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Memorial Day: Spiritually Honoring the Past
by Naomi Otley

There is an underlying unity in the air.

On Memorial Day, people across the country slow down, take a deep breath, and recognize those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. It is, in large part, thanks to the fallen that we’re free to believe as we wish, follow a spiritual path of our choosing, speak our minds and express what’s in our hearts. In other words, their selfless actions served to protect the basic conditions of spiritual growth and development.

It’s easy to lose sight of this on the last Monday in May. Far more than just a day off work, this is a truly sacred occasion—a day of solemn observance and gratitude for sacrifices made. And it isn’t just about the violent wars and struggles our soldiers have faced. It’s also about the joy and freedom of the human spirit and psyche—the deepest possibilities of joy and self-discovery that physical freedom can give.

Throughout American history, people from all faiths and spiritual backgrounds have worn the uniforms of the armed forces. Christianity is obviously a major part of this military tradition—but others faiths are part of it too. Native Americans of the Navajo tribe were instrumental in WWII for relaying messages in the native tongue, so as to avoid detection by enemy cryptographers. The 2011 memoir Walking the Tiger’s Path details an American soldiers spiritual journey while on tour in Iraq—in particular his reaching out to a Buddhist organization for spiritual help, and receiving ongoing assistance from one of its senior members. The examples are endless.

In the same way, we who honor fallen soldiers on Memorial day may walk any number of spiritual paths. Christian, Muslim, Hindu and atheist alike can share in a deep respect for those who gave their lives.

Perhaps this common respect is possible because of the universal spiritual values our soldiers gave their lives to protect. Freedom, liberty and happiness—not only physically, but spiritually. The right to walk the spiritual path that is meant for you.

Some American sociologists even consider Memorial Day part of an American civil religion—one that is not tied to any other faith in particular, but which can include them all. The major themes of this civil spirituality are also universal themes—namely sacrifice, death and re-birth. Out of the fallen springs new life.

Whether or not you prefer to think of it in these terms, almost anybody can feel that underlying unity in the air on Memorial Day. It’s the same feeling you get when Tom Hanks says to Matt Damon, at the end of Saving Private Ryan, “Earn this.” He wants Private Ryan to live the best life he can, to be the best human being he can be on all levels—physical and spiritual—in order to justify the sacrifice that was made for him

Really asking ourselves on a deep spiritual level what unity is, and what it means, is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to celebrate and observe this sacred day.

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