In the beauty of the lilies

October 14, 2005

This is for those who serve. It merits perennial reflection by all of us who enjoy a thing called freedom, something as vital as air itself, yet just as easy to overlook. For some among us, there exists something that causes them to put aside personal concerns in defense of that very freedom. Some are our fellow students. What would compel people to put themselves in peril for the sake of others? We have been asked to think about this many times;

today, I challenge you to feel it, however you will.

On the day of his inauguration in the nations capital, our newly-elected President went to church to worship, for he was a man of profound faith. With some apprehension, he prayed for strength of conviction. Indeed he would need it, for the nation would soon be facing great trials.

Men with religious inclinations of a very different kind were leaving the modest hotel in Boston where they had just spent the night. With stoic faces they checked out, and, in a contemplative silence, began a most uncommon voyage

I noticed him upon entering the barbershop. A uniform is not a common site in my hometown. Seeing the young man who wore it, I sensed, for a fleeting moment, that I was in the presence of something greater than I understood. Not the soldier himself, for I wouldnt pretend to idolize;

rather, it was a certain noble spirit, an intangible voice with the power to summon one to sacrifice. Something summoned me too at that moment, and I answered the call with a woefully inadequate thank-you and a handshake. But I was out-gunned;

he had been trained in humility, and so his response was even more modest: A mere nod of appreciation. And that was all.

The hijackers bypassed security checkpoints with rehearsed confidence and boarded two airplanes. In short order, and with frightful ease, they took control of the airplanes and proceeded to carry out their now-infamous deeds. It was a beautiful morning in New York

The inauguration speech was brief, and the new Chief Executive had the command of a young nation. Signatures would be official and binding from this day forward, and an informal George W would no longer suffice. His tenure in office would see a country grapple with the ever-contentious issues of civil liberties, executive power, and its limits in wartime. Indeed, war was to be a hallmark of this presidency.

There was a tree beside the very same church where the President worshipped, a majestically spreading sycamore with large, deep roots. It sheltered and shaded the chapel.

For the terrorists and their unfortunate passengers, the bizarre journey from Boston came to an abrupt end as the airplanes hit their marks. Two towering icons of a mighty nation blazed at two-thousand degrees until their structures, weakened by the heat, ceased to stand. Hot steel and concrete dropped to earth at a hundred and twenty miles per hour, causing a pressure-wave of air and debris to radiate outward at ground-level. Channeled into old, narrow streets, the wave gained speed, sweeping people and random objects for several blocks.

The tree was struck by the debris wave. The deep roots held it fast for just long enough;

it was so large that it was able to shield the chapel beside it and prevent its demise. Indeed, the old sycamore saved many lives, for, in coming days, the church would serve as a treatment and recovery center for rescue workers and the injured.

This is how the life of a tree came to an end, and how other lives were thus saved in a centuries-old church named St. Pauls Chapel. In a time when New York was the nations capital, that church was the place of worship for a President whose name was George Washington.

In 1862, a magazine called The Atlantic Monthly published the Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe. It is the Civil War anthem known by all of us, and recalls a war of a magnitude we cannot begin to imagine. Her lyrics speak of a certain glory, not of war, but of a spirit that transfigures you and me, calling us to sacrifice for the sake of freedom. There are those among us, like that soldier I saw in an ordinary barbershop, who are indeed transfigured by that spirit, and who answer its call.

And so, a reverent tip of the hat for all who serve. For this has nothing to do with personal political beliefs;

it is merely about the selflessness of those who, like that sycamore, would stand in harms way, ready to die to keep us free. I wonder if most of us can feel it, or even hope to comprehend it. It springs from that transfiguring spirit that lies within us all, yet which can only be glimpsed down on Fulton Street in an ancient sycamore tree, or at the barbershop in the eyes of a young American soldier, or in a quiet meadow in the beauty of the lilies.
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