Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Theology of Catastrophe

We have just had two more catastrophic fires in California, the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles and the Camp Fire north of Sacramento.  Both fires have wrecked devastation on so many people; there are so many heartbreaking stories there and also ones of remarkable good fortune.  The fire in SoCal had this special quality about it: it affected many homes of the very wealthy and big names in the pop culture of our country.  What caught my attention was the content of what some of these people were saying.  Like, “The fire just barely missed my house…thank God.”  “God is good.  We didn’t burn down.”  Ok. Understood.  This is a sentiment that is commonly heard in such situations. It is ok as far as it goes, but it also opens up a profound theological and spiritual problem which people tend to ignore because they simply do not have the spiritual resources to deal with it.


Consider this obvious “problem”:  Your house doesn’t burn down and you proclaim “God is good. Thank God.”  Your neighbor’s house burns down; he/she loses everything.  Is that evidence for the fact that maybe God is not good, or more precisely he is “good” here and “not so good” there?  We want to give credit to God for saving us, for defeating our cancer, for keeping the fire away, etc., etc. ; we are hesitant about “giving God credit” for the destruction or sickness or loss that might afflict us.  In such cases mostly we partake of a kind of theological/spiritual sleight-of-hand in order to get around the problem–it’s called pop religion and it is in a very real sense “schizophrenic theology.”  Or we may simply ignore this problem, realizing that we could never resolve this issue, or we just stay silent, which is an honest position and maybe the best one in most cases.

Let’s consider now the deeper implications of all this.  In the 18thCentury in Europe there was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbon in which thousands upon thousands of people were killed. For many thoughtful people this raised the question of theodicy, how could a good God allow such a thing to happen. It led to a crisis of faith for many. Many years ago Thomas Merton published a journal of reflections called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander where he pondered Karl Barth’s approach to Mozart. Barth, a great Protestant theologian, was challenged by Mozart, a Roman Catholic of sorts, who lived during the time of the great Lisbon earthquake, and Barth was amazed at Mozart’s response to all the questioning around him.  Here is at length the quotation from Karl Barth that so engaged Merton:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis[upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could.”

(The quote is of course from Barth’s great work, Church Dogmatics(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.  But I found it on a very thoughtful, reflective blog by Jason Goroncy–many thanks for sharing this quote with a wider public!)


Well, this is one approach to the problem stated above; something that helps us not to rationalize or trivialize the situation but to transcend its opaqueness and allow ourselves to live within the Divine Mystery and to live beyond all the rational calculations we tend to make about the “meaning of life.”  But there are also other approaches and here I just want to point to one other approach, not unrelated to the above one but still significantly different in its expression.  Now we shall turn to Islamic mysticism for help.  And here also I was helped by a lecture that Merton gave to his community of monks about Islamic mysticism, the Sufis.  Here are a few key quotes from that talk.

Let’s begin with this:

“Ibn ‘Arabi says: ‘If it were not for this love, the world would never have appeared in its concrete existence.’  In this sense, the movement of the world toward existence was a movement of love which brought it into existence.  And not only the movement of the world into existence, the coming of everything into existence is an act of love, the development of everything is an act of love.  Everything that happens is love and is mercy.  Not that it always appears to be that way, very often it appears to be just the opposite.  But everything that happens is love.  And of course the ones in Islam who emphasize this the most are the Sufis….”

“The opening of the Quran…is a kind of fundamental prayer which they say all of the time, which sort of contains everything.  So I’ll just read that, ‘In the Name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’….  God as Merciful or rahman, is the basic mercy in which everything is grounded; God Himself as the ground of all being is Mercy itself.  And then the Compassion of God is in events.  It shows itself in His intervention in particular events here and there….  ‘In the Name of God the Merciful and the Compassionate, Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being, the All Merciful, the All Compassionate… the Master of the Day of Doom’(Judgment/Accountability).  That is to say He is at the end of the line…we forsee our total extinction in Him, and after the Day of Doom we live only in Him.  You see, after the Day of Doom, the realm of Mercy as ground persists and the ground of Compassion and events ceases, but the Eternal Mercy goes on. ‘Thee only we serve… Guide us on a Straight Path, the path of those whom Thou hast blessed….’  The Straight Path is the…path of Islam….  What is the Straight Path?  How do you know where the Straight Path is?  For Islam it is very simple.  The straight path is purely and simply What Is.  Everything that is is willed by Allah, and whatever is, that’s it, that’s the straight path.”


No comments are really possible to all this–it is profoundly and breathtakingly clear and beyond all commenting, but a few thoughts here might be helpful.  First of all that distinction in Islam between God’s Mercy and God’s Compassion is, I think, very significant and helpful.  Compassion is associated with particularity and ongoing events; this is the basis of our petitionary prayers when we seek the help of God.  We are also invited to show compassion to our neighbor as Jesus taught us, etc.  However, there may come those times and situations where we have no sense of any kind of compassion either from God or from our neighbor.  The true Sufi is not lost here; he/she knows that all, absolutely all that is, is grounded in and manifests the Mercy of God.  The doctor may tell me that I have cancer; it is the Mercy of God.  I may not be able to explain any such thing, and in fact according to the Sufis my only “window” into this mystery is through utter perplexity and bewilderment, not through rational analysis.  But of course, and this is a very big BUT, you do not glibly or randomly say such things to people who are suffering and who are not spiritually prepared to receive such a word.  Here again is Merton:

“That is the sort of thing which works beautifully if you’re a mystic.  But short of mysticism, it can get you in plenty of trouble.  If a person starts rationalizing about the thing, starts figuring it out wrong…starts saying things about it that are …produced by those that do not come from total submission to this thing in a completely spiritual way, then we…can find ourselves rationalizing all kinds of things that shouldn’t be.”


Now the average person generally does not have a grasp or a sense of the Ultimate Reality, God, present in all situations and in all moments and in all things.  Generally this is due to the deeply endemic dualism of most of our understanding and vision. We picture God “over there,” ourselves “here,” and “stuff” between us which we try to arrange in some acceptable manner.  The mystics and the Sufis do not see it that way, and here is Merton clarifying the picture:

“The average person, who stands outside the will of God…and looks on,… he does not understand that really everything is willed by God and makes choices, and…he makes his own plans, and he submits them to God.  His idea of the Mercy of God is that, he makes his plans, and then God being merciful to him helps him so that it pans out the way he wants…. The only basic thing that the Sufis say about it is that a man who lives in that realm doesn’t really know what’s cooking….  He thinks that he is able to stand outside of all this, and make plans, and size things up, and then submit them to Allah, and then he and God are going to work things out….  Ibn ‘Arabi says, ‘Those who are veiled from the truth ask the Absolute to show mercy upon them each in his own particular way.’”

Merton continues by getting to the very heart of the issue: “Actually the ground of everything is within me and it is God, and it is within everybody too.  And there’s one ground for everybody, and this ground is the Divine Mercy…. The people of the unveiling, that is to say the Sufis, ask the Mercy of God to subsist in them.  These are the ones who ask in the Name of God and He shows Mercy upon them only by making the Mercy of God subsist in them.  This is a totally different outlook.  It is the outlook whereby the Mercy of God is not arranged on the outside in events for me–in good and bad events–but it is subsisting in me all the time.  Therefore what happens is that if the Mercy of God is subsisting in me–and that goes to say if I am united with the will of God-…if I am completely united with the will of God in love, it doesn’t matter what happens outside, because everything that is going on outside that makes any sense is grounded in the same ground in which I am grounded.  The opposition between me and everything else ceases, and what remains in terms of opposition is purely accidental and it doesn’t matter. And this is…a basic perspective in all the highest religions.”


And one might add that for the Sufis this is the real meaning of purity of heart, that one is able to live with both the positives and negatives of life, the mistakes, the accidents, the ailments, the malice of others, etc., and also the successes, the escapes, the accomplishments, the good fortune, etc., and see them all grounded in the Mercy of God.   You are never then “outside” the Mercy of God, though at times it may certainly not seem or feel that way.  And truly petitionary prayer is not to be scorned or abandoned; it may in fact be the only spiritual resource available in trying times, and it may be an “entrance” into the realization that you are one with the Mercy of God in all situations. But to reiterate, you do not “preach” this stuff to someone who has lost their home or a loved one; most likely they are not in any condition to receive such a message and it would be certainly misunderstood.  It is best to help a person discover that reality in their own heart in their own way and in their own language.  A “spiritual master,” like a heart surgeon, can perform this “operation” with certainty, but I use that term “master” loosely, not in some kind of professional sense.  Mozart did that for Barth, and Mozart for all his musical genius was not a “spiritual” person as that is normally perceived—that’s why Barth was so perplexed about this person’s ability to reveal to his heart what all the big intellectuals and professional religious could not.  Considering the lack of such folk as Mozart, all we can do is help each other along the road to a vision of the Mercy of God in all things and in all situations.









For many people this is a most unpleasant subject and to be generally avoided. However, a number of thinkers and philosophers have pointed out that in this avoidance we are also running away from our own humanity.  According to some this is the very reason for the diversions and distractions of our society. We would rather engage in all the endless “games” of our social existence rather than reflect on our own mortality and its meaning. Our own death is hardly ever the content of our reflections.  But then most of the great spiritual traditions make it a point to look at the reality of death straight on, pondering its meaning and significance.  In the Christian tradition there used to be that old cliché image of the old monk pondering a skull, the memento mori, the “remembrance of death,” that seemed to so many as bizarre and macabre, and to a certain extent it was that—especially when the original purpose of this “memento mori” was forgotten.  Well, let us make a little effort in recovering the true significance of this remembrance.

First we need to consider the simple phenomenology of death–exactly what happens without attaching any of our meanings to it.  We seem to go totally out of existence.   We seem to be no more; there is no way back; nobody ever comes back into our own existence and experience.  There is a striking finality to death.  If you have ever been around a dead body, it is a chilling experience.  This is the kind of thing that scares people and turns them off from considering the meaning of death.  Modern life tries to shield us from this naked reality–just as it tries to immunize us from being sensitive to the language of Mother Nature.  But the people of old had their own “escapes,” their own “narcotic” to soothe the pain of loss and finality.  They created various stories about “rewards” and “punishments”–in other words in death our lives did not disintegrate into a meaningless nothingness.  They created stories about various kinds of “paradises,” or perhaps a potential to “come back” in some form, thus defeating the seeming finality of death.  And so it went.   

But the deeper spiritual traditions always knew that the question of death–what is it anyway?– was fundamentally and foremost a question about our very identity.  The Hindu holy man, Ramana Maharshi, held that the key to our whole spiritual life is the question: who am I?  Indeed! And so many others in other traditions also focused the spiritual life on that kind of question in various ways. My own favorites, the Desert Fathers, certainly were on target most of the time, but their language often needs deciphering.  Sometimes, though, it was very clear–consider the following story:

“Abba Poemen said to Abba Joseph, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’  He said, ‘If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say, ‘Who am I? and do not judge anyone.’” (translation by Benedicta Ward)

This is a remarkably subtle story.  The very notion of monkhood, of becoming a monk is tied to that most universal of all questions: who am I?  Besides this question the other key elements of this story is this “rest”–exactly what is that anyway?–and then that phrase “in all circumstances.” 

Let’s approach this from another angle.  Our sense of identity is what we bring to “all circumstances” and this structures our responses and our experiences and our vision.  We build up this sense of identity from two very different loci: the external, which is the most dominant, and the internal, which is highly valued in modern psychology.  But the great spiritual traditions call all this structuring, both inner and outer, into question.  And the reality of death provides the necessary leverage for this process of deconstruction. 

Let’s consider briefly the so-called inner reality, that sense of “I-ness” that we seem to have deep within us.  This reality forms the basis of what we generally call dualism.  In other words there is that “solid” “I” that is me, and this stands in relation to everything “outside” it, including the Ultimate Reality which we call God.  But  most of the great spiritual traditions call this into question, especially Buddhism which does it in a very detailed and systematic way.  Christianity for the most part has a lot of difficulty here.  Basic Christian thought and piety has this aura of unremitting dualism–there is “I” and then in relation to me there is “God,”–the I-Thou relationship.  Let’s face it, most of standard Christian piety (and all other theistic religions) are locked into this.   This is what Abhishiktananda had so much trouble with.  Christian mysticism of course tries to transcend this dualistic language in various ways.  And you have to be sensitive to what is going on in that language to understand the astonishing depths there, as in Meister Eckhart for example.

But now getting back to our main topic, the reality of death seems to really challenge this sense of “I”-ness that we have.  In death, that “knot” at the core of my being which is called “I,” “me,” seems to get undone, and this is totally scary.  Death seems to make one nameless, a kind of void, a “black hole of existence,” sucking up all that you are as you vanish into it.  That’s why for people whose “I-ness” was of paramount importance built huge monuments to themselves in preparation for death, like the pharaohs of Egypt to this day’s “important people.”  “Who am I?” if this knot gets totally undone. Apparently there is no self there, precisely no-self.  Whatever is “there,” if even that can be said, it cannot be pointed to or named or found on any “map,” theological or psychological. 


Now consider the external locus of our selfhood and this sense is most superficial but also most dominant in social life and most evident.  We live off what others think of us, either bad or good.  Praise or blame is critical to our sense of self.  Some people are totally enclosed in that sense of self and live in constant anxiety and “unrest,” wondering what “feedback” will come to them in all circumstances which announce to them who they are.  In growing up, children are naturally passing through such a phase but now we are speaking of fully grown mature adults whose sense of self is that fragile.  This is not just a modern problem.  Ancient and traditional societies, East and West and in all religions,  were/are built around the notions of “honor” and “shame.”  A totally external locus of identity becomes the measure of your humanity and “worth.” Sometimes with very sad and tragic consequences.  Another very common source of identity is possession: all we have, all the stuff around us, wealth–but even poverty can be used in this regard, religious garb, institutions, nationality, etc.  What makes death so harrowing to these folks is that it comes like a thief and takes it all away, everything that I have used to prop up my sense of identity.   We all know some of the key Zen and Desert Father stories where they encounter this thief. Lots of humor there but also very deep truth.  But here is another Desert Father story that is apt:

“A brother came to Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, ‘Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.’  So the old man said, ‘Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.’  The brother went there , and abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it.  The latter said to him, ‘Didn’t they say anything to you?’  He replied ‘No.’  The old man said, ‘Go back tomorrow and praise them.’  So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, ‘Apostles, saints and righteous men.’  He returned to the old man and said to him, ‘I have complimented them.’  And the old man said to him, ‘Did they not answer you?’  The brother said no.  The old man said to him, ‘You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak; so you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man.  Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praise, and you can be saved.”

(translated by Benedicta Ward)

This story has been wrongly and grossly interpreted as an invitation to a kind of human insensitivity, as if that could ever be any kind of solution to anything.  Rather this story is an ingenious expansion of that key question: who am I?  And it is through the reality of death that we discover what that is all about.  That exercise that Abba Macarius created for this young monk was meant to deconstruct all his usual social responses and so his usual social identity based on these various external loci.  Death reveals the human stripped of everything, absolutely everything.  What is left?  Only that transcendent locus of our identity that is totally unnameable, unspeakable, something that one cannot “point to,” etc.  For the Desert Fathers this was what they tried to express in such terms as “rest,” “being saved,” “quies” (Latin), or “hesychia” Greek. Recall what Jesus said in the Gospel about having the “right kind” of treasure, the kind that neither moth nor rust can eat away, nor thief can steal.  Death is the moth and rust and thief and will take away everything that is part of that external locus of identity.  Death will reveal who I really am.  So then, who am I?


Consider now a very different example: a poem by Thomas Merton about Ernest Hemingway.  It was written right after Hemingway’s death.  What you have to remember about Hemingway is not only that he was a master of English prose, but also that he had this self-constructed image of himself which was very critical to his self-understanding: that of the macho writer/adventurer/big-time hunter/male hero whom women could not help but adore, etc. Well, as he got into old age that self-image began to crumble and sent him reeling into bouts of depression. Hemingway did not ask himself, “Who am I?”  He assumed his identity was contained in his self-image, and when this “story” could no longer be sustained he totally collapsed and appears to have committed suicide.  Here is Merton’s take on all this:


An Elegy for Ernest Hemingway

“Now for the first time on the night of your death your name is

mentioned in convents, ne cadas in obscurum.

Now with a true bell your story becomes final.  Now men in

monasteries, men of requiems, familiar with the dead, include you

in their offices.

You stand anonymous among thousands, waiting in the dark at

the great stations on the edge of countries known to prayer alone,

where fires are not merciless, we hope, and not without end.

You pass briefly through our midst.  Your books and writings

have not been consulted.  Our prayers are pro defuncto N.

Yet some look up, as though among a crowd of prisoners or displaced

persons, they recognized a friend once known in a far country.

For these the sun also rose after a forgotten war upon an idiom

you made great.  They have not forgotten you.  In their silence you

are still famous, no ritual shade.

How slowly this bell tolls in a monastery tower for a whole age,

and for the quick death of an unsteady dynasty, and for that brave

illusion: the adventurous self!

For with one shot the whole hunt is ended!”


A haunting last line!  A supreme irony too, for what this big-game hunter was really hunting for without realizing it was his true self.  This is what we are mostly doing in all our activities really, in all our attempts to be “somebody.”  Without realizing it we are actually always trying to answer that question, who am I? So death which ends this “hunt” seems very scary, and so we create all kinds of myths in order to “unscare” ourselves. But I will conclude with a Desert Father story that illustrates how deeply and with what subtlety the old masters understood this key question and its relation to death:

“They said that a certain old man asked God to let him see the Fathers and he saw them all except Abba Anthony.  So he asked his guide, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’  He told him in reply that in the place where God is, there Anthony would be.”


In death Anthony loses every marker of self/identity.  (You might say this language is a radicalization of the sannyasi ideal; in fact the authentic sannyasi is the clearest living symbol of all that I have been trying to say above.)  The ultimate truth and  the really real are paradoxically manifest when there is no more “place” for Anthony, for Anthony is now a no-self whose locus is nowhere except in God.