c. 2000 Religion News Service
(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of “My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin Press.)
UNDATED The coming of 2000 was a great disappointment to those people who, as the great German writer Thomas Mann once described them, have “a sympathy for the abyss.”
Instead of entering “Apocalypse Now,” Americans, and almost everybody else, enjoyed the slowly turning wheel of time as it gently swept the seas and land masses, heralded by fire works instead of terrorist bombs, to roll 2000 over our upturned faces as gently as a shadow.
The spirit of the event was more like a family gathering, a wedding, say, at which everybody behaved well despite the dire possibilities of some people you know who being chronically peeved at their seating, Uncle Joe’s drinking too much, or somebody’s opening up a barely closed wound of family misunderstanding.
It was, in fact, an evening of revelation in which we had an unhurried opportunity to see how much we are like, rather than unlike, each other. 1999 offered many opportunities for such a spiritual discovery.
How many times, on front pages and television screens, did we notice one of our most significant family resemblances in the unguarded tears of strangers. They remind us that, even though our customs and our costumes are radically different, we all experience the same longings and sorrows, and that hearts break the same everywhere.
We could also recognize our own faces in those of the Egyptians clustered together in makeshift waiting areas awaiting news of the jet that, halfway through autumn, carried their loved ones into the Atlantic deep. In midsummer, John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s plane had plunged into the depths of the same acreage of the sea.
How much we resemble each other as we wait for news of our families and friends. Humans seem almost interchangeable as they mourn their losses around smoldering fires in Kosovo, Chechnya or Worcester, Mass. Life is like an album whose photos are all of the same family. We are, as psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan once observed, “much more simply human than anything else.”
That, of course, is why we also recognize our common inheritance in our laughter and smiles, in our wonder at the glories as well as the tragedies of life. That was the special revelation, as religious as one could ever be, as 2000 unfolded across the time zones like a series of panels painted by masters.
Study the pictures of the vast watching crowds and read in the faces both delight and wonder, hope and confidence, people not terrorized by the “end times” but people excited about the times yet to come. The human family took the much-hyped century turn in stride, comfortable with creation, and so focused on home and family that many stayed by their own firesides and went to bed early.
The spiritual nature of this memorable evening was symbolized, for those with eyes to see, in the elements of the celebration. We were arrayed in familiar aspects of the mystery of creation, in the metaphors and images of the separation of the day from the night, of time being birthed out of eternity, and of its symbol, the moon that sat as close as ever to the world so near to century’s end as to be a part of it.
And we contemplated the passage by the primal element of fire in the rockets that sprayed against the night sky to allow us to see each other’s faces. How small on that night the mighty seemed, how feeble their words as they were upstaged by an event that spoke in a tongue beyond language to our very depths.
Sometimes we have only indirect evidence of a common experience. No one has seen the wind, we are told in the Scriptures, of the Spirit that blows where it will. The indirect proof that something transcendent occurred is easy to identify. It is discovered in the peace that indeed passed understanding as it was handed, as in a relay race, from people to people across the globe.
Such moments are rare. They are meant to surprise us for true spiritual experience is not a self-conscious thing. It is less likgh!