The Sacred Sunrise

Note: this was first published in Black and Green Review #3

stained glass

“It’s easy to see without looking too far / That not much is really sacred”
Bob Dylan

Not much is really sacred. There is not much that causes us to pause or that we are willing to slow down for. There is not much that we stop to acknowledge, that we are willing to structure our lives around, or make sacrifices for. On top of that, there is little that won’t be tolerated; we live in an age without any visible limits and foolishly mistake it for freedom.

I. The Sunrise

Walking to the bus stop in the predawn hours, the sunrise is only minutes from bursting with hints of pink and orange already appearing on the horizon but the pace of my walking is uninterrupted for I have to catch a bus and get to work. The sunrise is not sacred as evident by the fact that I appreciate it only when it’s convenient and sometimes not even then. I don’t often make an effort to be present for it. In fact, to claim that part of the day for oneself would be widely perceived as unreasonable.

Instead of portioning our time and attention in accordance with what is important to us and the values we have arrived at through our own reflection and contemplation we are compelled or even coerced to portion our time according to economic demands and the capricious preferences of others; others who, as a rule, do not have our best interests in mind. Indeed, it is difficult enough to find time to even consider the question of what is important to us; it is a subversive and reckless thought.

But I wonder what it might be like to assert and make real the sacredness of the sunrise by structuring my day around it and avoiding commitments that would interfere, to stake a claim to that part of the day. Would life change after, say, a month’s time or a year’s time? Like anything, it would no doubt change in ways both better and worse. Not knowing where the preponderance of consequences fall is, at least partially, what paralyzes. Domesticated and docile creatures don’t readily tread into unpredictable places; we like to have things already mapped out for us. And so I get on the bus; I know where it goes and what to expect.

There is reason to believe that punishment for such an eccentric experiment would be severe whereas the anticipated rewards are vague and can be difficult to imagine. Tolstoy warned: “Try the experiment of ceasing to compromise conscience in order to retain your position [one’s job or social status], and you will lose it at once.”[1] But perhaps the loss of one’s position is precisely the unanticipated benefit that one is liable to discover through such an experiment. For it is our position in the queue that keeps us walking in lockstep; our fear of falling behind that keeps our eyes from looking up from our feet to the horizon.

What if this experiment were done not as an isolated individual but rather as a small community of people regularly gathering together and sharing the experience of the sunrise. I am tempted to speculate that the benefits would be multiplied and the harms greatly mitigated. Indeed, is this not why people have long gathered together in the presence of the sacred?

And yet, the sunrise is sacred signaling, as John Muir wrote that “the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation.” [2] It is not only an iterated event that marks the beginning of each new day but from a different perspective it is an uninterrupted event that long preceded our individual existence and will continue long after our individual death. David Abram describes the sunrise as a wave endlessly circling the earth. Abram points out that “the leading edge of the dark [into which the sunrise advances] is indeed an audible as well as a visible line”[3] this is because the sunrise contains a chorus of birdsong. It is amongst the elements that make life on Earth possible. It makes our life possible even as we ignore it.

The sunrise is sacred. It is just that our actions and inattention profane it. What’s more is that our actions and our inattention insult our own convictions and make a farce of our claims to integrity.

II. Monasticism

There could be no more question of living just like everybody else in the world. There could be no more compromises with the life that tried, at every turn, to feed me poison.” -Thomas Merton [4]

I am not a Christian but despite the radically different worldview espoused by Christian monastics I find much to be gleaned from their lived example. Monastics have often very carefully considered how they will engage the world and many have seemingly found a way to do so, more or less, on their own terms and to their own satisfaction. Paradoxically they have done this by submitting to a rule. The Rule of St. Benedict (RB) has been the most widely used guide structuring western monastic life since it was written in the sixth century.

Few people I have met have seriously considered this question of how to engage the world so as to preserve and prioritize what is of value to themselves and virtually no one I know has even experimented with any potential solution or strategy. We consistently refuse to consider the question so as to foreclose the possibility of finding an answer and thereby avoid having to take any dramatic action.

The monastery may seem irrelevant or even escapist to those who are decidedly not only in the world be vehemently of the world as well. Addressing this point, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, writes:

Monasteries hardly seem like places from which to analyze the world. To go to the monastery, popular mythology has it, is to leave the world, not to get even more deeply involved with it. But it may be only from a distance that we see best.” [5]

There is no such thing as seeing the sunrise up close; it is the distance that makes the view possible. Only a fool runs toward the horizon in hopes of improving her vantage point or holding it in her hands. The most important thing to do is to stop and let the light come to you. But we are never given the opportunity to stop and reflect; civilization is simultaneously sedentary and frenetic.

The life of Trappist monk Thomas Merton lends support to Chittiser’s claim. Merton became both politically engaged and appreciative of the natural world only after entering the monastery. In a journal entry dated May 31, 1961, Merton writes:

The great work of sunrise again today. The awful solemnity of it. The sacredness…unbearable if you really put everything else aside and see what is happening! Many, no doubt, are vaguely aware that it is dawn: but they are protected from the solemnity of it by the neutralizing worship of their own society, their own world, in which the sun no longer rises and sets.” [6]

The world of modernity is a world where the sun no longer rises and sets. Electric lighting floods streets, homes, and workplaces during all hours. The blue glow of screen distorts and disrupts our sleep patterns. The time of day is now irrelevant and the demands on an individual no longer set with the sun. The phone can ring, or perhaps vibrate, at any hour. The internet is always there, always on. There is no chance to pause and consider “the awful solemnity” of “what is happening!”. Anyone who slows their pace will miss their bus and be left behind.

The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in many ways radically different than that of Thomas Merton. Bonhoeffer did not live in a monastery; as a Protestant he belonged to a tradition that has largely been suspect of monasticism. He was not distant from the world in any way but rather was so immersed in its political machinations as to be a part of the Resistance in Nazi Germany and a co-conspirator in multiple plots to kill Adolf Hitler. His thinking about the Sermon on the Mount and the commandment “thou shall not kill” was not formed and evaluated in the abstract but in the most worldly and urgent context of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, he founded a seminary in Finkenwalde that incorporated many monastic-like elements and has been quoted as saying that the “restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism.” [7]

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer outlined a form of communal living that was experimented with at Finkenwalde. It included a regimented schedule allotting time for both community and solitude and prescribing practices such as singing, service to others, manual labor, and confession. “Bonhoeffer’s vision of life together for Christians was monastic in its inspiration and in its structure. Though Bonhoeffer’s life was cut shorty by the Nazis, it is likely he desired to set up a proper monastic community” [8]

It should be not perplexing that Bonhoeffer and like-minded colleagues posed a lethal threat to Hitler. It is often only after serious contemplation of one’s values and mindfully structuring one’s life accordingly that one is able to pose a serious threat to the evil in the world. It is one reason we are told to keep moving, keep clicking, keep scrolling, keep working; it is so we ourselves may never pose such a threat.

And despite being thoroughly immersed in worldly affairs and living in a time of genocide, Bonhoeffer remained open to the beauty available to him. Writing to his parents from a Nazi prison Bonhoeffer: “Here in the prison yard a song thrush sings wonderfully in the morning…one becomes grateful for small things.” [9]. In a time of ecocide and collapse, we might do well to heed the example.

III. Contemplating Wildness

To understand contemplation correctly, we need to go back to its original meaning. Step out into the dark night, raise your eyes to the starry sky, and you will experience what contemplation was before it had a name.” -David Steindl-Rast [10]

Turning away from Christianity to perhaps what might be more familiar terrain. In The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner writes: “I am concerned with preserving the authority of wild nature, or, more precisely, the authority of its presence in our experience and, hence, the structure of our lives.” [11]

Turner is a Buddhist and not an anarchist, and so may not squirm at the use of the word “authority”. Indeed, the term may be off putting not just to anarchists but to anyone with a passing familiarity of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century. Despite the semantic similarity, “the authority of wild nature” is not the authority that anarchists are committed to resist, dismantle, and destroy. It is no more oppressive than gravity.

To yield to the authority of wild nature could easily be construed as a central tenet of anarcho-primitivism. Unlike almost every other political ideology, anarcho-primitivism aims to give up power rather than seize it; to lessen the power of human beings over nature, to make human beings more rather than less vulnerable to nature; to both lose and find ourselves in the wider world.

Merton explained that in the monastery it was the flawed who stood out while the excellent disappeared into anonymity.

Excellence, here, was in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual…the complete opposite to the logic of the world.” [12]

In this passage, Merton could just as easily be describing how it is the sickly or injured animal that often nourishes the predator thereby enhancing the overall fitness of the herd. There is an advantage to being the “least observed”.

In the wild, we would likely also disappear into anonymity known only to our friends, family, and small community. There could be no aspiration to celebrity, fame, or even historical significance; there would be respect and influence but not the systematic domination that characterizes contemporary society.

Where the modern world seeks to solve every problem it has created by extending its control, anarcho-primitivists seek to loosen the grip; to move from a human-dominated world to a world where humans are but one thread in a greater whole. The only power human beings could rightfully aspire to would be as participants in wild nature rather than over wild nature. But it should not be overlooked that to loosen one’s grip is an act of faith and an exercise in vulnerability.

There are what could be construed as assurances from anthropologists, ecologists, and other experts whose testimony could serve to give us confidence that in letting go we will be safe. But there is no certainty to be had.

In more concrete language, it is for this reason that anarcho-primitivists are, for example, generally not overly excited about the prospect of solar power or other technological solutions to ecological catastrophe or what we might view as the desecration of the earth. I for one do not want to harness the sun or hoard its daily offering. I do not have to believe in a Creator-god or a deity of any sort to approve of the idea that the sun shines and the rain falls “on the just and the unjust” alike (Matthew 5:45) rather than being paid for and parceled out. Every time we apply the harness to extend our domination and power, something or somebody dies and the world is diminished. The world must be understood as our larger body and consequently we are diminished.

We don’t need to own the sun to enjoy it. Co-author of Bendict’s Way Lonni Collins Pratt writes:

Owning sets us up for a fall because it imparts a false sense of security. After all, ownership is not the same as ultimate control. Our white-knuckled grip on possessions won’t keep away wind, fire, and economic disaster. Uninvited birds will land in the tree we own as if the thing belongs to them.” [13]

Deeper into The Abstract Wild, Turner laments “our tendency to tolerate everything”. Making his point he writes:

We accept living with nuclear weapons, toxic wastes, oil spills, rape, murder, starvation, smog, racism, teenage suicide, torture, mountains of garbage, genocide, dams, dead lakes, and the daily loss of species. Most of the time we don’t even think about it.” [14]

If we don’t think about the sacred it is no wonder that we don’t think about what desecrates it. We don’t think about what is important to us and we portion our time and energy according to the whims of others. Merton wrote that most are only “vaguely aware that it is dawn” and Bonhoeffer asked: “What do we, who no longer have any fear or awe of the darkness or night, know about the great joy that our forebears…felt every morning at the return of the light?” [15]

Tolstoy wrote that “We can live for a hundred years without noticing that we have long been dead and have rotted away.” [16] We are dead to the world when we fail to notice the brilliance of something as readily and regularly available to us as the sunrise. We are dead to ourselves when we fail to allocate any time or effort on considering our own desires and interests and then zealously pursuing them. It is not necessary to swallow the whole of Christian doctrine or to enter a monastery in order to gain from their example. But we must recognize that we are alive before we start to rot.

Endnotes

[1] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 23.

[2] John Muir, Travels in Alaska (1915) Chapter 5 <http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/travels_in_alaska/chapter_5.aspx>

[3] David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), p. 183.

[4] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 300

[5] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), p.7.

[6] Thomas Merton, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 4: 1960-1963) (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1997), p. 123.

[7] Quoted in Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), p. 232.

[8] Id., p. 233

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 57.

[10] David Steindl-Rast. Afterword. Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict By Patrick Henry (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002), p. 126.

[11] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. xiii.

[12] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1948), p. 330

[13] Lonni Collins Pratt & Daniel Homan, Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2001), p.101

[14] Jack Turner, The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), p. 19-20.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5) (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 49.

[16] Leo Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy: Spiritual Writings Charles Moore (ed.) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), p. 177.

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