“Save us from the time of trial” –– Climate Change as Apocalypse

The angel dictates a word of hope and promise to St. John: “Blessed are those who are invited to the feast of the Lamb.” (Rev 19)

 The humanist/scholar became quite emotional in conceiving of the world devoid of human beings, which was a possibility brought on by one disaster or another, due, it must be said, to our own actions. This would be the worst thing he could imagine––worlds devoid of human beings, even if these worlds were populated by other intelligent and enterprising life forms.

–– Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God

 What have you got to worry about? We’re only adrift in an open sea with a drunken captain and an engine that’s liable to explode at any moment.

–– Humphrey Bogart in Beat the Devil

 

The end is near! The world as we know it is on the verge of extinction, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.[i]But where is the sense of collective alarm? Where is the will to act? Our house is burning down, but instead of shouting “Fire!” and grabbing some hoses, we carry on as usual, unable to muster a sense of emergency. Perhaps we are just too exhausted by the endless stream of horrors under Republican rule, from children’s prison camps to the spread of American fascism, to have any bandwidth left to address the environmental apocalypse.

As columnist Leonard Pitts suggests,

“So then you read where the planet is melting, dire results expected soon, and you just shrug and file it away with all the other terrible things you’ll worry about when you get a chance. That’s understandable. But it presumes a luxury we don’t have — time. Again, this report says the world has 10 years in which to save itself — and we’ll spend at least two of those under Trump.” [ii]

Don’t ask me to explain why the party in power and its corporate handlers are doing everything they can to make things worse, as if the fate of the planet––and the well-being of their own children’s children––is nothing compared to the allure of short-term power and profit for themselves. Such suicidal selfishness is utterly incomprehensible to me. But we don’t have to approve of it to be caught up in it. We are all participants in an unsustainable culture.

Death rides a pale horse. (Rev 6)

Of course, there are many people, governments and institutions who recognize the climate crisis and are working to address it. Even in the heart of Trumpian coal country, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mailis sounding the alarm:

“When today’s kindergartners are in their 20s, they may find a devastated world wracked by horrible hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, tornadoes and other tragedies made worse by global warming. Coastal cities may be abandoned, sunken wrecks. Poverty and misery may result.”

The editorial goes on to note that hurricanes Florence and Michael have “inflicted more loss than the entire worth of West Virginia’s coal industry — but conservative politicians still won’t act to reduce the damage.” [iii]

The Second Trumpet: The sea is polluted by fire, blood and death. (Rev 8)

Only ten years left to avert catastrophe! The message is clear: change or die. But given the dysfunctional paralysis of the American government, the iron grip of vulture capitalism, and the enormity of scale required for worldwide transformation, the prospects for success are bleak. The Titanic can’t turn on a dime. And when the captain doesn’t even believe in icebergs, it’s time to strike up “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

On a recent trip to France, I beheld, for the first time, the extraordinary Tapestry of the Apocalypse in Angers, whose 84 large panels depict scenes from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. This riveting medieval visual sequence­­––the largest wall-hanging ever woven in Europe–– extends in parallel rows for 104 meters down the length of a vast, dimly-lit hall. It’s like a gigantic textile comic strip. Although the 700-year-old dyes have faded over time, these visionary scenes remain compellingly vivid, dense with iconography and narrative.

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse, Angers, France.

Theologian Austin Farrer described their source, the book of Revelation, as a great work of religious imagination.  “It is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced, it is a single and living unity from end to end, and it contains a whole world of spiritual imagery to be entered into and possessed.” [iv] Gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson added his own appreciation. “I still read the Book of Revelation,” he said, “when I need to get cranked up about language.” [v]

The meaning and value of the Bible’s last book have long been debated. Was it a mystical vision, a theo-political critique of the Roman Empire, or a quasi-liturgical dramatization of eschatological themes? The violent imagery of Revelation has been misused by religious cranks and maniacs in notoriously unhealthy ways, but the text has also––more than any other biblical book––given us many sublime prayer and hymn texts. Often neglected in times of contentment or complacency, it speaks loudly in times of crisis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the book never made much sense to him until the rise of the Nazis.

“Babylon” is Revelation’s code name for the Roman empire, the oppressive and sinful social consensus whose claims of absolute totality were grounded in seduction, deceit and the enforcing threat of violence. And while that particular empire is long gone, Babylon is still around. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absurdly resolute––behold the Rome of the book of Revelation,” said the Jesuit prophet-poet Daniel Berrigan. And, he added, “Behold also America.” [vi] Forty years after he wrote that, it seems truer than ever.

The Babylons of every age want us to believe that resistance is futile, because “this is the way things are.” We’re all implicated in the system. Even if we don’t like it, we can’t imagine living without it. Try preaching an exit from global capitalism next Sunday and see what happens! We may dream of the “New Jerusalem” of justice, peace and universal blessedness, but it seems impossibly distant. “If the Babylon of our time is already, from God’s perspective, a smoking ruin, how and where do we find the New Jerusalem? Is it really possible to ‘come out’ of empire when it surrounds us so completely?” [vii]

“Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The people worship the beast of worldly power as the Dragon (Satan) approves. (Rev 13)

Like all apocalyptic literature, Revelation is pessimistic about the present age and where it is headed. But it is also full of hope about the age to come––the unexpectedly redemptive future emerging from a time of emergency. “The apocalypticist sees meaning where the uninitiated sees only chaos or catastrophe.” [viii]

Revelation insists that Babylon’s “reality” is a lie: there is an alternative to its culture of seduction and death. This alternative, the New Jerusalem, is not to be sought in some unreachable elsewhere. It is here among us, though only visible to the eyes of faith. And in every moment, every time we choose life over death, we begin to make our exodus, however small and tentative, out of Babylon’s prison into the space of divine blessedness.

The fall of Babylon. Only its demons are left to haunt the rubble. (Rev 18)

The Tapestry of the Apocalypse was created by inhabitants of their own medieval Babylon, an exitless world fraught with anxiety and doom. As half of Europe was being struck down by the Black Plague, Revelation’s harrowing images of a death-haunted, perishing world struck home. The obsessive immensity of the tapestry project testifies to a depth of existential engagement with ultimate concerns, as if the artists and weavers were driven to create a comprehensive record of their longing––and their dread––before they themselves ran out of time.

As I processed slowly, contemplatively, through the crepuscular vastness of Angers’ tapestry hall, the strange images flickered before me like an old silent movie, as though their colors and forms were signaling across the centuries with the light of a long-vanished past. Whatever these visions first said to John the Divine in his Patmos cave, whatever they meant to the fourteenth-century French weavers, they were now pleading for my attention.

See! God is making all things new.
Death will be no more,
mourning and sadness and pain will be no more.
The world of the past is gone. [ix]

 

The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, bringing divine glory into earthly presence. (Rev 21)

Babylon is fallen. The gates to God’s eternal city are open wide. And the urgent question for believers today, in the face of a climate apocalypse, is this:

How do we hold fast to the redemptive vision
of the New Jerusalem
through the long dark night of catastrophe?

 

The Dragon pursues the expectant mother, “robed in the sun,” into the wilderness, trying to prevent the birth of hope. (Rev 12)

In the short term, we can practice both personal and collective environmental ethics, foster alliances with environmental changemakers, and incorporate a deep love and respect for the planet––and all who dwell therein––into our worship and our spiritual formation. And, setting aside for now our differences on a multitude of political and economic questions, we absolutely need to unite in casting our votes for defenders of the earth and against every climate change denier and pollution enabler. When the Beast is on the ballot, vote no!

In the long term, people of faith may face an even more daunting challenge––to cling to hope amid almost unimaginable destruction and loss: the disappearance of coastal cities and large land masses; countless millions of climate refugees; a horrific number of human deaths; mass extinction of species and habitats; economic havoc from fires, storms and floods; an endangered food supply; global conflicts over migration and dwindling resources; and the strain on political systems as they try to cope. How shall we declare God’s blessings then?

If we fail to change and the worst does come, our greatest enemy may be despair. I don’t need to contemplate the whole catalog of loss to feel the weight of immense sadness. Just picturing a single High Sierra meadow choked in smoke, or withered into a lifeless desert, is enough to make me weep.

Save us from the time of trial. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer really means by the more familiar “lead us not into temptation.” But the prayer is not asking to be spared from difficult challenges. That would make it irrelevant in the face of planetary apocalypse. We are all going to be tested by an uncertain future. But if we can beseech God with all our hearts to bring us through the experience of loss, despair and doubt with our faith and hope still intact, then “save us from the time of trial” may prove, in the climate crisis, our most earnest and necessary plea.

Meanwhile, get out of Babylon while you still can.

The Third Trumpet: A burning star falls to earth and pollutes the water supply. (Rev 8)

All photos by Jim Friedrich

 

[i] Summary and links to complete report: http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/

[ii] Leonard Pitts, Jr., “We only have 10 years to save ourselves from climage change,” Miami Herald, Oct. 12, 2018: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article219870680.html

[iii] Editorial, “Like a weather report, with time, climate change projections closer, more ominous,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 16, 2018: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/opinion/gazette_opinion/editorial/gazette-editorial-like-a-weather-report-with-time-climate-change/article_26d13b8a-47e3-517a-9882-037b9bff6d70.html

[iv] Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John’s Apocalypse(1949), q. in Richard K. Emmerson, “The Apocalypse in Medieval Culture,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 293.

[v] Hunter Thompson interview in Atlantic Unbound, August 26, 1997, q. in Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 2 n. 3.

[vi] Daniel Berrigan, S.J., The Nightmare of God (1983), q. in Unveiling Empire, 44.

[vii]Unveiling Empire, 260.

[viii] Bernard McGinn, “John’s Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, 9.

[ix] Revelation 21:4-5.

Daniel Berrigan: Sword of Wisdom, Maker of Peace

Berrigan in cuffs

There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war— at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake. — Daniel Berrigan[i]

On May 17, 1968, nine Roman Catholic activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, transferring 378 files to the parking lot to be incinerated with home-made napalm. As the fire burned, the “Catonsville Nine” prayed for peace. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, but four of them, including two priests— Daniel and Philip Berrigan— went underground, eluding capture for a number of months, occasionally surfacing to speak at antiwar rallies.

At one of these public appearances, following a dramatic tableau of the Last Supper with giant puppets, Dan Berrigan made his escape inside one of the Apostles. “I was hoping it wasn’t the puppet of Judas,” he said later. His comical getaway affirmed irrepressible life even as it mocked the powers of death. Berrigan, a puckish and playful spirit, knew that laughter could be a serious form of subversion.

After being sheltered by 37 different families, Dan Berrigan, S.J., was finally captured August 11, 1970, in the house of Episcopal lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow. He was reading Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates when F.B.I. agents showed up at the door.

On Palm Sunday of the following year, I designed a liturgy where two carpenters constructed a large cross near the altar during the course of the ritual. At various points, dialogue between the carpenters would interrupt the liturgical texts. The two workers expressed curiosity about the intended victim and the nature of his crime. They wondered about the morality of their own complicity in the official machinery of death. What if they just stopped making crosses? Would it make any difference? Or would they just find themselves without a job? In the end, they suppressed their doubts and finished the cross, hammering it together loudly during the eucharistic prayer: This is my body, given for you … This is my blood, shed for you …

It was no coincidence that I had just been reading No Bars to Manhood, Dan Berrigan’s compelling account of the influences and experiences underlying his Christian activism. Its conclusions were clear: as witnesses to the Resurrection, the friends of God must say no to death. No more cross-building. No more remaining passive spectators at the world’s crucifixions. “There are times so evil,” he wrote, “that the first and indeed the only genuinely prophetic function is to cast down the images of injustice and death that claim [the human being] as victim.”[ii]

A Newsweek blurb on my well-worn 95-cent paperback from 1971 reads, “Daniel Berrigan is the sort of priest who causes the lights of the Vatican to burn through the night.” The actions he took and the company he kept often strained the patience and understanding of his clerical superiors. One of his friends in the Society of Jesus told him, “Do you want to know why you’re in trouble so frequently? It’s because you and some others show us what Jesuits can be. And that’s why we can’t stand you.”[iii]

Today, when so many horrors are cloaked in euphemisms like “collateral damage,” Dan Berrigan’s truthful language still delivers a shock. His response to the charge of incinerating draft board records is justly famous:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest from thinking of the Land of Burning Children … We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here. The death stops here. The suppression of the truth stops here. This war stops here.[iv]

Even in his contentious moments with the Church, Berrigan understood his priesthood to be deeply rooted in the ethos of his religious community, where, he wrote, one’s life might “be purified of the inhuman drives of egoism, acculturation, professional pride and dread of life.”[v] In the trial of the Catonsville Nine, when asked whether such radical protest was in harmony with Catholic teaching, he replied, “May I say that if that is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity.”[vi]

For those of us who tend to play it safe in conforming our own choices to the gospel, Berrigan’s life of witness poses hard questions about discipleship and the imperatives of conscience. “He was dangerous, as holiness should be; he was a sword of wisdom.”[vii] A college student, after hearing Berrigan speak at Stanford in the late Sixties, put it this way: “Father Berrigan has raised the ante for all of us.”[viii]

That student’s religion professor, Robert McAfee Brown (one of my own most admired teachers), considered the question of whether the Berrigan brothers were signs or models. Their words and actions clearly signified the world’s sin and brokenness in parabolic gestures difficult to ignore. But were we obligated to model our lives after theirs, or might we find other ways to be faithful, according to our own distinctive calling? This question has troubled the conscience of many, including my own.

“We must continually ask ourselves why we are so attracted to them.” Brown wrote, “when we hear what they say and yet do not do the things they do … [T]heir actions provide a disturbing sign that we must take seriously, particularly if those actions are not yet the model most of us are prepared to imitate.”[ix] Brown himself had the courage to live into those questions for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most eloquent theological voices for justice and peace.

As “the man who hears handcuffs close upon him,”[x] Berrigan felt a deep kinship with biblical prisoners for God like the prophet Jeremiah. “There is a meaning to things, however dark and damaging … Jeremiah wrestles with the meaning; his wrestling is the meaning; it defines the moral substance and limits of his activity in the world. At the same time, his struggle with the unknown One interiorizes, draws to a fine point and gravity his moral life.”[xi]

Like Jeremiah, Berrigan knew a God who contends with human injustice, who plucks up and breaks down our tainted and presumptuous projects.

We are so used to an acculturated and childish religion, whose ethos has joined forces with the society— with its militarism and racism and fear of life, that we are almost illiterate before a document such as Jeremiah’s. Can it be true that God is not a Niagara of pablum, spilling His childish comfort upon the morally and humanly neutral, whose faces are raised blankly to partake of that infantile nourishment?[xii]

Not every Christian received his rhetoric gladly. And the radical priest’s liturgical fusion of sacrament and protest also drew fire. After baptizing a baby in the chapel at Cornell, he kissed the new Christian’s forehead and invited him “out of the world of war and destruction.” While presiding at an “Electric Mass for Peace” on the same campus, he made explicit connections in the eucharistic prayer between Christ’s blood and the blood shed on both sides in Vietnam. Some saw these things as careless, even blasphemous. Others found them prophetic and profoundly faithful.

Berrigan’s words and actions had a deep and lasting influence on many in the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements, as well as progressive Christians. His dramatic forms of witness also drew immense media attention, for which he took some criticism as a “media freak.” But his vocation was stronger than the temptations of celebrity. As Paul Elie, chronicler of the great twentieth century Catholic writers, noted in a New Yorker blog:

He created no foundation, nonprofit, or N.G.O.; headed no pacifist think tank or Jesuit school of advanced study; gave no TED talk; engaged in no stagey dialogues offering equal time to the military point of view; and never reframed the ideals of nonviolence in any pocket-size manual for personal growth.[xiii]

Berrigan had no neutral gear. Even when the public spotlight moved on to other subjects, his writing lost nothing of its urgency and fire. In The Discipline of the Mountain, his poetic reflection on “Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World,” he wrote, “There is a hell for those who go too far, and there is a hell, or at least an anteroom of hell, for those who refuse to go far enough.”[xiv] Going far enough for the sake of the gospel was the driving force of his life. But as he once confessed to Robert Coles, “We are groping. We shouldn’t be sure of ourselves, because we can’t be, not now— not ever.”[xv]

Only death is sure, and that finally came last week, on Orthodox Holy Saturday, to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in his 95th year. I barely knew him, hearing him preach twice and breaking bread with him once in a Los Angeles rectory. But this loss feels personal. He was both sign and model for many priests of my generation, and there are things he said which haunt me still.

In 1964, midway in his life’s journey, Berrigan imagined the moment of his own death:

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close …

The poem called death
is unwritten yet. Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.[xvi]

And then what? Only faith can say, that Easter faith which alone can contain and complete the fullness of human life. At the end of his meditation on Dante’s Purgatorio, the poet/priest peers beyond death’s horizon to see a resurrected humanity being gathered into God.

Leading the way are “the intractable ones” who have suffered prison, torture and martyrdom for their faithful witness. In them we see at last “the human venture vindicated.” Their faces and Christ’s face become as one, in an upward gaze that “breaks the glacial will of God.”[xvii]

They embrace         one after another
Tears    laughter     two weathers
contending in one sky

 

 

[i] Daniel Berrigan. S.J., No Bars to Manhood (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 49

[ii] ibid., 97

[iii] ibid., 19

[iv] q. in Robert McAfee Brown, “The Berrigans: Signs or Models?”, in The Berrigans, ed. William Van Etten Casey, S.J. & Philip Nobile (New York: Praeger Publisher, 1971), 62

[v] q. in Edward Duff, S.J., “The Burden of the Berrigans,” in The Berrigans, 19

[vi] ibid., 15

[vii] Daniel Berrigan, The Discipline of the Mountain: Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 99. The quote is by Berrigan, describing “an Indian holy man” with whom he once led a retreat. But it also seems aptly applied to Berrigan himself.

[viii] R.M. Brown, 61

[ix] ibid., 66, 69

[x] No Bars, 99

[xi] ibid., 96

[xii] ibid., 97

[xiii] Paul Elie, “Postscript: Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016” (New Yorker online, May 2, 2016)

[xiv] Discipline, 39

[xv] Robert Coles, “Thinking About Those Priests,” in The Berrigans, 219

[xvi] Daniel Berrigan, “A Dark Word,” Poetry Magazine, April 1964, online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=29700

[xvii] Discipline, 119-120