Accessibility links

Religious Leaders Reflect on September Terror Attacks - 2001-12-26

The September 11 terrorist attacks and the depth of emotion they evoked, prompted many Americans to revisit their spiritual and religious traditions for wisdom and perspective, and many otherwise secular Americans to feel a deepened sense of connection with and compassion for others. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with a wide sampling of Americans over the past three months, and has this report.

Many spiritual leaders have portrayed the events of September 11 as a spiritual challenge. Three days after the attacks, Rabbi Adam Minsk of Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue recalled the biblical story in which God commands Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac, only to stay his hand at the last moment when the patriarch showed his willingness to do the deed.

"The test of Abraham was to see what his potential was, how at a time of crisis, at a time for him of religious crisis, how deep could he reach inside himself to show his commitment and dedication to God. And I think this lesson is extremely important to us here in New York," Rabbi Minsk said. "Because what we have seen over the course of this last week is the selflessness, the heroism of so many people. From the firefighters to the police, the people in the hijacked planes who struggled with the hijackers to bring their plane down and to kill themselves potentially to save thousands of lives. We all were tested this past week," he said.

"It's a terrible tragedy. But at the same time we learned this past week that we all have the ability to respond in times of need. We can just hope that we can translate this to respond not only in times of need but also in times of success and plenty. We should always be able to help one another," said the rabbi.

One unsung hero in this saga is Denise Casselnuovo, a Mohawk Indian volunteer who has helped to distribute hot food and fresh supplies to workers at Ground Zero. She has been there almost every day since September 12. "It looks like a science fiction landscape. And people don't realize the amount of people that are missing still that will never be found," she said. "Hopefully, it's made us kinder to each other. It's made us more spiritual. Its made us more open to each other's feelings and how their lives are. It certainly hasn't made me afraid! You can be soft and you can be strong. Being strong has nothing to do with the size of your muscles [laughs]."

That sense is shared by Kevin McGarry, a carpenter who helped search for bodies in the rubble of the World Trade Center. He says the experience helped him appreciate his everyday blessings. "I hug my daughter five more times extra a day. I kiss my wife two or three more times a day," Mr. McGarry said. "Because you don't know when you're not coming home again. You walk out the door, it could be the last time you walk out the door."

Luisa Montero Diaz, a Buddhist meditation teacher in the Washington, D.C. area, says that this sort of insight corresponds with a basic Buddhist truth. "Life is fundamentally insecure and it always has been. One of the tenets of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing," Ms. Diaz said. "Everything is in a state of flux and flow constantly. So there really is nothing to hang on to. Unfortunately there is also a human tendency in our nature to want to grab on to something that is safe, secure, solid and that is not going to change. And part of what this practice teaches us is learn little by little how we can live in that state of insecurity and still feel joyful."

Lynne Kelly, Ms. Diaz' fellow teacher, adds that the Buddhist ideal is not merely joy, but full, direct and unflinching engagement with whatever is. "When the event happened, there was a communal explosion of shock and grief and rage and then feelings of revenge and then feelings of enormous compassion and, later on, some fear. Just really big feelings," Ms. Kelly said. "The advantage of feeling things without filters and in the moment, in their full potency, is that you see clearly. You see clearly that within us we have the capacity for great evil and boundless love," Ms. Diaz added. "Some people are shocked by how open their hearts feel. But I think there is an effort to sustain part of that openness as a regular part of our lives, and as we appreciate each other in that effort, I think we have hope of sustaining it."

During this holiday season, many Americans hope that the daunting physical tasks of recovery and rebuilding after September 11 will be matched by the spiritual values that help to give that work meaning.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001