Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Infusing Hope Into the Dark Night of Our Species

When he was 41, Andrew Harvey met Father Bede Griffith, a renowned mystic and teacher living in India, who was 85 years old at the time. Harvey, a serious seeker, mystic, and teacher himself [check out his particulars on Amazon or at www.andrewharvey,org] spent 10 days at Griffith's ashram, taping interviews with the Master for a friend's documentary film. One of the first things Father Bede said to him was "You know, Andrew, don't you, that we are now living in the 'Hour of God'?" Andrew asked him to explain what he meant by the 'Hour of God'."

"I mean that humanity has come to the moment when it will have to choose between trying to play God, with the catastrophic results we see all around us, and trying to become what all the true mystical traditions know we can become--one with God through grace in life. This is a dangerous yet wonderful and hopeful moment because if enough of us can choose the latter, the birth of a wholly new kind of human being, and so of a new world, is possible."

This is where I always have my fatal stumble with spirituality today: its presumption of a new kind of human being and a new world that will miraculously unfold after humanity has traversed a near-deathlike dark night of the soul. Standing lonesome watch as I do when I often feel like I am live-blogging the end of the world, what I see is one unforgiving catastrophe unfolding after another. It seems relentless. (Check out the new oil spill currently polluting the Yellowstone River.) From these circumstances, the leap into envisioning "a new kind of human being and a new world" frankly eludes me. I feel only dread at what awaits the human race.

Reading Andrew's book "The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism" this summer, however, is helping me to pass, like a fitful camel, through the eye of that needle. The words he writes and the stories he tells have made me feel less alone in my heartbreak. This is because Andrew minces no words when he describes the depths of his own dread and despair, and how difficult it has been to confront them. "How could any half-conscious human being NOT feel dread at the enormous suffering that is erupting all over the world?" The extremity of it is overwhelming.

"Dread," Andrew writes, "is the most paralyzing of all human of all human emotions and the one I, and everyone else I know, will do almost anything to avoid. Facing the depth of my dread has threatened me, at times, with hopelessness. What I have found, however, is that acknowledging my dread and treating it not as a weakness to be repressed at all costs, but as an inevitable response to real circumstances, has helped me start to heal it."

Personal disclosure: I haven't read too many people willing to be that unflinchingly frank, and so I clutch onto this book as I would to a life raft. I relish the company of someone who writes the way I would like to write, who thinks the way I would like to think, and when I read him, I know myself a little better. Harvey asks questions the way no one else would: "How exactly do we acquire a 'lover's heart" [he is paraphrasing Rumi here] that stays 'a rose garden' however 'choked with thorns' our circumstances become?" I feel a little less lost in emotional Siberia when I read him.

It was Harvey's own "radical descent" into a fierce and angry disillusionment with humanity, he claims, that ultimately saved him. To experience this disillusionment, he now believes, is to face without denial the reality of the evil that we as a race have done to ourselves, to the animals, and to Nature. He catalogues the list of evils we have perpetrated thusly: brutal wars, genocides, the systematic rape of Nature, the creation of a free-for-all financial system that makes an elite few obscenely rich while billions of people live in terrible degradation--with the result that humanity is now in danger of losing its conscience and soul just when it needs them most. In the end, Harvey is convinced that only by "weathering the storms of grief and heartbreak and the hopelessness of a long, hard look at our crisis, the state of humanity, and the state of my own character" was he able to alchemically transmute the hopelessness and the heartbreak into an infusion of more illuminating energy.

For me, the lesson learned here--and there will be more of them to recount as I make my way through this remarkable book--is that hope is not some giddy, feel-good, Oprah Winfrey thing meant to spackle over your despair and keep you comfy while you go on about your daily business. Given where the planet is at this point, hope must be earned, by walking on the hot coals of a crisis-ridden world and running the gauntlet of a sickening chagrin and dismay. Only then can an authentic and embodied hope bloom into place and become a realistic possibility. Any hope, according to Andrew, that "glosses over the reality of evil or does not respect its power will not be of any use." And so, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. [To be continued.]

The illustration above was sent to me by my friend Jane Vance, who says it is the torso of a poor village Indian who saves and befriends animals, a detail from a painting-in-progress called "What Light Does to Fish."

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