This morning, as is our habit, my husband and I attended Skyridge Church of the Brethren. Our pastor Debbie preached about healing, using as a lectionary text Psalm 30, the one that promises, in the majestic language of the King James Bible, that “weeping endureth for the night but joy cometh in the morning.” This text lives for me–my mother repeats it whenever she tells the story of my baby sister Mary Louise’s death in 1954. Debbie encouraged us to believe and to endure so that out of suffering can come spiritual growth, even transformation. I know in my bones that such miracles can, and do, occur.
Transformation through suffering became the theme of the day. I spent this afternoon with a book I want to commend to all: An American Awakening: From Ground Zero to Katrina The People We Are Free to Be by Episcopalian scholar Courtney Cowart.
The story begins on that beautiful morning of September 11, 2001, as Cowart prepares herself for an important day in her life. She is working as a scholar in spiritual formation and American church history by night and a grantmaker at Trinity Church Wall Street by day. She begins with this sentence: “At 6 a.m. I open my eyes in a fairytale bed: a curvaceous nineteenth-century Second Empire sleigh, drawn by curved swans keeping watch over me at night.” She then describes her work of making grants to people working for social justice and honing the art of spiritual formation. She says, “I do this work, however, from an extremely comfortable and decidedly unsqualid perch. I am very afraid of suffering.”
Preparing for a meeting of her own spiritual mentors who will be filmed in a documentary, Cowart starts her day with gratitude, focusing on each person who will be part of the filming. As she moves from the people to the project, she finds staying in the present moment more and more difficult–too much excitement. Her outfit for the day follows the pattern of luxury she has already described in detail from the curvaceous bed to linen sheets to marble mosaic floors. She chooses a royal blue raw silk tunic, favorite black suede Manolo shoes, and pearls. We readers know what awaits her. She does not.
Cowart’s story traverses the path she sets up in the beginning. She already has achieved the material American Dream. Every beautiful passage she sets up, from early awakening to joyous greetings of the stars of the film, is tinged with irony. She rejoices in the pleasures of love, successfully shielded from the suffering she fears. She is about to discover a deeper, more connected, form of love.
The moment of awakening for this already spiritual, but fearful, woman comes as she runs over the rubble after the first tower has fallen and the earth trembles, groaning in anticipation of the death of the second-tower leviathon. As the toxic ash speeds over and around her, Cowart cries out, “Take me!” Her description of the huge rush, near violent, release she feels is as powerful as the story of Paul on the road to Damascus.
Cowart writes beautifully and movingly about transformation. St. Paul’s Chapel, one of the properties owned by Trinity Church becomes the epicenter for healing at Ground Zero. Cowart becomes a spiritual first responder, helping to coordinate many gifts that poured in from around the country and around the world. In the process, she loses her fear, finds her courage, and begins to move from a distant Good Samaritan to an activist working to transform the Jericho Road itself.
Years later, when Katrina hits Louisiana and Mississippi, Cowart takes what she learned in Manhattan after 9/11 and applies it to the new suffering. She has moved from “take me” to “send me” as her heartfelt cry.
Her last chapter, “Live Like You Are Dying,” invites the reader to join the call to compassion in reshaping the American Dream. Cowart realizes that the millennial generation, those 16-25 years old today who were children during 9/11, hold the keys to a new America. She celebrates that 1.1 million volunteers, many of them high school or college students, responded to the call to help rebuild New Orleans and other ravaged cities and towns.
Cowart recognizes the profundity of Mr. Rogers’ response to a journalist who asked what to tell the children who witnessed 9/11 either in person or on television. His response was, “Tell them to keep their eyes on the helpers.” They obviously learned a deep lesson.
The 9/11 generation helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency after this book was published, but Cowart already saw their potential and believes the seeds of national transformation planted by millions of acts of kindness in these two great tragedies will bear seeds in a new kind of fearlessness born of compassion.
Her own transformation of moving from privilege to passion, of awakening from luxury to suffering to joy, could not be greater, and her concluding words are worth quoting in their entirety: “As we write the next chapters of this story together we know there is another national narrative unfolding in America–not the war story but a spiritual narrative about the way God is entering our lives and waking us up to his compassion. In the extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice, the unprecendented acts of collective generosity, the sanctification of suffering, the large-scale awakening to a sense of shared fate, the mobilization of millions of volunteers–many in their teens and twenties–we see a glimpse of the conversion of life of which we are capable, and the fire of God’s own life which can and is bringing all of us into his eternal joy.”