Last weekend I enjoyed a girls’ getaway in New York City. My high school girlfriend and I arrived on Thursday, had a wonderful night catching up over dinner, and arose early Friday for a brisk morning walk up to Central Park, with a brief stop at Rockefeller Center to wave to the Today Show cast. We enjoyed a casual lunch before heading toward the High Line Park. A norther was blowing in and the wind was so brisk, we could barely stand on the elevated newly beautified train tracks. Walking back down to the street, we looked for a building to duck into for warmth. We noticed an intriguing modern building a few blocks away with outdoor zig-zagging stairways filled with people. We headed toward it and realized it was the Whitney Museum, which we’d wanted to explore. We bought tickets and went directly up to the terrace to watch the sunset over the Hudson River. We marveled at the beauty of the city and the sliver of a crescent moon shining over it when my friend’s phone started buzzing. She looked down for a minute, and seemed disturbed. “There’s been an attack near Paris. Several people are dead.” Oh my, I uttered, confused. An instant later I nearly cried with relief that my daughter who’d studied there this summer was safely back on her college campus in Tennessee. As we strolled through the galleries and admired the Pollocks, O’Keefes, and de Koonings, we couldn’t help checking our phones for updates. After an hour or so we headed back to our hotel, rushing to turn on the t.v. for news. It was hard to piece together, but we got the idea that several attacks had occurred across Paris, several were dead, and many hostages were being held at the Bataclan Theatre. The horrible news continued unfolding. We sympathized with the French as we learned more details, and remembered the fear we experienced after 9/11, the uncertainty of what might happen next.
When we awoke on Saturday we were thankful to learn there’d been no additional attacks. Local newscasters noted that New York was on high alert and we could expect to see a large police presence throughout the city. My friend and I looked at each other with alarm. Last night Paris had seemed so far away. But, of course, if terrorists would attack a nightclub, a restaurant and a soccer stadium in Paris, there was a real possibility of a similar strike of “soft targets” in New York City. We’d seen the new One World Trade Center with its spire rising triumphantly over the city and suddenly remembered that we were very vulnerable. That afternoon, a little less carefree, we headed to a show in Times Square and noticed a large police presence, complete with machine guns and automatic weapons. We walked into the Palace Theatre to see, coincidentally, “An American in Paris,” and found our seats. Although the show was riveting, I felt startled by any movement on the periphery of my vision. My friend said later that she’d made a mental note of the nearest exits. While watching the beautiful sets,costumes and athletic dancers and listening to familiar Gershwin tunes, I thought of the depravity of the attacks in Paris by men who had no regard for human life, including their own. I couldn’t help but ask what if gunmen similarly stormed this theater, the museum we’d visited the night before, the stores along Fifth Avenue with their windows gaily decorated for the holidays and packed with shoppers? What if my surly cab driver who wouldn’t say hello, goodbye, or even acknowledge my payment was plotting the destruction of a part of the city? There were more tourists on the streets than I’d ever seen before; how could anyone stop a lunatic bent on destroying our way of life? What sitting ducks we all were! Then the show ended and we all clapped uproariously. The actors lined up on stage and announced that the first time they’d performed this musical had been in Paris. They asked for prayers for the people of the City of Lights as the lead actor wiped away tears. That night, the World Trade Center’s spire was lit in the colors of the French flag, and the Empire State Building was dark in sympathy for the murdered.
Sunday morning I felt drawn to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where the Pope had celebrated Mass just a few weeks before. The rector of the cathedral began by welcoming a packed church, stating that the cathedral was a home for all Americans and had been visited often by many of our French friends, including the Archbishop of Paris. He read a prayer in French which had recently been recited in all churches across France on All Souls’ Day. In his homily he stated that the evil that had been wrought in Paris was the work of those who substituted their judgment for God’s, and he reminded us that God’s plan is not man’s plan. Rather than taking matters into our own hands, he said, we are called to the difficult task of forgiving our enemies and loving our neighbors. “The Parisian tragedy was not an apocalyptic event; God will come to judge His people in His time, with kindness, mercy and love.” The Mass ended with the expansive organ’s exuberant strains of the French national anthem. Many in the crowd sang along, tearfully. I’d never felt so close to people so far away. Leaving the church, walking down the streets of Midtown Manhattan, I felt less afraid.