Following the terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are experiencing a mixture of strong emotions, including shock, anger and disbelief. Many are turning to their religious faith and leaders for guidance.
The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, better known as the Washington National Cathedral, is the chief mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. But the church is open to people of all denominations and is frequently the site of interfaith and ecumenical services such as the swearing in of a president, thanksgiving for the hostage release, or mourning the death of a national leader. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, many area residents and visitors have been coming to pray and seek solace in this place of worship.
Linda Sawers from suburban Maryland came to the Cathedral two days after Tuesday's attack to pray, not knowing there would be a special service. "It was an impulse that I had, to come to the Cathedral, the National Cathedral, where all of the souls of America, in a way, find a place here. And I was urged inwardly to find a meditative space to really ponder and think about these grave events that have happened and to gather the right kind of forces for what we have to meet now, rather than the forces of anger and retaliation."
Peace and forgiveness have been basic ideals of Christianity since the beginning, and they are also the themes of the Cathedral services.
"Lord, make us instruments of your peace, where there is hatred let us love, where there is injury, pardon" are the words from the prayer of St. Francis. Nathan Baxter, the dean of the National Cathedral, says during times of great loss, he tries to comfort his congregation with familiar prayers and scripture passages.
"But also to call our attention to the hard sayings of our faith: the hard sayings that, every one of the great faiths remind us that vengeance is wrong, remind us that hate and prejudice is wrong and that peace is the vision to which we must always be working even in our pain. And so here at this Christian cathedral, it has been our commitment to remind Christians that in the midst of our grief and our pain, we cannot, through our faith, justify vengeance and hatred even when it feels justified."
Those who have come to find consolation at the cathedral noon service did not speak of vengeance. "I think that there should be caution, I think there should be very careful looking at things and not making hasty judgements and making sure that really everything is sorted out. I think that the President of the United States is doing absolutely the right thing and hopefully it will continue that way and, obviously, justice is necessary in some form, but as a Christian, I hope that it is merciful," said one woman.
"I would say [that we should try] to be and to do all that we can be and remember who we are. We are a deeply religious and spiritual people, of quite a diversity of religions and faiths, and I feel that we should all turn to God as we conceive Him and pray as we did in the prayer of St. Francis to make us instruments of peace," another man said.
"I think people should do all they can to comfort people who are affected and do anything they can: volunteer to give blood and things like that. I am going to be doing that after this [service]," said one girl at the Cathedral.
The Washington National Cathedral's Dean Baxter says the "dastardly" act, as he calls it, and the pain that it is causing to so many innocent people has placed additional demands on the clergy. "We have added more clergy to the staff to be available in the cathedral to talk with those who wish to have some counseling or someone to pray with them," he said. "Our clergy are being asked to come and to share in interfaith services with leaders of Muslim, Islamic, Sikh, Hindu and other communities. So we are sending our clergy to those places and to be available to the media so that there is a voice that speaks for the purpose of keeping a clear mind even as we are in the midst of pain."
When disaster and tragedy strike, some people's faith is shaken. Some may ask, 'how can a powerful, loving and merciful God allow innocent people to die and suffer.' The dean replies, "Well, of course, the answer is: the powerful God also allows us to have free will and that free will means that some will use it for evil. That God gives us free will each day to choose right or wrong, and sometimes it is used in catastrophic ways."
The Dean of the Washington National Cathedral says it will take a long time for people to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster and even longer to heal. But he emphasizes that past experience shows that people of all faiths have been able to heal through prayer.