Alas, the day! / for near is the day of the Lord, / and it comes as ruin from the Almighty.Joel 1:15, 2:1-2
Blow the trumpet in Zion, / sound the alarm on my holy mountain! / Let all who dwell in the land tremble, / for the day of the Lord is coming; / Yes, it is near, a day of darkness and of gloom, / a day of clouds and somberness!
Adrian van Kaam taught that every human problem was at its core a spiritual problem. What he meant by this, at least in part, is that because our consciousness is inherently perspectival and so limited, we cannot most of the time perceive and so understand and respond appropriately to the call, the summons of reality. One way we experience this limitation of perspective is in our appropriating the truth that it is of the very nature of things that all forms rise and fall. That is, that everything passes and that the new comes to birth. This is an affront to us because if it is true then we too must pass.
Yesterday I was listening to a story on The New Yorker Radio Hour considering aging and our adapting our environments to an aging population. The reporter, Adam Gopnik, commented at one point that until the age of 35 or so we perceive ourselves as growing. After that time we are no longer growing but diminishing, although almost none of us perceive ourselves in that way even though we recognize it readily in others. At over twice the age of 35, I can personally attest that my “consciousness” of myself is not of one who has been diminishing for all these years. As is said in the podcast, to ourselves we are perennially 19 years old.
All of this is to say that we do not readily appraise the reality of a situation, especially those that impinge directly on ourselves. If, in the abstract, one had ever told us many years ago that humanity would today be facing devastating effects from a warming climate due for the most part to human activity and that we, as a whole, would refuse to act to change it in order to do whatever was necessary to preserve the planet for our children and their posterity, we would have absolutely rejected what we would have seen as such nihilistic cynicism. Yet, this is precisely where we find ourselves.
Perhaps the foundation of all human problems lies in our inability to allow God to be God, which means to recognize, accept, and then appropriately respond to reality, a reality that includes death as well as life, the falling of forms as well as their rising, the accepting of our true place in the world which means the limits of our power and control. Today we hear the prophet Joel declare that the day of the Lord comes “as ruin from the Almighty.” Joel’s message is that, as in our very own day, the people have fallen out of living their lives in conformity with the greater reality beyond them, with the will of God as communicated through the covenant. Every “atom of time” contains one impulse of grace, says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. To recognize and so to appraise and respond to that impulse of grace, however, requires that we see beyond our limited perspective. Perhaps unfortunately, it seems that we must, in some way, be shocked in order to forsake our arrogance. One can call the crisis of climate that confronts us God’s punishment for our greed and possessiveness, but that punishment is but the result of those sins. Our actions have consequences. When we behave not in accord with the truth of things but in service to our own limited personal projects, “ruin from the Almighty” is likely to come upon us.
There is wisdom in the rising and falling of forms, in the reality of the birthing into life and the passing into death of all that is. To the best of our knowledge, all non-human creation obeys, without the possibility of doing otherwise, the laws of nature and creation, and so the Wisdom of God. As spirit, however, we human persons must choose to obey, not passively but intensely actively by discernment and choice. It is only we humans who attempt to build “alternative realities.” Although most people were aghast when spokespeople for the American presidential administration spoke of “alternative facts,” human beings create them all the time. As we said at the outset, there are aspects of reality, there are facts, that are an affront to our pride form, to our deep desire for autarchy rather than obedience and responsibility to Reality. Many years ago, a friend composed a poem that has always remained with me.
Time flows. But I may not flow with it.Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC
I can speed it up, slow it down, or freeze it. Control.
The moment is. The gateway to presence. But I may not be.
What gets in the way? Of being?
Autarky: the illusion of self-rule.
Pathologies of power: suffering born of the desire for being-in-control.
Possession: trying to make it mine, or ours.
Distorting the reality of what is.
All kinds of fear, save one: that leads to awe.
Time and life continue to flow, the forms of our lives continue to rise and fall, but we in our pride and possessiveness attempt to freeze or control that reality. We want to hold the present, if it is desirable for us, and so in our reification of our lives and the world distort “the reality of what is.”
The practice of obedience, in the spiritual sense, requires of us a willingness to flow with reality, to accept the day of the Lord as it comes, and to humbly and openly appraise the moment of grace that it brings to us. We are to give form to our life and the world not based on our own limited perspective but in accordance with reality, with God’s will for us and our world. So, as Joel himself, we must face the darkness when it comes, but as a call from God. We must heed the lesson that the day, the moment carries within it. We must submit our fearfulness and arrogance to the demands of reality.
As frightening and frustrating as our refusal to respond to the reality of climate change is, it is not “sui generis.” While the nature of all life form commitments seems tenuous these days, the one to which I am committed is undoubtedly especially so. It is no longer able to be doubted that the form of active religious life that flourished in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries is at least diminishing and apparently dying. This is not to say that the form of radical commitment to the transcendent dimension of human life will not in some form endure, for it has existed through the millennia in all cultures and religions. However, the form that we presently live seems indisputably to have run its course.
Now all forms rise and fall, so this should not be particularly dismaying or terrifying. What is dismaying, however, is our refusal to recognize our role and responsibility to appraise the present reality and to creatively and discerningly appraise our response to it. It is a profoundly paradoxical aspect of human behavior that we who seek both to dominate and control reality at the same time deny our responsibility toward it. In the case of active religious life, we so readily attribute “the ruin” that this day of the Lord is bringing to forces beyond our control. It is not so unlike the attitude of some climate change deniers. We speak to sociological and ecclesiological forces that have dictated the current state of our life form, as if it had nothing to do with us and our obstinate refusal to imagine and co-create a new reality. In Joel’s time it seems as if the day of the Lord was so dark that it could not be totally ignored. At this moment in the history of religious life, it is possible, given our degree of comfort, to ignore the reality and our responsibility. If God, reality, and the world are speaking to us on this “day of the Lord,” it is in order to evoke a response from us.
Non-human life has no choice but merely to suffer the effects of human action past and present. There are countless species of animal and plant life that are going extinct as a result of human selfishness and greed. It is only we who have created this present who can be responsible to them and involved in the creation of a future more attuned to the work of Wisdom. In our smaller worlds, however, we humans can act as if we were plant, animal, or even inanimate. We can choose not to choose, not to be responsible, not to respond to the impulse of grace in our time. We can become less than human in our passivity.
The state of things, in religious life and on the planet as a whole, is our responsibility. Do we dare to have the humility to recognize and so to reform our failings and mistakes? Can we understand that the falling of one form is intended to give rise to another? Can we be selfless enough to live not only for ourselves but for our posterity? For the believer life is a great dialogue between God and creation. Our place in that creation is to hear God’s voice when God speaks, to creatively and imaginatively engage with God’s voice and will, and then to be responsible for the shaping of forms that are more in tune with the Wisdom of God.
To see our way through the crisis of Religious Life today requires enormous vision characterized by deep perception, creative imagination, and a great deal of Christian discernment. The obvious facts on the surface are often too complex to look at directly; they will not yield their deeper truth to rational analysis or ecclesiastical theorizing. All over the Catholic world Religious Life is changing rapidly. Even in the Southern Hemisphere, where substantial numbers are still entering and initial formation continues to be quite “monastic,” questions of credibility frequently surface, and internal tensions arise universally. The declining pattern, reaching a terminal stage in the West, is also affecting several southern countries, albeit at a slower pace. Within the vowed life today, death and decline are taking place among us on a universal scale, and the Spirit is inviting us all to an unfolding future, often confusing and chaotic. We are asked to embrace a parabolic endeavor, a paradigm shift, with radical new horizons inviting our graced discernment.Diarmuid O’Murchu, Religious Life in the 21st Century: The Prospect of Refounding