Last night and for the next couple of nights Karen and I are staying up in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, in the town of Mount Tremper. The weather is good and we have plans to go hiking today and tomorrow.
Our conversations are still reverberating about Goni and her community in the West Bank. It occurred to us that her community is a good example of what I mean by “penitence.” By Goni’s recognition of her privilege as an Israeli, and therefore her participation in an oppressive system, and her brave and loving attempts to go ahead and live in personalist community with those whom the system forces onto the margins, she is an example of what this value means.
Metanoia is the Greek word used in the gospels for what I mean. It is usually translated “repentance” but literally means to change one’s mindset, one’s perspective, the metaphorical place from which one lives. The corresponding word in Hebrew, shuv, means to turn around. In the Biblical context it begins with some sense of the Divine pleasure and an acknowledgement that we have chosen to live in a way that is completely contrary to it. If we think, for example, of Gaia, as a living being covering the surface of our planet, and of our evolution as having taken place as part of her, then at some point we rebelled and made ourselves alien to her, a foreign body that is antithetical (destructive) to her continuing life. Humanity has lived within Gaia for about two-and-a-half million years, but about ten thousand years ago we made a decision that began to radically disrupt our evolution. Under a difficult climatic shift, we chose security over belonging, by the dominance–or privilege–of some over others, and thus came about the beginning of patriarchy (see Caroline Ann Flinders). Feminist anthropologists and historians have documented this shift (e.g., Girda Lerner). I take it as an established fact in scholarship. Patriarchy evolved into the present system of corporate capitalism with its accompanying oppressions. In the West we tend to categorize everything as a binary, and then assume that one side of the binary dominates the other side.
Penitence would then mean an acknowledgement of this fact, an acceptance of our culpability, and the fact that we are not going to escape the consequences of our actions: that the climate that we have distorted is going to make our lives unbearable and even unliveable. Other things could have done this, an asteroid smashing into the planet, for example, but in this case we have done it. But it is not only to grovel and beat ourselves up about it.
Penitence is first of all to love Gaia–if we make Gaia an analogy of the Divine–and, for the reason that we are appalled at what we have done to be because of our love of her (our love of the earth and not just our terror of what we will suffer as a result of our actions). Since we love Gaia we are, on the one hand, appalled at the destruction we have wrecked on her, and on the other hand, to grieve for what she–and we–have lost as a result.
Second, it is not to simply try to fix the consequences while still living in the way that caused the problem in the first place, but to turn towards Gaia and, first of all, to accept the consequences of our actions. This follows from the first step. It corresponds to John the Baptist’s question to the Pharisees and Sadducees who had come to him for baptism: “Who told you to flee from the wrath of God?” Penitence is not to turn away from the Divine wrath but rather to accept it as something that we well deserve. In both cases–whether the Divine wrath or the wrath of Gaia–though it is perhaps easier to understand with Gaia, it is not merely to accept what we deserve, but to do so out of our love of Gaia and because of the fairness of it all.
Third, it is to reconcile ourselves to Gaia and to be reconciled. This means to retrace where we departed from Gaia and to return to the place that Gaia intended for us–to the extent that we can while still living in a collective system that is completely contrary and opposed to this. The new place, then, is interior, for outwardly we cannot escape our culpability. It is to be in this new interior place and then for our actions to come out of this interior place of reconciliation. This new place, which is in a sense our primal origin, is a place where we belong to each other, to the world around us, to Gaia, and we are loved and loving, where we have a place in the creation. This means that we live out our lives within the system of late-stage patriarchy in a way that corresponds to our reconciliation with Gaia, in loving-kindness to the creation and to our fellow humans.
What I am saying about our relationship to Gaia is true, in my understanding, but I am also thinking of it as an analogy of our relationship to the universe (or multiverse) itself, and to the Divine, which is where the universe exists on the cusp between time and eternity (the surface, as it were, of the original and terminal singularity). The Divine is where consciousness and matter, time and eternity, locality and universality become non-dual. So, for example, the Divine is eternal, but time takes place within eternity. Every present instance of time (not time as past or future) participates in eternity or timelessness or the simultaneity of all time. To the eternal consciousness, all time takes place in the present moment, and vice versa. Actually, this defies and escapes conception and therefore language, so no matter what I say is inaccurate, and in some sense wrong.
Penitence, from a religious perspective, then, while including this turn to Gaia, aims to go as deep and fully as it can, to the very root of our being. This is what the Christian mystics are about. I don’t mean them exclusively, for I am reminded by the Zen Monastery around the corner, that it might be universal, but I speak from my own expertise.
I took these pictures of Karen on our hike up Mount Tremper. Then there were these shots of babbling brooks and the fall foliage:
We were in a deciduous forest (with a few hemlocks) and the rich smell of rotting leaves was everywhere. We also found a place that smelled exactly like almonds, but we could not find the source of the fragrance. When the breeze would blow over the top of the canopy, yellow leaves would fall around us like snow. Below our feet the trail was wet and rocky.
Then I made this discovery. I am fascinated by holes in trees. This was a nice round one and when I went to check it out, I found what looked like another tree inside of the bigger one. How interesting!