For atheists and agnostics who wanted to feel connected, the absence of anynonreligious communal grieving -- and the frequency of "God" rolling off thetongues of their friends and neighbors -- created a stark sense ofisolation. "I definitely feel jealous of religious people right now, I haveto say," a writer who describes herself as agnostic confessed at the end ofSeptember. "I feel this sense of longing, like I'm missing out on something.For those who don't belong to a major religion, Starbucks and Barnes &Noble don't really do the trick."
"We couldn't think of anywhere else to go," says Anne Brandenburger, aninterior designer who has been commuting from Greenwich with her husband andtwo children, 12 and 14, to attend services at the Unitarian Church of AllSouls -- after an absence of more than ten years. "It dawned on me thatthere was nowhere else to go but back where we hadn't been in a while."
All Souls, which received triple its usual attendance levels the first fewSundays after the attacks, is still experiencing a 50 percent increase. Thechurch's development office is fielding fifteen requests a week from peopleinterested in joining the congregation; 40 have already become members.
"People seem to be taking their own spiritual temperature," says ForrestChurch. "They're reexamining their lives, their priorities, and in a strangeway they're contemplating their own obituaries. I've heard this a number oftimes. They're contemplating not just what life means but what meaning theyare bringing to life.
"I repeat as a mantra here that the purpose of life is to live in such a waythat our lives will prove worth dying for," says Church, who used hisOctober 7 sermon to meditate on "the wonder of being" -- something hebelieves any religion must inspire in its faithful. "God is our name for thegift that can't be named, the proof that can't be checked, the power and thepurpose that we will never parse," he told his multidenominationalcongregation. "The terrorist attack disproves the existence of God no morethan it disproves the existence of love or the existence of goodness. Whatit does is to remind us once again, first of all, how precious life is andhow fragile, and then of the inestimable worth that love and goodness bothpossess."
Five minutes before the second tower collapsed,Robb Gordon and his colleagues at the American Stock Exchange fled throughthe back door onto Greenwich Street, hurrying in the mid-morning twilightthrough ankle-deep debris. Then there was a booming noise and Gordon lookedbehind him to see a massive black cloud. He ducked into a bar with hisfriends, only to watch the cloud of debris scud past moments later. Afirefighter stumbled down the street and collapsed in front of the bar,struggling out of his equipment.
"You really felt you were in hell," Gordon says. As he left the bar and madehis way south again, he recited to himself the familiar refrain of Psalm 23:"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fearno evil: For thou art with me."
"You see it, feel it, smell it -- but you think, this is impossible," saysGordon, a Reform Jew. "Is this how it all ends? Is this what's supposed tohappen? You pray."
When his office relocated temporarily to Philadelphia, Gordon packed a Torahscroll in his suitcase. Since then, he's been talking to his rabbi, PeterRubinstein, about Jewish mourning rituals, which call for several stages ofmourning; the third began at the 30-day mark. "The period of reflectionbegins now," says Rubinstein, of Central Synagogue. "People begin to ask thelarger questions. How do I live with uncertainty? How do I make sense ofmoving from this extraordinary period of prosperity and ease to where I haveto be careful about where I walk and where I fly?"
"People are going through a real spiritual transformation," says SethCastleman, a practicing Jew and Buddhist who teaches meditation in cityprisons. Castleman volunteered round-the-clock in the weeks after the 11th,offering his services as a spiritual counselor at Chelsea Piers to familiesof victims and at ground zero to the firefighters and other rescue workers.Besides bearing witness to the grim details of the clean-up effort, he'sseen deeper personal crises taking place. Young volunteers doling out coffeeand gloves to rescue workers say they feel a deep sense of purposelessnessin returning to their regular lives and no longer find meaning in theirrelationships or their jobs.
"We think about change in our life as crossing the street," says Castleman,who often speaks in parables. "Once you step off the curb, the object is toget to the other side as quickly as possible. But on the personal journey,you have to go into the woods. If you come out too quickly, you'll just bein the neighboring village. You have to stay in the woods for a longtime."
New Yorkers are not used to going to the woods. Survival here has alwaysrequired a different skill set entirely; "personal journey" has tended toinvolve a day at a spa. Will New York ever become a city of Mother Teresas?It's hard to envision. So just how far can "love thy neighbor" truly gohere? What happens when your neighbor steals your cab on a rainy night? "Wehave to live in the world, and we aren't all going to be monks and nunsliving in caves," admits Castleman. "We're also material beings. It's not somuch about rushing to the answer as about staying with the question. Thekarma of an action doesn't come from the results; it comes from thequestion. One can be a fully enlightened stockbroker and really bring wisdomand kindness to brokering stocks."
Tewell agrees. "What I'm seeing is a change in people's priorities, thatthey want to make a difference instead of just making money. That they wouldtake some of their time and start to do volunteer work or invest incharitable organizations that make a difference in this city. That could belasting."