Circumstance and sorrow had aged me
by the time I found my way into the fire-blighted wood
scorched by flames rising up from an earth
ravaged by explorations for oil, its water table
plundered relentlessly by impulses of avarice
until there seemed no more hope.
I found my way through the still warm surroundings
and bowing under the leaning tower, once tree,
soot above me, ashes beneath,
glimpsed the hellish minds
of those who had contrived
Here were those who had destroyed life,
reducing sentient beings of leaf and wood
to rectangular pieces of coloured paper;
here were those who betrayed
the created order, consigning beast
and bird and creeping thing to death –
CEOs and sycophants
moaned of perishing thirst,
writhed with silent burning
for each stolen molecule
each lost life
until the original suffering had been undone.
I marvelled that
their empathy, once abandoned,
was transmuted to embodiment
and prayed that this vision
be within them a long nightmare
awakening them to compassion
so that returning to the world
they might spend a lifetime
making amends, working for restoration.
I continued walking and found myself
holding my breath, the stench
overwhelming me before I saw
the pile of carcasses, rotting,
oozing liquid putrification
nearly drowning entrepreneur and poacher alike –
their faces greasy with fat, fur clinging
like a second skin, their heads tilted back
seeking uncontaminated air,
they shrieked from time to time,
feeling against their skin the agony
of each dying creature –
elephant, lion, bear, & all the others
mere trophies, merely a way to make a buck
in a money-hungry world.
I thought as I moved away
seeking air less contaminated by
suffering and death
Is this the only way we understand
suffering – by our feeling it within,
against our skin?
Lost in thought
following the path set before me,
I glimpsed vivid reds, blues, greens
looked again and saw people
tangled in the plastics’ embrace
or buried beneath dark garbage bags
breathing through indestructible straws,
muttering at their fate and the impossible
weight of detritus, not yet making connections
between carelessness – and beached whales,
apathy – and bird carcasses disintegrating
while plastic bits within flutter in the wind.
Recognizing my own failure,
my own complicity
I saw that this place had no hierarchy;
all destructive impulses part of a continuum …
How easily the heart shrivels, how facile
to cultivate intentional incomprehension.
Familiar with sin, I was afraid to go on.
My courage floundered – I shut my eyes
not wanting to see …
I felt, I knew, the meaning of
the sensation on my hand before I looked –
A Monarch sat, wings closing, opening
the door shut by my fear.
Taunted by my antipathy to pain, I recalled
that all things needed to be brought into the light
in order to be healed.
Here, in the butterfly,
was the promise of transformation.
Looking out at the horizon
all around me, I saw
then felt the goodness of intention
a distant form became person,
our eyes met wordlessly and we set out
We came to a high wall
that stretched as far as I could see
in either direction
with a watercourse constructed
parallel to it, flowing swiftly –
its depth unknown.
The engineers, the guards
(who’d just been doing their jobs)
were immobilized against the wall.
Theirs the horror, the hopelessness
of those who had fled homeland; they relived the desperation
of all whom they and others had shut out.
The designing bureaucrats
were continually swept away, not quite drowning
in the death-bloated torrent
until they cried out a thousand times for forgiveness
having finally seen each terrified face, felt
each child’s, each parent’s heartbroken torment.
Pondering the capacity of a moment to hold eternity,
supposing that hope is intentional,
that we must trust in the possibility to transform this –
our reality – I wondered
if it were possible to heal self of selfishness
now, in what was left of an earthbound life-time
Then I saw a cross burning
Christ scorched and scorned.
I broke down and wept.
I saw men, hoods now transparent,
purple welts of the noose circling their necks
swollen features on their battered faces
saw them tremble with fear
and pain, pain rising up from wounds
inflicted simply because the other could –
now they felt
in their inward parts, the misery
the unrelenting devastation
that they had inflicted
on God’s beloved children
and the cross continued to burn …
Only after their psyches have explored
each memory of each cell of each person’s suffering
will they move through that purifying fire, and be reborn.
And I was ashamed
knowing that the physical pain
was only a part of it …
We came to a school, walls scarred
by bullets, doors chained shut,
patrolled by the self-deceived
who struggled to stand, burdened
with the humiliations they had
imposed on children
with uncaring ease; aching now
with the brutality they’d offered
instead of kindness.
Their only drink, tears –
their food, earthen cakes
formed of dust, spit, and bitter herbs.
Locked out of washrooms
labelled not by gender but
by character, “The Compassionate,”
embarrassed by natural urges,
still uncomprehending …
And though my companion
offered to remove the scales from their eyes,
they chose only to remember their knowledge and power.
And suddenly I knew my companion’s name,
knew this was Raphael, Tobit’s healer, this
the one who had guided and protected Tobias.
We came to a vast desert.
Here were those who had loved wealth
more than life.
They sat beneath a blazing sun
surrounded by beige sand dunes
eating wafer-thin gold coins.
As they ate their gold, sand blew
in their eyes, up their nostrils,
into their mouths –
Being obsessed, they were unaware of the irony
that, like the small children of the starving poor,
they ate dirt.
Sweat dripped down their faces, mingled
with the sand, moistened the coins lifted to their lips.
No longer able to stand, they sat
day after day, driven by compulsion
to eat the thin shining disks,
oblivious to anything but gold.
What could save them
from this meaningless consumption?
Ah, with vision and imagination atrophied,
these and many others can only be transformed
by another’s compassionate intervention.
Couldn’t we just take the gold away?
I asked. Oh, but it is all illusion –
It is a fantasy they’ve chosen;
at night they see the golden
coins turn to grains of sand.
They feel their hunger, and despair.
Once the sun rises,
they choose again the compulsion
to swallow their golden passion.
Only a word that connects them
to their original humanity
will free them from this slavery.
At a distance they seemed ordinary
white folk, for some reason
all clothed in red dresses …
As they came into focus
there was a uniformity of expression as well:
the set jaw, eyes pinched with contempt.
I saw the blood seep from sleeves
staining their hands,
saw their hems leave a trail
of blood along the earth.
Blood and soil cried to heaven
recalling the first murderer
who’d founded a city
and filled it with his contempt
for those who loved the wild land …
bequeathing his heirs his arrogance
so that they, heartless and unrepentant as well,
still secretly worshipped the power of taking life.
These killers would wander the world,
until, sickened by the relentless sensation of blood
against their skin,
they sat on the earth, and
prayed for forgiveness, prayed to begin the slow work
of true repentance…
and listening to each story of the betrayed,
finally comprehending the loss
of succeeding generations,
they would feel an agonizing heartbeat
for each and every heartbeat lost;
theirs would be the choking sorrow
of those whose loved ones never returned.
My will to continue faltered.
Unutterable words made my throat tight.
Yet again, I became aware of Raphael.
Without words, the archangel reassured me:
the suffering is too much for any one mortal to bear;
holding it is not your obligation; you come here as witness –
You can choose, you can refuse to stop loving, you
can persist in hoping – trust in the divine vision –
it is a reality just beyond your line of sight.
Moved once again by the power of kindness,
I felt infused with the other’s assurance …
The angelic warmth encompassed me
even as I sensed the region that we’d entered was cold.
Certainly, it was stark and profoundly lonely.
Here were the pedophiles, pimps, and rapists.
I was grateful for Raphael, for a love that was true
as we moved into the presence of destructive lust –
I trusted I was safe within the humility that surrounded me,
even as I was unsettled by the pride
and consuming self-indulgence
that was palpable as these others exited small cells.
By day, the archangel told me,
they remained in isolation, unable to feel
any pleasing sensation; hearing only
the weeping and curses of those
they had abused – a cacophony of rage
By night, they gathered by firelight,
attracted to it as if moths,
but distracted by the frigid blood
circulating through their bodies;
a burning cold that pains and excites
but which can neither climax nor relax.
They had pandered to distorted desire
and now their bodies school them
in their victims’ unbearable pain,
the embodied shame.
How simple, how difficult the route
to forgiveness and redemption: to recall
truly loving even one person
and in the recollection, desire
this good more than power, or pleasure.
Here night held no starlight.
Here there was no moonlight.
I edged closer to my companion,
fearful that with my next step,
I would discover nothing
and find myself falling, forever.
Then I felt two things: a quiet
confidence in my guide –
and the vast emptiness all around me
even though the darkness enveloping
those who had enjoyed or profited from killing
had the clammy texture of fog.
For a moment Raphael
seemed to withdraw and I wondered
what word would describe this cold …
then I puzzled over the ache
that surrounded the emptiness.
And as Raphael came close to me again
I had read once that hell was hidden
in the spear wound of Christ,*
near his heart.
And these broken souls, I asked,
are they capable of repentance?
Then I was made to understand
that they remain in darkness
and unformed until someone prays
for them, then
the long journey into selfhood
necessitates they feel
the pain they have inflicted
the suffering of those who were left to grieve
the sorrow of the Creator …
Raphael and I parted gently, silently. It seemed
to me the earth was a proving ground,
testing each person’s capacity for compassion.
Then I wondered what experience
I might yet need to embody
in order to have greater appreciation for another’s life …
* Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1985. Page 506.