I had been out of grad school for a couple of years, but I was still keeping grad school hours. Having stayed up very late the night before and not having to teach that day, I was exhausted and intent on sleeping in. So when my wife tried to wake me before leaving for work, I barely registered what she was telling me. World Trade Center? Airplanes? What the hell is she talking about? Doesn’t she know I’m not going to get anything done today if I don’t get some rest? I rolled over, weariness, irritation, and confusion drowning curiosity, and fell back asleep.
Some time later I woke up again. The edge had been taken off exhaustion and curiosity took control. As I lay there rubbing the sleep from my eyes I tried to remember. What was it that she had said? Something weird. I got up and turned on the TV.
Even more than the astounding images, I will always remember that bulletin staring out matter-of-factly from the bottom of the screen. “World Trade Center Destroyed.” It was like something out of a movie, or a nightmare, or a Jack Kirby comic book. There will never be any way to describe it without resorting to clichés. I had been there once, years before, at the Windows on the World restaurant. Now it was empty space. Or empty, anyway, apart from smoke and dust.
For most of the nineties I had been an atheist, though a decreasingly smug one. The rethink started when I was still in graduate school, when I began to study the arguments of writers like Aquinas and Leibniz in greater depth, so that I could try to help the undergraduates I was teaching understand why anyone had ever taken this stuff seriously. By the summer of 2001 I was trying to argue my wife’s physicist brother-in-law into philosophical theism on the train the four of us were taking from Oswiecim to Prague. Or maybe it was on the train from Prague to Berlin. Naturally, the horrors of Nazism and Communism were on our minds. That was all in the past, thank God.
Catholicism was also on the argumentative agenda, and the London leg of our trip included the customary visit to Foyles and a stack of Catholic books alongside the usual philosophical stuff. Officially, I was still non-committal on Catholicism. There were a few more i’s to dot and t’s yet to cross. One could take one’s time, and besides, there was much to admire in other religions. It may have been during that trip that my wife and I spotted a young Muslim man on the Underground. He stood out because of his garb, and because he seemed to be absorbed in prayer. I would remark to her that he might be the most serious human being on the whole train. After all, what were the others thinking about? Where to have lunch? Which DVD to watch that evening? Pop stars and surfing porn? Yet his thoughts were evidently focused on the First Cause of the universe. I respected that enormously wherever I saw it, and still do. In other respects, I was to become less ecumenical.
Though I had been something of a theist for a while, September 11, 2001 may have been the first time in many years that I had myself actually prayed, at least on my knees. It may also have been the first time I ever wept over some distant event, a televised calamity happening to others.
The nineties and all their foolishness were over, for our country and for me. I was in my early thirties. By year’s end, we would be expecting our first child, and I would return to Holy Mother Church. It was a time to get serious.