Friday, March 9, 2007

by Austin Repath
The Millennium Dome becomes a shrine for the first Millennium Eve Vigil as the old man remembers the the first Vigil held there on New Year's Eve, 1999
Just the day before, the old man had received the news that his time on earth was coming to an end. How fitting, he thought, that this opening of the annual year's end Vigil in the ancient Millennium Dome should be his last official act on earth. He thought back over the century his life time had spanned.
The 21st century had been an amazing century. Science had extended the span of human life beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Nature, apparently, had curbed the population explosion by means of an unexplained almost zero sperm count within the male population. The human species, although up to its usual bag of dirty tricks, had developed a sufficient appreciation for life so as to start reversing some of the horrors of the 20th century.
However, the most important shift that occurred during the 21st century was associated with a project that he had been a part of: bringing life to the barren landscape of Mars. Most people had seen the project as simply an expensive scientific experiment; a few had seen it as a resurrection of a dead planet. Either way for most of the 21st century, humankind had been engaged not in destroying a planet, but in bringing life to one.
It was his research into terraforming that had shown how to warm up the surface of Mars to the point where the subterranean ice melted, lakes formed, plants had been introduced, forests were started. Now an earth like protective atmosphere was beginning to develop. The impact on the human mind of bringing back to life a dead planet drastically changed the way people thought about themselves. They no longer saw themsleves as polluters and destroyers. They now saw themselves in a more positive light.This change in attitude was largely responsible for the restoration of planet earth to a state of sustainable equilibrium. Funny, he thought, how things worked and now here he was at the venerable age of 120 about to open the Vigil.
The crowd fell hushed as the reenactment of the Millennium Eve Vigil began. Television cameras focused in on the old man. The viewers knew he was the last living witness to that first Vigil and through his telling they hoped to experience in some small way what had transpired that night long before their own lives had begun. They watched as the old man rose from his chair, looked out at this new generation and slowly began to speak.
"It was at this hour, 12 noon on the last day of the Second Millennium, 1999, that people around the world came together, to be part of an event that we still celebrate even today.
"But in truth it had begun years earlier when a few intuitive people began to sense that a threshold moment in history was about to happen and with the right guidance and a little luck the human race could walk through it into a new place.
"They began with themselves, looked at what they needed to leave behind and what they needed to change. They gathered their friends together and with them created the rituals of threshold: the rites of reconciliation, of passage, of celebration. Gradually, these men and women began to see themselves as on a pilgrimage towards a moment in time that would be made sacred by what they and others brought to it. And thus they became known as the Millennium Pilgrims.
“Then in the closing days of the second millennium a series of unexpected events occurred that created an opportunity for people to come together in a moment of human understanding and compassion. The dark interval as it came to be called proved to be an essential part of the threshold for it provided a means for humanity to remove itself from the grips of complacency and self indulgence.
But it was the courage of one man, and a global television news network that took upon itself the task of broadcasting the Vigil that made the difference. For without them it is doubtful that what we have become, would have happened. "And so it was that people around the world sat down in front of their sets to watch what first looked like a 24 hour television marathon but which turned out to be a threshold through which the peoples of the earth passed through into a new way of seeing the world.
"On that last day of the 20th. century, a certain Millennium Pilgrim appeared on the television screen. She smiled warmly towards us, her grey eyes twinkling as if she had a great secret she was about to share with us. Then with a nod of reassurance she began, `You who have walked this earth with me, let us pause and look at how far we have come this last one thousand years. Let us begin by looking at what we have accomplished.'
"And with her words the screen faded to live performances of the great music that had been written across the Millennium from the plain chant of 12th century monks, through Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Scraibin. As the music lifted our spirits, the camera drew our eyes to gothic cathedrals, spires of Renaissance churches, town squares, city skylines, the simple but beautiful homes of ordinary people. Even the humble invention of John Crapper was not overlooked, nor where the illuminated manuscripts and books that bespoke mankind's struggle for truth, and as the music faded to the background, the speakers of the word came forward to recite a soliloquy from Shakespeare, a poem from Emily Dickinson, the words of James Joyce, On and on it went, the rich heritage of the past, including even the fascinating but ultimately destructive art form of the 20th century, the automobile.
"Perhaps this is a good time to mention that different parts of the world produced parallel segments so that each country could see the achievements of humankind in its own art and culture. And so hours past as accomplishments one after the other washed over us, until we swelled with pride at all that we humankind had achieved across the millennium. Let me tell you, to bask in the glory of our species and its greatness was an exulting experience, I will never forget.
"At the end of this the Millennium Pilgrim asked each of us to pause and in a similar way to acknowledge our own accomplishments. And so with softer more reflective music in the background we shared with each other what we had accomplished. I remember some, within the Millennium Dome where I was celebrating the Vigil, needing a little prodding by their friends to admit to all their successes.
"Then, with a gentle inclusive gesture, the white haired pilgrim asked us also to look at the times we were less than successful. She suggested we do this in silence and took us through a list of missed opportunities. After each one she asked us to speak aloud "I forgive myself". Personally, I remember failing to be at my mother's death bed. I forgave myself and asked for her forgiveness. I recalled failing to give an acquaintance a loan of some money, when he phoned late one night. A few days later I saw him walking around on crutches, probably revenge for not being able to repay a drug debt. "I forgive myself". And other such things still too personal to speak of here.
"And yet back then, when I looked about the circle of people who had gathered together to celebrate the vigil, I could see that even if I had spoken aloud my faults, there would be no judgment in their eyes. For my part whatever the failures in their past, I realized that I could forgive them as they had me. This was no small miracle,but there was more.
"People began acknowledging the hurt they had done to each other and asking each other for forgiveness. It went on for a long time and with each act of reconciliation came a sense of relief as we freed ourselves bit by bit from our past. Personally, I found the good feelings rather intoxicating. However, what came next quickly sobered me up.
"I remember the Pilgrim asking us not to turn away from what was coming, but simply to acknowledge that just as we as individuals did violence either wilfully or in ignorance, so too on a much larger scale did our species. What followed next I would like to pass over quickly. Back then I remember feeling so ashamed of being a member of the human race, I would gladly have traded places with the smallest worm on the planet.
"On the screen appeared the horrors that we had inflicted on each other across the millennium: the wars, the genocides, the abuse of children, the cruelty, the killing off of thousands upon thousands of our own kind and then the annihilation of whole species of animals. Finally came the culmination of all horrors, our species almost destroying the very planet we live on. And just when I thought I could take no more of this dark side of our nature, the Pilgrim appeared on the screen.
"For the longest time she stood in silence with tears streaming down her face. There was such compassion in those infinitely gentle, grey eyes of hers that I found myself weeping: weeping for all who had fallen victim to our violence, weeping for the perpetrators who were blinded to their own humanity. For that moment I shared her compassion for human kind, and together we wept for the needless suffering caused across the millennium by our stupidity and arrogance. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt truly human. For me this would have been enough, but there was more.
" When I looked back into those wise, grey eyes I saw in them a truth I still find hard to accept. These horrors along with our achievements were an essential part of the human tapestry; that it was our life's work to weave these threads of light and darkness, joy and sorrow into a work of art. Nor had I any doubt that when seen from eternity with whose eyes we knew not this human tapestry would reveal a masterpiece worthy to be called divine. It was a startling revelation, I still cannot fully comprehend.
"Finally when she broke the long silence in which so much had transpired, her words bespoke a simple acknowledgement of all that we were. `We who have come together, as both weave and weavers, let us celebrate this moment in our lives.' And with this simple request she dropped us gently back into the safe confines of the ordinary. The screen shifted to that most mundane and so-often-seen New Year's Eve place and moment, - Times Square, New York, and the countdown to midnight.
"All I can remember of the next hour was the sweetness of old friends, warm embraces, reminiscences, the singing of Auld Lang Syne and champagne corks popping. It was like every other New Year's Eve, and yet like no other. We made our peace with each other, pledged our love to those who were dear to us until almost without our knowing we gradually drifted back into silence, then fell away into that solitaire vigil known to every sentinel at the gate, known by everyone at the moment of their dying.
"At that moment each of us stood alone, saw our limitations, felt our mortality, knew that the world we had grown up in was coming to an end, and yet despite the sadness at the passing of all that we clung to, there was simply a sense beyond description of the privilege of having lived. And there was this wonderful feeling of simply being alive and knowing that we were all part of life itself. It was almost like a near-death experience; for when I came out of the private place of my own vigil, I was returned to life with different eyes. When I looked about me I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of tremendous gratitude for the gift of life, and this changed everything.
"Then, with the dawning of the first day of the new millennium, the beloved Pilgrim appeared on our television screens for the last time. Dressed in a shimmering white garment, she beckoned to us, `Come, let us enter together this new millennium.' The camera stayed with her as she walked over to a group of young people singing that old spiritual 'Morning has broken.'
"Afterwards they shared their vision of the future. Each of them had that in-your-face promise of just watch what I'm going to do. But it was tempered by a knowledge of the world; they knew life - we had taught them well by example. Old far beyond their years they knew full well the so-called lessons of life, but they were not bitter. Angry at us, yes, but not damning of us. I could live with that. Then the Pilgrim asked them what they needed from us.
"One young woman, stepped forward like the voice of the new millennium herself. `We will handle the problems of the future. We ask you to take responsibility for the past.' Another youth came forward asking that our wisdom be passed on to them. Another begged us not to stay within our safe and comfortable little worlds. He wanted us to come out and build with them this new millennium. He had about him that idealism of youth and that sense that all things are possible that he cut through my cynicism and world weariness.
"And when he looked directly at us and said 'Come it is not too late to create a new world' my hopelessness and angst ridden soul melted. The invitation was so heartfelt and genuine to put aside our differences and create a new world that I was touched to the depths of my being.
"Now back then I had been working on my doctorate in astrophysics hoping to join NASA the following year. But those words it is not too late to create a new world rang through my head, and as if in answer a voice inside me replied. `Why not on Mars?' And at that moment my destiny was sealed. The next day I switched my research to learn how to create a life sustaining atmosphere on Mars.
"To others the question - `why not on earth' moved them to act. And look about us. Have we not both succeeded. Tomorrow I leave behind this resplendent planet to go with the first group of settlers to our sister planet, Mars. Is that not a fitting way to leave this fine planet earth?"
The participants sat there unsure how to respond.Then one woman jumped to her feet and shouted out the one word that could best honor his life and his work. Then everyone was on their feet chanting, "Pilgrim, Pilgrim, Pilgrim."
The old man wiped a tear from his eye as he let himself be escorted to the place of honour at the head of the Millennium Dome by the master of ceremonies for that year. He thought her a bit too young for the position until her gentle grey eyes looked into his and once again he knew that all would be well. At peace with himself and the world, the old man listened as she intoned the opening invocation for Vigil, New Year's Eve, 2099.

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