Love is the Cross: The Agony of 9/11

Suffering agony in this life isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter if that agony is our own or our neighbor’s. All of the calls to radical individualism and self-reliance are lies in the face of the ontological reality that we are all bound to one another. God has created us for union with Him and communion with one another.

This truth has unfolded in my life in a variety of ways, but one of the earliest and most visceral was through my experience as a 9/11 relief worker. I didn’t dig in the rubble. Instead– without fully understanding the long term impacts–I walked into the depths of human suffering as a relief worker to the bereaved. At 20-years-old, I felt rather helpless, but I knew that I wanted to do something, so I went

There is nothing that could fully prepare me for that level of suffering in others. I was a nominal Catholic at the time, so I didn’t understand our call to endure the agony of the Cross alongside Our Lady and St. John as much as I do now, but I lived it and embraced it even in my ignorance. The weight of it all nearly broke me because I didn’t yet understand that I could not carry such things without a total reliance on Christ, and it was Our Lady, Our Sorrowful Mother standing at the foot of the Cross who stood by me throughout it all, since like most 9/11 relief workers, the horrors stayed with me–and still do to this day–for years afterwards.

The strongest memory I have of the deep suffering of those grieving the loss of their loved ones through an act of cowardly violence, was during my first visit to the crash site with 400 family members. My friend and I were tasked with setting up a memorial table where the loved ones could place pictures and items in remembrance of their loved ones. We were still in rescue mode at the time, but one look at the crash site and we all knew everyone was dead.

As I stood beside this table in my dress whites, each person would come up to the table to set their item down. Many were sobbing uncontrollably. A woman, probably only 3-4 years older than myself, collapsed on the ground in front of me in agony. Her fiancé had been on flight 77. There was nothing I could do to distance myself from her agony. I was plunged into it with her and began to cry all while trying to be a strong military woman…whatever that even means in these circumstances.

As I stood there trying to keep it together with tears streaming down my face with each new family member’s suffering, the three star general I was directly working for, walked up to me and said: “Are you alright, Sailor?” I told him yes. I’d never seen so many stars on a shoulder, so I was trying to keep my military bearing while also grieving alongside the families. He himself had lost his best friend, had smoke inhalation from trying to save others, and was now tasked with the awesome responsibility of helping all of the grieving families.

The Cross does something to us. It’s supposed to. It cuts us deep. It opens up depths within our souls we didn’t know were there until moments of agony occur. It is through this deep penetration of suffering that we are opened to love. If we avoid it, then we cannot love as we are supposed to. We cannot love expansively. We become closed in, or caved in on ourselves, when we avoid our own suffering or the suffering of others. 

The Apostles, save St. John, fled the Cross. They ran from the agony, but St. John was opened up to the mystical depths of union with God precisely because he stays with Our Lady and the other women at the foot of the Cross. He suffered in love. I didn’t know what I was doing in my desire to run to the foot of the Cross on 9/11, but it forever changed me. It opened me up to the willingness to suffer in love for others and to use my own suffering for the good of others. It paved the way for the path I’m on now.

Love requires fortitude. True love is not easy. It is agonizing at times, but it is what we were made for. The happiness we seek is intermingled with joy and sorrow in this life. We are a selfish lot. Suffering is the single greatest tool that God uses to teach us how to love as we ought to. If we want to see as Christ sees, to love as Christ loves, and to forgive as Christ forgives then we must be willing to embrace the Cross in all of its horror, awe, and joy.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is this coming Saturday. Through this feast, we lift high the Cross as the answer to all that ails this Fallen world. It is not a sentimental action, far from it. It is a call to love through the sorrow, sin, and suffering of this life, because it is through the Cross that we are transformed. The happiness we seek is found in an ancient instrument of torture, where the Son of God conquered sin and death. It is in self-emptying love that we become who we were created to be. Christ calls us to follow Him to Calvary and to endure its agony, so that we can become radiant in love. This is the very meaning of our lives.

The Federalist: I’ll Never Forget What I Saw at the Pentagon After 9/11

In summer 2005, I visited the Smithsonian’s American History museum in Washington DC with a couple of Marine friends. All of us were stationed in DC at the time. We were nursing wounds from our experiences in the Global War on Terror, and wandered around the museum admiring various pieces collected from our nation’s history.

I pushed one of my friends in a wheelchair because an improvised explosive device had shattered his leg; the same IED killed three of his friends. It had not yet dawned on me that a 9-11 exhibit might already be on display since it had only been four years, but we rounded a corner and there before us hung a massive American flag.
The room was crowded with visitors, many of them high school students. People were posing, laughing, and making funny faces as they took pictures. I was stunned. My friends were enraged. They turned to look at me. There we stood staring at the American flag that had hung on the side of the Pentagon days after 184 people were murdered on-site in this nation’s largest terrorist attack in history. We all thought: Is nothing sacred? Is four years long enough to forget? Is joking around appropriate in the face of such suffering and evil?

To be fair, these kids were young when 9/11 happened. They were probably 10 or 11 on that fateful day, and irreverence is often a part of youth, but they should have known better. Nearly 3,000 people perished that day, and countless more have died since at the hands of terrorists.

What We Saw that Day
My memories of that flag will forever be different from the majority of Americans and the rest of the world. While most remember it blowing in the breeze in news reports or when they visited the American History museum, I was there in person to see it. I saw it for the first time when, after volunteering at the Army base where I was stationed north of DC, I helped 400 grieving family members visit the Pentagon crash site shortly after the attack. I still see in my mind’s eye the gaping hole, floors collapsed in on one another, smoke rising from the smoldering ashes, the tormented faces of loved ones.

The intensity of seeing the site was amplified a thousand-fold by standing alongside agonized grieving family members; many of whom collapsed at my feet from the sheer weight of their pain. When those families visited for the first time after terrorists flew a plane into that iconic building, I struggled to keep military bearing while standing by in my dress whites, but it became impossible as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Read the rest over at The Federalist.