Rushed to press a month after the Sept. 11 tragedy, "From the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to the Attack on America" is a helpful spinoff from the leading multifaith website, Beliefnet.com. As the nation reeled from the impacts of the terrorist actions - thousands of lives lost, an economy staggering, a spreading anthrax threat - an urgent need apart from preventing future strikes was to attend to people's spiritual needs.
In its inimitable way, the country galvanized into action with a war on terrorism, a stimulus package for the economy, a homeland policy, and a public health campaign to counter security and bioterrorism dangers. But many people still look for greater action on the spiritual front, where many Americans were struck with an unaccustomed vulnerability.
"We are in as much need of great clergy as of great statesmen and great generals," according to Steve Waldman, the editor in chief of Beliefnet, who envisioned this book as a means to make such voices more widely heard. A diverse country calls for diverse voices, and "From the Ashes" offers dozens of essays from spiritual leaders of various traditions, and other wise and provocative thinkers.
While some essays written hours after the attacks may seem dated, others deal with people's most fundamental questions about God, good and evil, and the demands of relating to one another, as well as the underlying issues of what lessons need to be learned from the shattering experience.
There are pulpit-thumping sermons, and quiet musings on the rigorous requirements of genuine faith, ideas on how to act creatively, and numerous graceful yet pointed prods to self-examination.
"We human beings learn best how to love when we're a bit broken ... when our myths of self-sufficiency and safety are shattered," writes author Kathleen Norris, quoting from an earlier work. "Apocalypse is meant to bring us to our senses, allowing us a sober if painful glimpse of what is possible in the new life we build from the ashes of the old."
A section devoted to Islam offers some of the most concise and illuminating explanations of the faith readily available.
As the news media focus on the details of the antiterrorist campaign at home and abroad, the early public discussion on the deeper issues has all but disappeared. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this collection lies in the essays that challenge the culture's pre-Sept. 11 preoccupations, and point to basic dislocations between how Americans live and what they purportedly believe.
"Spirituality is not about easing fear, about mere consolation,"says Sufi leader Kahir Melminski. "It is about facing truth."
Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam - men who lived for years amid terrorism - offer some disconcerting truths that gung-ho contemporary American culture may find difficult to assimilate: the essential, transforming need to learn to listen deeply to others, and to develop the capacity to forgive one's bitter enemies.
"We have been asleep," declares the Rev. T.D. Jakes. And now it's time to recognize that "to be on your knees is a posture of warfare."
This volume can strike one - like Beliefnet itself on occasion - as too much of a smorgasbord. But for those engaged in the spiritual issues, it offers insight into how people of diverse faiths respond to a common tragedy, and serves that crucial spiritual purpose of stirring thought to more profound considerations.