The school day on Sept. 11, 2001, began in much the same fashion as any other day. As a third grader, we had the privilege of receiving a milk carton and graham crackers to start the morning – always a favorite of mine.
Unfortunately, that was the first and only day we didn’t receive our breakfast snack. Before we got settled in, our principal came on the public address system and, in an uncharacteristically solemn voice, instructed all the teachers to turn on their televisions.
The images appeared on the screen and while some classmates yelled in fear and others in awe, I just felt confused. Once I realized that the attacks were, in fact, real and happening live, my first question was: How?
My teacher left the TV on for only a couple of minutes, time enough to get a firm grasp of the events, the how of everything going on. But for the rest of the day, I kept wondering another question: Why?
Not, “Why did those people commit those atrocities?” but, “Why did these occur? Why cause the deaths of thousands of innocents?”
Naturally, the atmosphere in Mass the following Sunday was tense, mournful. A usually happy, cheerful congregation showed evident frustration, anger and pain. Remarkably, our priest presided over a powerful liturgy, hinged upon a most reflective homily. Perhaps the most powerful fact was that the homily itself only lasted two minutes. He simply held up a Bible and told the crowd:
“Do you want to understand why? Do you wish to find console for your pain? Here is your answer. If in no other place, look here and have faith in these words. Are they man-written and flawed? Yes, but they reflect our human nature and our ability to hurt/be hurt and believe, love, forgive at the most fundamental level. And if not these words, then your own. Write what you feel and I promise you that you’ll find some peace of mind amidst these tragedies and chaos.”
Intrigued though I was to find some answers to my lingering questions and follow my priest’s advice, I never opened a Bible or wrote any personal reflection.
Quite frankly, even after 9/11, I never considered myself religious or spiritual or, for that matter, doubtless enough to have faith. For many years up until high school, I believed in God and practiced Catholicism, but I never had faith in it.
In many ways, high school proved to be the catalyst to transform that. Freshman year, as a part of a theology class exercise, we experienced our first written reflection. Before we began, however, our teacher was upfront with us: “I won’t tell you what to write. That’s up to you to decide. You can cop out, write about Jesus and Mary and the archangels without any feeling in it, or you can give this a sincere try and seek, through this, to find some comfort. Put your faith in words and have faith in your words.”
How odd that, years before, I had heard that phrase “faith in words,” and, perhaps due to the memories of 9/11 that resurfaced, I chose to write and finally follow my priest’s advice.
Well, after 40 minutes, while others managed to write near novels, I looked down and saw only two phrases.
Why did these bad tragedies occur on 9/11?
Maybe so we can appreciate, not the bad, but the good around us.
Regardless of its brevity, my reflection accomplished its mission; it brought peace to me, not because I answered that lingering question, but more so because I had discovered my faith. It’s not like it never existed, like I believed for years, but rather, I just never wanted nor knew how to express it.
Today, I know only one sure fact: 9/11 touched and changed the lives of all, some in a more profound and painful manner than others. While I cannot say nor do I believe that 9/11 was a good event, I nevertheless am grateful, on a personal level, for what resulted in its aftermath.
It’s because of this event that the wheels began turning to start a process, one which, after many years, allowed me to put my faith into words and have faith in them.
Reading the Bible on a frequent basis still comes hard for me, but just knowing that the book is a testimony to the power of written reflection fills me with pride that I can do the same. Writing may not be the most joyful activity for adults, much less young adults and teenagers, but, because of the thought and effort that most put forth in that task, it most honestly reflects ourselves, our beliefs, our doubts, our emotions. When I write, these words best reflect my relationship with God, my spirituality and my faith.
Unfortunately, tragedies, on a personal and societal level, will continue to occur. However, knowing that I can write where I am emotionally at that moment comforts me. Writing about my faith is a privilege, an honor, a blessing for it has led me to affirm the one fundamental tenet of my faith: Finding God in all things.
(Espino, a 2011 graduate of Marquette University High School, is studying economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His home parish in Milwaukee is St. Vincent de Paul. Send comments for Espino to email@example.com)