God is back. He’s bursting out all over. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Random data to support the assertion:
In the past 17 days, since the big terrible thing, our country has, unconsciously but quite clearly, chosen a new national anthem. It is “God Bless America,” the song everyone sang in the days after the blasts to show they loved their country. It’s what they sang on television, it’s what kids sang in school, it’s what families sang in New York at 7 p.m. the Friday after the atrocity when we all went outside with our candles and stood together in little groups in front of big apartment buildings. A friend of mine told me you could hear it on Park Avenue from uptown to downtown, the soft choruses wafting from block to block.
You know why I think everyone went to Irving Berlin’s old song, without really thinking, as their anthem for our country? Because of the first word.
* * *
I find myself thinking in mystical terms of President Bush’s speech to Congress and the country, and I know from conversations with many people that I am not alone.
It seemed to me a God-touched moment and a God-touched speech, by which I mean, in part, that little miracles surrounded it. A president and staff who had no time to produce something fine and lasting, produced it. A president who at his strongest moments had betrayed a certain “I’m kinda surprised to be here” vibration had metamorphosed into a gentleman of cool command—the kind of command you sense in a man who understands he ought to be there, should be leading, can trust his own judgment and rely on you to respect it. A great but wounded country heard exactly what it needed to pick itself up, dust itself off and start all over again.
Mr. Bush had a new weight, a new gravity, a new physical and moral comfort. You could see it. A man who had never been able to read from a TelePrompTer before used the TelePrompTer like a seasoned pro, which is to say like a man who didn’t need one.
Mr. Bush found his voice, just at the moment when people tend to lose theirs. He didn’t rely on bromides or high flights or boilerplate; he gave it to you plain and hard with the common words of a common man. He said, “We will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.” He said, “They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” He said, “These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion.”
He talked just like George W. Bush.
He found himself amid the rubble.
He talked of prayer like a man who’d been praying, and who understood that tens of millions of Americans and others throughout the world were his powerful prayer warriors. They prayed the right thing would be said and done. It was. And now we feel we have what we needed, hoped we’d have, weren’t sure we had: A true commander in chief.
All of this is quite wonderful, a tribute to President Bush and the men and women who work so hard for him. But he, and they, could not have produced that great night alone, and he, and they, would be the first to say it.
* * *
In the early days after the blast, I visited several of the memorials that have sprung up around town, in Union Square and in the heart of Greenwich Village. I was struck, at first, by the all the religious imagery, especially traditionally Catholic imagery—mass cards, pictures of the Sacred Heart, little statues of St. Anthony and St. Francis, pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, votive candles, prayers written on envelopes and pieces of paper grabbed from a desk.
Then I realized there was so much because so many of the firemen and policemen who died were Catholic—Italian and Irish and Puerto Rican men from Queens and Staten Island, from Jersey and Brooklyn. It was their families and friends who had brought the mass cards and the statues of St. Anthony, by tradition the patron saint of missing things, in those early days, when they were still hoping that someone they loved would emerge from the ruins.
* * *
On Sunday I watched Oprah Winfrey at the wonderful Spirit of New York special at Yankee stadium. She prayed aloud—a lot of people prayed aloud—and Bette Midler made everyone feel better just by singing.
That morning I had gone to our local mosque, the biggest in Manhattan, on East 96th Street to show sympathy and regard for people who might be feeling frightened and defensive. I watched as men prayed on their knees facing Mecca.
Then a friend came over and we talked about the speech she was going to make at a memorial for a friend of hers who’d died at Cantor Fitzgerald. He was a friend from her Alcoholics Anonymous group. I asked her what she wanted to say, and she said she wanted to tell the rest of the group that the friend they’d lost had always arrived everywhere early. He was early at AA meetings, and he used to greet the newcomers at the back.
On Sept. 11 he was early at work. After that he probably got early to heaven, where he was probably greeted himself—by Bill W., the great man who was one of the founders of AA. She wanted everyone to know that their friend and Bill W probably had a great conversation about how meetings are held these days, and about the importance of having greeters in the back for new arrivals and first-timers.
I wasn’t surprised by what she said, not only because I know her faith but because some little taboo or self-editing or reticence has lifted in the past few weeks. People are feeling a little less self-conscious about integrating their actual thoughts about their faith into the actual statements they make to friends and family, to coworkers and colleagues.
That’s a great thing. In my little town that’s a kind of miracle too.
I was thinking the other day: In 1964, Time Magazine famously headlined “God Is Dead.” I hope now, at the very highest reaches of that great magazine, they do a cover that says “God Is Back.”