Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Journeys as Pilgrimages

I'm hearing amazing stories today of the efforts many people made to attend yesterday's inauguration. Long car trips in winter weather, with drivers spelling each other as families and friends drove together through the night. Ferry trips to reach the inauguration ceremony, in which the ferry had to break ice on the river to get through.

These stories are the stuff of which authentic history is made. And pilgrimages as well, which spawn a literature of remembrance in which the profound spiritual significance of a journey weaves through the narrative alongside the details remembered.

It seems fitting to me that many of us would approach this historic inauguration ceremony as pilgrims. Hunger and thirst for renewal of our democratic institutions runs deep inside many of us these days. For African Americans, the historic breakthrough represented by the inauguration of Barack Obama has to evoke a sense of democratic aspiration fulfilled at last--of belonging at last, of relinquishing an invisibility imposed by mainstream culture, of struggle against injustice rewarded at last. A sense of democratic aspiration finally fulfilled that has religious overtones and should have such overtones.

The spiritual significance of this moment in history is not lost, either, on many who experienced the inauguation vicariously, from far away. Within moments after President Obama had taken his oath of office and Rev. Lowery had prayed the benediction, two English e-friends of mine emailed to share their joy.

I haven't met these folks except online. They are friends of a friend of mine. They're a gay couple, and I somehow seem to have been told that they are an interracial couple, though I'm not entirely sure of that. Here's what they have to say about the inauguration:

Congratulations on the inauguration of your/our new inspirational President. God Bless you all. We saw the ceremony on our screens just now and were very moved by his and Rev. Lowery's words. I am sure you all felt very moved by his speech and challenging all to build and take responsibility. Would that our politicians could inspire the same sentiments and patriotism, but then we Brits sadly tend to be quite cynical about human beings being able to change the world and have not been too good on expressing our hearts openly and feeling OK about expressing Hope either, perhaps to our shame. These two Brits here though felt very "at one" with you and our other American friends. We want you to know that.

And where many of saw cause for joy yesterday, spiritual joy, some of us had thoughts of death and burial. Waldo Lydecker's Journal linked yesterday, at the end of the day, to a posting by Sunlit Uplands in response to the inauguration ( Sunlit Uplands is a South Carolina blog, as is Waldo Lydecker's Journal.

But the two blogs are as far apart as can be imagined, politically and religiously. Sunlit Uplands professes to be about Faith, Freedom, Defense of the West, and Renewal of the Culture.

This distinguished Christian blog chose to commemorate yesterday's events by linking to Chopin's funeral march. Which makes me wonder: whose funeral?

Perhaps the Sunlit crowd, who talk constantly about how they represent authentic old-time liturgically appropriate and orthodox Christianity are remembering John Donne as they offer us this funeral dirge? Donne would fit; he was as orthodox as one can imagine, and Anglo enough to meet the high cultural and religious standards of Sunlit Uplands.

I think, then, that Sunlit Uplands surely had Donne in mind as it linked to Chopin's funeral march. To be specific, I suspect Sunlit Uplands is drawing our attention to John Donne's "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions" (1623) VII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris, with its famous observation: "If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Which is a wonderful reminder, don't you think, of how we ought to be careful of intoning dirges, lest we be intoning our own funeral chant?