COMMENTARY: Being Ourselves and Finding Our Identity

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The movie version of “The Da Vinci Code” came in like a low tide of religiosity. It was followed almost immediately by the low-grade tsunami of mystical prediction that the biblical 666 beast was coming on 6/6/06.

Both events proved too shallow for a hurried baptism, much less total immersion, in genuine religious mystery. Indeed, neither Ron Howard’s movie nor 666 has anything to do with religious mystery.

But if we traverse out into deeper waters, we find genuine religious mystery in the case of two college students whose identities were mistaken, one for the other even by their families, after a tragic Michigan automobile accident at the end of April.

According to USA Today, Whitney Cerak, 19, and Laura VanRyn, 22, looked so remarkably alike that after a tractor trailer slammed into their car, the coroner confused Laura (who died) with Whitney (who lived). The families were misinformed, plunging Whitney’s into grieving and mourning, and Laura’s into waiting and praying for her recovery.

Only last week did the stark and unforgiving character of religious mystery challenge us to look it in the eye and not look away. After believing that they buried Whitney at a funeral attended by 1,400 friends and neighbors, the Ceraks learned that their daughter had lived and lay in a comatose state in a hospital. At the same moment, the VanRyns were told that the girl swathed in bandages with whom they had kept prayerful vigil since the end of April was not their daughter but her friend.

The stories of this tragedy _ one of crushing disappointment, one of suddenly restored hope _ are difficult to read. Everybody, from the coroner who resigned after learning of his error to stunned family and friends, asked how such a case of mistaken identity could have occurred.

So great is the burden of these families that we feel it at a distance and feel, too, for these parents who seem to be laden like scapegoats with all the woes of our time and driven into a wilderness too bleak for us to contemplate.

Unlike cheap fiction (“The Da Vinci Code”) and faux doomsday prophecy (666), this tragedy tells us there is no secret code about religious mystery _ that, in fact, it happens to ordinary people in broad daylight all the time. It also takes the ridiculous romance out of a creature arriving from the netherworld to force upon us the mistakes and bad choices that we make for ourselves all the time.

This is a harrowing narrative about ordinary people, typical Americans out of the heartland, suddenly swept up into pain that can barely be contemplated and never explained. It carries echoes of biblical scenes in which a dead daughter is restored to her grieving mother; of another mother who witnesses the death of her only child; of the long-suffering and injustice that are the lot of good people; and of the depth of belief that they draw on when we do not know how to comfort them.

This tragedy carries within it all America’s longing and confusion about identity, about who we are and what it means to be a person. This year we’ve seen writers steal words and invent lives and identities to match the need for fame and power. This terrible tragedy, meanwhile, reminds us of the sacredness and singularity of our own personalities, of the call to be ourselves, even if it means being caught up in tragedies like this one.

This is religious mystery in its most profound sense because it gives the lie to the phoniness of reality television _ it has nothing to do with reality or genuine persons at all. It challenges ironic magazine titles like People and Us _ their pages have little to do with real people, and those who gaze out of them are not like us.

Reality is lived out before our eyes by real people we do not know _ like the Cerak and VanRyn families. These are real people, they are the ones like us.

(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)


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