by Rosemary McMullen
On September 13, 1993 I was working at National Public Radio in Washington DC. Staff from several departments crowded into one of the few offices with a TV to share the moment on the White House lawn as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands, with Bill Clinton behind them, arms outstretched like a ministering angel. The mood was tentative elation. Could it happen? Had centuries of Rosh Hashanahs brought the reconciliation of Ishmael and Isaac into the material world? Would the peacemakers’ work--Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others--bear fruit at last?
Since 1993 Rabin and Arafat, among hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians of many faiths and ethnicities, have died in the regions of the holy books. Peace activism continued and expanded along with the wars, but its voice was weak. US citizens were paralyzed by fear after September 11, 2001, outraged by powerlessness after the 2000 and 2004 elections; huge numbers were cowed into lassitude by the political and economic complexities, the sheer magnitude of the war machine.
Also that September of 1993, I was contracted to research and write articles for The Encyclopedia of Angels (Facts on File Press, 1997). I was astounded by the continuity of angelologies worldwide. Even if I had not been a believer, the historical record would have opened me to questions. Jews, Christians and Muslims honored many of the same angels, notably Gabriel and Michael. Abraham, Hagar, Jacob, Mary, Mohamed, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, countless saints received God’s instructions and revelations through angels. Even viewed as mere metaphor, the word for angel, malak, “messenger” in Hebrew and Arabic, links the Highest and the human realm.
Artists, inventors, innovators, heroes triumphing over adversity, credit a power source beyond ordinary individual thought and perception, “… to enter the other kingdom, of grace, and imagination,” as poet Mary Oliver expressed it. Non-believers might call it focused human attention or intention, activation of inner capacity; some believers might call it receiving the Holy Spirit, others conversing with an angel. Days like September 13, 1993 radiate like archetypal stories or images, showing the effort being made to achieve peace and reconciliation (including forgiveness), a goal of all religions. But the daily deeds of “ordinary” good people achieve something similar, as they manifest their enlivened spirits in diverse ways.
Michaelic courage sees the demons, struggles with them daily, beginning in one’s own consciousness. The angel, empowering the will to the good, acts on many planes simultaneously: the human heart, the temporal and the spiritual worlds (Koran, Surah II, 99-100; Daniel 10:13, 21; 12:1, Revelations 12:7-9). People working for the good tend to form groups, multiplying resources, creativity, momentum, positivity. Such groups and their activities can be seen as “performance art,” what Joseph Beuys called “social sculpture.” Happenings, real stories and images, move from inspiration (enspiritedness) to outer manifestation, lighting the larger community as they go.
Descendents of Abraham today wage war and attempt to wage peace throughout the Middle East. The USA, a nation founded “under God” (Enlightenment era Judeo-Christian) has long been a key player. A believer waging the Michaelic battle of inner transformation knows that naming “the axis of evil” and “the Great Satan” merely projects one’s capacity for evil onto a generalized “other.” So religiously-sanctioned power groups engaged in economic, military and environmental terrorism (whether overt or sanitized) must be doing so out of a kind of fundamentalist reductionism. Their particular ends are godly to themselves and ungodly to their victims and critics. Such ironies abet the growth of cynical materialism, even in families still nominally practicing their religion. But inspirited activism, a k a spiritual art, simultaneously challenges several opponents: fundamentalism, citizen paralysis, and cynical materialism.
A materialist starts with the math and often ends there. If weapons of mass destruction and local wars don’t end life on earth in a few generations, environmental disasters certainly will. A parade of reputable pundits lays out the disturbing facts and trends from the perspectives of many sciences. Activist initiatives to counteract these trends locally and globally have grown by leaps and bounds worldwide. But the changes needed, especially resource consumption habits and underlying attitudes, will take generations. Thus, to cynical materialists, resistance seems naïve and futile. Materialism points to the inevitable death of humanity and the planet. A cynical materialist is often an unhappy person whose capacity to feel and believe has been paralyzed by the onslaught of negative reality. In its cage of time and matter, the soul withers.
In 2006 I discovered the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and through them many other groups like The Peace of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, who are re-approaching activism—peace, social, political, environmental, economic justice--from a spiritual perspective. Fundamentalism cannot be overturned by anger, contempt, analysis and facts. Each spiritual tradition centers on manifesting the love of God by loving human beings. Such love must precede analysis and rhetoric. Welcome the holy guest. Share the feast. Pray together. Gatherings welcoming all, celebrating and sharing the spiritual and artistic work of taming the beasts in the individual heart--fear, hatred, doubt—can expand activism, bringing in people of faith who are limping along by themselves, those who have turned to fundamentalism out of desperation, young people depressed by soullessness, and those wounded, jaded but still open, ready for a new direction.
I have found that every effort to enact spiritual principles—love, courage, faith—whether privately or in a working group, is like a work of art. The angel enters with the intention and grows with exertion. Nothing is wasted. Skill, patience and strength build through the flexing of the will. Quantitative results are not of primary importance. In the new millennium more creative people of conscience have risen to public attention, challenging the materialistic cynicism underlying the status quo in a multidimensional counterforce. Artists, filmmakers galore, altruists from billionaire Bill Gates to Michael Moore to rock and film stars provide “doing good” news and concrete works in the world. Movements “for social responsibility” exist in every profession from medicine to engineering. Pittsburgh is blessed with multiple circles engaged in socially artistic, creative and healing deeds. Call it angelic intervention, or true human beings facing adversaries together with courage. Call it what you will, but share the energy, hope, and joy as well as the work.
(published in New People, Pittsburgh Thomas Merton Center newspaper, September 2007)