The encore by the inimitable eclectic Celtic band of Eileen Ivers and Immigrant Soul includes joyous participation by the still-standing audience in the non-Celtic but universally popular "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" The verses of the song, however, are anything but joyous, instead expressing sorrow over the funeral of a mother "on a cold and cloudy day."
But then the chorus does a 180 degree turn by answering the song's question in a strongly implicit YES! "There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky." That hard Irish road expressed in the evening's music ends with an affirmation of life as the band's vocalist, Tommy McDonnell, breaks from the song and shouts, "Say, Hallelujah!" And we do.
Two major spiritual symbols repeat here: sky and circle. Throughout the world, the sky is the spiritual place - the direction: up. As in the animated hit Up, the ascent is from a material world that doesn't quite satisfy, though it is unlikely that anyone, such as the old man in the film, should try to take the house along.
Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of our call to a more spiritual ascent in his famous line spoken the night before he died: "I've been to the mountaintop." King went on to say, "Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land."
Connecting the ascent of a people with the gathering into a circle, a radio series produced in 1997 by the Southern Regional Council is called Will the Circle Be Unbroken? An Audio History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities and the Music of Those Times. Studs Terkel, the late oral historian, used the song title for his collection of interviews with people on their views of an afterlife. Terkel found that many think of life's passing as part of a circuit.
Indeed, the circle not only symbolizes the cycle of life (seed to blossom to fruit to death and then reseeding) but it also can stand for a circle of loved ones, for community, for infinity circles within circles.
Traditional American Indian thanksgiving prayers, though with varying associations, recognize four directions of focus in a circle that is in a dome, thus adding two more directions: up and down for the unifying spirit (sky) and for life (Mother Earth).
Christianity and Native traditions share the symbol of a circle containing a cross, the four arms of which meet the circle. For Christians it symbolizes Christ as center of the world. Lakota Indian Black Elk, himself a Christian, interpreted the horizontal and vertical lengths to symbolize the Black Road of troubles and war and the Red Road of spirituality and peace, or in Christian theology, the via negativa and the via positiva. For Black Elk the most sacred place is the intersection. Traditional Great Lakes Indians would agree, for they give thanks for a seventh "direction" - where one is in oneself now.
In this life we go round and round, we go crossways, we look up, we look down. We feel the dark; we see the light. Still, every day we are in that sacred spot in the middle of God's unbroken circle. Upon recognizing that, we can gratefully say, "Hallelujah."
- Coates is a member of St. Luke Lutheran Church and a retired Pennsylvania College of Technology professor of language and humanities.