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Welcome, all of us, to 2011. As the sun warms the mountains of graying snow in New York City, I feel renewed by the Concert for Peace I attended last night with two dear friends from California.
New Year?s Eve is not a time generally associated with reflection, but there we were, sitting on a cold marble step, as the ethereal, now seasoned, voice of Judy Collins a capella filled the highest reaches and resonated throughout the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where she is artist in residence.
?When all the world is a hopeless jumble and the raindrops tumble all around,? she sang, ?Heaven opens a magic lane.?
?Over the Rainbow,? may not be your traditional hymn, but it was a perfect choice. The 1939 classic penned by Yip Harburg to Harold Arlen?s melody for The Wizard of Oz reminds of a time when the troubles of the Great Depression and the darkening clouds of World War II stubbornly refused to melt like lemon drops.
There wasn?t much preaching, but James Kowalski, dean of the Cathedral, reminded us that we have been at war for almost a decade and how little it touches most of our daily lives. Recently unemployed newsman Harry Smith called us to let go of our characteristically New York competitive, individualistic strivings to see the pain of others. Kowalski told of the treasured white prayer scarf he received from the Dalai Lama and the red one given him later by a group of Buddhist monks who considered themselves too humble to put it around his shoulders.
We had not arrived soon enough to merit seats with a clear view of proceedings, but from the vantage of our tiny niche behind the sarcophagus of a departed bishop, the sounds were pure and uplifting. The call to worship was sung by a Sufi woman, and the main event, Haydn?s Mass in Time of War with orchestra and chorus, reverberated in marvelous clarity. It was paused midway for a somber cello solo based on Jewish themes. The concert ended with candlelit rounds of Dona Nobis Pacem.
This is not the era of the Vietnam war in which my friends and I met. We are older, grayer, less sure that we know solutions for a lot of things. We can watch the roll call of U.S. casualties on the evening news, but our children never faced a draft. We rarely see the Afghanis or Iraqis, some of them civilian men, women and children, whom our forces kill. The dean is correct, it?s too easy to go about our daily business as if none of this were taking place.
Reactions to the events of 9/11 seem to have set off a blood thirst that cannot be quenched in some American quarters. Every day there are rumors of other potential wars?in Iran, in North Korea, in Pakistan. The price paid for a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia seems to be more nuclear weapons. I sometimes find it difficult to talk about peace without feeling Pollyannaish or effete. The old slogans like Be the Peace You Want to See or Give Peace a Chance and, especially, the peace sign have grown shopworn from too many tee shirts and bumper stickers.
But outside the numbing confines of our culture, real visionaries confront conflict and, yes, evil, for peace. One thinks of the Liberian women led by Lehmah Gbowee who prayed down the dictator Charles Taylor or the women of the Palestinian village of Budrus in Israel?s West Bank who with the help of Jewish peace activists forced Israeli soldiers to reroute the wall through their land. The Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi weathered years of hardship and separation from family and society, but today she is free. In the United States, Code Pink activists have been unrelenting in their opposition to U.S. military overreach. There is nothing soft or trite about the peace these women seek; it is difficult work, and it is often dangerous.
Last night, we left the cathedral in a somber mood, but today I feel lighter and more hopeful. Putting aside the distractions that divert us and confronting the dark puts us in touch with the rest of humanity and those who went before us. I find it both comforting and challenging. Over the rainbow, indeed.