“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” – Matthew 4:6
One of the most harrowing images from the September 11 attacks is a photograph of an unknown man plummeting to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers (graphic content). The image of this desperate victim of hate was a harbinger of desperate years to come, even now seeming to descend towards doom, growing more chaotic with cultural implosion and the loss of American unity. It is a time of free fall.
At the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer, two polarizing candidates accepted their party’s presidential nomination: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The melee of distaste and distress over these nominees alone signals a type of national vote of no-confidence as Americans buckle under the burdens of untruth, uneasiness, unrest, and unhappiness. Without confidence, there is only tumbling confusion. The falling man stands even now as a warning. The crisis of confidence that Jimmy Carter famously spoke of in the 1970s is long gone. The collapse has come.
In some ways, the terrorists have achieved their purpose. Nineteen years after 9/11, America is a terrified nation.
As captured by the WTC falling man, calamity and fear bring out the mystery of life, making it suddenly poignant and precious. One of the deepest of those mysteries is the reality of evil. When smoke still hangs in the air and victims recover, the attempts to solve the problem of evil are futile and frustrating to hearts in pain. When humanity has been lashed sorely, it is hard to find assuagement in philosophy. That evil is a privation is no comfort to those who have been deprived. Dualism is a poor excuse for death.
Even the theological truth that God does not directly cause evil does not stop people from finding fault with God. That He permits evil is often enough to exacerbate the excruciation. The necessary fact of the falling man prevails over rationalizations together with the near-constant news of new attacks, new terrors, new falling men.
The violent, political, and viral turmoil tearing at our society today may seem beyond explanation, but there is one. No matter how shattered and shaken Catholics might feel in the face of evils and troubles that tread on the heels of another, human perplexity cannot overthrow the truth that God is a loving God Whose Providence is guided by Divine love. This can never be gainsaid by the staggering horrors of rage, death, or sin. Though they may seem to argue against the Providence of God, nothing can disprove the existence of the infinite Good, the infinite God.
The fact that mankind cannot prevent or abolish all evils does not dismantle this tenet of faith. Though evils like those that incite riotous violence in our neighborhoods abound, and threaten with a hatred that is inscrutable, equally inscrutable is the Providence of God. It remains as constant as the sun in a sky of clouds. It is always there, even if obscured. It can never be diminished or destroyed. And in that presence is peace. Every act of terrorism seeks to wrest power by violence, but the power of Catholic peace must never be surrendered, despite the forces of despondency, despair, and descent.
In the end, it will take more than building a wall to pluck up a plunging people. It will take more than a vaccine to restore a sick country. It will take more than racial awareness to eradicate racial bias. It will take more than a liberal president to lift the spirits of a nosediving nation. There can be no courage in comatose lethargy, contentious communities, concentrated materialism, or collective atheism. Only faith in Christ and His Church can reverse the fate of man from falling to flying.
Americans should never forget the falling man and gain from that terrifying symbol the determination to never yield to the terminal velocity of determinism as the battle for Western culture rages on nineteen years after September 11. In the ever-widening wake of fear, the prayer of every Catholic American should be that America not collapse as those towers did; but rather bear up under the threat of fiery evil with that conviction that has made the West famous in song and story and emblazoned the Cross of Christ over the pages of history.
In days like these, when Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick has been whittled down into a rainbow-striped cheerleader baton, the only hope lies in clinging to the bulwark that will never fail. The destiny of America, like any great civilization, is decline and fall—and its rumblings are still in the air as they were on that black September day nineteen years ago.
But there is one institution on earth whose destiny is eternity because it is not earthly: the Catholic Church. In Her is the first and last source of support and strength. Faith has the greatest potential to thrive when there is little else to believe in. Hope can never be as strong as in a hopeless situation. Peter was permitted to walk on troubled water to safety. Perhaps America will be permitted to walk on thin air.
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