Remembering 9/11, and the Grief of St. Ambrose

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Today is the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, events which are hard to forget in D.C. (Going into D.C. from Alexandria, for example, requires taking the Metro past Pentagon station). Words fail me to adequately express the pain that I have no doubt survivors and families feel. The best I can offer is from the Church Fathers. When St. Ambrose’s brother Satyrus died, Ambrose wrote one of the most beautiful reflections on grief. The writing is based upon his funeral homily, and it’s long and intense. For example

But now, brother, whither shall I advance, or whither shall I turn? The ox seeks his fellow, and conceives itself incomplete, and by frequent lowing shows its tender longing, if perchance that one is wanting with whom it has been wont to draw the plough. And shall I, my brother, not long after you? Or can I ever forget you, with whom I always drew the plough of this life?

And a bit later,

I had made you, my brother, my heir; you have left me as the heir; I hoped to leave you as survivor, and you have left me. I, in return for your kindnesses, that I might repay your benefits, gave wishes; now I have lost my wishes yet not your benefits. What shall I, succeeding to my own heir, do? What shall I do who outlive my own life? What shall I do, no longer sharing this light which yet shines on me? What thanks, what good offices, can I repay to you? You have nothing from me but tears. And perchance, secure of your reward, you desire not those tears which are all that I have left. For even when you were yet alive, you forbade me to weep, and showed that our grief was more pain to you than your own death. Tears are bidden to flow no longer, and weeping is repressed. And gratitude to you forbids them too, lest while we weep for our loss we seem to despair concerning your merits.

So, he resolved for his brother’s sake to cry no longer, or at least, as little as possible:

My tears shall therefore cease, or if they cannot cease, I will weep for you, my brother, in the common sorrow, and will hide my private groaning in the public grief. For how can my tears wholly cease, since they break forth at every utterance of your name, or when my very habitual actions arouse your memory, or when my affection pictures your likeness, or when recollection renews my grief. For how can you be absent who art again made present in so many occupations?

Yet he reminds us that tears and mourning are not sinful, and that even Christ wept at the death of His beloved friend (John 11:35):

But we have not incurred any grievous sin by our tears. Not all weeping proceeds from unbelief or weakness. Natural grief is one thing, distrustful sadness is another, and there is a very great difference between longing for what you have lost and lamenting that you have lost it. Not only grief has tears, joy also has tears of its own. Both piety excites weeping, and prayer waters the couch, and supplication, according to the prophet’s saying, washes the bed. Their friends made a great mourning when the patriarchs were buried. Tears, then, are marks of devotion, not producers of grief. I confess, then, that I too wept, but the Lord also wept. He wept for one not related to Him, I for my brother. He wept for all in weeping for one, I will weep for you in all, my brother.

In fact, the tears could be a source of edification, because these moments of grief remind us of what’s truly important:

I have merged my personal grief in the grief of all, especially because my tears are of no use, whereas yours strengthen faith and bring consolation. You who are rich weep, and by weeping prove that riches gathered together are of no avail for safety, since death cannot be put off by a money payment, and the last day carries off alike the rich and the poor. You that are old weep, because in him you fear that you see the lot of your own children; and for this reason, since you cannot prolong the life of the body, train your children not to bodily enjoyment but to virtuous duties. And you that are young weep too, because the end of life is not the ripeness of old age. The poor too wept, and, which is of much more worth, and much more fruitful, washed away his transgressions with their tears. Those are redeeming tears, those are groanings which hide the grief of death, that grief which through the plenteousness of eternal joy covers over the feeling of former grief. And so, though the funeral be that of a private person, yet is the mourning public; and therefore cannot the weeping last long which is hallowed by the affection of all.

He ends the homily by returning his brother over to God, and asking that he himself be returned to God as soon as He finds fit:

And now to You, Almighty God, I commend this guileless soul, to You I offer my sacrifice; accept favourably and mercifully the gift of a brother, the offering of a priest. I offer beforehand these first libations of myself. I come to You with this pledge, a pledge not of money but of life, cause me not to remain too long a debtor of such an amount. It is not the ordinary interest of a brother’s love, nor the common course of nature, which is increased by such an amount of virtue. I can bear it, if I shall be soon compelled to pay it.

May those of us who grieve today be drawn neared to God as a result, by remembering both the inadequacies of earthly things, and the immense treasure awaiting us in Heaven.


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