New Church To Glow At Ground Zero

I must confess that, being neither a New Yorker nor Greek Orthodox, I was unaware that a significant, new church is under construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Designed by Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava, the St. Nicholas National Shrine will replace the now-demolished St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which was destroyed on 9/11 when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed onto it. The hope is that the church will be completed in time for Easter of next year.

I encourage you to watch the video of what the completed building will be like, and to pay particular attention around the midway point to see what effect it will have at night on its somber surroundings. Thanks to the materials that will be used in its construction, St. Nicholas will actually glow from within, rather like alabaster does when you put a candle behind it. Moreover, the placement of the building within an elevated park will give it a far greater physical prominence in the neighborhood than it held prior to the previous church’s construction. As the parish website points out: “It is clear that the Church will be a lamp on a lampstand, and a city set on a hill (cf. Matthew 5:14,15).”

What struck me immediately was how wonderfully appropriate this house of God will be, in a place where so many cried out to Him in despair. There is a tremendous, symbolic poignancy in the juxtaposition of this small but dignified building, located just across from the massive memorial fountain-waterfall. This part of the 9/11 memorial is certainly a very powerful design, summing up the feelings of those who lost loved ones on that day. Yet it has always struck me as being dangerously nihilistic, like a well descending into nothingness.

Although not a part of the 9/11 memorial itself, St. Nicholas will nevertheless be a fitting companion to it. You will not be able to visit the waterfall and pools without seeing the church, looking as if it was perched solidly on the precipice of an abyss, as a refuge from what terrifies us. It will no doubt receive many visitors seeking somewhere to pray, but I think its greater significance over time will be as a reminder of the bulwark of Faith, particularly in times of trouble.

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Colors Into Battle

Today has two important associations for me, being September 11th, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the symbolism that we see on days like today.  We often don’t stop to consider where that symbolism comes from, so rather than wade into politics, I’m going to beg the reader’s indulgence and ruminate a little on that collection of pattern and color known as a flag.

Being a proud American citizen, and particularly living in DC, it’s hard not to be aware of the fact that September 11th is a day when we mourn those who died in 2001 during the terrorist attacks on this country.  I wore my Stars-and-Stripes socks today, along with blue and red, but truthfully didn’t see much of that sort of personal display on the way in, even though I work near the White House.  With the passage of time this is somewhat inevitable, as memory fades, so that our grandchildren decades from now will not mark 9/11 in the way that we do.  After all, most of us know when Pearl Harbor Day was, but fewer and fewer Americans every year can say that they remember it, and know where they were when they heard of it.

Meanwhile, being half-Catalan, ethnically speaking, I’m also very much aware that September 11th is Catalonia’s National Day, known as “La Diada” or “The Day of Days”.  This date marking the defeat of the Catalans at the hands of the Bourbons in 1714 is a strange one to choose for a national holiday, since most countries celebrate their victories, rather than their defeats.  However in the intervening years since the passing of the Franco regime, the use of the red and gold stripes of the Catalan flag on this date has increased along with Catalan pride and assertiveness, to the point that Catalonia is going to hold a vote on independence from Spain this November.  All eyes are waiting to see what happens in Edinburgh next week, but in the meantime huge demonstrations marked by giant flag displays are going on all day today in Barcelona.

It’s interesting that flags continue to have a hold on our psyche, when to some extent one could argue that their usefulness on the battlefield has largely been eliminated.  Previously, when you, your buddies, and the enemy were all covered in mud in the trenches, whether France in the 15th century or the 20th century, you would have to keep an eye out for the flag bearer to know where you were and where you were supposed to be. The flag bearer himself was a descendent of even more ancient human place markers, like the standard-bearers of the Roman legions, whose gilded eagles and other symbols were tramped all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

The ability of either Old Glory or La Senyera – as the Catalan flag is known – to stir emotions and remind citizens of their principles, centuries after each of these designs first came into use, shows what a remarkably effective tool they still are, even though on the battlefield they are no longer the utilitarian objects they once were.  They continue even today to help people to find themselves, in a sense, for they concentrate into a single image or object what really matters to them.  Today, both in America and in Catalonia, seeing the flag means far more to the average man or woman than does any speech, policy paper, or the like, because imagery remains the single most important tool in capturing the public imagination, and in encapsulating what the people feel about the place they call home.

Detail of "Follow the Flag" U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917) Library of Congress, Washington DC

Detail of “Follow the Flag” U.S. Navy recruitment poster by James Daugherty (1917)
Library of Congress, Washington DC

Letting the Socks Speak

Not unlike President George H.W. Bush, I am well-known in my circle for often sporting a rather bold choice in socks.  Today being the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in selecting my pedal coverings for the day I decided that I had two options.  I could either mourn those who had died by choosing something dark and somber, or I could go with something that spoke more strongly of my gratefulness for being born and living in the Land of the Free.

Naturally, I chose the latter.

Clothing can provide us with the opportunity to thoughtfully and symbolically display what matters to us.  I do not mean the more obvious message-bearing garment, such as a t-shirt with a slogan on it, but rather things which might not be visible to all, or bring to mind any immediate reference. When the iconography in question is obvious to everyone, such as wearing an American flag lapel pin on Independence Day, there is no need for explanation.  However when there is no apparent meaning to the man sitting across from us that, for example, we happen to be wearing an orange-colored tie in honor of the birthday of a friend whose favorite color that is, we may rightly feel privately pleased that we are thus able to call to mind for ourselves things that are important.

The opportunity to visibly honor people and things we care about in what we wear is an ancient part of human culture, which has always been used to bind groups together.  There is a line of relation, for example, between mercenary troops in the Middle Ages wearing the bright colors of a particular city they happened to be fighting for, in order to tell who was who on the battlefield, and the flashy uniforms worn on the football field to distinguish the players of one city from those of another.  And as we all know, even those simply observing the fray often choose to wear clothing related to that being worn by those who are out on display, in order to feel a part of what is taking place.

Thus the choice on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to sport red, white, and blue, rather than black, was a deliberate one of celebrating life instead of focusing on death.  Those who personally experienced the events of that day, and lost members of their family or good  friends, will no doubt always feel the wound opened afresh on this anniversary.  Such mourning will, no doubt, always be an occasion for an act of remembrance and an experience of sorrow in perpetuity.

Most of us do not fall into this category of actual survivors, and even for them time is passing more swiftly than we may realize.  As a friend pointed out to our group at dinner last evening, the students whom she is now teaching were only four or five years old when 9/11 took place, meaning the anniversary has far less immediacy to them than it does to those of us who can recall exactly where we were.  There will obviously come a time, many years from now, when there will be no one left alive who can answer questions like “How did 9/11 affect you?”

For today however, even those of us who are not survivors of the attacks themselves have the opportunity to show our respect for those who died.  We can also display our solidarity with their survivors and with those who risked their lives to save others.  And even more broadly, in making this a day to put out the personal bunting, as it were, we have the opportunity to reiterate an individual commitment to principles of liberty, such as representative government, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, which were implicitly attacked on this day.

It may be seen in some corners as an unbelievably small thing to try to make an article of clothing into something more than what it is.  However such an attitude in itself is a myopic, anti-intellectual form of pettiness.  It denies the virtuous symbolism of public display as being a useful cipher both for lauding commonly held principles and distinguishing different ways of thinking throughout human history, from painted wooden shields bearing the symbols of different gods, to neckties printed with images of elephants or jackasses.

Since neither this scrivener nor, I suspect, most of my readers, are going to be called upon to give speeches, appear in panel discussions, or lead remembrance services on this anniversary of 9/11, we have to do what we can, where we are, to show what matters to us.  Chances are, almost no one whom I run into today will know or even ask what sort of socks I have on.  Yet I know that they are there, and I know what they mean for me.  So even if I am the only person given pause to reflect today by periodically catching a glimpse of a humble pair of woven cotton foot coverings, it will have been worth having pulled them on this morning.

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