We live in a perilous time. Our world is in crisis. We worry that balloons flying over different countries could start World War Three. According to World Hunger Education Services, hunger is the leading cause of death and disease. Every year approximately 3.1 million children die from hunger and more than 10% of the world’s population live in a constant state of malnourishment.
In his encyclical on climate, Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote:
“(W)e are sowing filth and destruction into the earth rather than life and beauty.”
We have created economic policies that benefit a tiny minority of super-rich global elites while leaving the rest farther and farther behind to survive on scraps. Both our political and religious/spiritual structures are more focused on “isms” like nationalism, racism, shortsighted militarism, sexism, separatism, and individualisms rather than what our great mystics and spiritual leaders taught about the interconnectedness of all creation. We spend billions upon billions on bombs and guns leading to more killing and destruction while ignoring the cry of the poor. There are those who are elated at the crisis because they believe we are living in the end times and soon Jesus will return and “make everything right.”
Thirty-five years ago, Thomas Berry wrote in The Dream of the Earth, “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” We have reached that point.
Our story of life is more about a struggle surrounded by anxiety and despair rather than joy and hope. Our story is collapsing and there seems to be no way out of the mess we have made. We created a story that put us at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. A story which teaches that everything we do, our only purpose now and here, is important only insofar as it helps us to get there, wherever and whatever ‘there’ is. It is a story centered on individual redemption and salvation. A story where we are what matters, and the rest of creation is only here to help us get there. The rest of creation has no intrinsic value of its own. A story where we are waiting for the great sky god to come and rescue us. And we wonder why we live in a time of conflict and polarization — in the various forms of the church and in the world at large.
As I have previously written: “The young see our churches as being fueled by theologies of separation, shame, punishment, and damnation. They experience our liturgies as being obsessed with individual salvation, appeasing a demanding God so our individual souls can assure their ticket to heaven when we die. They encounter our institutions as being more concerned with their own power, privilege, and survival than with the common good. Many feel frustration and hopelessness.”
My friend singer-songwriter Meah Pace in her song I Hope wrote:
“How could we ever come to this place you say.
Our lives do not matter.
Justice has no face.”
So, where do we go from here?”
Teilhard de Chardin wrote “Evolve or be annihilated.” He wasn’t just talking about the process of physical evolution. He was also referring to the evolution of our spirituality. Our human understanding of evolution is more associated with science, not spirituality. Many of us would consider ourselves to be woke/enlightened because we firmly believe in evolution but do not connect evolution to our spirituality. We do not think of evolution as part of our sacred story. We understand that evolution is a slower process associated with physical change over a long period of time, while we think of transformation as an almost instantaneous moment. Something happens, we see something, and we are transformed in an instant. If we fail to grasp the idea that evolution is our sacred story, then our story, as Berry said, “is inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.”
Transformation is very clearly associated with spirituality. All our sacred stories and spiritual traditions contain examples of when a spiritual leader, a saint, had a mystical moment and was transformed. The stories in the Abrahamic traditions are filled with such examples. In Exodus 3:1-17 we read the story that is honored in all three of the Abrahamic traditions of Moses and the burning bush. While attending his flock, Moses saw the burning bush. In all probability, his first response would have been to move his flock away. After all, the fire could very easily spread and kill a lot of his flock. He must have been very much afraid. Maybe he even thought of putting the flame out. That certainly would have been a smart thing to do. Instead, Moses stepped out of his comfort zone, embraced his fear, and approached the flame. It was then that God spoke to him, and Moses was transformed.
There is also a well-known transformation story about St Francis of Assisi. It is said that he feared people with leprosy, going out of his way to avoid them. If he was walking on a path and he saw a leper ahead he would turn around. One day, he was walking on a path and saw a leper ahead. His first thought was to find a different path. But after a moment he went forward and embraced the leper. It was then that God spoke to him, and he was transformed. I have a friend who was a very conservative evangelical minister. He would often preach about the evil of homosexuality telling his flock that they should be fearful of this evil and that it would steal their children away. One day my friend’s son came home from college and told his dad he was gay. My friend had two choices; he could continue in his beliefs of the evil of homosexuality and condemn and disown his son, or he could step outside of his comfort zone and embrace that which he most feared, his son whom he dearly loved. My friend chose the latter. He embraced and accepted his son and that is when his transformation began.
Transformation is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Moses, St Francis and my minister friend their burning bush moment was just the beginning of their transformation, not the end. They had to be willing to reimagine who they were in relation to God and creation. They had to step outside of their comfort level. The author André Vauchez, in his book Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint describes St Francis as having a “radical innovation” by having the audacity to speak directly to God. He wrote: “Francis, as a layman whose mind was not weighed down by doctrinal formulations or by the influence of philosophical currents, gave to the life of Christ an especially radical interpretation.” Francis faced ridicule from his friends and was disowned by his father. My minister friend was removed from his congregation and lost many friends. But if we want to reimagine our story, we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. My friend and pastor at my church for many years, Fr. Tom used to get up at the end of Mass and say, “I hope I have made you feel uncomfortable.” We never transform in our comfort zone. Unfortunately for many of us, our first reaction when we encounter the burning bush is to get a fire extinguisher and try and put the flame out. We are comfortable in our story of individual salvation and redemption. Even though the story is clearly not working, we are hopeful that the great sky god will come and save us and take us to a place with a better story.
In the late 12th century, the Sufi mystic and poet Farid ud-Din Attar wrote a fable, The Conference of Birds. It tells the story of a group of birds being called to go on a search for their ideal king, the Simorgh bird. As the birds gathered to begin the search, their guide explained that the journey was difficult and challenging. One by one the birds began offering reasons why they could not take this journey. One bird replied that he is so attached to precious stones that he is not interested in seeking the true jewel. Another says “I live in a beautiful place. Why would I want to leave?” A third bird’s excuse was he was too afraid of dying to possibly set out on such a journey. Another said they were not good enough; they had done bad things. While another said they had already found perfection why should they care about helping the other birds. On and on it went, each bird explaining their rationale and justification for why they could not step outside of their comfort zone. We are the birds, always making excuses and rationalizations as to why now is not the time. If we are going to create a new story we must start with re-imaging and re-telling our sacred stories.
One time I was having a discussion with a friend who is an avowed atheist. He was describing all the reasons why he doesn’t believe in God. When he was finished, I smiled and replied that I agreed with him. I also do not believe in that God. For many of us our prayer life consists of worshiping an image of some separate being somewhere in the sky and petitioning the being to intercede on our behalf for whatever our cause is at that moment. We hope that if we worship enough, in the right ways, and get enough petitions the separate sky being will make everything good for us. In his book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism the Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee wrote, “Prayer begins to be a living presence within us, rather than an effort of recollection. ”
The birds in Attar’s fable eventually overcame their fears and began the transformative journey of creating a new story. What would our new story look like if we, like the birds, like St Francis and the other mystics and saints, put aside our fears, stepped out of our areas of comfort and embraced the transformative journey towards oneness. It is not really a new story but a new understanding. An understanding that mystic and spiritual leaders from every spiritual/religious tradition have been teaching us. Our fear has blinded us and made us deaf. If only Jesus had performed a miracle to help the blind see and the deaf hear. The Franciscan visionary theologian Sr. Ilia Delio, in her article The Death of God and the Rebirth of God, writes about the new/old story that Jesus taught us. She writes: “Jesus’ integral consciousness of wholeness evoked a genuine revolution in cosmic and social relations, a new creativity, a new structure of existence based on community and shared values. He saw all human beings (and indeed the whole creation) as part of himself and called his disciples to a new future, to create a transformed earth, where all could live together in justice, mercy, and peace.”
It is a story not of separation but of oneness.
Peace and All Good