For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
– Mark 8:36
“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”
by Wendell Berry
I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts, and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing, and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor, in spite of the best advice.
If I have been caught so often laughing at funerals, that was because I knew the dead were already slipping away, preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not be resurrected by a piece of cake.
‘Dance,’ they told me, and I stood still, and while they stood quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’ I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me ‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing ever day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute I said no, and when they had collected more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t, and then went off by myself and did more than they would have asked.
‘Well, then,’ they said ‘go and organize the International Brotherhood of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what, I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest way to come to the truth. It is one way.
In a time of great dissolution, when the old memes are failing and the long-standing paradigms of thought and action are becoming demonic, the way of the Contrary can be the most reliable path to truth – and the one most necessary to prepare the way for a possible awakening and transformation.
This is the time for prophets and visionaries – not leaders, for we are shifting into an era of amorphous leadership, of shared responsibility for vision and values and a radical lateral shift into a new dimension of humanity.
A prophet is one who brings us to our knees. Until and unless we feel our legs giving out under us so that we know that the old stance cannot anymore support us, we will not seek to discover a new way of standing in balance on the earth. A prophet is one who reveals the emptiness of our beliefs, values and vision of what the world is, but also the vacuity of the easy hope and false optimism that has been a trademark of the current dysfunctional paradigm of objectivity, rationality, and science-based faith in technological solutions to every problem.
The task of the prophet is to bring us to our knees, and then to offer a fragile, conditional, and contingent promise of a way to stand and walk upon this earth. Fragile and conditional, because every promise depends upon our willingness to do the very difficult work of dissolution and manifestation. There is no room on the slate for a new picture until we erase the cluttered images that fill the existential space around us. The vessels of our souls must be emptied and cleansed before they can be filled with new wine.
Hope and optimism can be either balms or encouragements, either opiates or road maps to the possible. As with any potential ally, discernment and judgement are required in order to determine whether they be demonic or angelic.
Hope can be self-justifying and self-referential, but without independent substance.
“When hope sets out on its desperate search for reasons, it can find them.” – Wendell Berry
“Certainly there is a difference between hope and a foolish optimism. And in order to have hope, you have to see the depth and the dimensions of the problem.” – Ellen Davis, professor of biblical and practical theology at the Duke University Divinity School, interviewed for On Being by Krista Tippett.
Authentic hope, hope grounded in the shadows of the world in which another world struggles to be born (for all earthly birth is a life-or-death effort that brings both pain and joy), is hope that can be transformative. False hope denies the shadows of our personal and collective beings, and leads us, blinded by the light, into detours and dead ends.
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope – not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness … nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right’, but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle – and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”
– “The Gates of Hope” meditation by Victoria Safford
I, the one known as Riversong, am the seventh grandson of the Rebbe (teacher or mentor) Ja’acov Yitzchak, the Choseh (Seer) of Lublin (1745-1815), the third in the lineage of founders of the mystical strain of Judaism called Chassidism, and the only one widely acknowledged to have visionary powers. Those who feared him said he had the “evil eye”, while those who understood him, including many learned Rabbis, sought him out to learn how to offer dance, song and joy as prayer – how to “lose the mind and find the way”.
On the day he died, July 15, 1815 (9th of Av, 5575, on the Hebrew Calendar), he prophesized that 100 years from that day, the Russians would lose their reign over Poland. And so it was to the date July 20, 1915 (the 9th of Av, 5675 on the Hebrew Calendar), the Austrians conquered Lublin, and the Chozeh’s prophecy was fulfilled.
But he also interpreted the Napoleonic wars as the apocalyptic war of Gog and Magog (from Ezekial), ushering the endtimes and the possible advent of the Messiah and liberation of God’s people. That time, like ours today, seemed like a dissolution of the status quo (it did, in fact, end the Holy Roman Empire and begin Pax Britannica). The Choseh knew the suffering of his people and how much they needed a messiah, so he called all his disciples for the holy day of Simchas Torah, worked them into a dervish of ecstasy, and then quietly slipped up to his study – in ways we cannot comprehend – to mystically aid and abet Napoleon to quicken the coming of the messianic age, the new world order that was so fervently desired and richly imagined. Then came Waterloo.
It is told by Elie Wiesel and others that the Chozeh’s housemaid entered his study just in time to witness a huge hand drag the Rebbe through a tiny window too small for a man to pass. Her screams awoke his disciples from their trance and, hearing what had occurred, they ran out to the street and found him in an alley badly injured. He died within the year, and it is told that was punishment for trying to force the hand of God in the false hope of turning turmoil into paradise.
“Hope must be grounded in the real. Hope, for Milton, and for much of early modern culture, concerns place. Milton therefore locates hope in literal and figurative places where material value is both spiritual and palpable. Hope comes from creating meaningful places, belonging to and being grounded in a place, knowing one’s place in the world, and knowing how to be a steward of real, metaphorical and sacred places.”
– Mary, Fenton, Milton’s Places of Hope: Spiritual And Political Connections of Hope With Land
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes