None of us who are old enough to remember could ever forget that horrendous day. The date 9/11 is indelibly etched into our memories. President Roosevelt had called the Pearl Harbor Attack a day that would ‘live in infamy’ and the same could certainly be said about September 11, 2001.
The memories of that black day were running through my head as my Dad and I drove into the Flight 93 National Memorial Site on our drive back from Ohio. I knew that the crash site was in a field near Shanksville, PA from the news reports, but I didn’t realize that the elevation was so high. The panoramic vista behind the drive in made clear that the elevation was probably 2,000 ft. or more and it was frigid and quite windy. A light snow was falling. All this added to the solemn starkness of the site.
The entrance featured outdoor displays that gave the historical facts about Flight 93 and and the events that transpired that day. 33 passengers and 7 crew members had departed on an early morning routine flight from Newark, NJ to San Francisco, CA. 4 armed terrorists hijacked the plane somewhere over Western PA and then diverted the plane toward their intended target: the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Many frantic passengers made cell phone calls to family members and learned that three other planes had been hijacked that morning and had already hit the intended targets.
It was clear that the passengers had to act, and act quickly, if they were to have any chance of gaining control of the aircraft before the inevitable outcome. They took a vote and decided on a plan. They would quickly charge forward with as many passengers as could fit down the narrow aisle, overwhelm the two terrorists outside the cockpit, break down the cockpit door with a serving cart, and wrest control of the plane from the interlopers. It was the only chance they had to see their loved ones again and stop the attack.
The heroic plan almost succeeded. Unfortunately the the plane plummeted or was intentionally steered into the ground upside down at 563mph. A nearby farmer took a picture of the huge plume of smoke billowing into the air just after the crash. The plane was just an 18 minute flight from Washington when it went down. There were no survivors.
A display panel with the name and picture of each victim of Flight 93 stood out to me the most. I prayed for the victims and for the family members they left behind. After listening to a brief overview from one of the park guides, I proceeded to walk along a long, black memorial wall that stretched out for several hundred yards. Every so often there was a small ledge in the wall where visitors had placed rosaries or flowers. The actual crash site was off to the left side of the wall and was marked by a large rock and some small American flags. At the end of the walk there was a white, marble wall built along the trajectory of the planes’s flight path with a name of one victim on each section of wall. The site was a simple and elegant tribute to the heroes who died there.
I recalled the following line of Scripture: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. (John 15:13) The victims of Flight 93 died trying to prevent their plane from being used as a weapon and they probably saved many lives at the Capitol. Jesus himself laid down his life for my sins and for the sins of all mankind. He did this purely out of love and he chose to suffer and die for us. “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”. (John 3:17) Jesus says to “love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15:12)
St. Therese meditated on the Gospels frequently and took these admonitions of Jesus very seriously. As a cloistered nun she knew that she might never be called upon to die a dramatic death or be martyred for the faith, but she was called to lay down her life daily for the love of her sisters in the convent and in prayer and penance for sinners. She knew well that theologians refer to the religious life as a ‘daily martyrdom’ and her dedication to laying down her life led to her heroic virtue.
The entire life of St. Therese was spent in loving in little ways and and in perpetual self-renunciation, but the heights of her self-sacrifice were demonstrated in her courage during her slow death from tuberculosis. Sr. Genevieve of Saint Theresa, Therese’s blood sister, testified to Therese’s heroism at the canonization process. “Her tuberculosis passed through a particularly painful stage, and the lack of proper treatment made it worse. Just at the time when it affected her intestines and caused gangrene she was without a doctor for a whole month. Besides, the fact that she was so emaciated caused wounds to open. She suffered real torture and we could do nothing for her.”
“In the midst of all her sufferings the Servant of God preserved her serenity. One day I saw her smile and when I asked her what she was smiling about, she said: ‘It is because I feel a very sharp pain in my side, and I have made it a habit to give pain a good welcome.’ No matter how inopportune some visits were, she never showed the slightest annoyance. She never asked for relief, and took whatever she was given. Only in extreme necessity would she call me at night; she would wait until I came of my own accord. The last night she spent on earth Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart and I stayed up with her, in spite of her insistence that we rest as usual in the room next door. But at one stage we dozed off after giving her something to drink; she remained there, glass in hand until one of us woke up.” (St. Therese of Lisieux By Those Who Knew Her, p. 158-159)
Heroism is harder to define than it is to recognize when we see it. It is easy to see that the passengers and crew of Flight 93 were called to act in sudden heroism on 9/11 and that St. Therese, in a different way, was called to live in daily faithfulness and heroism. This was never more apparent than in her horrible final illness. We might not be called to either of these types of heroism, but we are all called to respond in love to what God has done for us and, in turn, love and serve those in our lives.