Essay by Rev. Matthew Syrdal
May 28, 2020
I completely scrapped what I was going to write, when the Muse asked me this morning, What do you really want to say?
Let it fall!
I can feel the energy of that cry rise up from my solar-plexus into my throat. It is not anger in the ordinary sense, but something shaped by grief into something more akin to desire — even joy. This sort of joy harmonizes across time and species boundaries in the rising of the destructive and creative powers alive and at work in the world in our time of institutional collapse. Like the heavenly throne room in the book of Revelation, with the four living animal-human divinities and the twenty-four elders fallen in prostration, it is like the feeling of laying down on warm, red stone, ear pressed to canyon floor to hear a faint and strange primordial song thrumming up from the dawn of deep time through the layers of memory: Holy, holy, holy!
This cry is a call to wild prophetesses and warrior-priests, Earth mystics, shamans and lovers in the deep imagination who dance each night in the moonlight while we dream. In an age of institutional collapse, it is a clarity of desire — a lit flame in our hearts. I think of Jesus’ words, “I am here to start a fire, and how I am in pain until it is kindled!” A deep longing, a groaning with and from the creation itself.
This isn’t a callous disregard of the suffering of so many who have lost loved ones or livelihood. I too grieve the manifold disasters affecting the most vulnerable in our time. I worry about the future of my own children and the future generations. There is a healthy anger mingled with this desire now. Anger at my own complicity and the church’s complicity in a system that is designed to suppress our connection with these deepest energies in the soul and Earth, as we turn a blind eye to the ravishing of ecosystems and poisoning of the soils and biosphere.
For us faith leaders the problem is much deeper than simply ‘green-washing’ Christianity. Our habits of inattention and self-survival stand trial. The “cultural self” has become really good at shutting off the valve to feeling, that organ of perception connecting our own hearts with the heartbeat of a living World. I am angry knowing that over the next months and years, commercials and pundits will continue to preach their sermons, businesses and churches will obediently return to ‘normal’, massive collective forces will induce us back to the sleep of forgetfulness and numbness — quickening our return to the slow boil madness we have all grown accustomed to.
But what if we allow ourselves to be fully present to the collapse all around us? What if, through attention and intention, we learn again to deeply feel? What if we welcome the grief, and the anger, and the joy and let it overcome us?
Theodore Roethke writes In A Dark Time, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade / I hear my echo in the echoing wood… What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!”
In this strange and persistent liminality “the eye begins to see.” Our eyes—as Christians in particular—have not been trained to see in the dark, but the dark is where we learn how to reallysee. Something big has stepped on the anthill of our anthropocentrism and hubris as a species. If we let our eyes begin to adjust, a new found curiosity might usher a peek behind the screen of our apocalyptic fantasy, the very nature of the dynamics — the fine line between madness and nobility of soul — as we arrive together at this great hour of circumstance.
Perhaps we are being invited to awaken from the semi-trance state of Western consumer culture, as once self-assured faith leaders, thought-leaders and politicians we find ourselves sitting on what T.S. Eliot called a ‘heap of broken images,’ with our heads in our hands.
Collapse is necessary to rewire on a deeper level of consciousness. This is true in human development and in cosmic processes. Thomas Berry speaks of entropy and the self-immolation of stars in supernova explosions as the way the universe ‘sacrifices’ on one level of being in order to activate more advanced modes of being, birthing a more glorious reality. There is consistency of action of the divine in the spiritual-material universe much vaster than our often narrow understanding of sacrifice and redemption. The cross in this sense too must move from an article of faith to the archetype of emergent experience. In a time of collapse, sacrifice is an invitation to trust. Trust moves us outward into greater circles of belonging. Trust enlarges our sense of self. Through trust we begin to accept — and feel — our primary belonging to Earth. Trust relativizes our need to make everything about us and opens the field of possibility and creativity.
We at Seminary of the Wild recently had the unique opportunity to listen and learn from Buddhist scholar, deep ecology activist, and Earth elder Joanna Macy (who had recently turned ninety-one years old). She mused on the topic “The Power of Our Belonging,” in this liminal moment. With a bright and inquisitive innocence in her eyes, and deep, searching wisdom etched in her face, Joanna shared the heartbeat of her own deep work reflecting back over the course of her long life. One of her great gifts to generations of ecological activists and spiritual seekers has been to help others shift their experience and primary image of the World and Self. Joanna has deftly and insightfully addressed the nature of these four weltanschauungs (world-views): the World as Battlefield, the World as Entrapment, the World as Lover, and the World as Self. Significantly, these images have co-arisen in the context of her own journey of awakening during the course of her ninety-one years.
Over the last few months I have noticed a deeper sense of trust emerge in my life, a trust that is grounded in the World itself — the Spirit-animated creation — the sacred pattern and intention of Life. As we gathered that evening with Joanna as a semi-diverse community of eighty-five pastors, church members, scholars, buddhists, activists, nature-based guides, seekers, lovers, from many different cultural and spiritual backgrounds, I was touched by a deep sense of emotion, even rapture.
A new age lies incipient and dormant in this age — currently in the midst of collapse. The new possibilities, energies and images we need as a species are already being activated, they are emerging in the unconscious, appearing in dreams, becoming embodied in those who are responding as ecological activists, wild prophets, Earth mystics and magicians to the summons — an expression and embodiment of that primal Wholeness — to the wild and cosmic Christ-in-the-World. Even now, new paths are being forged to reclaim the wild roots of the Christian story, as the old story held high by Empire, patriarchy, and anthropocentrism collapses.
In the mystical traditions we have been taught the way of ascent which is through mediation and other contemplative practices — disidentification with the material world in its more primal energies. The truth is, it is not disidentification from the world that is needed (which results in a type of collective dissociation from Earth) but disidentification with the small or false self, which serves to protect us from experiencing our deeper nature because it is threatening to the family system, church or culture. Rather than rising above the suffering in the world, we are called, like Jesus, to descend more deeply into the suffering of creation. Rather than escape into detachment, to feel the heartbreak, the devastation and collapse.
Our invitation deeper into the present and dangerous opportunity before us cries:
Fall madly and deeply in love with the wild, living, sentient, and fiercely beautiful World. Know the World as Lover. Know the World as your deepest, ecological Self. This way of feeling and deep romance was not foreign to our spiritual and religious ancestors. From the bridal mysticism inspiring the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, to Theresa Liseux and the viriditas “greening energy” of Earth healer Hildegard of Bingen, we must move as Christians from the view of World as Battlefield or Trap to World as Lover and ultimately Self. Feeling is the only way in. This is what Brian Stafford, co-founder of Seminary of the Wild, calls "ecological metanoia."
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks — is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have…
(From Theodore Roethke, In A Dark Time)
~ Rev. Matthew Syrdal