It is a strange feeling to me - we who have lost nearly all ability to feel as a culture are now asked not to touch. “Stay six feet away!” Passing our neighbors like ghosts on the street and running trail near my home in Centennial, Colorado, the Muse whispered to me quietly, “six feet!” Strange. I wondered, could “six feet” symbolize for us some collective psychic repository of images related to death and decomposition including the unconscious fear of death’s invisible spread? Could it also speak an invitation for our times?
Throughout the centuries of human history, it seems that each civilization has faced its own collapse and crises uniquely. “Six feet under” is a euphemism for death. Gravesites are dug to a standard depth of six feet. Many sources point to a series of orders in London during the plague of 1665 or “Black Death” to explain why we still use the phrase “six feet under” today. Although these “Orders” offer no scientific explanation about the mandate for this particular death upon burial, it is possible that officials believed six feet of soil was necessary to prevent animals from digging up the corpses, or would prevent the disease from spreading to the living.
Perhaps six feet in our times also symbolizes the distance of our collective autism as a culture in our estrangement from the cosmic processes and seasonal rhythms—the intricate and primordial dance that gave birth to our species. Perhaps these two words signify the deadening of our senses in relation to each other, of our windows of knowing through senses, feeling, emotions, intuitions, imagination and wise thinking in relation to Earth. Thomas Berry once lamented, “The human has become not the crowning glory of Earth, but it's most destructive presence.” Poet Rainer Maria Rilke reflects in the Book of Hours:
“Their people serve the culture of the day,
losing all balance and moderation,
calling their aimlessness progress,
driving recklessly where they once drove slow,
and with all that metal and glass
making such a racket.
It’s as if they were under a spell:
they can no longer be themselves.
Money keeps growing, takes all their strength,
and empties them like a scouring wind,
while they wait for wine and poisonous passions
to spur them to fruitless occupations.”
We who have lost our security in the American dream, in the fantasy of unending growth and the expansion of wealth and Western values— our entire impoverished way of life—are now being invited into a new kind of rhythm. Poverty. The Christian mystics always attributed the way of poverty as a supreme mode of divine feeling, a way of resensitizing us to what is real and what is alive, and what has been waiting for us all along. Rilke continues:
“We are not poor. We are just without riches,
we who have no will, no world:
marked with the marks of the latest anxiety,
disfigured, stripped of leaves.
Around us swirls the dust of the cities,
the garbage clings to us.
We are shunned as if contaminated,
thrown away like broken pots, like bones,
like last year’s calendar.
And yet if our Earth needed to
she could weave us together like roses
and make of us a garland.
For each being is cleaner than washed stones
and endlessly yours, and like an animal
who knows already in its first blind moments
its need for one thing only -
to let ourselves be poor like that - as we truly are.”
Poverty here is something primordial, creative, and redemptive. Poverty connects us to the truth of our being and “each being” in the super-diverse more-than-human world. We, like each thing in its own right, participate in and belong to the whole as a wild incarnation of God. Poverty returns us to our original identity as children of Earth. Poverty returns us to the ground of our original relationship to the Creation. We like “each being” in our “first blind moments” know our “need for one thing only.” This season of Lent, I suggest that the kind of poverty Rilke is talking about, like entropy in the unfolding universe, gives us a lens through which to celebrate sacrifice as absolutely necessary to activating deeper—and more whole—modes of being human.
If Christ is that anthropic dimension of an intelligent universe, then the universe (The Mystery) knew our form, knows our shape, our true place in the world. Perhaps the universe was waiting for us to arrive, for such a time as this. I wonder if what Earth, what the divine Mystery, is calling us to more than anything else in these destabilizing, troubling times is:
To simply feel
fully and deeply.
As those who know already
our need for one thing only.
I encourage us to feel then. To feel the creature fear, the anxiety of collapse. Feeling with our sensual bodies, in our primal instincts, feeling through the marrow of memory in our bones and breath. Feel recklessly and with abandon. Feel the surging pain and fear and countless losses. Feel the wild ecstasy of life and death rise like a root of flame through the body. Feel the chaos and order of creation and destruction, of cosmos and crocus, pulsing, playing as God in the garden, as the wild Christ in the cross of creation, feeding all while being eaten, dismembered so as to remember, summoning us through a thin membrane of sleep, separating us from the sensual, wild Earth dreaming. Maybe what’s really needed in this liminal time is to be taken, consumed, and repurposed as individuals and as a species in the swelling array of vibrating song, the stunning performance of cosmic powers. Maybe we need to feel our utter creatureliness, our fragile contingency as a species upon such a vast, unseen and incomprehensibly alive web of being. Maybe this is what it is to feel… alive. To finally feel how much is truly at stake, we who sleepwalk without dreaming.
To feel Earth.
To become Human.
I close with a small seed of poetry
that can break the spell
when placed into the right hands.
And planted in the
I thank you, deep power
that works in me ever more lightly
in ways I can’t make out.
The day’s labor grows simple now,
and like a holy face
held in my dark hands.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours