Only long hours of silence can lead us to our language, only long miles of strangeness can lead us to our home. Kenneth White
Dark and cold we may be, but this
is no winter now. The frozen misery
of century’s breaks, cracks, begins to move;
the thunder is the thunder of the floes,
the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake…
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?
Maybe it’s so.
Maybe the seasons are getting confused. Dark and cold it is outside but maybe the poet is right in his estimation. Maybe this is not only a winter we are in now but something else; an upstart spring perhaps, a spring erupting unseasonably, strangely, in the throes of winter, a violent breaking, the skewing of the seasons in weird and maybe apocalyptic ways.
Affairs it seems, in these troubled times, have got soul sized.
I wonder wrote the Irish philosopher John Moriarty, if we have the kind of sacramental culture that can shelter us, guide us, comfort us, and walk with us, as we undergo these transitions. And if we do not, I wonder, are we willing in the interests of our own and the earth’s evolution to let such a culture emerge?
Put more extremely, he added,
Is it in fact about the future evolution of humanity or extinction? Not to emerge from but with the earth..
Is it not the case that when we take things without asking, however we do that, we violate that which we take from since we are acting without agreement?
In the act, or is it in the attitude of taking without asking, the boundaries and limitations that define a thing must be discarded or denied, overlooked or simply go unseen, no permission is sought or given and the result, in the end must always be destructive since something or someone will always suffer a violation in the bargain. The person or place, thing or species that’s taken from is harmed-its natural distinctions and character, destroyed or at least compromised.
And it’s a two way street.
In a counter movement, the taker, in the taking, accrues a debt which must be met. Maybe many debts.
The violence of the act of taking always has to do with the severance of things and any moral solidarity there might have been with that from which was taken is in the act of taking, broken.
During my fifteen years as an addiction therapist, I had occasion at times to work in hospitals where I would spend time with mother’s who, themselves addicted to taking heroin or crack cocaine, or dependent on legalised substitute drugs, had given birth to a child who carried that addiction inside them as their own. It was always a difficult scene, withdrawal from dependency always is and in such a place as a maternity ward, under such circumstances it felt at times purgatorial.
In the womb of the mother, the child knew no difference of course since all they could know was the silent, dark, still world they were in. Only the shock of birth would change things forever. Entering the fray, the umbilicus cut, the child within a few hours, was unsettled, anxious, sick and in trouble. Withdrawal is a harsh way to take in the dazzling and disorientating new world of sudden and eruptive sense; it’s a harsh way to enter the scene, a hard waking.
Even with the careful use of medications, the process of recovery is arduous and slow for both mother and child and often for the staff involved and of course the physiological trauma of withdrawal for both child and parent is nearly always accompanied by a depth of psychological suffering on the part of the mother who would have wished it differently and thus the passage of the child into life is so often shrouded in humiliation and grief and guilt. Addiction is a boat that traffics a lot of pain; hard to acknowledge, hard to accept and hard to escape-the worst kind of bondage.
No surprise that the word addiction is derived from the Latin, addictus, meaning ‘to be a slave to’.
Like everyone else currently alive, I have come to realise that I, like the addicted child, was born into an addiction not of my own making- and to which I was not in the least bit aware-until I woke up. I was born, like you, innocently enough into a life, a society a culture whose choices, goals, ambitions and ideas of progress and development-whose entire sense of self- were underwritten by what we now know to be the greatest most decisive and consequential collective modern addiction humanity has ever shared; the addiction to fossil fuels.
Now, addiction is a complex word and it is not in itself a modern phenomenon. Addiction to things like power and control, to belief systems, to people and behaviours has a human history as long as actual slavery does and it is something that touches most people’s actual lives one way or another at some point unless they are of the especially exalted kind.
Addiction always has business with concerns about limitations; its primary driving impulse is always something to do with the search for freedom in some form, it is always driven by some sort of powerful belief system, which for various reasons over time degenerates to become a form of private or collective servitude and slavery. The problem with Heroin, as I had to appreciate and come to understand was not that it was nasty but that it was too good at what it did-it worked or at least seemed to work for the user since, notwithstanding problems like raising cash, it instantly and effortlessly freed the person from the burden and despair and source of pain that their lives had become to them, typically as a result of any number of wide ranging abuses and failures they had experienced over a lifetime. As such it offered and delivered at the outset at least- the promised land of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom into,’ which is an archetypal theme as old as history itself.
To avoid over-simplification, a deeper assessment will recognise that the consequential effects of our relationship with fossil fuels reside not in the raw materials themselves of course, but in their relationship to the suffix industry, to the principle of industry, to the development of the modern industrial paradigm-a mighty belief system founded on a powerful philosophy that promoted and exacerbated our nascent leaning towards addiction, that encouraged, allowed and finally demanded the extraction and use of fossil fuels at ever greater and more exorbitant scale to fuel the perpetuation of its own assumptions. As such our use of fossil fuels, like the pandemic, is symptomatic rather than causal though it has become the cause of so much trouble. In precisely this way, every addiction becomes a closed loop, feeding sustaining and justifying itself with little interest in or time for alternative perspectives. The initial promise of freedom, the initial high changes with time. We must take more to feel good, we must acquire, even steal or rob if necessary to get what we need to keep going and in the process of taking, which we do and have and will, our one desire, our one terrible need is to ensure we get enough, maybe just enough or more dreadfully, maybe not enough, to feel normal.
Thus whilst our use of fossil fuels is not responsible for evoking some new impulse in us, it is a special case to the degree that it has gripped us so totally. It is a special case to the extent that this addiction and the industrial scale exploitation it has itself sanctioned and encouraged in and through multiple other industries has accelerated trends and behaviours in almost unimaginable ways that now undeniably pose an existential threat to what we might call the human project. Given our apparent unwillingness to change our behaviour in the face of the overwhelming evidence of harm caused, the fossil fuel addiction seems to be very real-it does seem to be a genuine addiction. For the human project there has been no drug like oil ever invented and there can be no estimate placed on the extent and degree to which it, as the thrumming engine of the industrial growth paradigm, has shaped our lives and shaped our modern understanding of our place and role on earth.
To be clear, and by way of claiming some kind of useless pardon from those generations yet to be born, the pathway towards the addiction I am now part of and complicit in had not been of my doing at the outset. I cannot say how I would have made choices had I been one of those who first discovered the wonder and power of oil-it’s possible, maybe probable, given what has already been said, that I would have celebrated the discovery of that miraculous force with the same awe and enthusiasm that everyone else did-I don’t know, hindsight is a wonderful thing and it can too easily give us a false estimation of our own personal fallibilities. Certainly I have benefited from that power and those wonders it has facilitated during my lifetime and most surely I will miss it-or what it has made possible- when it runs thin or when the earth body gives out in more dramatic ways or when we decide to quit the abuse. All I can say for certain is that I was born into the world as it was and as such it was a kind of fait accompli that I was presented with.
I would add, to those yet unborn, that the world I grew up in was the world I inherited from those whose lives were in general terms, also tinged with a curious innocence or blindness to the fact of our growing and costly addiction. In the generations before my own, the real cost of oil exploitation was not really apparent, or so it seems, other than to a relatively few who felt the tremors on the fault line of our ancient pact with the land or who lived or worked on the margins and could see, sense, read or smell the signs of danger in the burning oil fires and the race of progress that it all inspired; in the main however, the party was quickly enough in full swing and there was no talk or expectation of hangovers.
Behold at last we cried being now promethean minded. The Great Advance.
I didn’t realise as a child of course that our addiction came at a price as all addictions do. I didn’t know I or we were addicted or that what we were doing was, as it turned out, wrong. I didn’t know that we were taking and taking routinely without asking permission from a living, intelligent earth that could and should be asked, leaving a rising wake of mess behind us. I didn’t know about the growing hidden ecological debt we would have to pay someday for our excesses or that the debt would fall due in our lifetime. What I recognise as excess today I once thought of as normal life. I can see now that I was wrong in that estimation. I know now that the cost of allowing this understanding to touch me is the feeling of being heart broken.
Finally, I didn’t realise as a child that access to seemingly unlimited power would accelerate and magnify the already developing hubristic philosophical, political, economic, scientific and social systems that were in their wide eyed and enthusiastic conception apparently logical and rational but also hopelessly limited in scope, short sighted and easily seduced, ultimately proving themselves to be delusional, maybe fatally wrong minded in their estimations since they failed to account for the limitations and frailties of our delicate, vulnerable and poorly developed capacity for inclusive thinking and wisdom as well as our proclivities for excess and violation.
There were clues enough of our capacity for folly of course, that might have warned us before things got out of hand, as any indigenous people will tell you, but we were not in a listening mood. The Klondike mind was on us, cataracting our eyes and hardening both our hearts and our resolve and we failed to notice the slow erosion of intelligence and sensitivity, the slow decoupling from the earth, the growing sickness in mind and body that our dependency brought, that all addiction brings.
I like you, was born addicted and like you, it’s taken a long time to start to feel the pain of the inevitable withdrawal and to decide to take steps to address it. One thing that’s true in drug addiction is that you just can’t stay high forever and that seems true for life in general. At some point, if you survive, the money runs out, or the body runs out or the mind runs out or the luck runs out and you discover what it is to be in one way or another, destitute and homeless.
The path from innocence to experience, from childhood to maturity is a crooked one, convoluted and in our day, long and uncertain if achieved at all. If my experiences of addiction in the hospital are true of wider life and our own predicament then I would conclude that to feel the sickness as well as to receive the healing it will it seems take some kind of re-birthing which is paradoxically to undergo some kind of death. There seems to be required of us some kind of dying time that might initiate a waking up, some kind of severance and shock, some kind of initiation or rite of passage which has its business in the very deepest places of our experience. We may not have asked for the addiction we have any more than the child of the heroin addicted mother did but it is ours to take and ours to meet and complaining that it should be otherwise won’t change that. When things get soul sized, it is to the soul that we must go for help. I was once told by someone older and wiser than me that we never save a soul; that it is always the case that it’s the soul that saves us and on this more vertical understanding of things i suspect a lot hangs.
I recall a line from a poem by Wendell Berry.
There are no un-sacred places, only sacred places and desecrated places‘
A sacramental culture, to recall Moriarty, a culture we might say, of accommodation rather than dominion, knows the whole earth to be sacred. In Christian mystical thinking the world is a theophany which is to say divine in all things. The culture of dominion-that underpins our present way of doing things- has forgotten this accommodating or ecumenical principle and only this forgetting can make the act of desecration possible.
Addiction, in all its forms, whether that of the heroin addicted mother or the fuel addicted society is the symptomatic response of a person or people tragically at odds with itself. More fundamentally, it is symptomatic of a person or people at odds with its founding existential relationship to the poles of birth and death and paradoxically their cyclical relationship -thereby lacking the facility to bring about or submit to the natural forces of real change in creative, imaginative and life giving ways.
Addiction, I read once, moves towards actual death when real change was the desire-
Without a ritual to contain and inform the wounds of life, pain and suffering increase yet meaningful change doesn’t occur.
Put this way, the addicted society, like the person, is one that seeks change but having no means by which to bring it about creatively, turns in on itself and acts in ways that ensure its real rather than symbolic death.
The crisis we are in is, in the final reckoning a crisis of profound separation and this has a lot to do with the loss of our sense of what makes life sacred and the loss of what makes a culture sacramental.
The price of our dependency on the tenets of the enlightenment, the New Philosophy, predicated on the logic of Cartesian dualism has, over time, brought about the real death of our relationship with the sacramental; that which is non-rational in human experience. It has brought about the real death of our relationship to the Intelligence of both the universe in which we live and the imaginative life we have with which we can connect our material existence with an innate impulse for the divine. It has rung the death knell-so it seems-on a more intuitive mode of being and condemned to obsolescence the mythic frameworks, rituals, initiatory moments, acts and rites of passage that give place and meaning to our private and shared human experience. Put another way, whatever our claims for gain may be, we have over time lost sight of our exoteric frameworks and our esoteric ground.
Surely it is the case that every healthy society throughout history has been woven together, maintained and renewed through the use of complex patterns of symbols, totems, stories and enactments that made sense of the world and infused the experience of life with something that both inwardly fulfilled and transcended the human world. With the loss of their life supporting stories and rituals history shows us that civilisations descend ,over time, into uncertainty, disequilibrium, chaos and collapse, unable to live in the potentially life giving and renewing space of the margins. A society divorced from its ancestry is a society divorced from any meaningful vision of the future because we can only ever see as far forward as we can see back. A society’s deep sense of respect for the past informs its sense of responsibility for the future and this is upheld mostly through its sense making stories and ceremonies, without which it is extremely vulnerable. Heroic efforts to maintain heroic degrees of separation, predicated on the principle of progress by succession, divorced from or moving away from the rhythms and cycles of the earth, flows against the currents of evolutionary change and become both exhausting and self-defeating. Life and culture is diminished and becomes shallow.
A society whose whole consciousness is outward orientated is a society in trouble. For the longest time the living things of the earth have been in the habit of shaping themselves to suit the earth. It was a fateful day when we turned things upside down and tried to shape the earth to suit us.
I have heard it said that when we sit together in a circle around a fire at night we should think of ourselves as the younger ones, as the children. To think this way is to allow a shift in perception in our relationship to serious things like time and eternity, the relative and the absolute and the meaning of the long history of human endeavour. In a tribal context, the children always get to sit closest to the fire and using this story we might imagine behind us, at our backs, our relatives, through countless generations, sitting in circles behind us, away into the far distance of time, watching on.
Perhaps after a time of sitting we might contemplate too, the time when our place at the fire will be taken by the next generations, we might feel ourselves recede in time and notice the thinness of the veil that separates life and death, generation from generation. Sitting at the fire, as the children, the younger brothers and sisters of the earth- perhaps we might sense or feel the degree of responsibility we hold in our hands to act well on behalf of the whole system we behold. Sitting beside the fire we might come to see and understand the gravity of what it means to have agency.
How beautiful and how terrible it is.
How beautiful and how terrible we are.
How fearfully and wonderfully made we are.
We might ask ourselves what it is out of our sovereign selves, out of what is Right Royal in us that we need to authorise now.
We must surely ask ourselves, must think, reflect, and consider deeply, what that means and what it demands of us.
We must act of course because we are alive and yet, given our capacity for destructive as well as constructive actions, we must be careful about what we sanction lest we do more harm than good. Before we act maybe we need to make sure things are right with us-in and around us- so that we might act with the wisdom that agency demands. This is to think sacramentally and it requires inner work. The breakdown and fragmentation we see in the world says a lot about the breakdown and fragmentation we feel in ourselves.
The world we have inherited, the times we are in place a burden of responsibility on those of us sitting closest to the fire now to re-imagine our relationship with power and with this in mind people often mark the distinction between the hierarchical model of ‘power over’ in contrast to a more collaborative model of ‘power with’.
This is another way of talking about the positions of domination and accommodation.
The Indian Chief Wabasha once gave advice to his people concerning Tribal Council gatherings.
When you are assembled in Council, fail not to light in the midst the Fire which is the symbol of the Great Spirit and the sign of His presence.
And light the sacred pipe which is the symbol of Peace, Brotherhood, Council and Prayer and smoke first to the Great Spirit in heaven above then to the Four Winds, His messengers and to Mother Earth, through whom He furnishes us our food
And let each councillor smoke, passing the pipe in a circle like that of the Sun from east to west.
I think of this advice as an example of power held in the manner of ecumenism or accommodation, that accounts and cares for the holistic, interconnected relationships of life, signified by the inter-related, trichotomous symbols of the Divine, Human and Nature- best understood as an holistic actuality. It is a mature orientation.
We must account for each and all of these symbols if we are to have a right sized reckoning of life.
The purpose of initiation in every culture has always been to provide context and meaning to a person’s life, to support the development of a person towards the state of adulthood or maturity. It was through the puberty rite for example, that a ‘candidate’ would pass from the natural mode of the child and gain access to the cultural mode of the community. Introduced to the spiritual values of the community the candidate would be changed, they would become, as Mercia Eliade put it;
‘Real human beings; ‘…having access to the full human condition including the religious life.’
It was understood that the child must die to childhood and thus death itself, the darkness, the hidden mystery, was a central part of the initiatory and transformational experience. A partial life in the profane world of the material universe is sacrificed for greater participation in the sacred universe of which the community is evidentially both symbol and participant.
Initiation invites a ‘whole way’ orientation to seeing into the world, one that sees death, and the cosmic cycle of death-rebirth, as part of the fabric of life. On the ground of initiation, death is understood rightly as being the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life-Life, capitalised includes both and the spirit of Life regenerates in the underworld of the death experience. It is a sacramental approach and maybe it’s a helpful if unfashionable way of thinking about the times we are in.
When we think about the ache of the loss or confusion or anger or fear we feel in the face of the crises of our time, when we sit with these things steadily rather than running away, we might come to see what needs to die now in our own lives and be rightly honoured by our grief so that we can move on in a good way, more able for the days ahead.
When we think about the spirit of renewal we might consider what spirit needs to be renewed, re-blessed, re-sanctified, renamed, redeemed, honoured, seen, danced, acted, sung, ritualised and propitiated into new life.
If we are unwilling to countenance death as a natural part of our lived experience we will be unable to navigate between the ache of loss and the enlivening spirit of renewal, that surely frame the times that we are in and that lie ahead of us. We will not be able to be broken hearted, in the way these times most surely demand, only shattered or isolated or frightened and cut off. We will not know the world or the ground we stand on for the sacred gift that it is, we will not be able to imagine the possibility of a life nested in a universe whose dimensions in every regard are greater, more splendid and more terrible, than our experience can contemplate. To countenance death, which is what we are being asked to do today, demands much of us, because we have travelled a long way from ourselves in pursuit of other things, but I believe, it will be central to our capacity to navigate the road that lies ahead because it is an initiatory time we are in.
Man is all imagination said William Blake.
If greater knowledge- or wisdom even-could be understood to include a broadening perspective that guides our behaviours holistically, then maybe it is the gift of creative imagination that can, as it once did, form a bridge between our out worn efforts at conquest and new ways of seeing the world. Maybe it is through the imaginative life that we might best meet the world anew, maybe reconsider our vision and imagine or envision a different and more ecumenical future. We must move of course, but before moving, we must have a vision that’s worth moving towards. That’s the point of the vision. It is the still point in the turning world and without vision we are lost
In traditional thought the faculty of Imagination was the central faculty of the soul, connecting the faculties of the senses, belonging to the body, and the material world with the faculty of the Intellect belonging to the spirit and celestial world. In this understanding which accommodates our actual lived experience as both horizontal and vertical in nature, It is the imagination particularly that can see beyond the thing itself (its material form) to what dwells vividly behind and within it, (its form or essence) offering us clues and insights about our proper place and role on earth in language that is firstly symbolic and rich rather than merely literal and reductive. We could review our estimation of animals as merely so many kilos of meat. We could review our estimation of trees as merely so many cubic metres of timber. We could review our estimation of our children as mere functionaries-to-be in a system of endless production. We could turn once again to see afresh the living tree, the living animal, the genius in a child, the universe in a grain of sand, the sacred and interconnected nature of things that are there, just below appearances, that can speak, that have intelligence, that can help and guide our understanding.
Maybe it is through Imagination-as intelligence- and the imaginative life-through its exoteric and esoteric aspects, that we might find a way to bandage and poultice the sickness we feel and begin to move instinctively and with some courage and humility towards a different kind of experience, a different way of being.
We should understand that the common term we have for our species, Homo sapiens sapiens is not or should not be thought of as a given. The evidence today doesn’t support such an assumption. It’s something that must be repeatedly earned and repeatedly renewed if it is to mean anything at all.
To call our universe a ‘nothing but’ universe as Newton did, was a terrible curse and a terrible judgement and there have been many curses and many judgments. Maybe in order to see things rightly we will come to realise that in the future we face the mind might be in fact the blind, not the window. The Imaginative faculty was traditionally the seat of the soul but it was also the seat of the heart and as Antoine de St Exupery once wrote, ‘it is only with the heart that one sees rightly.’ When we flatten and disenchant the universe, through wrong seeing all is lost. The world is in reality a both-and sort of place. It is in the end a matter of perception. Blake was right in his estimation when he wrote ‘the eye altering alters all.’ A sacramental culture knows this and maybe it is this kind of knowledge that can guide us; slowly, maybe fitfully and painfully but with some hope towards the pole of evolution rather than extinction.
There are said to be creative pauses
Pauses that are as good as death, empty and dead as death itself
And in these awful pauses the evolutionary change takes place.
Perhaps it is so,
The tragedy is over, it has ceased to be tragic, the last pause is upon us
Pause, brethren, pause? DH Lawrence
A time of Kairos this is not merely Cronos; that at least, is certain. We are in vertical times; times demanding, times seeking- radical re-thinking and radical reconnection- and maybe we could, with Lawrence imagine this time to be something like a Creative Pause.
Looking around it is not hard to conclude that we are involved, whether we like it or not, in a time of radical change and transformation. I’d go further and call it a global initiation and as such it is greatly requiring of each of us. It’s not a rational statement necessarily, to put it this way, though to my mind, the evidence is everywhere to support it. I’m not in the business of trying to persuade so maybe it’s better to put it more simply and more personally;
Can you not feel it?
In my reading at least, Christopher Fry has it right sized and he knows as I think we know that things hang in the balance. More than we know he knows that the forces at work are bigger than us in every regard. His words are, or can be a mirror if we have the willingness or the inclination to look.
Imagining this to be the case, seeing it this way, we will surely have compassion for the mother and the child born out of and into addiction and know in some strange way that the addiction that encompassed them also encompasses us and shows itself to us in the mirror of our days in all the ways we find ourselves both personally and collectively ‘out of sorts’. A common fallacy is that we will find an easy way out that will allow us to cheat the rites we must in fact endure and undergo on the way to greater personal and collective maturity. That is a fallacy born in part at least, of the seduction of comfort that our addiction has accustomed us to and something we must face.
There is a thunder roaring.
The frozen misery of century’s breaks, cracks, begins to move.
The human being has become iceberg to the earth.
We are Man Overboard.
I imagine we would realise if we looked from a mountain top, at the vastness of time and human life, that the way of life we have come to call normal is not how it should be, always was or will be in the future. The long decades of the most recent decadence that lays behind us have been a brief anomaly in a long human story that is nested in an unimaginably long earth story that has, for its part, more or less cost the earth to sustain. Only pride and hubris and fear will blind the eye to this. Along the way we broke faith with the earth and went our own way and in so doing we lost all sense of what it might mean to walk beautifully on the earth and we blazed a new kind of trail.
Now the seasons are confused and the world groans as the human soul grieves.
It is time to come ashore.
Life after Heroin is not always better than life on heroin but it is different and it is possible. Life in a net-zero carbon neutral world, which we must achieve very soon if we wish to choose life over extinction-the addicts choice of course- will be the same; different. Not always better, not always worse but different, yes-and necessary and possible.
To get where we need to go will engender some kind of passage and we could usefully frame it as a rite of passage thereby giving it context, meaning and significance.
It has already begun.
The purposes of rites of passage, though they have business in the deep waters of death are finally life affirming and community affirming. Sacramental culture takes exoteric rites, rituals and initiations as well as myths and other forms of expression seriously, as the very things that symbolically ( Imaginatively) and literally (materially) bind us to the whole(celestial), activities that can be properly understood as religious in the literal sense of ‘binding to’ or binding back’. They are the still and unmoving and timeless points of every culture bound in time, that makes a place for the mystery of life and its queer, weird and wild dualities, around which the lives of its people turn, around what we experience as the apparently linear progress of life from birth to death takes place.
What all these stories and sacred activities serve to do however is to help us realise-to remind us perhaps, that our linear or progressive, purely historical understanding of things is only a partial, incomplete truth. Death is not the end in fact because the opposite of death is not life, but birth. This is what initiation, the rite we are in and must endure now at a global-scale can teach us if we are humble enough to sit by the fire of our collective dark night and listen. It is in this eternal truth that we can perhaps take some heart, and maybe through which we can find some courage to contemplate, reconsider and then act otherwise in the face of the way things really are. It is an attitude we can take, a pathway we can learn to walk even now, and one that abides as it always has, at the heart of a sacramental culture.
The poet is right. Affairs are now soul sized and much, maybe everything depends on we whose time it is, we who find ourselves sitting close up to the fire.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake…
But will you wake, for pity’s sake?