10/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pentagon 9/11 Memorial: Making Beauty Out of Ugly Things


Shortly after 1 a.m., the taxi came to a stop in the Pentagon parking lot. We climbed out and walked solemnly toward the otherworldly glow in the distance.

Two of my dear friends and fellow religion journalists, Jason and Michael, and I made the short journey from downtown Washington, D.C., to the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va., to visit the 9/11 memorial honoring 184 people who died here when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the five-sided building that houses the U.S. military's nerve center.

We weren't sure how we'd feel. We just knew we had to come to this place of unthinkable tragedy, to this hallowed ground. To be present. To bear witness.

The Pentagon memorial, which President Bush dedicated this month on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is the first to open to the public. Similar memorials are planned at Ground Zero and in Shanksville, Pa., but are not yet completed. The Pentagon memorial is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

In the stillness of the early morning, interrupted only by the low hum of traffic on a highway in the distance and Pentagon police cruisers that drove by every few minutes, we entered the memorial field -- a nearly two-acre plot facing the south facade of the Pentagon, where the airliner hit, and made our way toward the first of 184 metal-and-granite benches, one for each of the victims of the attack.

That first bench -- a metal arc with a rectangular, back-lit pool of running water underneath -- is inscribed with the name of 3-year-old Dana Falkenberg of University Park, Md., who perished aboard Flight 77 with her 8-year-old sister, Zoe, and parents Charles Falkenberg and Leslie Whittington. Dana was the youngest of the Pentagon victims. The bench for the eldest -- 71-year-old John D. Yamnicky Sr., a defense contractor from Waldorf, Md. -- stands at the opposite end of the field, where the markers are arranged in rows by the birth year of the victims.

Benches representing the 59 passengers on Flight 77 face away from the Pentagon building, while the benches dedicated to the 125 who died inside the Pentagon face the building itself. The rows of benches are arranged on the angle that the ill-fated flight took when it crashed into the building.

There were only two other visitors present -- a pair of young men, one in a wheelchair -- when we made our way through the gravel that covers the ground, stopping to read each name. The two men asked me to take their picture without the flash on, so the glow from the benches could be seen in its natural state. I took their picture. They thanked me. And we all moved on reverently, saying nothing more.

There has been much debate about how 9/11 memorials at the Pentagon, Ground Zero and Shanksville should be created -- what they should look like, how they should feel. It's really a conversation about how to make each space sacred.

Over the years, Jason, Michael and I have visited many sacred places, from St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and scores of other churches, shrines, temples, synagogues and mosques at home and abroad. The Pentagon memorial grabs hold of my soul and shakes it like no other house of the holy has.

Designers of the Pentagon memorial, Julie Backman and Keith Kaseman of New York City, got it right. Their hauntingly understated, modern design transforms a site of immense grief into a transcendent sanctuary for holy memories of the dearly departed. It's not representational but evocative. And that is its power.

The benches -- forged in a Missouri foundry and finished outside Chicago by a metal-working business owned by Abe Yousif, an Iraqi immigrant -- are perfect in their abstract form. Rather than static, geographic grave markers, they rise gently and elegantly, as if in motion, from the shallow pools of water. The arching benches resemble dorsal fins of dolphins. Together, the 184 benches look like a pod of dolphins swimming in an iridescent sea. Historically, dolphins have symbolized safety -- traveling mercies, if you will. The ancients often used images of dolphins to decorate tombs, such as the catacombs in Rome. Dolphins were meant to signify a love that endures even in the depths of an ocean of despair, even into death and the hereafter.

Perhaps the most moving part of the Pentagon memorial is not an image but the sound of running water. The benches appear to be connected by the same, narrow river moving perpetually from one soul to the other. It reminded me of the Bantu word I have tattooed under a Celtic symbol for unity on the back of my neck: "Ubuntu." It is the word Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that great holy man dedicated to peace and reconciliation, has chosen as his life's motto. It means, "I am because we are." More than anything else, the Pentagon memorial reminds me that we are all connected, in life and in death.

That idea alone transforms this place of sorrow into a sacred space.

Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace/em>.