Thursday, June 9, 2011

Individual salvation and the sorrow of the world

We live in an Age of Death, though it is, for most of those able to read this blog, just making the turn into their driveway. It will take a little longer to get to their doors. But it will be knocking, soon enough.

The current best estimate, one that may well prove too conservative, is that temperatures by the end of this century will rise ten degrees. Ten degrees is far worse than what was feared just a few years ago. The tundra is thawing, releasing vast amounts of methane, in a vicious positive feedback loop. Vegetation, rather than growing more lush in the presence of additional carbon dioxide, is dying, further accelerating warming. And the powers that be, like a thousand petty Strangeloves overseeing their own lucrative slow motion  Gotterdammerung, throw ever more fuel-- literally and metaphorically-- onto the fire.

What ten degrees means is that this is no longer a matter of changing lightbulbs. This is no longer a matter of Transition Towns. This cannot be survived in a well stocked mountain retreat with a sizable arsenal.  This might not be survivable, at all.

If it is not our extinction that is palpable, if in fact we put survival ahead of sociopathic greed, denial, and delusion, and muster the will to make it through, than the very best case is that we are just a few years away from a time of serious thinning of the herd. It's called "population overshoot", and it is not a pretty thing. It will not leave us stronger-- animal populations that have made it through overshoot are sickly and stunted for generations. And survival will not be for the most deserving-- survival will come, as in all great disasters, to those who are lucky (that's not to say that preparation is useless, but to say that given a severe enough disaster, it is insufficient).

That's the good scenario.

I sometimes feel as if I am living the nightmares of my childhood. The missiles have launched, and there is no pulling them back. The sirens have sounded. The world around me looks as it always has-- so ordinary, so peaceful. On a different day, in a different hour, I might sit under a tree and read a book, or curl up in a sunbeam and take a nap. But at a predestined moment, on this day, in this hour, this ordinary world before me will be horribly transformed, and there will be no more tree and no more sunbeam, only death. What now do I do?

The difference between then, and now, was that as a Cold War child I did not imagine I would have so much time to contemplate the horror of  what is to come, at this, the end of the world as we know it.

It's enough to make a mystic want to escape into navel gazing. You know, the ol' personal liberation routine. The eternal now (so much better than the here and now), infinite light (beats unending heat), find your own bliss (soon to be easier than find your own water) thing. Which brings me to the 144 dying Jesuses (Jesii?) on my workbench.

(Really. It does.)

I don't care how much one believes in respect for the world's religious symbols. When one's job involves nailing 144 tiny Jesuses to 144 tiny crosses, it is impossible to avoid twisted humor. Eventually, though, I had to get a handle on myself (clients do not pay for the knowledge that I had a really good laugh over the component parts of their missing crucifixes). Which brought me to Julian of Norwich.

I sometimes have difficulty wrapping my head around the mysticism of western Christianity. Some aspects of it, like  the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, seem to be cousin to some of my own practices. Others are alien to me, in particular the seeking out of pain and suffering, and experiencing the mystical experience in terms of the suffering of the Crucifixion.

The visions of Julian of Norwich are in many ways typical of the genre. She puts to paper quite a bit of gore, at least in my opinion. But she and I are  in complete concurrence when it comes to (some of) the essence of the mystical experience. As Julian put it, she saw God holding in his hand a tiny, delicate, nut, one that she thought might crumble before her eyes. And then she understood that the nut was the whole of creation, and was told "God made it. God loves it. God keeps it". And so the message of Julian of Norwich is of God's limitless love for His creation. "that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Woo hoo! End of the world solved. It's party time at Hardcore's. Bring your SUV! Right???

Not exactly. In fact, not at all.

Julian saw an infinity of love in God. Julian did not observe the absence of sin among humanity. And while I don' t phrase the confusion of humanity in terms of sin, I have little doubt my understanding corresponds to Julian's understanding of sin. Julian said sin itself was the worst possible hell. I think that Julian would concur with me that a direct assault on the safety of that small brown nut God loves so much is among the worst possible sins.

(in Julian's day, the whole of creation meant this planet and its immediate environs and not some distant galaxy somewhere -- which in any case would too would be destroyed by our sociopaths, if only they could make a buck off it)

A more reasonable analysis is that we are due hell on Earth.

But there is a more important understanding nestled in among this discussion. That is, that there is no private liberation, no spiritual escape hatch to wiggle through. For if liberation is to become wholly transparent to the Divine, and the Divine is wholly loving and wholly love, then to be liberated is to confront suffering, not to run from it, to be wholly present in the Age of Death, for as long as we survive, acting as Love present in the world.

And if liberation, or realization or salvation, or whatever we choose to call it, is, as I believe, our human duty to approach, then it remains our duty, and our destiny, to love this fragile brown nut with all of our hearts. It is our duty to do everything in our power to mitigate harm and to comfort the harmed, even though to do so requires that we face, and bear, almost overwhelming sorrow.

The missiles of the Age of Death have been fired. There is no pulling them back (though it is still possible to prevent the missile from firing which will bring about our extinction). The warning sirens have sounded for all who are listening. Everything looks normal, as it will for a time, but in a matter of years it will not be. Already death has rung doorbells in places like Joplin. Mo.

I have no suggestions, at all, for how to avoid the sorrow of this age. But the question of "what now" is resolved. As a voice from the depths of the last great human die off would no doubt concur (the Plague killed 30-60% of the people of Europe, and over 20% worldwide), what now, is love.