronized steps, and the disciplined marching of soldiers. They had a clear symbolic role to play in this service. They stood for the children of the nation, singing of hope and assurance in a time of vulnerability. But one of them was my child. .
Many heard the cathedral choristers’ anthems at that service as a voice of hope and encouragement amid the disorientation that followed the attacks. For me, their music stood against a palpable energy toward vengeance and war that grew as the service progressed. The President had requested a setting of the twenty-third psalm, and the version chosen was Isaac Watts’s paraphrase, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” sung to a traditional folk melody. The unison singing of this hymn, by those clear treble voices, stays in my memory. The end of the final verse, in particular, reassured me on that day:
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days
O may thy house be my abode, and all my work be praise
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come
No more a stranger or a guest. But like a child at home.
These words carried an image of the security we all sought, a security we feared would elude us forever in the months that followed September 11,2001. We longed for the deep safety of dwelling where we live, in our own communities and in God’s presence. In Washington, we lived through heightened alerts and anthrax scares. In the charged atmosphere of the following year, we were losing that sense of safety and security.
Many local parents told stories of the urgency we felt about gathering our children home just after the attacks on September 11. But there was no guarantee that home was any safer than anywhere else. It had become a real possibility that we could be attacked right where we lived. There was no safety. School had been cancelled for my children that week, and I cancelled classes and appointments and stayed home with them in our suburban Maryland neighborhood. I needed to be a “mother hen,” gathering and sheltering those I loved, even if the gesture was futile. My spiritual director, acknowledging a cancelled appointment, affirmed my motives: “I’m glad you’re being a ‘mother hen,’ she said. Jesus was also a mother hen.”
She was thinking, of course, of the passage in the gospels where Jesus laments over Jerusalem and the people’s failure to hear his message:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. (Matthew 23: 37 NRSV)
In those first days after the attacks, biblical images of desolation became real. Recalling Jesus’ words, it was consoling for me to reflect that the urge to gather my children, to make a home in a place of desolation, reflected a desire that lies close to the heart of God. I began to listen for words and watch for images that would help me to embrace that part of the divine personality which longs to draw us together, under the shadow of protecting wings.
That September began an academic year in which I became aware of my own increasingly frustrated desire for an actual place that would be a spiritual “home.” My professional life scatters me around the Washington beltway. I am adjunct faculty at three different institutions in the area. We adjunct faculty members are sometimes referred to as “beltway scholars,” (I like to call myself an “itinerant scholar/teacher”) because we are on the road so much. The deep and continuing urgency I felt about gathering my family home after September 11 had reminded me how widely dispersed my places of work, worship, home and ministry are. I felt more fragmented, that fall and winter, than I had before. Several days a week my drive took me past the blackened wall of the Pentagon, where repairs were going forward after the attacks. Students in my Virginia seminary class on Contemplative Writing struggled to write their way through the aftermath of the attacks, and our discussions were haunted by these events. Across town in College Park, Maryland, my college students were reeling not only from September 11 but also from a tornado that struck the campus two weeks later, killing two undergraduates. I myself felt spiritually homeless -- scattered around among my beltway destinations, and even among worshipping communities: at seminary chapel services one day, at Evensong at the Cathedral another, juggling between Sunday mornings at my home congregation in Maryland and Sunday mornings at the Cathedral on days when the girl choristers sang. Called to create places of safety for others, I found myself hollow and home-less inside. I sang wistfully, longingly, as I drove through town and around the beltway, the hymn the children had sung: where would I find “a settled rest, while others go and come?” I was always going and coming. Always visiting, adjunct, on the edges. Never entirely “at home.”
Whenever my adult life has brought a traumatic event or turning point, the Lent and Holy Week following that event have been times to enter more deeply into the mercy of God, bringing with me whatever I have experienced of loss or brokenness. The Ash Wednesday following September 11, 2001 began such a time for me, and left me with a new and lasting way of understanding where we find our rest, and what it means to be “at home” with God.
Not having a place of my own at the seminary where I was teaching, I asked to use a guest room for the day on Ash Wednesday, when the community traditionally shares in a silent retreat. I brought with me a small copy of Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity, hoping this small object from the prayer-space that I use at home might help me to create a space that felt like my own during the quiet of the retreat day. I set it on a purple cloth and lit a candle. In the time we were given for quiet, I spent some time resting and gazing.
Volumes have been written on the possible significance and interpretations of this famous icon, but I have never made a formal study of it. Rather, in keeping with the tradition of praying with icons, I spend some of my prayer-times simply gazing on the images, allowing them to be for me a “window” into the divine life, to offer clues to what God is like, and to open a connection. The icon depicts three angels, seated around a table whose shape also evokes an altar, or a tombstone. In the distance behind them is a tree—an oak tree, perhaps—and a house. The angels are resting, barefoot, around the table. There is a chalice in their midst. They carry staffs, as if they were travelers pausing to rest at this table. They evoke the three angels who visited Abraham, by the oaks of Mamre, to tell him that Sarah would bear him a child (Genesis 18). But the icon is called “Holy Trinity,” suggesting that the three figures together also reveal something about the Triune God. Looking deeply at them, noticing the way their heads incline toward one another, the ease and sense of relationship that comes out of their composition around the table, I am invited to see the mystery of a God who is known in relationship, and of the divine life as one of sharing and friendship, around a holy table. The wings of the angels form a kind of screen around the three figures. They offer assurance, safety, and a sense of being shielded and protected from whatever may lie outside of this holy gathering. They reminded me, that day, of the wings of the “mother hen” that I so cherished in Jesus’ analogy.
At the front of the altar-table in the icon, opening out toward the viewer, is an empty place at the table, and I understand, contemplating the icon, that I am invited to come and sit at this holy table. It is a place of rest and confidence, of safety and of a mysterious, powerful love that weaves between the figures at the table and draws me into itself, so that at prayer I am a part of the divine gathering that this iconic table represents. It is a beautiful invitation and I am aware of stillness, silence, and a lively and loving companionship, beyond words.
And because I am a word-person, a music-person, I remembered the words and music of Virgil Thompson’s hymn, and recalled those treble voices that had been icons of the divine presence and comfort, for me and for the nation, at the September prayer service,
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come
No more a stranger, or a guest. But like a child at home. (text by Isaac Watts, Hymnal #662)
In that guest room, at a workplace where I “go and come,” in a community just a few miles from the Pentagon and still traumatized by the September attacks, I found in my time of contemplation a way of entering a more lasting and solid place of prayer, a place of security not tied to any outward location. I heard the divine invitation that is always offered to us: the invitation to be at home at the heart of the divine life.
As I reflect now on September 11, 2001, and the season that followed it in Washington, I hear the divine invitation in images from that time – all of them reflecting our deep spiritual yearning for “home.” There is the Cathedral, with its mission to be “a house of prayer for all people,” where we are always living in the tension between Holy Place and national monument. There is my family, gathered around the table evenings, reminding me of the place of gathering that is the table in Rublev’s icon. I serve at the head of this table, trying in my small way to live out the Divine Image of mother hen, both desiring and providing places of gathering and safety for those I love and care for. And when I come to resting places – in borrowed spaces at churches, at the seminary, in my own prayer corner at home - I gaze on Rublev’s icon, gradually becoming more aware of who God yearns to be for us in times of great turmoil. Together at the table, surrounded by angel wings, the figures on the icon remind me to return and experience the place within our hearts where we meet the One who gathers us in, the place where we are truly at home:
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come.
No more a stranger, or a guest. But like a child at home.