Fourteen years ago last Friday, in the outrage of September 11, 2001, we lost our home, the carefully constructed and maintained illusion that we were somehow insulated from the deep turmoil of the rest of the world. But for a fleeting moment we gained something more important. Now the question is, can we keep it alive?
Approaching the tenth anniversary of 9/11, NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said, “There was, at the moment of the attacks and in the days afterward, a kind of joining of hearts and minds and will in America, to get through this together. Somehow that’s begun to fray, and I think that’s sad. I don’t think it’s a worthy tribute to the people who died, and it ought not to be our legacy. We have to find a way to rekindle that flame.”1
Many of us have experienced the dimming of that flame in a kind of exile since 9/11. The home we knew, that unique blend of illusion and fragile security, is gone. We can remember it dearly, the perfect way life used to be. We can tell stories about it to our children. We can try to forget its dark faults and enshrine its brightest aspects. But we can never return there. Bright yesterday becomes a little Eden, symbol of the good life we knew before our present affliction, carefully preserved on the other side of a gulf we can never cross.
The wise ones know there’s no going back to a pre-9/11 world. We can’t go home again to yesterday, but we can turn toward a vision of tomorrow, when “The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isa. 11:6); when all the inconsistencies, contradictions, and mysteries of life will be resolved and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4).
It’s an ancient vision of a new human community in which God truly lives at the center of our relationships (Rev. 21:2-3). It’s a vision of the perfect way life will one day be. But it, too, is on the other side of a gulf we can never cross, in the far distant future. In today’s social and political climate, can we rekindle, as Brokaw described it, the “joining of hearts and minds and will” to get through the challenges we face together and make the vision real today?
Jesus believed so. When he was at dinner with the movers and shakers of his day, one of the guests raised the vision of the perfect future in contrast to the turmoil of his day and said, “How fortunate the one who gets to eat dinner in God’s kingdom” (Luke 14:15 The Message)! How wonderful it will be for those for whom the promise of the ages comes to pass!
Jesus responded with a parable about some invited dinner guests who planned to join the party later while they continued with life as usual today. They ended up being locked out as the party got under way without them (Luke 14:15-24). For the future we dream about – the return to paradise or the advent of the new and perfect community of God – it’s now or never, Jesus said. This is not a dress rehearsal for a perfect life after death; this is the real thing, and we either live it now or lose it forever.
How do I do that? How do I part the struggles of this life to find the wholeness, completeness, and perfection God promises? How do any of us do that? Isaac the Syrian, one of the saints of the seventh century, tells us where to start.
“Be peaceful within yourself,” he wrote, “and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of Heaven: for these are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder to the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, flee from sin, and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.”
We reach the perfect life we dream about by excavating the ordinary life we struggle with. We find the life God promises by drilling through the life God gives us. “Plunge deeply within yourself,” St. Isaac wrote, “and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.”
“When you first begin,” a nameless medieval Christian wrote, “you will find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You do not know what it means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will and this darkness and this cloud remains between you and God. . . . So if you are to stand and not fall, never give up your firm intention: beat away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love.”2
We’re observing today as Rally Day – some call it Homecoming – and I wish I could say clearly what we’re rallying around. I wish I could point to something specifically and say: This is the home to which God calls us to return. But I can only point to the cloud of unknowing and keep piercing it with sharp darts of longing love. All I can do is keep excavating my life, drilling through encrustations of ego and culture and socialization and layer upon layer of inherited tradition, trusting that by doing so I’ll find the treasure I seek.
Maybe that’s what we rally around. Maybe there – in probing the surrounding and inner darkness, in excavating our ordinary lives, in seeking reconciliation not with the abstract God of the eternal heavens but with the intimate divine presence in the people and creation that surround us – maybe there we will discover that home is not our destination; home is our journey.
notes — 1. Tom Brokaw, interviewed by Paul Moakley, Time, 19 September 2011. ▪ 2. Anon., The Cloud of Unknowing, late fourteenth-century England.