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Deliver Us From Evil

In a city that once seemed aggressively dedicated to Mammon, the World Trade Center tragedy has served as a call to the faithful. Many are asking themselves -- some for the first time -- what they really believe.

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Religion in the round: Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.  

It was the sort of gesture that would have seemed corny before September 11. At Mass on a recent Sunday, Father Cassian Miles of St. Francis of Assisi, on West 31st Street, passed a tray filled with pennies around the church and asked each parishioner to take one. Consider its message, he instructed his congregation: In God we trust.

It's the basis of all Christian belief, Miles observes of the deceptively simple words inscribed on our currency. "No matter what happens, we have to trust the Lord."

No matter what happens are words that have a great deal more gravity for New Yorkers than they did seven weeks ago. Trusting in some higher power -- and not just the mayor or the president -- is suddenly important to a great many worshipers of secular success who have, for the better part of a decade, done pretty well, thank you, trusting largely in their own powers.

Since September 11, New York has become newly receptive to religion, a city awash in spirituality. Churches that normally see 600 people for Sunday services have reported crowds of up to 2,000. Many are still reporting increases of up to 50 percent. Synagogues were packed far beyond capacity during the High Holidays. At Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park, 50 new families -- many of them couples in their thirties -- have joined since then; Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue predicts 125.

For a few days after the attacks, a profound sense of brotherly love seemed to be floating northward along with the smoke. Strangers wept together, standing speechless in front of makeshift altars of candles and flowers that appeared to grow out of the pavement. New Yorkers rediscovered the need to congregate -- to share, to grieve, to shake our heads in disbelief. But many also discovered that there are other needs only religion could meet. Lesley Norman had always been turned off by strict religious doctrine and stayed away from church. But the Sunday after the attacks, Norman, a vice-president at a film production company who lives on the Upper West Side, accompanied a friend to Unitarian services. "I thought, why not?" recalls Norman, who attended -- and later joined -- the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side. "So I went, and I loved it. My own internal spirituality was always there, but this felt like it was time for a bigger communion."

Norman was hardly alone in finding a way to fillthat new need. "A lot of people have experienced a door flying open at thesame time something slammed shut," says Ann Belford Ulanov, the ChristianeBrooks Johnson Memorial Professor of Psychiatry and Religion at UnionTheological Seminary. The central question, says Ulanov, is "What am Iliving for? What is the meaning that I'm finding that's assembling itself onthe horizon of this catastrophe, and how can I make that actual?"

The Reverend Thomas K. Tewell of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian worried at firstthat September 11 might turn people away from God. But he has seen theopposite. "So many people are open to God for maybe the first time in theirlives," he says.

"It was an epitome of success to be up there in the Twin Towers, a dream ofa career ladder, a life in which one worked extremely hard and enjoyed thefruits," says Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. "Peoplenow have to say, What is the dream and what is the point? I've heard a lotof people asking that question."

Cowan, who conducted a memorial service for a victim of September 11,believes the large number of young people who died in the attacks will havea profound effect on an entire generation now forced to question their livesand decisions -- to ask, What can I learn? "A different group of people isthinking about this at a different phase of their lives," Cowan says. "Theseare profound questions. It's not 'I'm scared, let me go to shul andget bonus points.' "

Four weeks after the terrorist attacks, morethan 1,000 New Yorkers sat transfixed in St. Bartholomew's church.Buttoned-down executives and untucked women in head scarves reached acrosspews and shook hands with conservative-looking elderly couples, baggy-panteduptown boys, the H&M set. "I'm Susan." "Nancy." "D'Angelo." "Seven."They made eye contact and smiled.

"Dear God, weave our hearts and minds together," Marianne Williamson beganonce the choir had finished. "Save our nation and save our precious world.We pray tonight for miracles, and we open our hearts to receive them."

Over the next two hours, the New Age spiritual leader drew from the Bible,Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Gandhi;she spoke of "the angels that live in each of us," the importance of lovingour enemies, the need to "up the dosage" of spiritual medicine in order tosave the human race. She entreated the audience to surround the city of NewYork with a divine shield of love, to make the world "vibrate at a level oflove so high that nothing not love can touch it," and to place theterrorists in "holy quarantine."

"Every time you think of bin Laden, place around him a diamond egg,"Williamson said with earnest conviction. "The hate-filled thoughts and plansthat might emanate from his consciousness can't get past the eggshellbecause it's a hard substance. But at the same time, the diamond lightshines back upon him to heal him." Finally, she led the audience in a guidedmeditation, calling forth "the gorgeous elixir of the love of God" to healthe planet.

It was just what her teary-eyed crowd, struggling with helplessness, wasseeking: a response to the unaccustomed self-consciousness of being theobject of hatred. While more traditional theologies may not be as patentlyreassuring about the power of projection, they address the same sense of thepotency of evil, a concept many sophisticated city dwellers wouldn't havereferred to without an ironic twist in August. "We're not used to the scaleof the evil, and it's got people looking for answers," says Reverend LindleyG. DeGarmo, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in the Village. "All thegreat religions have wrestled with those ultimate questions, so there'sexpertise there -- but they're not necessarily easy answers."

As the weeks pass, the horror of the TradeCenter collapse has yielded to a growing anxiety that the terrorist attackswere a carefully planned and executed rebuke to our consumer-driven,status-obsessed society. "We are a very blessed people," says Dr. ArthurCaliandro, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church on lower FifthAvenue. "We're the wealthiest country. We have unbelievable freedom. We haveeverything imaginable materially. And we're arrogant. We complained abouteverything."

"There are people down at ground zero who say this is the work of God orit's God's wrath," says the Reverend Tom Synan, priest associate at theUpper East Side's Church of the Heavenly Rest. "One said the only thingdifferent between New York and hell is that New York is surrounded by water.People like that need to go home. The work that's going on now at groundzero -- there's the work of God. People of every faith, tradition, you nameit, all working together for the greater good. The brilliant evil has sincebeen met and is being overcome now by the greater power of love."


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