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Starting Point

In the end, all walls must fall


The drive from Kentucky to Manhattan seemed longer than usual. The mere thought of what it would feel like to see those twin beams of light haunting the night sky where the World Trade Center towers once stood made me cringe. I thought about it for practically the entire trip. When we made the swing along the New Jersey Turnpike and the lights finally came into view I felt no emotion at all.

Just what was it that I had been dreading?

The towers and I have a history. Their construction, just across the bay and only about five miles from my hometown, isn’t anything that I can say I recall with fondness. In fact, many New Yorkers will tell you that the World Trade Center buildings weren’t much liked at first. I found them rather unsettling, too. Looking back, I think I believed that I could keep the world walled up in a box of sorts -- safe, secure, reasonably under my control. Then the beanstalk-like growth of the towers started. They would grow a little taller every day, cutting more and more drastically into the familiar skyline.

Their growth was telling me that the world was going to change, and I could do nothing about it. Control was merely an illusion. It was a tough lesson for a teenager to learn. It’s a tough lesson to learn at any age.

Eventually I came to understand that my view of the world was too small. A world always needs rethinking. And so, when we celebrated my dad’s birthday in late summer 2001 by cruising New York Harbor, it was a reconciliation of sorts between the towers and me. I asked my sister to snap my photo as we sailed past. Little did I know that in two short weeks, they would challenge me again to rethink the world, but this time not through their unwelcome presence but through their sudden absence. That absence was telling me: Your world is still too small, and the walls of the box you keep it in only give you illusions of security and control. Life has to grow; the world changes. Walls only undo your power to live.

When I got to lower Manhattan, I saw that the fences that circle St. Paul Chapel are filled with memorials now. I stopped at one placed in memory of a woman passenger aboard one of the planes that hit the towers. I stood there for a long time looking at her photo, reading the short biography. The more I learned, the more I found myself wondering about her family and friends. How were they dealing with this?

After a while I noticed a young woman, probably in her early 20s, patiently standing off to one side of the photo, looking directly at me and smiling through her tears. There was brightness in her eyes and warmth in her smile, despite her apparent pain. When a second young woman looking very much like the picture on the memorial joined her, I realized that I had been reading about their mother.

What captures the soul at ground zero is not the empty space the towers have left nor the light beams that shine in their place. It is the people who come there to pray, and the victims memorialized there. There is an infinite diversity found in faces of the crowds and in the photos on the fence that say clearly that it is all humanity that bears this awful wound.

But just as clearly, these faces testify to the fact that all of humanity bears as well a hope -- and it is a huge hope, a hope that’s somehow big enough, wide enough, and open-ended enough for God to fit. This kind of hope refuses to put limits on possibilities for change, because it knows that our own worlds, are always too small and always in need of rethinking. This kind of hope refuses to build a box around the world and its peoples because it knows that ultimately walls don’t stop the world from changing; they just undo our power to live. It’s a hope that knows that, in the end, all walls must fall. And that the illusions of security and power they sometimes are able to give us are, in the long run, just illusions.

God is with us -- but that God is with all of us. Not just a select few.

Maybe it’s just that the infinite God had some difficulty with fitting into a finite creation, and fracturing into persons made it a little easier to fit: black, white, red, yellow and brown persons, young and old, beautiful and ugly persons, maybe even into good and not-so-good persons.

I don’t know. I just know that you can see all these kinds of people now, standing around the fence, pictured among the memorials.

And, somehow, it feels very much like God.

Sister of Divine Providence Lucy Zientek is engaged in retreat ministry at Moye Spiritual Life Center, Melbourne, Ky.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002