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September 15, 2011

From Fly Creek: Washing our hands, our spirits

— Last Sunday had been overcast all day, and a slow drizzle began to fall around three-thirty. That didn’t bode well for Cooperstown’s 9/11 commemoration, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. that evening at the foot of the lake.

But at six the skies cleared, and by the time people began to arrive at Council Rock, the skies were brilliantly blue, with just enough fleecy white clouds for contrast.

Gathering people walked down the wide stone steps to the granite platform with its inset white marble compass needle aiming due north.

The lake’s waters, nine miles long and three miles wide, were without a ripple—“cam as a dish” as my watermen forebears would say. The near shores seemed lined with double rows of trees, one upright, the other perfect reflections in the mirror surface. By six-thirty the stone platform, almost level with the lake because of relentless rains, was filled with people.

The overflow crowd backed up the staircase, filling it to the top. Something just short, I think, of one hundred people were present.

They were drawn together by a common grief for 9/11 and for all that that horrific  day has cost us since, and by acommon hope of throwing off at least some of the rancorous effects that still poison our lives as individuals and as a nation. Recognizing so very many in the crowd moved me. Baptists were there, and Presbyterians and Methodists, Episcopalians and Quakers, Jews and Catholics, and many who have no religious affiliation or belief. All were at one in their grief and their hope.

Cooperstown’s mayor and almost its entire clergy gave focus to the ceremony. Katie Boardman first led us in a simple hymn to the melody of Sibelius’ “Finlandia.”

The text gave thanks for our precious homeland, its trees, its flawless skies—as we stood there embraced by the blessed green and under a sky of crystalline blue. The second verse reminded us of other peoples, in other lands,  who are as grateful as we arefor God’s green earth and sky.

The hymn ended with prayer that we be one family on this planet and must embrace to survive.

Then Mayor Joe Booan began the service, not with an introduction of himself as some politicians might, but with the eloquent words of “A Litany for Forgiveness and Healing.” Joe read with simple, moving eloquence, and his tone was echoed by the ministers who followed him, invoking memory of the victims and heroes of 9/11, of their loved ones who still are scarred by loss, of the hundreds of thousands whose lives have been sacrificed in a war against, not a government, but an abstraction: terrorism.

In our hearts we know that those last lives were sacrificed, not by madmen suicide murderers, but by our nation and others as they flailed about, trying to smite that abstraction,  terrorism. We smotesome terrorists, surely; but we also laid waste to countries and cultures, and we slaughtered more innocents than we can imagine.

Each line of the beautiful litany was followed by a response printed in the program; and as it proceeded, participants’ responses got deeper, fuller, ever more heartfelt. It ended with Amen. So be it.

The event’s planners had prayed over two further dimensions to the program, symbolic expressions of feelings so deep as to be beyond words.

I was to introduce this last part and had spent most of  my Sunday morning silentworship with fellow Quakers in listening for words that I should say. When they came, it was with a force that made me sure I was meant to share them in meeting as well as at the evening service.

I said that we humans fall back on symbols to express  realities that are beyond ourlanguages. Symbols are things and actions that can be our expressions when we are literally wordless.

In both profound grief and great joy, we send flowers. In our darkest moments and most sacred ones, we use candles—  light that will somehowshine into interior darkness and to guide our way.

And just so, about all the major religions draw on the special symbolic power of three simple gifts: light to illumine, water to cleanse, bread to nourish.

Those who’d descended to the stone platform walked between lines of luminaria; those who remained on the steps were embraced by those lights. And as the ceremony concluded down below them, it turned to clean water to symbolize cleansing our spirits. For of those choking, toxic clouds that boiled through the city streets ten years ago, remnants are still in our spirits.

The remnants are anger, vengefulness, fear of others and of the future, shortness of temper and readiness to see anyone as “the other,” the enemy.

And guilt is within us, too, remorse at murder done in our names and that of patriotism. 

Bitterness gnaws withinas we realize we were misled, and in many who refuse to admit doubt or remorse, hot anger blazes up and sometimes strikes out.

Sunday evening we turned to clear water help wash out the bitter debris in our spirits.

Four large bowls had been filled with it. All were invited, if they felt led, to step to a bowl, prayerfully wash their hands and wrists, and then shake them free of the droplets.

Almost everyone did just that. And then many embraced.

And the final symbol. As all quietly left, we were offered small loaves of bread, fresh baked. These we carried home to remind us of the blessing we’d just shared, to be shared in turn with our loved ones.

As we walked off into the dusk, the ewers of water were gently poured into the Susquehanna, right where it begins its four-hundredmile flow to the Chesapeake.

It would enter that broad estuary and flow another two hundred miles. Then the waters would be swept out into the vastness of the ocean, a symbol itself of immeasurable, infinite Love.

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