“The Hill We Climb” — Reflections on the Inauguration

Washington Post photo, 1/20/2021

It’s been a few days since the inspiring inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris here in Washington. The hopeful feeling that I, my wife, and our political friends experienced then has survived the first days of the new administration and is showing some possibility of sustaining itself through at least the proverbial “first hundred days” of the Biden administration.

The not-entirely-peaceful transfer of power, performed within the Red Zone of the Capitol and Washington Mall, guarded over by thousands of police and National Guard troops, was an event that we’d long anticipated. Yet I awoke Wednesday with doubts whether a meaningful inauguration ceremony could be enacted on the very site where Trump’s insurrectionists had seized the Capitol and threatened the lives of the entire U.S. Congress only two weeks earlier.

During the three decades I worked as a spiritual counselor at a non-denominational rural retreat center, I made a careful study and practice of ceremony and ritual.   I had learned that I and others are hungry for meaningful rituals, especially at threshold events in our lives: weddings, divorces, births, deaths – any event representing a significant passage into another way of being.

For many of us, the recent presidential inauguration qualifies as such a significant passage. As a practitioner of ritual, I had learned the importance of physical setting. Churches and other temples of worship consciously provide safe, protected, beautiful, sometimes awe-inspiring venues for experiencing a divine presence. Working with Native American teachers and healers, I had learned that the natural world could also provide the environment for profound experiences of the sacred.

Our U.S. Capitol building is the principal temple of our national political life. Many Congressional representatives spoke of the January 6 insurrection as a desecration of our national political temple.  I myself held a reverence for the Capitol since my first visit there as a 12-year-old. Yet after the murder and mayhem waged by the insurrectionist mob on January 6, and the ensuing militarization to prevent further disturbance, I wondered whether the sense of sacred space could still be invoked.

The inspiring unfolding of the Biden-Harris inauguration was therefore especially gratifying to behold.  Despite the restricted number of attendees and the raw memories of the traumatic upheaval two weeks earlier, I felt transported to a place of renewed political commitment and genuine love for our nation and for the institutions that had allowed us to move forward.

The two moderators of the event, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota and Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri were gracious and upbeat.  The swearing-in ceremony was preceded by a series of prayers, short speeches, and songs that served to lift the energy and spirit of the occasion. President Biden is a genuinely spiritual person and his choice for the clergy to speak the Invocation (a Catholic priest friend) and the Benediction (a protestant minister) demonstrated that his brand of Christianity was of the “servant leadership” variety.  Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem stirred me with her soaring vocal artistry and unusual wardrobe.  Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks each brought their uniquely soulful styles to “This Land Is Your Land” and “Amazing Grace” respectively.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ swearing-in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor followed.  The history-making ascendance of the first woman to attain that office was all that needed to be affirmed.

After swearing his fealty to the Constitution and to the responsibilities of the presidency, new President Joe Biden delivered a forceful and moving speech, focused mainly on finding common ground within our deeply divided country. He spoke to the fragility of democracy, as witnessed by ongoing denial of the election results and the violent insurrection exactly two weeks earlier.  He also spoke to the resiliency of our democratic institutions as demonstrated by both houses of Congress reconvening at the Capitol just hours after the attack to formally certify the election.

“So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

Those words had greater weight by virtue of three former presidents (Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama) attending, and Biden’s also sharing his phone conversation with Jimmy Carter the night before.

President Biden’s speech was an affirmation of his optimistic, spiritually grounded belief that we are capable of meeting and overcoming the many existential challenges facing us:

“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.

“Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war we’ve endured, but we still have far to go.

“We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain.”

A neighbor had joined my wife and me to watch the inauguration on television.  We found ourselves spontaneously standing up and clapping together at various points, as if we were physically there!  It was then that I realized that the concentrated commitment and energy of the ceremony had transcended the recent insurrection, the necessary military security, and the still raging pandemic.

Inspiring as President Biden’s speech was, the capstone of the ceremony for me was what followed:  the reading of an inauguration poem by the twenty-something African American woman poet, Amanda Gorman.

Associated Press photo of Ms. Amanda Gorman

Ms. Gorman wore a bright yellow coat and red headband.  She was a slight in her physical presence, but exhibited a poise and grace that was visually, as well as poetically, compelling, especially in her fluid, graceful hand-arm movements, and clear, strong elocution.  Her poem is titled “The Hill We Climb” and it uncannily echoed many of the themes just spoken by our new President, as evinced by the following segments:

“We are a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished…

We are striving to compose a country

committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions…

We close the divide because we know

to put our future first

we must put our differences aside….

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped,

That even as we tired, we tried…

The hill we climb,

If only we dare

Is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into

And how we repair it.”

After the long¸ dark, dispiriting years of the Trump presidency, I felt my soul being washed and healed.  A strong, positive feeling continued throughout the day and was reinforced by the inspiring, televised “celebration event” sponsored by the inauguration committee that evening.

Like President Biden and everyone else I know, I have no illusion that the road ahead for our country will be an easy one.  But Inauguration Day’s ceremonial events succeeded in opening a genuine sense of hope that enough of us had come together to begin the long, hard climb ahead.

John Bayerl, 1/24/2021

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