The Cathedral on 9/11: Living “safely,” then and now

By Kathy Staudt

I was sorry that the triple insult of earthquake, storm, and the toppling of a crane forced Washington National Cathedral to move the events commemorating the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to other venues. On the one hand, this was a witness to the world of the way that the Cathedral’s ministry and mission goes beyond its beautiful building and grounds. But it is hard for me to let go of the place, even though I understand the spiritual point, especially after this weekend of remembrance.

I didn’t have tickets to any of the events (signed up too late) but I had planned to go over sometime during the weekend simply to be in this place, in the Cathedral and on the close, because 10 years ago the Cathedral, as a place, was very much a part of my life and my family’s, a kind of second home. Both of my children were at Cathedral schools, and my daughter, who had just joined the girl choristers in January of 2001, was among the children who sang at the service of remembrance on the Friday of that week, January 14.

What we learned at that time was something we’re learning again: that ‘safety” is not something we can guarantee ourselves. We hadn’t really seen that as clearly before September 11, 2011 as we have seen it since. I have written a longer reflection on what “safety” meant to us in Washington, as a spiritual value, after 9/11. It was published at in the 5 year 9/11 anniversary issue of Weavings and you can read it here.

I am remembering now, as I did then, the anthem the choristers sang at the cathedral service, which I suspect will be heard in some version in the commemorations this weekend. (You can see a video of this anthem here.

It was a simple, unison setting by Virgil Thompson of setting of the Isaac Watts’ 23rd psalm paraphrase My Shepherd will Supply my Need. (Hymnal #664) The last verse, which moved me deeply then, now has an even more poignant ring in light of the recent damage to cathedral, church house and other buildings close. They sang:

O may thy house be my abode, and all my work be praise

There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come

No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home

The Cathedral on that day did project an assurance of spiritual home-place for a newly traumatized nation, and it has been that kind of spiritual home for many of us in Washington and far afield. It was sad that the actual place was not be fully available this weekend. It is also an invitation, again, to reflect on those themes of safety and spiritual home in times of un-safety.

To that end I am remembering the other phrase from the liturgy that resonated for me in those days following 9/11, around the Cathedral close. It is from 1979 prayer book service of Evening Prayer, sometimes sung by the choristers in those days, though they’ve since tended to use earlier texts for evening prayer. It comes from the suffrages, when the officiant says “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world, and the people respond: for only in thee can we live in safety.”

Only in thee can we live in safety. It requires a great deal of faith and “letting go” truly to assent to that. Over this weekend that recalls so much loss and that brings back that strong sense of in-security and un-safety, I will be recalling these words s a kind of mantra. Perhaps the cathedral’s current woundedness, sad as it makes me feel, will help me to remember more deeply where our truest safety lies, during this weekend that calls us to both compassion and remembrance.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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