Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Ecology of Repentance IV

In the wilderness, focus is necessarily away from oneself. In Western urban society, narcissism is the norm. In the wilderness, there is little distinction between inner and outer: the human being is as much prey as predator and must be aware accordingly. By contrast, an artificial, closed environment eliminates every possible form of danger and pain. Urban society sustains the delusion that there is nothing greater beyond me, my, and mine, or what I or other humans can invent, a stance that obliterates awareness of the wider ecological costs of such an inward spiral.

Prophets and holy people in every culture have warned against this blinkered and exploitive perspective. It is perhaps no accident that mysticism and paramystical groups seem to arise during times of urban crisis. There is paradox here: the path of repentance begins with self-knowledge and leads to self-forgetfulness. The narcissistic search for “fulfillment” is annihilated by compassion. Union is bestowed through the willingness to relinquish desire for particular experience and the fear of death.

The perennial use of wilderness as religious metaphor is rooted in the spiritual reality of the seamlessness of inner and outer. For those willing to undertake the true path of repentance, as opposed to narcissism, there is a startling reawakening of atrophied senses, the same senses that allow us to live with the paradoxes and ambiguities of actual wilderness. It is this awakening which each individual must seek if we are to repent for what we have done to our Earth and its biosphere, and if there is to be reparation and hope for the future. It is not a utopian, impossible task.

The most common and crudest form of repentance s stimulated by utilitarian fear, but its apotheosis is joy. “There is a humility which comes out of fear,” says Isaac the Syrian, “and there is a humility which comes from the fervent love of God. The persons who are humble out of fear are possessed of modesty in their members, a right ordering of their senses, and heart that is contrite at all times. But the persons who are humble out of joy are possessed of great exuberance and open and irrepressible hearts.”

When we are free from the delusions of grandeur by which we hide from the reality of our mortality, tears and joy become inseparable, “like honey in the comb,” as John Climacus tells us. “Without these,” says Isaac, we cannot taste “the wellspring of flaming compunction arising from the love of God.” By embracing the pain of our mortality, we discover that immortality is not created by our egos but is a gift of God by incarnation through the Creation, that God’s act is not a movement by which divinity takes on humility, but that humility is divinity. “For humility is the robe of the Godhead...[and] everyone who has truly been clothed in humility becomes like God.”

'Creation' Magazine, September 1992


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