Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:2
In 2011, I was a freshman at small, Evangelical Christian high school in Seacoast Maine. There were only twelve students at Veritas Academy (one for each of the twelve disciples). We campaigned for Mitt Romney, studied creationist biology textbooks and prayed for the demons to leave those who were doubting among us. To train as street evangelizers and spread the Gospel, we took a school missions trip to New York City in a single 15 passenger van.
After we arrived in the city, our crusade made a civic detour in the direction of the World Trade Center memorial. It was the final days of construction before the memorial was complete. I remember looking down into the black pit where the South Tower once stood. As I watched, a dead leaf slowly drifted over the surface of the water before disappearing over the edge of the dark, cascading waterfall. It probably fell from one of the replanted trees taken from the impact sites that made up the remembrance garden behind me – young, oak saplings. I wonder how tall the trees will be in twenty years. I look up into the sky and cough. It’s clear and blue and there is nothing there anymore.
Thirty-seven years earlier, I might have seen something else: a spindly, Frenchman, clad in all black, snooping on the roof and snapping photos. He’s recon mission. Months later, I might’ve seen that same Frenchman, with his crew of friends, hoist a heavy, metal cable, fasten it between the towers, and take the first step. His eyes fixed straight ahead and never down.
The breeze rustles through the trees behind me. I wonder how loud the wind would have been if I were suspended between the towers; what it would be like to fall – all the way down.
Philippe Petit knows that sound – on August 7th, 1974, during the last days of construction on the Twin Towers, he rigged a tightrope between them and walked – the police called him “Man on Wire.” The nation held its breath with wonder at the most beautiful stage on Earth; a tightrope dance which still hangs in America’s conscience.
In 2015, I was a freshman at small, Evangelical Christian college on the North Shore of Massachusetts. There were 1600 students. I went to mandatory chapel, Bible studies with my RA and took a required New Testament courses. It was here at Gordon College where my God was killed. I don’t know if you’ve ever had God die, but it completely sucks. The feeling was gone. There had always been a special buzz hovering above the crown of head – it’s hard to describe, but it was as if there was a presence always with me. That presence had evaporated. As I walked around Gordon, it might as well have been my valley of Death – I sat in the back of chapel wishing the pastor’s words had any significance. My only consolation were my punk friends and my incredibly supportive roommate, Dave. Dave gave me the confidence to bear with the nothingness.
When he invited me to a documentary screening about the Holy Spirit, I was incredibly cynical, but Dave insisted that his club was going to be there and could use the support; so, I went. As I anticipated the film was a dumpster fire and I spent most of my time on the phone in the hallway. However, after the film, the revivalist group hosting the event invited anyone who felt called to come forward and receive prayer. Suddenly, against my conscious and unconscious will, I felt an itch – a tug at my heart that I hadn’t felt in months. I stood up from my seat on the steps and walked down the steep auditorium stairs, nodding to the waiting prayer warriors. They warmly gathered around me and I reluctantly bowed my head and closed my eyes. I don’t remember the words they said, but I remember the tears – unending tears at the loss of the God my childhood – and a warm hand on my back. I wasn’t sure who the hand belonged too, but it was a presence I yearned for.
In the face of spiritual death, I chose to believe again; to have faith. I have no reason to. I still don’t, and the Bible is as ahistorical as it ever was, but my epistemology has changed. In that moment, I decided to step out into the mystery, and then, on the other side of that void, I experienced the love and the mystical resurrection of the God I have always known, but never truly touched – everyday. This is the story of Christ: life, death and resurrection. It’s also Philippe’s story.
Philippe leaped – as I leaped freshman year of college and as Christ leaped in his death on the cross – into the unknown (what is more unknown than death itself and the nothingness that lies beyond). Only in death can there be resurrection, and only through the rejection of any thought or conception of God – the Death of God – am I able to truly experience Her. This is what makes death defying acts beautiful. Philippe, in order to walk across that wire, had to prepare to die. It is no coincidence Petit was an artist-in-residence at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York.
Philippe’s story introduces life back America’s conscience and reinterprets the Twin Towers. His courage to walk over the void that day – gave the world a gift. Something more precious than he could have ever known. His walk earned him incredible fame, a trip to jail, and inspired several films – yes, but his performance on the high wire is more than that: it was healing. To transform the memory of crowds stopped in the streets of New York, staring up into the sky in terror, and to replace horror with smile instead – that is something death defying. That is what his story does.
The courage to live to the fullness of one’s dreams (whether a dream of God or beauty) is the vehicle which can transport the world from finite to the infinite. Only through our imagination can we see ourselves doing the impossible. Philippe did something impossible: he lived. I live. Christ lives. If we look down while on the wire, we fall, but when we look straight ahead and imagine ourselves walking forward, we walk into today and next day and the day after that – full hope and full of dreams – a dream that begins with a single leap. My young, high school self will learn this. One day.