"Society... was regarded [by the first Christian hermits] as a shipwreck from which each... individual... had to swim for his life. [They] believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster." - Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert
"[Jesus invited his followers]... to stand against all that systematically destroys and dehumanizes and dominates... to accept the abandonment of such a system and no longer participate in its exploitative normalcy." - John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity
"Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand." - John the Baptizer
As a young man, just graduated from college, I had no plan for my life. I did not know what I was going to do. I did not know where I belonged. My friends and classmates were preparing for lives as doctors and engineers and lawyers and academics and entrepreneurs and investment bankers. I didn't know what I was prepared for.
Into that period of uncertainty dropped Thomas Merton's book, The Wisdom of the Desert, which is primarily a collection of sayings from the 3rd and 4th century Egyptian Christian hermits, known commonly as the desert fathers. It was a revelation to me. I think it was the first time that I questioned the validity of the society in which I was raised and which I was preparing to enter as a consenting adult. It was like being told of a parallel universe that most people didn't seem to know about.
"For what are you preparing," those words said to me. "Are you preparing to participate in a society that is purely and simply a disaster? Prepare for the kingdom of God!"
I realized then that I might never find my place in "the world" because the world as constructed by the human mind and played out in human society is insane. In some fundamental way, human society is profoundly out of touch with reality. "Be not reconciled to this world," said Jesus. Repent! Turn away from your society and everything it stands for, and turn toward God and everything God stands for. Or as Dom Crossan put it so clearly in his Birth of Christianity, turn away from "all that systematically destroys and dehumanizes and dominates." Turn toward all that creates and includes and makes whole.
The essential question of my life from that point until the present became, what is the kingdom of God? Where is it to be found? What does it mean to repent, to turn away from all that is unreal, and turn toward God, toward wholeness, toward reality? I knew then what my purpose was: to find the kingdom of God, not in some future time or distant place, but here and now. I felt that it was "right at hand." I think I knew intuitively that that meant it was already present, but unnoticed, unappreciated, perhaps not fully realized, veiled by the destructive illusions spun by the human mind. I was determined to see through the illusions and break through to the kingdom, which lay, I was convinced, right at our fingertips.
The other essential question was, what is it about society that is in fact a shipwreck from which each and every one of us needs to swim for our lives? What roots does that disaster have in my own mind, which was formed by that society? What could it possibly mean to abandon the matrix in which I was raised, and more than raised, which formed the development of my mind, my opinions, my beliefs, my attitudes, my assumptions about who I am and what I expect the world to give me, my fundamental worldview? If the first question was about turning toward reality, the second question, and as it turned out the harder one, was an attempt to identify the layers of illusion. Among all of my beliefs and assumptions and fundamental ways of perceiving the world, what was false? Was it possible to abandon all that was false and embrace all that was true? When all of the layers of the false self had been peeled away, would anything remain?
That is what repentance meant to me: a fundamental change of orientation, in which everything that was false was thrown away. It required a commitment to the truth, no matter how upsetting that might turn out to be to my own comfort, my own privilege, my sense of reality, my sense of identity. I felt like a chick who had to break through the shell of the only world it knew, in order to enter fully into life. Can you free yourself from the only self you know? That is the shell we must break out of: the shell of the self; the shell of our beliefs and opinions and fundamental assumptions about reality; the shell that separates "me" from the living world.
Thirty-four years ago, when I first encountered those words of Thomas Merton, I was not conscious of how badly out of alignment with the natural world human society had become. I do not think it was obvious to many people at that time, but it is horribly obvious now. "The world" that Jesus called his followers to abandon is not the physical world, neither the Earth nor the body. It is the exploitative normalcy of human civilization. It is the world in which it is economically profitable and completely normal to tear apart thousands of square miles of the boreal forest to strain extremely dirty oil from the tar sands of Alberta. It is the world in which slavery did and still does make economic sense. It is the world in which nothing and no one has value unless they have economic value to someone else. It is the world in which the color of your skin and your gender and the social class into which you are born largely determine whether society supports you or opposes you at every turn. It is the world in which 1% of the population owns half the wealth and those few therefore have disproportionate political, legal and economic power over the many. It is the world in which human preferences and desires determine whether all other species live or die. It is the world in which we fight and kill for what we believe, and we hold our lifestyle sacred, while we will not alter our habits one iota for the sake of preserving life itself. We would rather live in defense of a delusional worldview, than be in touch with reality.
The craziness of the unbalanced world we are living in goes so deep, it has roots so deep in our psyches and our social structures, that envisioning any real change borders on the ridiculous. Can everything change, and most especially what most of us think is the foundation of human nature - our sense of being individual selves? It doesn't appear to be possible. And yet, over the millennia, a few people have raised the cry to repent, to turn away from everything in the mind and everything in society that destroys and abuses and seizes by force, and inflates the self and lives in illusion; and turn toward the living world. Repent! Abandon illusion and be embraced by reality!
Is it possible to abandon self and society and switch allegiance to the kingdom of God? A few individuals have shown us that it is possible, but can the whole of humanity experience such a reorientation, without force, without violence, without coercion? I have no idea. I understand the challenge, but I do not know how to meet it. I do not know exactly what it means, but I hear the call to repentance with greater urgency than ever.