Where Do We Go from Here?
Mark Kutolowski, Guest Preacher
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
November 15, 2020 Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 46; Matthew 16:24-26
I believe three things are necessary to respond to the urgent needs of our time – Acceptance of current reality, the spiritual work of descent, and the practice of abiding in Divine Life.
To begin a sane path forward, we must first begin with a sober acceptance of our current time in history, as a nation, as a culture, and as a world. As I look at our world and nation, I see that we are in a period of descent and decline – culturally, economically, and ecologically. The conditions precipitating this decline extend far beyond our current political situation, and while shifts in national political power may accelerate or slow the rate of decline, I do not believe they are capable of stopping it. Massive wealth inequality, the breakdown of civic life and the educated, aware citizenry it depends upon, epidemics of addiction to both drugs and screens, massive corporate influence over daily life and access to information, fracturing of family and domestic life, climate change and other environmental catastrophe, the inability to proactively shift from a fossil fuel economy despite its imminent end – there is little doubt in my mind that our current civilization is on a path of accelerating fracture and decline. Oh, and then there’s the pandemic – well, you get my point!
As Americans of the modern era, we have a deep-seated cultural belief in progress and continual growth. Even in the realm of faith, we often seek a narrative of continuous progress, whether in church growth or in the advancement of social justice. Yet when things fall apart – and things are falling apart quite rapidly in our world – this attitude can become a way of hiding from reality. Can we end our war with reality and acknowledge that we are in a time of unraveling? Doing so can unleash tremendous spiritual and psychological energy, as it allows us to begin to see clearly, without the heavy burden of the colored lenses of progress and the consequent desire to disassociate from our pain. It is as natural and normal to be alive in a time of decline as it is to live in a time of growth and progress. We Americans are not so special to be immune to the inevitable cycles of rise and fall, or expansion and contraction, that affect all individual lives, all nations, all empires, and indeed all natural systems. Let’s embrace this basic truth so we can turn to the spiritual work that is at hand.
The spiritual work that is most needed in our time of descent is the work of grief, mourning, repentance and forgiveness. We can begin by simply stating reality, for example ‘Our democracy is collapsing’, or ‘Species are going extinct’. As you say something, feel the pain in your body and feel the painful emotions arising. Keep breathing and resist the urge to push the unpleasant feelings away, or to run from the bad feeling into either distraction or thinking of solutions. If you persist in this practice long enough, the pain will open the gateway to grief, mourning and tears. Carl Jung wrote that ‘Neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering’. By suffering (that is, allowing yourself to feel) the pain of our world in your body, you open the doorway for yourself and others to begin to see and think clearly. Our country is going insane in large part because of our cultural aversion to feeling pain, and the overflowing reservoir of unprocessed grief we carry, as individuals and collectively. By ending our internal ‘war with reality’ and consciously feeling our pain and the pain of our world in our bodies, we can open the doorway for a sane, sober future. If possible, find a friend to practice grieving together. It may take some practice, but in time we can open the chambers of our hearts and begin to feel again. We can use a practice like this to feel into our own pain, or into the pain of others. We can also take seriously the twin disciplines of repentance (turning from our own blindness) and forgiveness (releasing our grip on the failings of others). It is a time to weep, to let go, to release, and to allow our hearts and agendas to be undone. Only when they are washed by tears will the eyes of our hearts begin to be able to see the world anew.
Finally, after accepting our current reality and undertaking the spiritual work of descent, we must learn again to root ourselves in Divine Life. If we inquire deeply, we will discover that there is no truly solid ground in the exterior world – not in culture, not in politics, not in our thoughts, not in our relationships, not even in nature which is constantly in flux. The only ‘solid ground’ is the vast, luminous spaciousness of Divinity that is the Source of all being and form, from which all life, all matter, and all thought-forms arise. Try to base your life on anything else, and it will inviably fail to satisfy. The only true security comes in the rigorous work of restructuring of our interior landscape so that our finite sense of self is relativized, and Infinite, Divine reality becomes the central, animating energy of our life. This is, of course, the insight of Jesus’ teaching that ‘Whoever wishes to save their life must lose it’, and the inner meaning of the central Christian symbol of the death and resurrection of the Divine-Human being, Jesus. Jesus is the archetype of every human journey to divine life – if we wish to be spiritually free, we must ‘die’ to our finite sense of self to allow Divine Life to arise within. This is no easy task, but it is an utterly necessary task if we wish to enter a sane human future. Actually, it is two interrelated tasks. The first is to open to the Source of Life within at a level deeper than our thoughts and feelings. Silent disciplines like meditation and Centering Prayer are valuable in this effort. The second, equally necessary task is the work of self-emptying, through examining our hearts and identifying the places of our own pain and self-centeredness, and bringing these areas where we hide from God into the light of awareness. Without this second task, even silent prayer and meditation are susceptible to self-delusion.
As the world unravels around us, the Divine Life within us and at the heart of all creation is the one source of true power, peace, and life that cannot be shaken by external conditions. When we have made our private, psychological selves small and allowed this Divine Life to live through us, we become agents of a new future.
The materialist worldview has infected every aspect of modern thought, even how we think about spirituality and change. Many believe that the value of prayer and inner peace is primarily to better equip ourselves to do the real work of social justice out in the outer world. Because of the unity of the human family at the level of the spirit, I promise you that any gain in interior freedom you attain in prayer, meditation and self-emptying will simultaneously be a blessing to the entire human species. The opening of spiritual love in your heart automatically flows beyond your heart into the heart of our species and the heart of the world. It is the greatest gift you can give to the world in this time. If you use this love for outward acts of service, that’s great. But bringing Divine love into this world through the doorway of your heart is already the primary gift to humanity. Because this is true, we all have a great and vital role to play in moving our community, and our world, forward. A brighter future is still possible, but only insomuch as we both open to divine reality and let go of our own self-centered motivations, at each and every moment.
Practically, I believe this means reversing our typical orientation of seeking to ‘save’ the world through affecting outward change. I believe that we would be better off to instead spend approximately 65% of our conscious energies and intention on the inner disciplines of prayer, meditation, grief, mourning, forgiveness and self-emptying. We could then spend another 30% on consciously re-structuring our way of life to be in line with our values – simplifying our lives, reducing consumption, weaning ourselves from our addictions to chemicals and social media, and building authentic and vulnerable relationships with our neighbors. This also includes examining our lives – who we have hurt, and who we still bear grudges against. Before we can be free to love the wider world, it is utterly necessary that we tend to our families, close friendships, and local community. Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to ask for forgiveness? We must tend to our own house before trying to rebuild the world. The remaining 5% could be fruitfully spent on trying to affect outward change in the public sphere. I have a hunch that if we lived this way, much more positive change would occur in the world with a fraction of the effort. I invite you to give it a try – 65% on inner practice, 30% on reform of life, and then 5% on activism.
So, let us face reality, accept the unraveling, do the work of spiritual descent, and re-root ourselves in Divine Life. From these foundations, we can go forward, not around but into and through the pain of this time, to a new, deeper, more fully human and more fully divine future.