Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Ecology of Repentance V

For a moment, imagine the worst-case scenario. Suppose that we have gone too far, that our abuse of the environment means that the biosphere as we know it is about to come to an end; that, as James Lovelock has warned us, the Planet, Gaia, is about to protect herself by destroying her destroyers. In such a situation, those who understand repentance will have an immense longing to clean up the mess as far as possible before the end, while those who continue in blind pursuit of greed will suddenly awaken to the fact that they are gorging themselves at Belshazzar’s table, and that they are themselves the skeletons at the feast.

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. “Respect” is a key word among Native American people. It means the humility that is clear sight, the recognition of our interconnectedness, the fragility of survival and Creation, the precious gift of life and the mystery that sustains it; the sacredness of individual integrity and choice for the sake of the community. Repentance for what we have done to the Earth is not possible without the repentance that accepts pain and death as a part of life and joy, and the freedom from the fear of death that is the gift that restores us to ourselves, bringing to birth the compassion that is the “world to come.” With this gift, we receive freedom simply to be, freedom to hope that our search for solution to the ecological crisis will not merely compound it.

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, children went, grieving, to the beach to write letters of apology to the Earth and the Sea.

As may we.

'Creation' Magazine, September, 1992

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

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Ecology of Repentance III

As education and religion become oriented more and more towards utility and technology, there is a proportional devaluation of those people who have a different vision, who step, however falteringly, to the same rhythms trod by the Lakota. These non-aboriginal people are doubly disadvantaged. Unlike the Lakota, they have no people, no tribal group or unbroken tradition with whom they share this vision of reality and to whom they can turn for support. There is no fish camp, no sweat lodge, no one to perform for them the ceremony of the healing of tears. Without these, they feel isolated, uneasy, full of self-doubt; they are despised by industrialized society as dreamers, inadequates, failures.

And they experience the tragic consequences of aboriginal people, existing under similar conditions: unemployment, or, at best, rote office or factory work. Confinement and fragmentation of time and space literally kills them. Without luck and cunning—and such people are notoriously lacking in street smarts—many end up in the same cycle of wrecked and foreshortened lives. Such people used to find refuge in monasteries or the hermit life. But monasteries have been forced to compromise with the relentless economic juggernaught and have always been subject to “spiritual” utilitarianism, while authentic solitude has become difficult, if not impossible, to find.

To return to ourselves to receive the gift of ourselves—all of ourselves, body and soul, inner and outer—to repent of our destruction of the gift of Creation, we need to remember that all humanity, not just the groups we designate as “Native American” or “aboriginal,” evolved as an integral part of a planetary ecosystem. In spite of the claims of some aboriginal people who say that Euro-Americans cannot possibly understand these things, somewhere within the most jaded urban dweller are the dormant sensibilities with which human beings are equipped to survive, to flourish in the wilderness. It is these sensibilities that we must reawaken through repentance if we are to be able not only to survive but to flourish in the coming time of austerity—and it is coming—realizing at the deepest level that living more simply is not a cause for rage at deprivation, but can be an opportunity to recover joy.

'Creation' Magazine, September 1992

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Ecology of Repentance II

The ecological crisis is essential spiritual. The lack of a single word in English to designate the integration of the spiritual and the material is symptomatic. The growing consciousness movement is a sign of this human dis-ease, but its efforts are in danger of succumbing to the consumer-celebrity mentality. The so-called New Age movement, a label applied to a constellation of irreconcilable components ranging from the sensible to the lunatic, is one example. Many New Agers borrow heavily from Native American traditions in yet another Euro-American exploitation of the aboriginal. Having despoiled their land and identity, their last and most precious possession is now imperiled by those who would market it in fragments. In some Native groups, particularly, where songs, rituals, and art are considered not only patrimony but identity itself, this new pillage is deeply resented. In a particularly vicious déjà vu, aboriginal people who have, at considerable risk, generously shared their formerly much-maligned values and perceptions with outsiders, now see these outsiders making big money as New Age gurus, while the aboriginal peoples continue in extreme poverty. In spite of this, there is still a willingness to share because they realize it is not only aboriginal peoples who are threatened, but the entire planet. And traditional insight might yet help turn the tide.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Lakota ride [the reenactment and pilgrimage to Wounded Knee in 1990] of many days through blizzard conditions was the sense of their need for dedicated suffering to accomplish the healing of the sacred hoop. It was astonishing to some observers that a people who had already been forced to drink the cup of suffering to the dregs would regard more suffering as necessary. But this was suffering with a difference. This was suffering freely chosen in the hope that renewed respect for connection with massacred ancestors, undertaken voluntarily at personal cost in a sacred landscape, would breathe a new spirit into the People, and restore pain itself to its proper place and perspective. It would enable them symbolically to move through their century of pain to renewal, instead of continuing to anesthetize it in the Euro-American way by seeking refuge in drink, self-hatred, aggression, or oblivion.

The pain that gives us self-knowledge, willingly sought and moved through, is at the heart of repentance of any kind. Pain is the nexus, the synapse, the open space—one meaning of the Hebrew word for salvation—the point of intersection and integration of our selves with one another and all the Creation. It is pain that strips away the artifice by which we hide from ourselves, one another, the destruction of the natural world, and our indwelling with God. The ecological crisis is worsening because we do not wish to face the financial cost of living more cautiously and generously. More to the point, we don’t want to deal with the personal cost of facing our greed, our license, our attitude towards the Earth as something we have the right to dominate and exploit. We do not want to endure the enormous effort involved to rethink and reorganize human life on a global and long-term basis.

Most of all, we do not want to acknowledge the tissue of life, to move through the pain that leads to humility, that is, realityi; to risk compassion and an unknown transfiguration, to know ourselves as one among many components of an intricate web of life. We do not want to acknowledge that there is something potentially askew and destructive at a fundamental level within each one of us that needs examination, reorientation, and constant vigilance (notions of total depravity only intensifies the sin of self-hatred). To acknowledge pain flies in the face of our ecology-destroying, sort-sighted culture which dictates that pain is to be avoided at all costs. This culture lays waste the uncontrolled, unexploited natural environments of transcendence in which pain can become something larger than itself. This culture seeks to confine us to artificial environments where pain is a problem to be managed, anesthetized, or distracted. Beauty, as opposed to a static aesthetic, lies in the ambiguous and elusive qualities of the transcendent. If we destroy beauty, we have nowhere to take our pain.

'Creation' Magazine, September 1992.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Ecology of Repentance I

Suffering and the gift of its transfiguration in the love of Christ is the heart of Christianity. Pain is the source of compassion, and compassion shifts our perspective on pain, which frees us from the fear of death. For pain to be transfigured, it must first be owned. The refusal to accept this truth, the denial of pain, is the ‘secularization’ by which Christianity has lost its heart, and is the source of its decline in the West. In addition, the denial of pain is one cause of the increasing polarity between men and women. Repentance is no longer understood as the nexus where we are restored to one another in the fire of Love. Having lost this central message of the Gospel, the decade of evangelism becomes a joke unless we recover the axiom that the fire of God is not available without the tears. In an age of imagemakers, celebrities, and the glitterati, pain is a no-go area, even as the question of identity becomes increasingly vexed. “no pain no gain” seems to apply only to sports. Many who apply themselves to sports are merely using physical pain to disguise, anesthetize, and avoid reality.

This denial induces anxiety. Anxiety leads to compulsive control, and increasing abhorrence of ambiguous empty spaces—spaces of the mind as well as the landscape: mental space that is not full of noise; language that is not literal; landscapes that are not artificial or exploited.

The possibility of escape from the increasingly narrow and violent world created by the projected fears of our own egos is becoming more and more problematic. Yet it is precisely this artificial environment that keeps us from returning to ourselves, to finding out who we really are. Repentance, supremely, is about being restored to ourselves (Lk. 15,17). We are caught in a vicious cycle: the more artificial our world, the more we are out of touch with ourselves, with pain that reveals to us who we really are and is the wellspring of compassion. The more we are out of touch with pain, the more afraid of it we become. If our only perception of chicken is that it comes from the supermarket shelf, there is no possibility of resolving the fundamental conundrum every human being must work out: that all life feeds on other life. Becoming a vegetarian is not a solution.

'Creation' Magazine, September 1992