Skip to main content

Father James Martin

Father James Martin is associate editor of America the national Catholic magazine. Hes written a new memoir,Searching for God at Ground Zero, (Sheed & Ward) about the days following the September 11th attacks when he abandoned his editing duties to go and be with the rescue workers at the site of the ruined World Trade Center. Hes also the author of a memoir about his spiritual journey from the corporate world to the priesthood: In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience


Other segments from the episode on August 12, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 2002: Interview with James Martin; Review of Mark Edmundson's new memoir, "Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: James Martin discusses his work at ground zero as a
Jesuit priest

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

In the hours and days and weeks after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers
in New York City, thousands of people flooded the emergency response center at
Chelsea Piers, offering to volunteer in the rescue and recovery efforts.
Among them were many members of the clergy, including my guest, Father James
Martin. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and an associate editor of the
national Catholic weekly magazine America. He kept a journal of the weeks he
spent ministering to the rescue workers, helping them cope with anxiety,
grief, trauma and the spiritual challenges raised by September 11th. His
memoir is "Searching for God at Ground Zero."

The day of the terrorist attacks, Father Martin went to Chelsea Piers, but was
turned away because there were so few survivors that the services of the many
clergy who showed up weren't needed. The next day he helped out a family
counseling center. I asked him how he ended up at ground zero.

Father JAMES MARTIN (Author, "Searching for God at Ground Zero"): Well, the
next day, on the 13th, I went back to Chelsea Piers, having heard that they
were taking care of some firefighters and police officers and rescue workers
who were being shuttled back, and they didn't need me there, either, that
particular day. And I remember I went out on the street, it was a very
bright, sunny day, and there were hundreds of police cars and fire trucks and
Army trucks and all sorts of people milling about. And I bumped into a police
officer and asked him on sort of the spur of the moment if he thought he might
need somebody downtown, and he said yes. He waved his hand, a police car came
up, the door opened and I got in, and he took me right down to ground zero.

BOGAEV: Did you read anything into that, that you had to keep trying? Or the
first time I think the response you got somewhere was something like, `Oh, no,
not another priest.'

Fr. MARTIN: Right. Right. My spirituality, I think, says that, obviously,
you have to keep trying, but also that if God wants something to happen in
terms of ministry, God will make it happen. And I really felt that as the
police officer just sort of, you know, waved his hand and a car almost
materialized out of thin air. So in my own way of understanding it, I really
felt that God was at least encouraging me very strongly to continue that kind
of ministry downtown.

BOGAEV: What were your first impressions of the physical environment of the

Fr. MARTIN: I was overwhelmed. It's very hard to describe. I think the
easiest way to say it was that it was very hard to take it all in. There was
so much going on, there was so much to see. On the ride down that first day,
on the 13th, the police car would sort of go down these small back streets in
Lower Manhattan, and every time he turned we were getting closer, and I would
catch glimpses of flames and burning buildings and a lot of smoke mostly and
silt and dust everywhere. And then as we got closer and closer, and the
streets opened up into this broad plaza in front of what was formerly the
World Trade Center, you could see the rubble piles and the crowds of
firefighters, and it was really chaotic. And I really have to say that my
primary response--my initial response was one of fear. I had never seen
destruction on that scale, and so seeing the huge rubble piles and also the
buildings around them, which to me seemed more frightening, if that's
possible, just felt very overwhelming, and it was very hard to take it all in.

And so I basically just kind of plunged into ministry there without really
stopping to reflect on what I was seeing. I think I was probably a little
stupefied at that point, just like most of the people, you know, who see it
for the first time.

BOGAEV: Had you had any experience in trauma counseling or the kind of
counseling you might have expected to do in that situation?

Fr. MARTIN: No, I had absolutely no experience. In fact, on the way down, as
I say in this book, I was sitting in the backseat of this police cruiser with
a psychologist and I thought, `Well, gee, I don't know what I'm going to see,'
and he started to give me some advice about counseling trauma victims and
people who are dealing with trauma and firefighters, and saying, you know,
`Just let them talk.' My primary fear was seeing body parts and dead bodies
and things like that. I didn't know how I would handle that. No, I'd never
dealt with anything like that before. I had worked in hospitals for a little
bit, but certainly nothing like that and nothing on that scale. I've not
really--or I'd not really dealt with violent death, things like that. So I
was pretty frightened as I was driving down.

BOGAEV: What did your ministry then consist of that first day? Did you take
his advice and just listen?

Fr. MARTIN: I did. And, you know, that was the advice we got in pastoral
counseling sessions in theology school. I think the primary function of the
ministry at that point is to just listen, get people to tell their stories.
And really that kind of ministry came very easily to me on that day because
people were really willing to talk. I basically went from the police car that
dropped me off and walked over to the morgue--it was kind of a temporary
morgue at the World Financial Center--and there were all sorts of police
officers and firefighters resting, and I basically just went up and said, `How
are you?' and, you know, their stories kind of poured forth.

And I was in my collar, and so a lot of people would ask me to pray with them
and to pray for them. But interestingly, that first day that I went down,
there were very few people asking questions about `Why did this happen?' you
know, `What is the meaning of this? Why is there suffering?' It was on a
more visceral level. They were tired. They were sad. They had lost their
friends. So it was more kind of accompanying them in their grief. That was
kind of my ministry in the beginning.

BOGAEV: Were they able early on to express grief or did you try to help them
express emotions? And was there a certain place on the site where somehow it
was easier for them to talk or they were more willing to talk?

Fr. MARTIN: I think that depended on the person. The longer that one would
speak to people, the more evident it became that they wanted to talk about
their grief and their questioning. So at the beginning a lot of times one
would talk with the firefighters and the police officers about what they were
doing, and that was a nice way to just kind of get them involved in, you know,
sharing a little bit about their experiences. But as time wore on in the
conversation, you noticed that people pretty rapidly got to talking
about--especially people that they had lost, especially the firefighters,
their buddies, their brothers, as they called them. And, you know, those
conversations were very poignant for me, and just, for mem reflecting on the
fact that here were people who were dealing with this almost unimaginable
grief of having their buddies killed in this horrible tragedy, and yet, still
working at that site and still sort of pouring themselves out. For me it was
a great inspiration.

I remember people would ask me, you know, `What do you say to inspire them?'
and I would say, `Well, I don't say anything. They inspire me.'

BOGAEV: One thing I notice that kept coming up at the site, people asked you
to bless their trucks and their rigs and their vans and their conveyances.

Fr. MARTIN: I guess I've been asked to do that as a priest so frequently that
I sort of try to take it in stride. And I think in a sense it's a natural
response. In that situation people want to feel some sort of connection with
God, people want to have their faith expressed in a vocal or a public way. So
I think the blessing is almost an assurance for some of these people, you
know, blessing their little trucks or their--I blessed an SPCA van. I blessed
a Salvation Army van. It's just an expression of their desire to be with God
and their desire for God to be with them. But actually I found that very
touching and very appropriate, certainly, in that situation.

BOGAEV: What was an SPCA van doing on the site?

Fr. MARTIN: You know, that was funny. I saw that SPCA van, which was, I
think, on West Street as you were going in. In any event, the first thing I
thought was, `Well, gee, what are they taking care of pets for? That doesn't
seem to be the right priority.' But in point of fact, when I went up to it, I
discovered that it was an SPCA van being used for the search and rescue dogs.
And I remember seeing sort of an Irish setter or a golden retriever, I guess,
being massaged and given an IV because of, you know, being, I guess,
exhausted. One touching thing I heard from one of the search and rescue
people were that the dogs were getting stressed out, as it were, because they
were unable to find living victims, and that's what their training prepares
them for. And so some of the firefighters were taking to lying on the rubble
and sort of letting the dogs find them, which, I don't know, for me just
seemed very moving that the firefighters were even compassionate towards these
poor dogs.

I mean, for me, there were so many sort of layers of meaning in some of the
things that I saw, and so certainly blessing the SPCA van seemed to make
perfect sense to me at the time.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking you're right in your introduction that the primary
experience you had working on the site in the weeks after September 11th was
one of being in the presence of God. Is that what you're talking about here,
that people so stressed would have, you know, compassion left over for animals
or for each other?

Fr. MARTIN: Well, sure. For me it's a very hard thing to talk about, because
I don't mean to sort of detract from the fact that this is a horrible
site--this is a mass grave basically, there's horrible evil there--but my
primary experience since I came there on September 13th, two days after the
bombing, was of this profound encounter with God's spirit. And what I mean by
that is this tremendous sense of community that was happening down at ground
zero that I experienced and that I ascribed to God bringing people together.
There was this tremendous sense of charity unlike anything I've ever
experienced before in my ministry or in my years as a Jesuit. There's nothing
that I've experienced on that scale, the number of people that were coming
together, the fact that I didn't hear one cross word in all the days that I
was down there. Now that doesn't mean that it didn't happen or that people
didn't get short with one another, but there was this tremendous sense of this
almost outpouring of charity that, to me, felt like the presence of the Holy
Spirit and that kept drawing me back there. I mean, it just kept pulling me
back there. And I think that, you know, in my own theology, people always
say, `Where was God?' Well, for me that's where God was. God was at ground
zero with the rescue workers animating them through his spirit, if you want to
look at it theologically.

BOGAEV: Now you did a lot of praying with rescue workers, firefighters,
police officers. How did you phrase your prayers for these people who had
lost friends or family and were perhaps still hoping they would find people
they loved trapped in the debris, at least in the early days?

Fr. MARTIN: I think the best way always to frame prayers, first of all, is to
ask the person if they want to ask God for something and sort of let the
person, like the firefighter or the police officer or the EMT, just talk to
God. So I'd say, `Let's pray. What would you like to ask God?' And
frequently they would come out with these beautiful, spontaneous prayers, you
know, `Help me find my friend,' `Help my friend's family,' `Take care of my
buddy,' things like that, which were much more articulate than I could ever
some up with. Now sometimes they would feel uncomfortable doing that, and
what I would try to do was to put into words some of the things that I heard
that they were hoping for, so to try to give voice to some of their emotions
and some of their feelings, and to try to keep it as simple as possible. If
they were more, say, devout or if I knew they were practicing Catholics or
Christians, I might say the "Our Father." But really any expression to God, I
think, is valuable. You don't have to be a theologian or a saint or a
Scripture scholar to come up with a prayer. As long as it comes out from your
heart, I think it's beautiful. And, of course, God hears everything.

So I wasn't really concerned with, you know, how the prayers are going to
sound. I think just the simplest prayers are always the best.

BOGAEV: Did people ever, in the midst of a conversation with you or prayer,
even say, `You know, I'm not a Catholic,' or, `I don't really believe in God'?

Fr. MARTIN: Oh, constantly. I mean, I had a lot of non-Catholics come up, I
had a lot of Catholics coming up, saying, `I haven't been to Mass in 20
years,' but, you know, for me, those kinds of things, I think, are beside the
point. Not to say that, you know, your religion isn't important, but in those
situations when people are coming to you, you know, human being to human
being, the important thing is just to reach out to them and to help them
however you can.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest. He's
associate editor of America, a national Catholic magazine. His memoir of his
time working with the firefighters, police officers and rescue workers at the
World Trade Center site in the weeks after September 11th is called "Searching
for God at Ground Zero." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Father James Martin. He's a
Jesuit priest and associate editor of America, which is a national Catholic
magazine. He's written a memoir of the time he spent volunteering at ground
zero in the weeks after September 11th. It's called "Searching for God at
Ground Zero."

Now many of the human remains recovered at the site were recovered not only by
police and firefighters, but also by construction workers. And while the
firemen and the police were somewhat, somehow as much prepared as you can be
to do this kind of work, the construction workers weren't at all. Where you
in the situation where construction workers reached out to you for real trauma
counseling? Had they been overwhelmed?

Fr. MARTIN: I was and--you know, we were, actually. I was working with other
Jesuits at the time. One of the things I found the most poignant and the
saddest was just what you were explaining, which was that these iron workers
and steel workers, a lot of whom would be asked to slice through the I-beams
with their tools, would inevitably come across body parts and remains. And I
used to think, you know, `Here are the firefighters and police officers who
nothing ever prepares you for something of this magnitude, but at least they
had had some experience with seeing perhaps dead bodies and things like that.'
But these poor steel workers and iron workers were confronted with something I
don't think that they had every prepared for. And I remember one fellow on
the way out one day, I was walking out of West Street, which was the way that
everybody sort of left, he ran over to me and asked if he could talk to me and
said that when he goes home at night he couldn't look at his wife and his
child because he saw the faces of the people that he pulled out from the
wreckage during the day.

And, you know, I remember sitting there--or standing there and thinking, `I
have no idea what to say to this poor person.' I mean, that is so unique and
such a profound experience of suffering and despair and frustration and
sadness, I didn't know what to say. I mean, basically what I said was--you
know, we prayed a little bit, and I asked him if he had been able to see any
mental health professionals down at the site, and I asked him to promise that
he would see someone like that. But, you know, here was this poor man who was
unprepared for something like that and was really having a hard time dealing
with it. And once again, there's the power of prayer. I mean, that's someone
who I've been praying for ever since.

BOGAEV: A thing that kept coming up throughout your journal entries was
guilt, that so many of the rescue workers felt guilt about not doing enough,
even though they were going without sleep for really almost weeks at a time;
guilt about not working quickly enough, survival guilt, really endless guilt,
it seemed like. Did you partake in that guilt also? And what did your guilt
focus on?

Fr. MARTIN: Yeah, a lot of the people there would always tell me that they
didn't feel they were working hard enough, so the people at the perimeter, at
the barricades, I would say to them, `How are you doing?' and they'd say, `I'm
not doing anything. My job is easy. All I'm doing is, you know, letting
people in.' And then we get closer to the site, and people would say to you,
`I'm not doing anything. I'm not on the pile today.' And you'll get to
people on the pile and they would say, you know, `I'm not doing enough. It's
the people who died that are doing something.'

So there was this sense of everyone wanting to do more, everyone feeling as if
they weren't doing enough. My own experience of guilt stemmed from not being
there enough, or at least how I felt I wasn't there enough. You know, the
firefighters and police officers were working around the clock, and I, because
I live in a Jesuit community and work at this magazine, would go home at night
and leave them behind. So that was one area that I felt guilty in.

The other thing that really bothered me, I mean, tremendously was feeling
almost--I even hate to use the word--comfortable at the site. The first
couple days were very difficult, but then gradually I got to get more or less
used to what I was seeing around me--the buildings and the firefighters and
things like that--and that made me feel very guilty, and I thought, `Well, how
can anyone feel, you know, comfortable or at home in this place? What a
horrible thing.' And I didn't want to become sort of deadened to those kinds
of things. So I talked to a friend of mine who's a Jesuit and a prison
chaplain, a very good friend of mine, and I confessed my feelings of guilt,
and he said, `Look, that's natural.' You know, he sort of deals with these
horrible situations in prison. He said, `It helps you to do your ministry,'
which I thought was a good insight. As long as you don't, you lose your
feelings of compassion. That's really why you're there.

But I have to say, that feeling of guilt over being, quote-unquote,
"comfortable" there, it never really left me.

BOGAEV: I think that's so interesting, because I remember stories of rescue
workers, particularly policemen, who were almost addicted to the site in that
after a few weeks they would go back home to their boroughs and they had
already lost their status, in a way, as heroes, as police for quite a while
had a hero status, but as that waned, they felt then uncomfortable in their
normal world, where people were treating them like, you know, cops again, and
they felt drawn back to the site. And I can't imagine the conflicting
feelings you must have about that.

Fr. MARTIN: Well, there were so many conflicting feelings, and obviously
whatever I was feeling, to put it in perspective, the police officers and
firefighters were feeling, you know, a million times more. I mean, I was not
down there for more than a few weeks. My time each day was very limited. You
know, here are guys who are there 24 hours a day, essentially. But there was
a feeling of just purposefulness when you were there, that you were really
doing something meaningful and you were needed. You know, in my world view,
in my theological world view, I attribute that to the Holy Spirit drawing
people together to help out. But it was a strange feeling to say that one
was, in a sense, drawn to that place of great suffering. I think that might
seem strange to some of the listeners, but I did, I felt drawn there. I felt
drawn to help and I felt drawn to a place where I was really very much needed.

BOGAEV: Father James Martin's journal of the time he spent ministering to the
rescue and recovery workers at the World Trade Center site is called
"Searching for God at Ground Zero." We'll continue our conversation in the
second half of the show. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: Coming up, trying to make sense of the inexplicable. We continue our
conversation with Father James Martin. His new memoir is "Searching for God
at Ground Zero." Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new memoir "Teacher," by
Mark Edmundson, about a teacher who made a real difference in his life.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Let's continue our interview with Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest
and the associate editor of the Catholic national weekly America. In the
weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York City, he ministered to the
firefighters, police officers and construction workers at the World Trade
Center site. His journal of that time is "Searching for God at Ground Zero."

I think one of the most wrenching realities of the attacks was the fact that
many people jumped from the burning skyscraper to their deaths and many people
saw the images of that on television, some witnessed it in person. Did you
find that people grappled with this and asked you whether what these people
did was suicide?

Fr. MARTIN: People frequently asked me about those incidents of people
jumping. I had an EMS woman come up to me once, I remember very vividly, and
said to me, `Did those people who jumped from the building commit suicide?'
And I remember I was with two other Jesuit friends of mine. We were working
there together that day, and I just remember looking at this woman and
thinking, `Well, of course not. You know, there's no way that that could be
considered suicide.' And I paused for a minute, trying to figure out a way of
expressing that, and this friend of mine, who was named Chris, just said, `No,
they were trying to save their lives.' And I remember thinking that was a
beautiful response and, you know, very meaningful to her. You know, she cried
and we all cried a little bit. And it made sense. I mean, these were people
who, you know, if you had given them the option, these poor people trapped in
the burning buildings would have, you know, chosen life.

BOGAEV: Did people ask you to explain why God let something like this happen?

Fr. MARTIN: Eventually they did. I mean, eventually, with any kind of
suffering, whether it's illness, your illness, someone else's illness, death,
whether it's violent like this or a natural death, people will ask, you know,
`Where is God, and how could God let that happen?' So that question came up
as the weeks wore on more and more frequently, interestingly more away from
the site than at the site. I think people at the site were more focused on,
you know, their jobs and their own emotions, although it did come up. But
frequently people asked me that question, you know, `How could God let this

BOGAEV: And what did you say?

Fr. MARTIN: Well, that's a long answer. That question--I mean, it's
essentially the question of evil in the world. And, you know, theologians
sometimes frame it that if God is all powerful, then he can't be all good,
because if he's all powerful, why would he let this happen? If he's all good
and he doesn't want it to happen, then he's not all powerful, because clearly,
he can't prevent it. I think that, you know, basically there is no
satisfactory rational answer for something like that. This is not an answer
that can be solved. I think as a lot of Scripture scholars and saints and
theologians have said, this is more aptly a mystery to be pondered.

For me, this question of suffering is not so much the why it happened, because
that is not an answer that can be explained. It's, where does one find God in
the suffering? What is God--or how can God be revealed in the suffering? So,
for example, when you look at the World Trade Center, when I look at the
experience of the World Trade Center, my experience of God at the World Trade
Center was in the sacrifice most especially of the firefighters and the police
officers who died. That, to me, is almost a parable of our times of how God
works. You know, in the New Testament, Jesus talks about the kingdom of God
and he uses parables to explain it. So Jesus would say, `The kingdom of God
is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like a banquet.' Well, I would
say the kingdom of God is like the firefighter that races into the burning
building. That's how much God loves us.

So in that sense, God is being revealed to us in this tragedy. And then in
another sense, I think any tragedy, at least in my experience, I think breaks
us open to experience God in a new way, and I don't think that's why the
tragedies happen, I don't think that's why suffering happens, but I think
during times of suffering, we are naturally more open because our defense
mechanisms are down, our egos are sort of stripped bare to experience God in
new ways and to see God in new ways. So, you know, experiencing God is not
the why of suffering. It's not why suffering happens, but it is certainly the
what of suffering. It is certainly part of suffering if we're open to it.

BOGAEV: Is this the kind of conversation you had then at the site? Because
I'm thinking there's a danger of explaining too much when people are in such
pain. It could minimize their loss or their suffering or may be just not
helpful. I guess my question is, I wondered what you learned about how best
to help people understand and cope with suffering in the midst of it.

Fr. MARTIN: Absolutely. I would never, you know, give sort of a discussion
like that or discuss suffering like that in a situation like that. I think
much more important for me is to allow people and to invite people to find
their own meaning in the suffering. I think you're absolutely right. You
can't impose your understanding of the way God works in the world or the way
God is in times of suffering on people. You have to, I think, let people see
that themselves, invite them to see it. Because really, if you just tell
somebody, you know, `This is how I understand suffering,' or, `This is how I
understand the way God works in suffering,' that's not going to mean anything
to them. That's just sort of telling them what to think.

Now sometimes they would ask me, but much more powerful for me and much more
important for me as a minister is enabling people and inviting people to find
their meaning themselves. Because, you know, I mean, God's working through
them. You know, the Holy Spirit is working through them. It's not me coming
and sort of bringing them the answers. It's me accompanying them to
understanding how the Holy Spirit is working in them.

BOGAEV: So what would people say? Would you say, `Why do you think God let
this happen?'

Fr. MARTIN: Well, you know, I mean, people would say to me, you know, `Where
was God in all this?' and the question I would say was, `Well, where have you
found God in this?' And really, there wasn't a person down there who wasn't
able to come up with an answer to that question. People would say, `Well, you
know, I feel like God's asking us to work hard here,' or, `I really feel God
is with me in a very powerful way.' I remember I was talking to one police
officer on this boat that they would serve lunches on during the day and, you
know, he looked at the burning Trade Center and he said, `I don't understand
it at all.' And then he sort of pointed to all the people in the room, all
the people working together, and he said, `But this I understand. This, for
me, is the way God is working.' And so in a sense, that was how he made sense
of it all, and that's where he found God. And, you know, far be it for me to
say, `Well, I don't see it that way,' or, `That's not my experience,' because
much more meaningful to him is the way that he experiences it. So I think the
minister goes in there--or should go in there with a tremendous amount of
humility and, you know, before the power of God at work in these people.

BOGAEV: Father James Martin. His new book is "Searching for God at Ground
Zero." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: My guest is Father James Martin. He's a Jesuit priest. He worked
for many weeks ministering to the firefighters and policemen and rescue
workers, recovery workers at ground zero in the weeks after September 11th.
His memoir of that time is "Searching for God at Ground Zero."

Over the weeks that you worked there, how did people's spiritual needs change
and what they needed from you change as the work evolved from rescue to

Fr. MARTIN: Well, that's a good question. Initially, it was dealing with the
shock and dealing with this just tragedy. And I think people were very intent
on talking about what they had seen initially. That's what I found. The
firefighters would talk over and over about what they had seen. The police
officers, the National Guardsmen and -women would talk about their
experiences. As that moved on, their questions did become deeper and touched
more on questions of spirituality and faith, `Where was God? How am I to
understand this? What does this mean? How could God let these kinds of
things happen?' And that's, once again, where one would try to help them find
meaning or invite them to reflect on their own experience. But it did move
very quickly from just kind of talking about what they saw to describing what
they were feeling.

BOGAEV: And in describing what they were feeling, you basically listened?

Fr. MARTIN: I listened and, you know, I would sometimes talk about my own
experiences, which were limited. You know, it was very interesting. A lot of
the firefighters and police officers I think who are trained to take care of
people would always ask me how I'm doing, which I found very touching and,
once again, a sign of their own sacrifice and generosity. But I remember a
firefighter asked me that the first time on the second day, and I was brought
up short, and I thought, `Well, you know, I'm going to tell him. You know,
I'm overwhelmed. I'm sad.' And it was very interesting, because as I was
doing it, I remember it was a group of firefighters, and they all started
nodding, and I thought, `Well, this is an interesting lesson for me.' You
know, I'm not there just as this sort of dispenser of great wisdom or this
healer or whatnot. You know, this is kind of a community, and part of that is
talking about your own feelings and talking about your own limitations. And I
felt very supported. You know, they ministered to me frequently.

BOGAEV: And that probably makes them feel good. I mean, that's part of a
coping mechanism, I would think.

Fr. MARTIN: It is. There was a police officer, I remember, who--you know,
people were frequently calling to me when they'd see the collar from across
the plaza or something, and they'd run over to see me. And this one
policeman, right at the rubble pile I remember, I was passing, talking to
another fellow, and I turned to go, and this police officer said, `Father,
Father,' and he ran over, and I thought, well, you know, obviously, he must be
upset about something. What he was upset about was that a priest had come to
him the day before and said, `I don't feel like I'm doing enough because I'm
not giving last rites to anyone,' because at that point, you know, everyone
that they were pulling out, you know, had died.

And the police officer said to me, `I told him that he was doing the best he
could. Was that the right thing to say? I'm so worried that I didn't say the
right thing to him.' And I thought, well, this is incredible. Here is this
man who is worried about, you know, how he counseled this priest, which I
thought was very beautiful and, you know, not thinking about his own despair
or his own struggles, but what was he worried about? He was worried about the
way he took care of this priest. And I thought--you know, for me, it's a real
inspiration, and if anyone says, once again, you know, `Where is God?' I say,
you know, `Here is God in this person, expressing the way that God cares for
us and expressing the way that God is.'

BOGAEV: In later weeks at the site, family members were able to visit and
visit it as mourners. Did you minister to family members of victims as they
began to visit the site?

Fr. MARTIN: You know, I didn't. What happened was, you know, as the time
wore on, I think it was the police department would bring people in in groups
of, say, 50 or 60. They'd ferry them in on a little ferry boat and they'd get
off at the marina, and they'd walk over. And I remember as they walked over
through the site, activity would really cease. People would just fall silent.
People would stop driving their trucks. The electricians would put their
wires down. People would stop the jackhammers. Everything would stop. And
these people would just walk by, and they were accompanied by a lot of fire
chaplains and police chaplains and, I think, their own priests and ministers
and were sort of a self-contained group. So I didn't minister them just
because they would kind of come in, stand at the site and pray there, and then
leave. But, you know, I mean, all I could do really in those situations was
pray for them as they walked past us.

BOGAEV: What impressed you about their reactions?

Fr. MARTIN: You know, I've worked in a lot of different places. I've worked
in Africa with refugees. I've worked in hospitals and I've worked in homeless
shelters, and I've really never seen faces like that before. I've never seen
people so bereft. Nearly all of them were looking at the ground as they
walked in. It was very profound to see them walk by and to have everyone sort
of fall silent as they passed. And so many of them, too--you know, you'd have
40 and 50 at a time. You'd have children walking with their parents, holding
teddy bears. And I don't really have words to describe it, but just this
sense of crushing grief that I've never really seen before, and I think that
it's just impossible to describe and impossible to imagine.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking that the days and the weeks and months after September
11th were a period of such heightened emotion and grief and also a heightened
sense of the spiritual dimension to tragedy and to life and that that can't
really last. I mean, we experienced that, but that you have to go back to
some sense of normalcy, some people sooner than others, depending on your
experience. But what I think many of us have found really hard about this
past year is that our emotions are so complex and that there's almost a desire
to hold onto that sense of deeper meaning, of what our families and our lives
are all about. And yet, on top of that, there's, at least for me, a kind of
sense of shame that perhaps tragedy was what we needed to propel us into a
more spiritual way of being in the world. I'm not really expressing this all
that well, but I'm wondering if you...

Fr. MARTIN: No, you are. You are expressing it well.

BOGAEV: ...if you, too, experienced this kind of welter of conflicting
emotions during your journey over the past year?

Fr. MARTIN: I have, and I don't think it's surprising at all. I think that
it's the way that suffering can draw people to reflect more deeply on
important things. I would say, you know, as a religious person, that that
desire to probe some of those questions and that desire to reflect on some of
those deeper questions is, in fact, God inviting you or inviting us to try to
understand those things and to try to understand those things in a spiritual
light. But I think that some of the things that people are experiencing are
really the same kinds of things, if you think about it, that one experiences
after someone dies. My father died a few months before the World Trade Center
collapsed, and I remember experiencing some of the same things.

So it's not surprising that, for example, one would have a heightened sense of
one's need for God. I mean, I think that makes perfect sense. I mean,
certainly after a death or a tragedy like that, you know, you're sort of
forced back to the basics, you know, and you realize that you don't control
things and you realize that you need help from outside, you need help from the
community. So that's not surprising. Nor is it surprising that people would
feel like they're getting back to normal. I mean, you think about someone who
dies in your family. There is that intense feeling at the beginning that does
sort of taper off. I think the question is, do you continue to ask yourself
those questions that were raised initially or do you sort of brush them aside?

I think the sad thing would be--or one of the sad things would be is if these
very profound questions about meaning and suffering and faith welled up in
people were brought to the surface as a sort of invitation to reflect on them
and then were sort of discarded. I mean, I think the emotions change. They
shift and they change. I think the questions remain. I think the questions
are really important. I mean, these are the central questions of, you know,
what it means to be a human being. Who is God? What is God like? Why is
there suffering? What does faith mean? What is my relationship with God and
the community? And these are profound questions that almost demand

BOGAEV: You were on FRESH AIR just a few months ago talking about the sexual
abuse scandals in the Catholic Church this year, and I'm thinking that all in
all, this past year must have been something of a mixed bag for you, between
reflecting on the presence of God as you experienced it at ground zero and, in
contrast, the pretty immense gaps in the presence of God within your own

Fr. MARTIN: Well, I wouldn't quite put it that way. I don't see God as sort
of lacking in the church. Quite frankly, I think that both of these things to
me, you know, were kind of taken as a whole. The other thing I'd add to that
is my father's death as a more personal thing. So you have a community event
with 9/11, you have a church event and I had a personal event with my father's
death. But these were all about suffering, evil, illness, death, sexual
abuse. I mean, it's all kind of different facets of the same reality of evil.
I mean, obviously, they're different.

And once again, the question is, you know, where is God in all of this? I
mean, for me at ground zero, God was to be found among the rescue workers,
very powerfully. For me in the sexual abuse scandal, God is to be found in
the response of the laity, you know, for whom the church is such an important
thing. There's God there. In my father's death, God was found in a very
personal way for him in ways of forgiveness and reconciliation. So I think I
see all those things together. I mean, you know, really, Jesuit spirituality
is all about finding God in all things, and boy, if that were ever true, it
was this last year for me.

BOGAEV: Father Martin, I really appreciate you talking with me today.

Fr. MARTIN: It's really my pleasure. Thank you.

BOGAEV: Father James Martin. His new book is "Searching for God at Ground

Coming up, a review of a new memoir about a teacher one student never forgot.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Mark Edmundson's new memoir, "Teacher: The One Who Made
the Difference"

Mark Edmundson is a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine and a professor
of English at the University of Virginia. His new memoir is called "Teacher:
The One Who Made the Difference." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that
Edmundson's memoir is provocative and unsentimentally inspiring, just like the
teacher it memorializes.


I grimaced when a friend, who knew I was reading Mark Edmundson's new memoir,
told me that an early brief but glowing review in Entertainment Weekly did
fault the book's title for being dull. It says something about the status of
educators in our culture, that instead of being seen as a tingling electric
title, "Teacher" is regarded as dry as chalk dust, automatically equated with
loser. Pretty much the only positive popular images of teachers we've gotten
recently have been perpetrated by Robin Williams. Misty-eyed, more than a
little mad, Williams' cinematic gurus are forever saving troubled teen-aged
souls through poetry and the incandescent force of their impish personalities.

I've read some of the articles Edmundson has written for Harper's Magazine, so
I guessed that a guy who's memorably castigated today's consumer-oriented
universities for being luxurious retirement homes for the very young would be
capable of avoiding mawkishness in his memoir about a life-transforming
teacher he'd had in high school. I aced that guess, as my own students might

"Teacher" is a brilliant memoir, smart, vividly dramatic and wry. It's also
unpretentiously wise in its personal insights on the 1960s, growing up working
class, adolescent personality types and, above all, the fact that thinking
hurts. Edmundson's memoir centers on the 1969-to-'70 school year, his own
senior year at Medford High in Massachusetts. Writing forcefully in the
present tense, Edmundson tells us his 18-year-old self is a football thug
whose other extracurricular activities include brawling, beer drinking and
pool playing. Like almost all of his fellow students in working-class
Medford, young Edmundson regards Boston and especially nearby Cambridge as
being as exotic as the Amazon rain forest. Edmundson's then most cherished
work of literature is the swaggering Kipling poem "If," a favorite of his
revered football coach, Mace Johnson, a cocky ex-Marine who set on toughening
up his players to beat not only rival teams but also the Vietcong, who wait
somewhere on the far side of the practice field.

It's 1969, remember, and Edmundson and his blue-collar classmates can't assume
they're going to be saved from the jungle by student deferments. One of the
things Edmundson excels at here is summoning up an archetypal vision of high
school, which he says is a sort of debased classical world where beauty and
physical might matter more than all else. It's also the place, Edmundson
claims, where for the last time in life probably people will pull back and
tell you or at least demonstrate in no mistakable terms what they truly think
about you. Once high school is over, the conventions of civility begin to
take over.

Into this no-holds-barred world comes Franklin Lears, a 22-year-old Harvard
grad, scrawny, a novice philosophy teacher wearing a hand-me-down suit and,
fortunately, a thick coating of self-confidence. Viewing Lears from a
distance of over 30 years, Edmundson likens him to Socrates, the homely
Athenian, he says, who never accepted anything on faith, questioned all
matters under the sun, took no crap ever and knew how to laugh. How Edmundson
and so many of his classmates are slowly, messily changed from sullen spitball
throwers to, as he puts it, `Socratic questioners, strangers in our own lives'
is the gist of this memoir, which ends not with a feel-good reprise of "To Sir
with Love," but on a note of wonder and ambivalence.

"Teacher" is filled with terrific anecdotes about Lears, the books he teaches
and explosive visits by the Black Panthers and some Harvard STS guys to his
classroom. Edmundson also talks movingly about his own father, who works at
the local Raytheon plant, silently bonds with his son every night over Johnny
Carson's monologues, and ultimately loses that son to the influence of Lears
and the life of the mind he represents. At the end of senior year, the
academically marginal Edmundson somehow gets accepted to the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst. It's hinted by one neighborhood friend in the know
that Edmundson's college acceptance might have fallen off the back of a truck.
If so, Edmundson makes us understand how the strange, free-thinking Franklin
Lears really could have inspired a kid who once only read football scores to
snatch up that hot intellectual merchandise and run.

BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Teacher," by Mark Edmundson.


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue