On the day after the tragedy on September 11, 2001, I had an appointment for confession, so I drove down from Baltimore to meet with my spiritual father, Fr. George Calciu in his church, Holy Cross church, in Alexandria Virginia. And on the way, I went through Washington and even passed the Pentagon, and really didn’t know what I would find on that Wednesday, September 12. It was not congested, the city was not congested and it felt pretty peaceful as I drove along. I went past the Pentagon and could see they were trying to conceal the damage which was actually on the other side of the building from the road, but they were already getting things in place to begin to seal up that big opening on the building and do what needed to be done to rebuild it. All along that part of I-95 where you could kind of crane your head around and see the damage to the Pentagon, the cars were moving very, very slowly, just a few miles an hour.
And just a few miles after that, I was turning onto the street where Holy Cross Romanian Orthodox Church is, and walking into this tiny hundred-year-old white clapboard church, which is in the middle of a big industrial part of the city now, but a hundred years ago it was probably almost rural. I stepped inside the church – it was cool and dim and comforting to be in there, and it’s completely painted on the wall and the ceiling and everywhere. It was all done by a Romanian iconographer who was just passing through, so it has a vivid and a lively, vital quality to it. It has a quaintness that I’d say you don’t usually see in iconography. It’s not painted in a very ancient style but in a lighter sort of a style.
So there were all of these paintings of Christ, and of the mother of God, the Apostles, Biblical figures and the heroes from all the ages of our Church. I took a seat and I waited for Father George to come. I saw the faces of all those men and women who had known suffering and I thought about the suffering that America was just beginning to face, with no idea. I mean, at that point we didn’t know if there were going to be similar events: bombs, or germ warfare, or who knew what occurring in other cities. We didn’t know if we had days to live; we really didn’t know what was going to happen next.
So I was looking at these figures, standing around the walls, so serene, many of them holding the signs of victory, and holding palms. Father George came out from beside the altar and greeted me. He reposed about a year and a half ago, actually it will be two years in November. But he was, even to the end of his life, he was almost 81, he seemed so much younger. He was small, not much taller than me, white-haired, wonderful smile, twinkling eyes, white hair, white beard and just seemed so full of energy. Which is unlikely, I would think: I’ve talked about him before, so this may be familiar, but in Romania, in his home country, he was arrested and spent several stints in Communist prisons, including brainwashing prison, so he underwent terrible torture for his faith. In fact, in the prison he met Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, who became known in America as a pastor. He was in fact a Jewish person who converted to Christianity; he became a Lutheran pastor and brought word to America of how Christians were suffering in Communist countries. So he became good friends with Pastor Richard Wurmbrand until the end of his life.
Cheerfulness, I think was the most significant characteristic I always saw in Father George, so it was interesting to see him that day, looking more thoughtful and more serious. And when he came out, right away he asked me a question. He said, “Why do you think that happened yesterday?”
I hadn’t even thought of that: why did it happen? I said, “I don’t know.”
Father George said, “It was the punishment of God.”
Well, I sure hadn’t thought of that. I don’t know why I hadn’t. I had just finished and intensive study; I was writing a chapter for a book about the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, when the Romans finally flattened the city: not one stone left on another, as Jesus had predicted 40 years before. The Jews have always seen that defeat and other military defeats as divine retribution for their sins. That seems to be the pattern throughout the Scriptures: any time the Jews suffered a military defeat, their response was repentance. That didn’t replace other strategic responses, but it was an indispensable part of their response to any defeat.
It isn’t just an Old Testament phenomenon, of course. When people told Jesus that Pilate had killed worshippers at the temple itself, in Luke 13, his reply was, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So there seems to be a Biblical pattern here that national suffering is meant to bring about repentance.
And I had often wondered: when I look at our culture, it just looks sort of sick, and I’ve always felt overwhelmed at the ugliness of America’s spiritual condition. Almost 50 million children killed by abortion. The world-wide promotion in out entertainment of sexual promiscuity, materialism, contempt for God, the spreading of this infectious American culture that stirs up envy and greed and really doesn’t do people very much good. I’ve often wondered: what might be necessary, what would turn us around, what would change us?
Everything moves in cycles. Some sick cultures do return to health; it can happen in a single generation. But I had never heard of a historical example that wasn’t inaugurated by catastrophe. Healing is the root of repentance, and repentance comes in the wake of suffering. There aren’t any examples of spontaneous remission from that sort of an illness.
Father George told me that that night, that previous night, after the previous disaster in the morning, he had opened his Bible and it had fallen open to Psalm 127. And so he read that first verse to me. He said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
There were many watchmen who were watching at the airport at that time, who were watching in all sorts of places, and yet these terrorists got past them.
Father George said, “How could the hijackers have overcome such a high level of security unless somehow the Lord permitted it?”
And he then turned to Daniel 9:12-14; here are those verses:
He has confirmed his words which He spoke against us and against our rulers, who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done the like of what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us, yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God. Turning from our iniquities and giving heed to Thy truth. Therefore, the Lord has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us. For the Lord our God is righteousness in all the works which He has done. And we have not obeyed His voice.
Father George went on to say that the concepts of repentance and humility, in his observation, are mostly absent in America. And that he thought that we were probably not going to understand this lesson. He said that when he first came to the United States, he would sometimes, when he was talking about his life and his spiritual life, he would talk about the sins which he had committed while he was in prison and people were amazed, they would say, “How could you commit sins, you were in prison!”
And he smiled and he said to me, “Of course you still sin. You sin in your thoughts.”
“But Americans,” he said, “are very proud.” He said “We are used to being powerful and the concepts of repentance and humility are not often expressed, even among conservative Christians.”
Over the years I’ve come to see how these concepts are really at the core of the Gospels. They are Jesus’ most consistent message. But we Americans tend to skip over them in our rush to sell God. To present God as a product, like a tube of toothpaste or a television set. We want to reassure ourselves and reassure the potential customers that God loves us. And it’s true; of course He loves us. But you don’t really know how much He loves you until you begin to repent. Until you see how much God has forgiven you, you can’t really see the full bounty of His love.
There are not many churches today where that’s preached, conservative or liberal. It’s unfashionable to talk about repentance. Alas, it’s not going to do us much good to spray on some superficial piety while not taking it to the deep, self-challenging levels.
Father George said that he was very moved when he saw the Congressman singing “God Bless America” and then he began to think: in how many of their votes and actions do these same men and women work to cast away the blessing of God? The thought occurred to me that what the song could really mean is, “God bless the things we already do. God bless the things that we have decided to do.”
A friend of mine said that on the highway where she lives there was a strip club and the strip club changed their sign so that it read, “God bless America.” That just pretty much sums up the problem: it’s that we want God to bless us, we want him to smash our enemies, we have no concept of what a holy life is, and no expectation of repentance – we think that God is just going to go on smiling on us.
As C.S. Lewis said, “we don’t want a father in heaven, we want a grandfather in heaven, who likes to see the young people enjoying themselves.”
So this conversation with Fr. George seven years ago, it gave me a lot to think about. For a long time I’ve been thinking that the main thing America needs to do is be humble and repent. And it looks like September 11th might be the blow. It looks a lot like things that God has done in other nations in other times to kindle that response. It’s the kind of suffering that would call the Jews to be weeping in sackcloth.
But you know, I don’t think anyone, including Christians and Christian leaders would be likely to draw such a conclusion. Instead, we focus on how much we’ve been wronged, how unfair it was, and enjoy thoughts of vengeance, and destroying and humiliating our enemies. And our Earthly power is considerable. Our force is formidable. And if we do succeed in humiliating and smashing them we’ll feel satisfied.
If Father George is right, if “repent” is indeed the message that God is trying to communicate, I’m afraid that we will need more than one lesson.