It’s not the end of the world

Suppose you had never known anything but winter, never known the trees and shrubs around you as anything other than smooth, bare branches. Then suddenly one day they were covered with a sickly greenish sort of excrescence, that grew and spread until it completely obscured the familiar structure you were used to. Wouldn’t it be strange, even horrifying to behold such an inexplicable transformation, not understanding the purpose of leaves, the meaning of springtime? Would you try to find a way to stop this disturbing phenomenon?

Or suppose that nobody had any knowledge of human gestation and birth. When a woman’s abdomen began to grow, to bulge outward and even to pulse from within, it would appear a bizarre deformity. One might attempt to excise the growth and get rid of it, or at least to stop it from growing further, keeping it under control. Either way, the potential of new life would be stifled in ignorance.

The Apocalypse of St John on the Island of Patmos – Jan Massys, 1563

Such thoughts come to me as I think about the pictures of the Apocalypse of St. John, the prophetic book that ends the New Testament. Its powerful, frightening images of cataclysm and destruction come readily to mind today, when so many destructive forces are at work, when every other novelist seems to be imagining a “post-Apocalyptic world” of one kind or another. Plagues, fires, land laid waste, beastly rulers, devouring dragons, warring factions — it seems a template for a bleak and hopeless future.

But could it be that such a vision is trying to prepare us for the death of the old, the birth pangs of the new? What if there is no death, but only transformation? Then the question is not how to avert death, but how to change along with a changing world. How do we learn to recognize and cultivate life wherever it appears, even as the forms we are accustomed to are vanishing? Is the fall into the abyss not a punishment, but a simple consequence of not awakening to such awareness?

“Apocalypse,” after all, does not mean “The End.” It means “Uncovering” — the unveiling of what has always been there, but hidden from our conscious awareness. The destruction pictured in the Apocalypse is not something that is going to happen in the future, near or far. It’s already happened, and is constantly happening at every moment, only we have long been protected from it by insensibility. But in our apocalyptic era, unawareness is growing less and less possible, more and more counterproductive.

Apocalypse – Albert Goodwin, 1903

There is much that goes on in our life that we would find shocking if we were not protected from it by unconsciousness. Our digestive system, for example, is engaged in an incredible activity of pulverizing and dissolving our food, reducing it to smithereens in order to extract the forces and substances that sustain our life.

What if we had to direct that activity consciously at every step? What if we had to move through all the stages of disintegration, and experience them fully without losing faith in the ultimate goal: reintegration on a higher level, substance transformed into spirit?

The prospect would be daunting indeed. And yet I believe that is what we are being called to do, in a time when it seems as though the world is coming to an end. So much that we relied on is falling away, is becoming unrecognizable, and fear is an understandable response. But at these moments, can we find the invisible forces that are rising up to nourish us, in the midst of chaos and disruption? Can we have the courage to bring to birth the new humanity that is struggling to be free?

St Michael Subduing Satan – Lelio Orsi, circa 1540 (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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