Everyone whose eyes are open knows the world is in a terrifying crisis. As many of us as possible need to undergo a massive transformation of consciousness and to find the sacred passion to act from this consciousness in every arena and on every level of reality.
— Andrew Harvey
Over a lifetime, certain events blaze forth like beacons that mark turns on our path. For me, one such event took place on the Feast of the Pentecost, May 15, 2005. In search of the spark to rekindle the dry tinder of rote weekly religious worship, this particular morning I’d driven to a neighboring town where an alternative faith group met in a strip mall storefront “chapel” that had recently undergone its own conversion experience.
Unhappy about the status quo of my spiritual life, I knew that the heart of my discomfort was that I desired to serve Spirit, though I didn’t know what that might mean. I had no clue of how exactly my request for clarity was about to be answered as I made my way into the building and found a seat. The roar of the enthusiastic welcome that greeted Andrew Harvey, the guest speaker that morning, suggested that something unusual was about to unfold.
For those unfamiliar with his life and work, Andrew Harvey is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist, translator, mystical scholar, and spiritual teacher. Harvey has published over 20 books including The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism and Heart Yoga: The Sacred Marriage of Yoga and Mysticism. In addition to exploration and explication of Rumi and Sufi mysticism, he collaborated with Sogyal Rinpoche and Patrick Gaffney in the writing of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Harvey was a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford from 1972–1986 and has taught at Oxford University, Cornell University, The California Institute of Integral Studies, and the University of Creation Spirituality, as well as various spiritual centers throughout the United States. He was the subject of the 1993 BBC film documentary The Making of a Modern Mystic. He is the Founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives.
On that drear New England Sunday, Harvey began softly but quickly turned up the heat:(1)
I’d like to share a practical vision with you of what being a mystical activist in a time like this really means. I beg you to listen — from my heart to your heart — because if you don’t listen now, the crises that are coming will make it even harder to listen. It is extremely important to realize that we are not going to get out of this crisis… We will not avoid the bill for our monstrous shadow. We are going into storms that will shake humanity in unparalleled ways. Unless you and I are strong now, those storms will threaten us with madness and despair.
The divine work I’m offering to you is not luxury. It’s not something you can decide to do or not. It is something that if you hear what I’m trying to say to you on this day of Pentecost, you will realize it is something you have got to do to stay clear yourself and to be useful to others in any serious way at this moment. True prophets bring warnings and empowerments. And the Mother herself brings warnings and empowerments.
There is no authentic spirituality in a time like this without a commitment to do something. You are the most privileged race that’s ever been on the Earth. You belong to the most powerful nation on this Earth, which is responsible for a quarter of the emissions that are causing global warming and for a foreign policy that is hurtling the world towards Armageddon. It is time that we of the West wake up and claim our divinity, not just inwardly but in a conscious act of self-donation to making ourselves radioactive nuisances at a time when we have to turn up as real people or be guilty of the matricide of the planet.
Harvey closed the morning service with these words: “What is being asked of us by the Mother, by the flames, is that we stand in the middle of this apocalypse to see it for what it is, to see the birth and to know the birth in ourselves, to give ourselves over to the birth, and then, to stand in great passion and great joy, with great energy and give and give and give and serve and serve and serve and become, at last, truly authentic and truly divine.”
Thunderous applause signaled the close of the service. Whoever this guy was, I knew without doubt he spoke in tongues of fire. No longer a dusty Bible story, Pentecost had just become live in Technicolor for me. Reeling, I made my way to the table in the lobby where I bought a ticket for the afternoon workshop, which would delve more deeply and more practically into Harvey’s concept of “Sacred Activism.” As I sat in my car in the parking lot waiting for the doors to open once more, I remembered the adage, “Be careful what you wish for…” The irony that my prayer for a spirit-igniting spark was answered on that Pentecost in the form of a sacred activist wielding a blowtorch wasn’t lost on me.
Over the course of the afternoon, Harvey outlined what we each must do to become sacred activists. As I listened, I thought about what had seemed to be a mysterious impetus that led me to return to college at age 50 to complete two degrees in social work. For an also unknown reason, I chose to specialize in community organization. Courses that focused on how to help people come to consensus, to strategize for empowerment, and to come to victory for the greater good somehow resonated deeply. Though unable to see an exact way I could use the education I’d acquired in combination with what might be described as eclectic life experience, after hearing Harvey’s message, I sensed that soon enough, I’d find a way to live my service to Spirit as some sort of elder sacred activist.
However, along with this revelation, some significant questions took form. What does it mean to be an elder in a culture rife with ageism? What does it mean to be part of a demographic of people turning 65 at the rate of 8,000 per day? While I have no definitive answers to these questions, I have observations to offer based upon my experience working with elders and my experience of my own aging.
Not so long ago, I worked in an assisted living facility. Make that to read “warehouse-for-elders-who-don’t-yet-require-full-nursing-care-but-their-families-for-some-reason-don’t-want-them-at-home.” The most difficult aspect of my job was to witness the effects of isolation and the sense of utter purposelessness so many of the residents voiced. These were men who had headed some of the biggest corporations in the country. These were women who ran hugely successful volunteer organizations. These were men and women who knew how to balance budgets, among other significant skills, people who knew how to “make things happen.” Their primary activities in this facility were tea parties, crafts, bingo games or, the very worst, sitting by the window where they stared at nothing. I hated to see this waste of their life experience, wisdom, and willingness to return to the marketplace, as the Zen ox-herding tale describes, with help-bestowing hands, if not in active duty at least as consultants — wise elders.
I found and continue to find comfort that there are no signs that say “Need Not Apply” on the door marked “Sacred Activism” for those of us over 65. In fact, and as a proponent of the adage “Old age and treachery trumps youth and beauty,” I believe that though any and all may engage in sacred activism, only the seasoned metal that has endured the most intense flame is destined to become the vehicle for healing and transformation so desperately required in our world today.
In addition, the sheer bulk of the numbers suggests that elders are a next vast “natural resource” to be tapped and utilized for great good. This demographic of elders around the globe is ripe and ready to undergo “the massive transformation in consciousness” to which Harvey calls us — a shift away from the limits of materialism in which we seem ensnared to a consciousness open to the infinity of Spirit.
The down-to-earth words of Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, point the way for those willing to become pioneers in this shift in consciousness:
Older people are not just card-carrying members of Leisure World and mid-afternoon nap-takers. We are tribal elders, with an ongoing responsibility for safe-guarding the tribe’s survival and protecting the health of the planet. To do this, we must become society’s futurists, testing out new instruments, technologies, ideas, and styles of living. We have the freedom to do so, and we have nothing to lose.
Harvey urges us to find our sacred passion. To do this, he warns us not to follow our bliss but, rather, to follow our heartbreak. What prevents us from doing this? Why do we find ourselves paralyzed, contracted with fear as we survey the rapidly escalating chaos before us?
In answer to the matter of fear, I suggest — and not glibly — that fear is a four-letter word like many others — good, hope, love, to name a few. A popular definition of “F.E.A.R.” suggests this unpleasant emotion is nothing more than false evidence appearing real. One of the great gifts of elderhood lies in the fact that we would not have arrived at this point in life had we not stood nose to nose with fear in about all of the forms it can take, not the least of which is that of death. Remember Maggie Kuhn: We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain as we step into our role as tribal elders, sacred activists.
Yes, the crises we face are many — the insanity of political discourse, the fragility of global economies, the collapse of institutional structures that dispense such “goods” as medicine, education, and law. In combination with staggering unemployment and environmental devastation, the choice of “Leisure World and afternoon naps” may well appear attractive. However, as Joe Lewis reminds us, we can run but we can’t hide. Elder sacred activists understand that to hide in the face of global crisis is not an option. How many times have we heard the saying, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for”?
The authentic spirituality to which Harvey is calling us demands a commitment to do something: to follow our heartbreak, not our bliss. If crisis and opportunity are two sides of the same coin, what is the one opportunity that masquerades as a crisis — the opportunity that breaks our hearts — here, now? Why stand on the sidelines, overwhelmed by the number and immensity of the challenges our culture faces? Identifying a commitment to one particular issue is unlikely to require that we think long or hard. In fact, each person who has achieved elder status has likely devoted considerable time, energy, and treasure to at least one source of heartbreak over the course of their lifetime, either through their professional or personal experience.
Wisdom gleaned in the trenches is invaluable, especially if elder sacred activists align their efforts as a global collective. Could this not spark the massive transformation in consciousness that Harvey is urging? Chaos theory tells us that any small, localized disturbance in one part of a complex system creates widespread effects throughout the whole system — the “butterfly effect.” As I write these words, I wonder about the effect if, tomorrow morning, all over the globe, elders awoke to the power of their sacred activism and flapped their wings. What if each one of us engaged in one action followed by another and another to heal the issue that breaks our hearts? What magnitude of tsunami would such a wave of action create on behalf of the greater good?
While certainly tinted by the urgency Harvey voices, the vision I hold as an elder sacred activist reaches across time to embrace an inevitable infinity. The collective consciousness of our species has been evolving for a long time. Read the opening verses of the third book of The Mahabharata(2), written in the 4th century BCE, and you will find its description of the chaos threatening to engulf the Earth eerily contemporary. Harvey’s dire warning that our species is both out of time and out of grace is meant to prod us to action. However, against his dire prediction, I wish to suggest that the notion that “the
end is near” works on one level only, that of the material world.
Not being much of a “Material Girl,” my elder eyes see through the terrifying and chaotic illusion in the reality around me and find the shape a deeper truth. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” Teilhard de Chardin observed. Thus, what does or doesn’t happen to human inhabitants and the planet becomes irrelevant. The variable that does have eternal relevance here though, along with the invitation Andrew Harvey issued in his Pentecost workshop, is quite simply that of our dedication to live in service of Spirit.