Thursday, November 07, 2019

Balancing the Fire

This past Saturday I participated in an evening retreat at the Christos Center at Lino Lakes.

Facilitated by my friend and chaplain colleague Andrea, and entitled “Tending the Flame,” this retreat was a timely and fascinating exploration of Celtic spirituality. I say timely because it took place at around the time of Samhain (October 31), the Celtic New Year.

Although we spent most of our time gathered around a bonfire learning about the beliefs and rituals of the ancient Celts, we also immersed ourselves in the beautiful autumnal landscape of the Christos Center as we reflected on the significance of this time of endings and beginnings, and engaged in meaningful practices for spiritual well-being such as walking the Center's outdoor labyrinth.

At one point as we sat in our winter attire and huddled in blankets around the fire, we shared our thoughts on some of the threshold crossings we were experiencing in our lives at this time of outward seasonal change. I mentioned the recent passing of my dear Dad, the ending of my four year relationship with Brent, and the changes in terms of both loss and new possibilities that I felt these transitions were ushering into my life.

I also found myself lifting up the wave of social and political unrest currently taking place across the globe, and suggested that such unrest could be a sign of a shift in consciousness within and through humanity's collective resistance to and repudiation of political corruption and social inequality.

As Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan write: Popular uprisings are “spreading like wildfire against corrupt autocratic leaders, austerity, and inequality,” with people “flooding the streets, globally, linking the movements against inequality with the fight for a just, sustainable world powered by renewable energy.”

Above: The mass mobilizations of the people in Santiago, Chile. The flag at the very top is the indigenous Mapuche flag. (Photo: Susana Hildago)

Continue Goodman and Moynihan:

Puerto Rico. Hong Kong. Ecuador. Haiti. Lebanon. Sudan. Iraq. And now, Chile. People are rising up around the world against austerity and corruption, defying police forces unleashed to suppress them. Many of these mass movements share a fierce critique of capitalism. In Santiago, Chile, more than 1 million people flooded the streets last weekend, and mass protests continue. There, the brutal Pinochet dictatorship from 1973-1990, during which thousands of progressive activists and leaders were tortured, disappeared and murdered, was followed by decades of neoliberal policies, with rampant privatization, union busting, stagnant wages and increased costs for education, health care, transportation and other services. Chile, among the richest countries in South America, is also one of the most unequal. At least 20 people have been killed during recent protests there, further angering and emboldening the crowds.

These global protests also occur at a critical inflection point in history, with as few as 10 years remaining for humanity to transition from a fossil fuel economy to one powered by renewable energy. . . . Indigenous people are leading the way, often at the front lines, confronting resource extraction with disciplined, nonviolent resistance. Hundreds of indigenous and campesino social leaders in Colombia have been murdered in recent years, simply for standing up for justice and environmental protections.

Last Saturday’s retreat in peaceful Lino Lakes seemed worlds away from all of this oppression, resistance, and upheaval. And yet awareness of it was as present on my heart as the autumn chill was upon the landscape around me. And so I spoke of what I knew of these things. I also shared my perspective that what I perceived as a global shift in human consciousness in response to these bleak days of rising neo-fascism, seemingly endless war, and environmental destruction, was a hopeful sign. I also said that I hoped we would see in the U.S. a similar type of resistance and repudiation – a similar shift in consciousness, in other words – come next November and the 2020 presidential election.

One retreat participant challenged my take on the events I had brought up. He said he was wary of mass movements, and cited Nazism and Communism as examples of people being swept up into dangerous ideologies and, as a result, doing terrible things in their names.

At first I thought to let it go. Let him have his views, I told myself. Such thinking lasted for about three minutes. I mean, come on! Anyone reading this knows me and how rarely I can resist an opportunity to passionately yet respectfully engage in exploratory conversations on the pressing issues of the day.

And so I offered some further thoughts. . . . Thoughts on how in discerning the movements I feel I can trust and be part of, I’ve come to find it helpful to look at what these movements are trying to do.

• Are they seeking to expand the circle of inclusion, the circle of sharing and caring? Or are they seeking to restrict and exclude?

• Are they looking forward to a more inclusive, enlightened, peaceful, and sustainable world? Or are they looking to go back to some imagined better world of the past?

• Does justice and love fuel their actions? Or does fear of change and loss of exclusive or segregated privilege provide the fuel?

• Does a trust in abundance comprise their foundation? Or does a fear of scarcity?

I've come to trust, support and participate in movements that answer in the affirmative the first question in each of the above.

My fellow retreat participant wasn’t entirely convinced, however. What about the violence and destruction wrought by protesters? How is that inclusive, progressive or enlightened?

As I pondered his questions, I found myself staring into our fire. In doing so, I noticed how the logs fueling this fire were stacked on a well-balanced iron grate.

I thought of all the positive benefits of fire, and recollected the wise words of singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie:

Now, what do we do when we make fire? We create light; we create heat. You can fall in love across a fire. You can read a book beside a fire, you can write a book beside a fire! You can build a community around a fire. You can cook up something really good.

Yet to do all these things a fire needs to be built on a secure and balanced base.

I looked at my fellow retreat participants and noted that if the grate in front of us were to became off-balanced, the logs would topple over, flames would spread and sparks would fly, and our fire would become a dangerous thing; it could well become destructive in ways that we hadn’t intended it to be or would want it to be.

I turned to the older man in our group who had taken issue with some of the things I had said and I  suggested to him that the world is most in danger from a specific type of a type off-balancedness: not the actions of a handful of over-zealous protesters but the economic inequality within human society. That is what’s causing the most destruction in people’s lives and to the environment. And those rising up (mostly non-violently) across the globe are doing so in an attempt to right this imbalance, to draw attention to and transform social inequality into something fairer and more balanced: a society and an economy that, like the type of fire envisioned by Buffy Sainte-Marie, benefits all, not just a few.

To be honest, I don't know if my words changed this man’s mind. But that’s not really what I was aiming to do. Rather, I simply wanted to share my perspective, one informed by my years of activism and by my reading of articles and commentaries on current global events. Our fireside conversation was a reminder of how, for me, the personal and the political are very much connected. And I’m totally okay with that as I’ve come to trust that it’s really only awareness of this connection that has the power to inspire people to take action and transform our world for the better.

I should also say that, for me, spirituality is the thread that connects the personal and the political (what author and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson defines as “our collective behavior”). And I understand spirituality to be all about meaning-making within a context that recognizes and seeks to respond to a sacred (i.e., loving and transforming) energy at the heart of all things. I've come to trust that this Divine Presence calls me to be both mystic and prophet, which is another way of talking about the integrating of the personal and political.

We're coming full circle now, as one expression of spirituality that supports such integration is Celtic spirituality. Why? Because it resolutely emphasizes and brings to the surface the deep river of spiritual truth that flows at varying depths beneath all of humanity's great religious and spiritual traditions; a river of truth who's resounding song sings of how the Sacred Presence we commonly refer to as “God,” dwells within and beyond all things.

All things, therefore, are sacred, including our lives, our journeys, and our relationships, personal and communal. The challenge is to manifest and embody the Love, the Sacred Presence at the heart of reality in and through all our actions of body, speech, and mind, and to work to ensure that such manifestations occur in both our personal lives and in our collective (political) lives.

May it be so.

Above: Protesters in Lebanon on October 17, 2019. (Photo: Getty Images)

Above: Demonstrators clash with police officers during a protest against austerity measures in Quito, Ecuador on October 8, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

Above: Protestors wave flags and hold a poster of Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi during a protest in Tahrir Square, in central Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, October 1, 2019. Spontaneous rallies, which began September 24, started as mostly young demonstrators took to the streets demanding jobs, improved services like electricity and water, and an end to corruption in the oil-rich country. In a desperate attempt to curb massive rallies, authorities blocked the internet and imposed an around-the-clock curfew in the capital. (Photo: AP/Khalid Mohammed)

Above: Riot police remove anti-government protesters occupying the "Ring" intersection on November 4, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon.
(Photo: Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

Above: Crowds of men and women rallying in Khartoum, Sudan on Monday, October 21, 2019. They were urging the country's new authorities to dissolve the former ruling party of deposed leader Omar al-Bashir. (Photo: Marwan Ali/EPA)

Above: Protesters, medical professionals, and political opponents take part in a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise in the Haitian capital in Port-au-Prince on October 30, 2019. (Photo: Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP/Getty Images)

Related Off-site Links:
Anti-Government Protests Sweep the GlobeDemocracy Now! (October 21, 2019).
A Worldwide Revolution Is Underway – Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan (TruthDig, October 31, 2019).
Protests Around the World in Pictures – Kameron Virk (BBC News, October 21, 2019).
Why Is Latin America Burning? – César Chelala (Common Dreams, November 3, 2019).
A Revolution in Chile Sparked by U.S.-style Economics. Our Billionaires Should Be Very Worried – Will Bunch (The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 2019).
One Million Take to Streets of Chile in the “Largest Mobilization Since the End of Dictatorship”Democracy Now! (October 28, 2019).
A Fight Against Neoliberalism: Over a Million Chileans Protest Amid Violent CrackdownDemocracy Now! (October 26, 2019).
Chile’s People Have Had Enough – Lili Loofbourow (Slate, October 27, 2019).
Haitians Reject Their President's Call for U.S. Intervention as Island Nation Protests Continue – Eoin Higgins (Common Dreams, November 1, 2019).
Uruguay: Mass March Against Militarization – Bill Weinberg (CounterVortex, October 26, 2019).
Hundreds in Turkey Arrested in Crackdown on Critics of Military Offensive in Syria – Amnesty International (November 1, 2019).
“We Have to Move to a Post-Capitalist System”: An Interview with Walden Bello – Ben Wray (Jacobin, October 28, 2019).
Another Europe Is Possible – Yanis Varoufakis (Common Dreams, November 2, 2019).
Envisioning a Not-for-Profit World for a Sustainable Future – Jennifer Hinton (Non-Profit Quarterly, February 29, 2019).
How the U.S. Created Violent Chaos in Honduras – Belén Fernández (Jacobin, August 10, 2019).
What’s Behind Protesters’ Graffiti in Algiers and Beirut – Dalia Ghanem, Loulouwa Al Rachid, Sabri Benalycherif (, October 29, 2019).
The Revolution Isn’t Being Televised: Media Uninterested in Protest Movements Around the World – Alan MacLeod (FAIR, October 26, 2019).
Chile and Bolivia Reports Expose Western Media’s Rank Hypocrisy – Lucas Koerner (FAIR via TruthDig, November 6, 2019).
Lebanon’s Protest Movement Is Just Getting Started – Mona Khneisser (Jacobin, November 7, 2019).
Governments Beware: People Are Rising Up All Over the World – Sonali Kolhatkar (TruthDig, November 7, 2019).
Neoliberalism Created the Crisis in Chile – Anna Kowalczyk (Jacobin, November 9, 2019).

UPDATES: Chilean Government Bows to Protests and Agrees to Rewrite ConstitutionDemocracy Now! (November 12, 2019).
Chileans Face State Repression as They Continue Revolt Against Neoliberalism – Rodrigo Acuña (TruthOut, November 13, 2019).
Over 300 Killed as Hundreds of Thousands Take Part in Iraqi Protests. What's Behind the Violent Demonstrations? – Rachel Bunyan (TIME, November 13, 2019).
Chile Despertó! Chile Has Woken Up! The Rising Fight Against Neo-Liberalism in Chile – Alison Bodine (Common Dreams, November 26, 2019).
The Legacy of Destructive Austerity – Paul Krugman (The New York Times, December 30, 2019).
The Year in Latin America: The Right Continues to Advance, But So Do Popular Movements – Greg Wilpert (The Real News Network, December 30, 2019).
Thousands March in Santiago, Chile, Against Austerity on New Year’s DayDemocracy Now! (January 2, 2020).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Hope in the Midst of Collapse
The End of the World As We Know It . . . and the Beginning As We Live It
See the World!
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
Threshold Musings
The War Racket
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Medicine Songs
Let Us Be “Energized by the Beauty That Is All Around Us”: Jane Goodall’s New Year Message
Move Us, Loving God
Andrew Harvey on Radical, Divine Passion in Action
Buffy Sainte-Marie: “Sometimes You Have to Be Content to Plant Good Seeds and Be Patient”
Marianne Williamson: Quote of the Day – June 28, 2017
Making the Connections
The People’s Climate Solidarity March – Minneapolis, 4/29/17
“The Movement of Love and Inclusion Has Just Been Unleashed”
“It Is All Connected”
Presidential Candidate Marianne Williamson: “We’re Living at a Critical Moment in Our Democracy”
This Is the Time
Balance: The Key to Serenity and Clarity
Seeking Balance
There Must Be Balance
A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Discerning and Embodying Sacred Presence in Times of Violence and Strife
Thoughts on Prayer in a “Summer of Strife”
Resilience and Hope


Amy Danzeisen said...

So beautiful, Michael! Just what I needed to hear today. Thank you for articulating it to those colleagues and to the world.

Nancy Gotto said...

Another inspirational essay. Thank you, Michael.

Rita Quigley said...

Thanks, Michael, for the framework to evaluate my support of mass movements and demonstrations.