Saturday, January 26, 2013

Threshold Musings

I must admit I've been feeling rather small lately.

By this I don't mean I'm feeling insignificant or unworthy in any way. Rather, I'm feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the momentous times we're living through. I mean, we're basically witnessing the unraveling of some very major societal structures – economic, ecclesial and environmental.

Yet we're also witnessing the emergence of a new 'story,' a new understanding of how we as humans can relate to one another, to the planet, and thus to the sacred force that infuses all things. It's a story, an understanding, that integrates science and spirituality, and one that heralds a new era, a new paradigm.

A time of transition

Around this time last month there was a lot of hype about the Maya 2012 prophecy and the supposed 'end of the world.' Yet as Michel Chossudovsky and others have pointed out, the prophesy has been greatly distorted and misunderstood. In reality, the Maya calendar did not end on December 21, 2012. Rather that date marked the beginning of a new “Long Cycle” in the Maya calendar system.

For Mayas, December 21, 2012 was a joyous event, not an apocalyptic one. Yet as the date approached last month, attention to it became so frenzied and overblown that Ricardo Cajas, president of the Collective of Native Organizations of Guatemala, felt compelled to declare that the date did not represent the end of humanity but rather the start of a new cycle that carried the potential for "changes in human consciousness."

Pedro Celestino Yac Noj – a Maya sage living in Cuba – also said last month that December 21, 2012 "is for giving thanks and gratitude [while] the 22nd welcomes . . . a new dawn." In a similar vein, Maya priest Jose Manrique Esquive shared the belief that December 21 marked the beginning of a transition for humanity, a movement into a better time. Shift of Ages is a new film that presents the Mayas’ beliefs in detail, and its title and content reflects this hopeful idea of transition and transformation.

Looking around at the various upheavals taking place in numerous spheres of influence – including the Roman Catholic Church – I cannot help but agree with the idea that humanity is indeed in a time of transition. Whether or not it's a positive transition is, of course, up to us.

Another way of describing this time of crisis and opportunity is to invoke the imagery of threshold crossing. I have a particular affinity for such imagery as it's very much grounded in Sufism, that form of universal wisdom that's at the heart of all the great religious traditions. In Sufism, one who understands him/herself as being at the threshold of a new stage of spiritual development or enlightenment is called a dervish. As I've noted previously, I’ve come to realize that I am, at heart, a dervish. My life seems like a series of threshold crossings that have led me to new levels of awareness and engagement with self, God, and others. I don't think I'm alone in this experience. Nor do I believe that it's just individuals who experience this type of journey, but also communities, institutions, and humanity itself.

I have a real and, quite frankly, awe-inspiring sense that humanity is at a very major and important threshold. We have the opportunity to enter into a new phase of consciousness, one that I and others believe is absolutely crucial for the future of not just ourselves, but of all forms of life on the planet.

A paradigm shift

This time last year I noted that my prayer life involved praying for a paradigm shift in human consciousness – one that I believe God is calling humanity to embody. It's a shift – a movement, a journey – from greed to justice, from apathy to compassion, from mindless consumption to sustainability, from fear to love. In the twelve months since I wrote about this shift, this threshold crossing, its reality has become so much more apparent.

For instance, events like Superstorm Sandy the recent bush fires in Australia, and the record-breaking pollution levels in China, not to mention the fact that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the U.S., are making an increasing number of people aware of climate change and, more importantly, moving them to commit to doing something positive about it. An example is the Transition Network, a network made up of communities dedicated to "small-scale local responses to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy." The movement seeks to facilitate humanity's transition from reliance on fossil fuels and other unsustainable practices to the building of strong, local, resilient and sustainable communities. The Transition movement began in the United Kingdom and has quickly spread around the world. I recently discovered that the closest "transition initiative" to me is in the nearby Corcoran neighborhood of south Minneapolis.

And then there's the Idle No More movement – a movement that began within indigenous communities across Canada and which has rapidly spread throughout the Americas and across the globe. There was even a recent Idle No More action at Minneapolis' famed Mall of America. Jacob Devaney describes the movement as a "battle cry of love for the planet," and makes the connection between it and the myriad of other movements at the vanguard of humanity's "threshold crossing" into a new level of planetary consciousness, or what eco-theologian Thomas Berry once described as the "Great Turning."

Writes Devaney:

At first glance it might appear that [the Idle No More] movement is isolated and doesn't effect you if you are not native or if you don't live in Canada, yet it does. It may appear that this resistance is not related to the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the Unify Movement, Anonymous, or any of the other popular uprisings sparked by social unrest, but it is.

At their very core, all of these movements have very common threads and are born from common issues facing people everywhere. Those who represent financial interests that value money over life itself, that are devoid of basic respect for human decency, and for nature have dictated the future for too long and people everywhere are standing up to say, "No more." This non-violent social uprising is viral in the minds and hearts of everyone across the planet determined to bring healing to our troubled communities, our planet, and the corruption that is eroding the highest places of governments around the world.

And then there's the way that the people and government of the U.S. are responding to the horrific violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut. It's a response that is palpably different from previous reactions to mass shootings. There's a real sense that as a society we've crossed some threshold of what we will and will not accept. There's resistance, of course, by entities that feed on people's fears and which have monied interests in making a profit. In this case, it's a profit from the making and selling of firearms. I think of these types of entities as the "principalities" mentioned in the New Testament. They're systemic structures that in their greed and hubris are terribly destructive of creation and the best aspects of humanity – including our creativity and our sense of interdependence on each other and the natural world. Yet, as I said, I think things are different this time. The National Rifle Association (NRA), for instance – a principality if ever there was one – is revealing itself as the extremely dangerous and fear-mongering entity that it is. And people are standing up to it and its influence and looking elsewhere for answers and responses to the problem of gun violence.

A 'watershed' year

For gays and lesbians in many parts of the world, the last year has been a time of positive transition. Writing for the Religion News Service, Lauren Markoe notes that last November's U.S. elections indicated a major "social sea change on gay marriage." Closer to home, journalist Beth Hawkins observed that the November 6 defeat at the Minnesota polls of the anti-equality 'marriage amendment' was proof that "the tide has turned" in favor of gay people and their access to the rights and benefits of civil marriage.

Of course, some may dismiss these advances as simply a U.S. phenomenon. Yet as the Los Angeles Times compellingly documents, the recent marriage equality victories in the U.S. mirror global advances.

The emerging church

Changes are also afoot in the Roman Catholic Church. The church's clerical caste has, and continues, to lose credibility – most glaringly around issues of human sexuality. The bishops' fixation on specific sex acts and thus their ongoing efforts to demean and obstruct marriage equality within civil society, is a source of great embarrassment and pain for many Catholics. As I've noted previously, given the Catholic people's acceptance of gay people and their lives, relationships and families, it seems clear that the bishops' anti-gay rhetoric does not represent actual Catholic belief, not only as it relates to homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but also to the complex reality of human sexuality in general.

Not only are there compelling cases being made by Catholics for a renewed Catholic sexual theology (see, for instance, this Wild Reed series), but increasing numbers of Catholics are recognizing that in order for such new ways of thinking to be fully realized, church structures must be reformed. I find it both significant and hopeful that this call for church reform is coming not only from the laity (see, for example here, here and here) but from all kinds of "official" church leaders, including priests (see here and here), abbots and other religious (see here and here), theologians (see here, here and here), church historians, and even bishops (see here and here) and a cardinal.

I believe that new ways of being Catholic, of being church, are emerging all around us. The crumbling of the hierarchical clerical caste, most notably around the clergy sex abuse crisis, is simply a sign of this emergence – one that I welcome. Increasingly, Catholics of conscience are recognizing that in many areas the bishops have no moral credibility. They have failed us. True, such failure has lead many Catholics to walk away from the church completely. Others, however, are gathering together and discussing, envisioning, planning and embodying church structures and practices that emulate the life and message of Jesus and thus serve as a truly radical (in the best sense of the word) sign of God’s compassion, wisdom, and justice in the world.

The local church of St. Paul-Minneapolis is a veritable epicenter of such activity and thus of what's been called the 'emerging church.' There is, for example, Call to Action MN (which is bringing Sister Simone Campbell to the Twin Cities on March 2 to talk about how to remain hopeful in times of economic, environmental, societal, and political uncertainties). There's also the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and its Catholics for Marriage Equality MN initiative, the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (which gathered Catholics together for an "exciting and hopeful" prayer breakfast back in 2009, went on to plan and host a Synod of the Baptized in 2010 and 2011, and is currently planning a series of workshops on evolutionary Catholicism as a lead-up to Synod 2012), the Council of the Baptized (which has recently issued not one but two important proposals), the Progressive Catholic Voice online forum, and the Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community.

Without doubt, it has been a great honor and a source of purpose and hope to have been part of many of these groups and their activities.

And yet . . .

The call to go beyond

I feel that in my own life I'm very much in a time of transition. In thinking about the important issues and challenges highlighted in this post, I find myself questioning how best to use my time and energy, my talents and gifts. I wonder, too, about my future. I must admit I'm tired of living 'off the grind' to the extent that I have been for, well, almost twenty years! It's not as though I want to become totally 'mainstream,' but I do want and need to start earning more money. I think too about my family and friends in Australia. None of us are getting any younger, and, in particular, I find myself wanting to be closer, geographically, to my parents. I have no definite answers and I certainly haven't come to any decisions about next steps. But I do know that I have a very real sense that I'm being called to journey beyond what's been the 'usual routine' in terms of the focus of my time, energy, and capabilities, and thus, in many ways, beyond what's been comfortable for me.

So, yes, as I noted at the beginning of this post, I've been feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the gravity and the range of challenges that I'm facing personally and that we're facing collectively. And I say 'we' because it seems that at this time in humanity's journey we're all called to 'go beyond' what for so many of us has become routine and comfortable.

In facing these challenges it quickly becomes apparent that, in many ways, we are entering a realm of uncertainty and new, perhaps even unknown possibilities. This is the nature of thresholds. One could choose to focus on the scary aspects of such a realm, but I strive to focus on the potential for positive transformation, the seeds of which are contained in our responding to uncertainty and challenge. I like how the 'overwhelming' aspect of the opening image and the image at left, is represented by trees. Yes, they are huge and gnarly and kinda scary. But they also contain deep within them the potential, the promise, of new life. And I like how in this same image I'm standing on a rock – the ancient symbol of conscious insight; of Christ, God's spirit of consciousness, compassion and justice.

This is where I want to be: in the presence of this sacred energy, this Christ spirit. An important insight I've gained in writing this piece is that I need to be mindful and intentional in creating time and space to be in the presence of God, to open myself to that sacred flow of love that both illuminates and transforms.

"The Cosmic Christ" (detail) by Alex Grey.

I am a dervish . . . and thus a mystic – one who desires and seeks intimate union with Sacred Mystery. This is another insight that has blossomed within and through these 'threshold musings' of mine. My hope is that these same musings will bring to consciousness and life something within all who encounter them. And I pray that this 'something' will contribute in a tangible and positive way to the great transition, the threshold crossing, that I truly believe we are being called to embody – individually and collectively – at this moment in time. May it be so!

Related Off-site Links:
Will We Adjust to Life on a Finite Planet or Continue Devouring Our Future? – Chris Hedges (, January 14, 2013).
“Flash Mob Prayer Circle” Shows Idle No More’s Spiritual Side – James Trimarco (Yes!, January 14, 2013).
Why Canada's Indigenous Uprising Is About All of Us – Sarah van Gelder (Yes!, February 7, 2013).
Catholicism's Curse – Frank Bruni (The New York Times, January 26, 2013).
Implosion at the Vatican? – One Can Only Hope – Betty Clermont (The Open Tabernacle, January 27, 2013).
Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time – David Korten (Yes!, January 17, 2013).
A Catholic Spirituality for the 21st CenturyThe Progressive Catholic Voice (January 20, 2013).
A Queer New Year – Peter Montgomery (Religion Dispatches, January 2, 2013).
Embarking on a New Journey of Consciousness – Phillip Clark (The Open Tabernacle, January 13, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something to Celebrate – November 7, 2012
Rescuing Catholicism
Knowing What to Do, Knowing Why to Stay
A Song and Challenge for 2012
Rocking the Cradle of Power
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
Into the Fray
In the Eye of the Storm, A Tree of Living Flame
The Onward Call
Sufism: A Call to Awaken
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with "Modern Mystic" Chuck Lofy
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible

Opening image: The bur oaks of Camp Coldwater, Minnesota.


Beth in MN said...


I am sure you will choose the correct route for your journey.

FYI, the word "Maya" is both a singular and a *plural* noun, and it is the word to be used as an adjective except for when referring to one of the twenty-plus indigenious Mayan languages.


Terence Weldon said...

A fascinating, thought - provoking reflection, Michael.

There can be no doubt that in many respects, we are indeed seeing some major transformations, for both better and for worse.

For years, John McNeill has been arguing (convincingly) that in the Catholic Church, we are heading into a Kairos moment - a time ripe for change. You're right that the end of the Maya calendar properly understood signals the start of a new cycle, not any kind of end.

It's an intriguing thought that McNeill's Kairos moment could be just on aspect of a much broadly based time of transition.

Thank you for the extensive links and cross-references you have provided. I do not have time to follow them up just now, but hope to do so later.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing these wonderful thoughts.