Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Walrus of the Living God

Sermon for St Albans, Oxford
13 January, 2008


Some of you may remember a time back in the 1970s when certain waterways in the United States were so polluted they spontaneously caught fire. One of the most notorious of these fires occurred in a place coincidentally named the Love Canal. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord always reminds me of this event because there is a very early Syriac tradition that when the Holy Spirit appeared at Jesus' baptism, the Jordan caught on fire. There is a related tradition that says when Jesus came out of the water he was covered with our sins.

The ecological news isn't very good these days. Climate change is happening far more quickly than anyone anticipated. Animal species are vanishing all over the planet; the UK is hard hit. What has escaped the news, however, is a recent catastrophe on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, the body of water that washes the northwesternmost corner of the North American continent, and the eastern coast of northern Russia. This body of water vitally links the ecologies and First Nations families of these two countries. Late last summer and into the autumn, walrus in unprecedented numbers hauled out onto its narrow beaches near the Bering Strait because all the sea ice had melted. The overcrowding led to stampedes, and it is estimated that four thousand walrus died.

This news has shaken Alaskans badly, not quite to oil spill magnitude, but getting there. The gentle and wise soul who emailed me this deeply worrying information added, "Judgement may come because of walruses. Revelation talks about the Seal of the Living God; surely we could extend that to walruses."

It isn't as long a stretch as you might think between dead walrus and the Baptism of the Lord, for the Baptism of the Lord signifies an ecological crisis in the human soul. Make no mistake: the root cause of our peril is that we have lost awareness of the importance of our core silence, a silence that developed as we evolved. One of its functions was to help us to survive. Anyone who goes into a wilderness such as Alaska's becomes aware of this silence; becomes aware of the awakening of subtle senses. Our skin warns us of changes in humidity and the arrival of storms that can rage across the landscape with very little warning. Our sense of smell and other senses too elusive to measure warn us of predators.

I once was picking berries on a knoll above camp when I suddenly felt all the hairs on my neck stand straight up. They really do prickle when this happens. I wasn't consciously aware of seeing, smelling or feeling anything out of the ordinary, but I paid attention to what my body was telling me and left the clump of bushes as quietly as possible. When I arrived back in camp someone asked me if I was aware that there had been a bear also picking berries on the other side of the of the bushes from me. My friend was just about to call out when I escaped down the hill.

The exercise of these subtle senses is normative for human beings; we are made to live and to relate to our surroundings and to other creatures with a continual listening from the deepest level of silence. But our separation from nature—both nature in general and our own nature—has reached such a crisis that urban dwellers are today subject to a psychosis caused by deprivation of contact with the natural world. This psychosis is now on the offical list of mental illnesses.

Paradoxically, it is what is we regard as not human that has made us human. Witness our fascination with animal programs on TV, and particularly with the research that shows how badly we have misjudged the mental and emotional capacity of animals. We are learning so much about the high functioning of other primates that there is an ongoing debate over chimps' being included under human rights conventions. Elephants make beautiful paintings, which have been exhibited at a gallery in London; parrots learn to communicate in human speech; their brains have the same structures that human brains do, whereas chimps lack them. The raven biologist, Bernd Heinrich, has evidence that this intelletual of the bird world, may have developed a kind of primitive mythology.

Even the ability to know that we know is now being called into question as an exclusively human trait. And if that is the case, then what about the divine gift that allows us to go beyond our self-consciousness, to that mysterious silence of the heart where it falls away, where all our experience, and all the signs by which we live are transfigured, that is, mutated, shuffled, reintegrated and energized. It is in this deep heart that we meet God and are en-Christed. It is possible to influence what is taken there, but what is returned to us is a new creation.

In the Christian tradition, unsullied creation is symbolized by the Garden of Eden, where all the predators were herbivores, and where there was no conversation as we know it, but something like direct communication between God and Adam and Eve. The readings from Isaiah we had during Advent recall this idyllic myth as symbolic of the reign of God in the new creation for which we long, where justice and mercy will prevail, and where the earth and our relation to it will be restored to some kind of balance.

Much has been made of the so-called sin of the Garden. The interpretations of the Fall—a word and a concept that do not occur in scripture—are legion. Perhaps it is Irenaeus, the third century bishop of Lyons, to whom we should pay attention, for he does not mention the Fall. Rather, he says that what happened in the Garden was not a sin but a distraction from this direct gaze on, and exchange with God. Irenaeus takes God to task for allowing this distraction to occur, but as our contemporary biblical scholar John Barton noted not too long ago, Adam and Eve's exit from the mental and spiritual womb of Eden is necessary to our maturation as human beings.

My own take on the story is that everything that happens to Adam and Eve after the crafty snake starts up the first conversation is hallucinatory, just as our ordinary waking lives are more or less hallucinatory. When Adam and Eve suddenly realize that they have lost their direct connection with God, they are completely disoriented. They have misplaced their reference point and become self-preoccupied so that what was once familiar, qualities of life they had taken for granted, are now strange, alien and painful.

Their fear of God walking in the Garden, the tree of life, the angel with the flaming sword, the curses—these are images that grow in minds that are clutching at straws, even if those straws are terrifying. Poor old practical God never stops loving them but heaves a great sigh and makes them some clothes.

In a tragic sense we are luckier than Adam and Eve because we have got used to our ongoing halluciation and disorientation even though there is something in the back of our minds that beckons us to find our way home to the silence of the heart we share with God. It is far easier for us, like Adam and Eve, to remain in the prison of our projections and distorted interpretations than to do the work of silence, which would enable us to have a life with God that is even better than the primordial one.

As Rowan noted in his Christmas sermon, we have become expert in "the ways in which we prevent ourselves from opening up to the true joy that God wants to give us by settling for something less than the real thing and confusing the truth and grace of God with whatever makes us feel good or comfortable."

People in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages may have had some bizarre ideas about neuro-physiology, but from the point of view of what the mind needs to function optimally, they seem in some ways to have known far more about it than we do. They understood that the mind must be in ecological balance between silence and speech; otherwise things go awry. As the authors of 'The History of Private Life' remind us, silence once was as much a part of education as the ABC. In a 13th-century treatise written for nuns, Bonaventure remarks that if you have a self-image other than the image of God, your relationships with yourself and everyone around you will be problematic. Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century writes of the mind itself as reflecting the image of God.

One of the main subtexts of the bible is this relationship between silence and speech; indeed, one reason the name of God is silence is that to name is to control, and God is so far beyond us that the notion of control becomes absurd. Equally it is not possible to control what goes on in the meeting place with God in the silence of each human heart, the place of incarnation. What we can control, rather, is the choice whether to remain in the heedless prison of our ongoing hallucination, which is acted out in the very real suffering of the material world, or to do the work of silence, which halts our heedlessness and reconnects us.

Through the transfiguring love we encounter in this silence, we are once more related to God by a restored innocence more profund than Adam and Eve's, for we have chosen and worked for it. As we become rooted in silence, the hallucination starts to fade, and we begin to engage the creation with something greater than original reverence. Jesus, the second Adam, is our model in this; we might think of him as the Undistracted, for his gaze never leaves the face of God even as he grows and matures.

The pollution of the earth reflects the pollution of our souls, the detritus with which we litter our minds. We choke on interior noise and external consumerism just as the albatross chokes on a tuna hook, or the sea turtle on a plastic bag, or the curlew on contaminated mollusks.

Our toxic, phantasmagorical pseudo-world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. A life of illusion adores only what it can consume and lives solely for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of deception and arrogance that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence. But when he comes, will he find faith on the earth?

It is a sad fact that the institutional church has not fulfilled its function of helping us find the needful balance between silence and speech, by reorienting our focus towards the beatific vision. By the time of the Council of Constance, which was held in the first few years of the 15th century, the hierarchy had effectively banned silence, for they knew that a person who has been educated by silence has matured to an autonomy that cannot be coerced.

As time passed, this ban on silence became ever more stringent in spite of protests from the 14th century mystics, the Dissenters, the humanists, the metaphysical poets—groups ever smaller and farther apart in time until in the 20th century there were only a few voices left, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil among them. These voices continue to remind us that it is the quality of our core silence—or lack of it—that determines how we behave, what we commit ourselves to, and who we become. If we lose silence, we lose our humanity.

Religion that has lost its proper balance with silence has lost the ability to help us realize our shared nature with the divine, and by extention, with the creation of which we are a part. Religion that has lost the practice of silence, the goal of silence, silence as an interpretive tool, is subject to all the distortions with which we are far too familiar today: hierarchy, legalism, money, preferment, power, infantilization, empty ritual and division. Rules have no meaning if they do not issue from a vision of God. When religion has deteriorated to this level, it has itself become the kingdom of noise. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that much of Christianity today is in the same condition as Judaism at the time of Jesus.

The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten its task of bringing the transfiguring silence of of the heart into the static world of noise. Clergy are no longer trained for lives of holiness but for career trajectories. One shattered deacon said to me, “The only thing I learned in seminary was how to lie.” If the institutional church has become part of the kingdom of noise, then it should not be surprised when those who come to worship in spirit and in truth, who seek support for living transfiguration in the world, turn away.

Rowan Williams is one of the few clergy acutely aware of the church's need to restore the balance between silence and speech. If you are baffled by some of what he writes, recall that silence and the unsayable are his continual reference point, and read the passage again. In his New Year's Eve message, he reminded us that "God does not do waste:

"In a society where we think of so many things as disposable; where we expect to be constantly discarding last year's gadget and replacing it with this year's model, do we end up tempted to think of people and relationships as disposable?"

"Are we so fixated on keeping up with change that we lose any sense of our need for stability?"

"[God] doesn't give up on the material of human lives. He doesn't throw it all away and start again. And he asks us to approach one another and our physical world with the same commitment."

Having said this, it is impossible and pointless to lay blame for our peril, nor do we have time. We are all responsible for our Earth, and we are all called to the fullness of ourselves in the life of God. “Respect” is a key word among the Inuit,Yupik and Aleut people, the people most hurt by the walrus' deaths. Respect means the humility that is clear sight, the recognition of our interconnectedness and the limits of what we know; the fragility of survival and creation, the precious gift of life and the mystery that sustains it; the sacredness of individual integrity and individual choice undertaken for the sake of the community.

Repentance for what we have done to the Earth is not possible without this respect; without our acceptance of pain and death as a part of life and joy; without the freedom from the fear of death that is the gift of silence, silence that brings to birth in us a compassion that is the new creation. With this gift, we receive freedom simply to be, freedom to hope that our search for solutions to the ecological crisis will not merely compound it. But all our hopes for reparation will be stymied unless they begin by restoring the balance of silence in our lives.

When the Buddha achieved the openness of enlightenment, he touched the earth. When oil from the Exxon Valdez drifted southwest to blacken the crystalline waters around the Kenai peninsula, Alaska's children went, grieving, to the beaches to write in the sand letters of apology to the Earth and the Sea.

As—not forgetting the walruses—may we.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Charles said...

Would you give a closer reference to raven mythology? I have read Ravens in Winter and now have Mind of the Raven. It was fun to see a raven accompanying a truck on the Ice Road in the NW Territories on tv last night.

I note in Rowan Williams' The Wound of Knowledge, redundantly I am sure as it is working through The Fountain and the Furnace that has led me to get it, that he refers to the Silence of Jesus in Ignatius.

We love your writings, especially the less academic and the themes of tears, silence and the space of prayer.

10:16 am, January 31, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Many thnks, Charles, for your kind remarks. As to the raven mythology, there is no reference. It was a chance remark that Bernd Heinrich made to me in private conversation. I will try to find out if he has written it up.

10:33 am, January 31, 2008  

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