Skyline, Spring - 2003

By Diane Pendola

At The Threshold of Spring, Dark Night

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By the time you receive this, chances are that we the people of the United States have allowed our government to pre-emptively strike Iraq with the full strength of our military force. I ask myself the question: Where do I go for guidance at this time? Where do any of us go? Where do we find a sense of empowerment for influencing the direction of a future fraught with peril? Where do we go for hope? Where do we go for forgiveness? Where do we go for a new and cohesive vision?

Both my mother and my father are practicing Catholics. They each attended church services on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, that time set aside for fasting and prayer in anticipation of the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the culminating resurrection of the Christ at Easter. At my mother’s newly built suburban church that holds over 1500 people, there was standing room only. At my father’s historic church in a Sierra foothill community it was the same story. Normally, Catholic churches are only filled to overflowing these days on the major holidays (holy days) of Christmas and Easter. But these are not normal times. American Catholics, all over this country, showed up on the first day of Lent to fast and pray. My guess would be that these people inhabit the full spectrum of opinion about the justification of war with Iraq. And I believe that something much deeper than pro or anti-war sentiment is happening here. I imagine if Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Taoists, Hindus and the whole spectrum of faith traditions had their equivalent to Ash Wednesday at this moment in history, we would see the same human need expressing itself: a need for fasting, for prayer, for repentance. We are touching something here that is not sectarian but universally human.

On Ash Wednesday Catholics receive ashes on their foreheads and hear the words: “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. In more normal times it might seem a quaint if not archaic ritual. But these are not normal times. These are times to remember the earth we come from. These are times to remember the earth we threaten with our weapons of mass destruction. These are times to remember the earth that gives us breath and the earth that receives our death. I’m reminded of the ash that covered our land after the wild fire that devastated our forest three years ago. These ashes connect me to the millions of acres that have burned in the western United States since then; in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and California. These are the ashes of the earth burning beneath the effects of rising temperatures, the earth threatened across all of her beautiful expanse by global warming.

These ashes are on our foreheads. They are the ashes of children incinerated by American bombs falling now in Iraq. They are the ashes of Americans cremated in the inferno of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9-11. They are the ashes of every violent death by war, by retaliation, by domination. We contemplate over 100 million deaths, most of them civilian, in the twentieth century alone, and we choke on ashes. It is a heart-breaking thing to remember the ashes. To mark ourselves with the ashes of 30,000 species reaching extinction this year. To cross ourselves with the ashes of children crucified in Israel and Palestine. To immerse ourselves in sackcloth and ashes in the hope that we might yet turn the tide of our human history from war to peace; from justice to mercy; from hatred to love.

On the morning of January 10, as talk of war with Iraq was heating up, I woke up from a dream with these words and this question in my mind: “What is the coherent vision you can live for?” Who was asking the question: my deeper Self? the God-within? the Wisdom within my own soul? Coming from beyond the limited pre-occupations of my normal waking life, I have a certain trust of the question. There was a knowing in the dream that the old vision is killing us. The prevailing vision is one we kill and die for. Against this backdrop the dream asks: What is the vision you can live for? What is the vision that you can give to your children, to humanity’s children, to all earth’s children including the children of the animals and the fish and the birds of the air? I think it is an important question for each of us to ask ourselves. In the presence of the ashes, in the devastating wake of old visions of tribe, nation, religion and race, what is the integral vision we can live with? What is the cohesive vision we can give our lives to?

I don’t think the dream’s question means to indicate there is just “one” vision, because as soon as my (one, true) vision clashes with your (one, true) vision conflict looms and war again looks inevitable. No, the dream asks me in a very personal and particular way. And in my own personal and particular way I struggle to respond. I invite you to do the same.

Thomas Berry has said that “the universe is not a collection of objects to be exploited but a communion of subjects to be revered.” This is the guiding principle of a vision to which I can dedicate my life. It begins in relationship. It begins in respect. It begins in the recognition of the right of every being to exist, to flourish, to unfold the depths of its own nature. And yet, right here at the threshold of this new vision, are the ashes of the old. Here I come face to face with my own participation in the objectification of the “other” whether human or non-human. Here I come face to face with my own exploitation of the people, the animals, the trees, the rivers and the mountains with whom I share this world. And I know, to pass over this threshold, my heart has to break. I must grieve the loss of so much beauty, of so much innocence, of so much of the world soul. There is a stripping that is being asked of me, and I think particularly of us, the wealthiest and strongest and most powerful people in the world. I think this inner-knowing is what brought people to church on Ash Wednesday. A deep part of us knows that we need to fast from power, from privilege, from consumption. We know that somehow our comforts and our cars and our gadgets are at the expense of people who do not even have enough to eat. We feel a need for repentance. We feel the need for forgiveness.

One of the great spiritual teachers in the western mystical tradition was St. John of the Cross. He speaks of the dark night of the soul, a narrow passage in a person’s spiritual journey in which consolation and comfort is stripped away. It is in this darkness, that all of our concepts of God and Goodness and Truth are pruned, and we feel dispossessed of our ideas, attachments, possessions, in short everything we have come to identify as ourselves. Yet it is precisely here, in this very darkness, that the ungraspable Mystery (what John would call Divine Union) gifts itself to us. I would like to suggest that we as a country, as a people, could be entering this dark night. And though it terrifies us, because our very lives and security and sense of who we are as a people is threatened, it also holds great promise. If we embrace this night in an attitude of trust, in a spirit of fasting and prayer, willing to let go of what is false and open to a deeper and yet to be known Truth, then our true nature as a people and as a collective force for transformation can awaken.

I am hopeful. I know that as I grieve and weep and cry for the sadness and the meanness and the cruelty in the world, I find energy released that has been locked up in depression. That energy becomes available for writing Earthlines, for articulating a new vision, for helping others find the empowerment that lies on the other side of despair.

The Christian insight into the mystery of suffering, death and resurrection gives guidance to me as I grope my way through these difficult times. It gives me a way to recognize those aspects of human life that are misery and crucifixion. But it also affirms these do not need to have the last word. What seems so thoroughly pervaded by death and despair can be undone, transformed, made new. This is the possibility of our time but it is ours to choose… or not. It does not protect or shield us from suffering or from death. But if we are willing to go through the stripping, to feel our grief, to repent of our complicity with exploitation and the devastation of our planet, then there is the possibility of that dawning of a new heaven and a new earth, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where no one any longer hurts or destroys on God’s holy mountain: This Sacred Earth.

©Diane Pendola, Spring 2003. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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