O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.
The Lincoln Highway was the first roadway to cross the United States. Dedicated in October 1913, it ran between Times Square in New York City and Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Originally over 3,300 miles long, subsequent deviations eventually led it to span Atlantic City, N.J., in the east and Astoria, Oregon, in the west. Later most of the road became designated as US Route 30, and some parts of the route became Interstate 80. Much like the fabled Route 66, which was officially removed from the US highway system in 1985, a drive along the Lincoln Highway is to be impaled through layers of US history like being drilled through rings of a tree trunk.
On a recent driving vacation, I picked up Route 30 in Canton, Ohio, and headed east into Pennsylvania, abandoning the immense flatness of the Midwest and into the Allegheny Mountains through which European coastal folk labored before coming upon the plains that could only be called great. The straight flat eastbound road suddenly becomes winding and often slow, grasses are replaced with slender trees redolent of sweet cool pine, and little historical surprises leap from around corners – small old churches, clapboard or deep red brick; town squares with gabled county seats surrounded by law offices and bail bondsmen; abandoned rail crossings whose adjacent former terminals turned into brewpubs or flea markets; villages-become-towns built where the turn in the stream follows the edge of the mountain, and old couches on porches outnumber wheel-less rusting cars on the lawns.
Historical markers abound. (In Settler-X-town) “Here was where Settler-X, tired of the journey west, met a bride and settled to build a forge and raise a family. Having prospered with the railroads, Settler-X-town came upon its decline with the advent of the Interstate Highway system.” Or something like that. But just east of Pittsburgh a surprisingly new and deliberate marker leaps out, a reminder that history is not just from the 1700s and tri-corner hats. “Flight 93 National Memorial.” Yep. That flight 93.
A hard right turn off Route 30 in rural western Pennsylvania near Shanksville is a path quite different from Ground Zero in Manhattan and the Pentagon near D.C. The events of 9-11 were not only urban and proximate, they were also rural and remote. No subway takes you near there; you seek it out just for its own sake, or you stumble upon it. But there is nothing like it, near it. One goes there to be there, and only there, and not because it is close to a zillion other things to check out while you are there anyway.
We know the story (there was a movie) about flight UA93 from Newark to San Francisco: how it was hijacked westbound near the Pennsylvania/Ohio state line about a half hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York; how it banked radically east after passing Cleveland and dropped off radar; how some passengers, learning of the New York attacks, rushed the cockpit to subdue the hijackers and ditch the plane so that another unknown target might be spared; how the plane crashed in the remoteness of the mountains of southeastern Pennsylvania, instantly killing all aboard.
In Manhattan, sirens and traffic compete for one’s ear while entering the sanctuary of the site made holy by the death of thousands when the stricken World Trade Center collapsed – among whom was a beloved Franciscan brother, fire department chaplain Friar Mychal Judge OFM. But in Shanksville, there is no such competition for attention. Acres of wildflowers have overtaken the broad field not skitted along haphazardly but pierced deeply by a plummeting jet that dove straight into the rolling hills. Birds chirp and play, butterflies dance in the wind, breezes bend the grasses, even the few human whispers seem to float away. Nature has its way when left undisturbed.
Yet, it was disturbed. Nature was deeply disturbed.
Yes, the natural mountains had long been disturbed by the coal strip-mining that had denuded the landscape, prompting the government to mandate years ago the beginning of its restoration by the filling of its open sores, hoping that nature would restore what had been broken. Much is on its way. Perhaps a million years will complete the healing. And in this place, we seek not only the healing of nature abused by human greed but also the healing of seemingly everything abused by whatever is dark in the human soul.
These kinds of memorial sites can tend toward the macabre. Where exactly did this or that truly happen? What are the details? Which direction did the plane bank? Where did it hit? Where were the bodies? But there is also something ancient in wanting to remember details like this – the tea was thrown into this harbor; the battle was fought on this field; Saint Francis rebuilt this chapel; Jesus died on the cross on this hill.
And on this leisurely summer vacation drive, I am standing at this same place. Not then, but now.
The line of flight from the sky into the dark soft earth is marked by a cut in the new concrete walls that wrap the hills edging the valley of martyrdom. The “impact site” left behind the jet that hurdled at 536 mph nearly perpendicularly into the earth has long been cleared of debris, the largest of which measured only a few square feet. The original site had been marked only by the clear imprint of a jet plane as if a ghost had blasted an image upon crops or a wild field. Now, there is merely a field wildly reoccupied by grasses, flowers, and butterflies.
And a rock. A boulder, actually, a 17-ton boulder placed at the site where instant death of global importance happened in the middle of nowhere. The final site of one of the most complicated pieces of human design is marked by a simple rock. Busses of tourists disembark seeking one thing, and only one thing – Have you seen the rock? Nobody can leave until they have seen it. “There it is, Honey! Out there! See it? OK, now we can go back…” This boulder is an altar, the place where heaven and earth come together, where the mystery of God and the human mystery of self-sacrifice meet in an eternal silent embrace.
Instinctively I fingered at the rosary in my pocket as if it had called out to me for its grasp. What to do here but to pray the rhythmic and anonymous beads clutched nearly out of sight of passers-by? The challenge of which mysteries to pray here (Glorious) gave way to the stunning audacity of the prayer at the end of each mystery:
O my Jesus – Yes, all I can do is to sigh and call upon you, Jesus.
Forgive us our sins – Yes, I, too, am a sinner and I add to the sinfulness of the world.
Lead all souls into Heaven – Yes, I truly want all people to know your loving mercy.
Especially those most in need of Thy mercy – Wait a minute!
You mean, those? Lord, you cannot mean the terrorists on that plane? Can they be the ones most in need of Thy mercy? Am I actually right now praying for those guys, at this place? Is this what you mean by praying for our enemies? If I am praying for these guys, who else am I praying for, who might be most in need of Thy mercy? Racists? Abusers? Nazis? Yes, these, and more.
The most devotional of prayers, the rosary, challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. One cannot clutch beads without bringing into prayer precisely those who we are least inclined to pray for. Reviewing the highway and pathways of our lives will reveal to us precisely those whom we need to lift into prayer, hoping and longing for the day when all will be reconciled with the God who brought everything into being.
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