When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
— Mark 13:7-8 —
…the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. …The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass. …On either side of the river is the tree of life …and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. …“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
— Revelations 21, 22 —
Apocalypse as a concept of the Hebrew prophets is marked by a pessimism about the contemporary era and an expectation that God will break into history to recreate the world in a happier context for the faithful, if not for everyone. The time when this will happen lies shrouded in the mystery of the mind of God. In the Christian book of Revelations, the focus is on the salvation of God that is initiated by the event of the Christ in human history and is fulfilled I the eschaton, a time that is the present. The sign that all has reached its climax will be many other signs and portents defining this as the time.
Despite much earnest effort, and assistance from the makers of the engines of war, the precise moment has not yet arrived. Indeed, many of us are skeptical that it will. The social signs of the apocalypse have always been present: war, hunger, disease, and death ride us throughout every generation and harry our bodies and souls. For this reason, the image of the apocalypse has become almost a caricature of faith, a fantastic comic book that mocks the believer.
I would like to suggest that, despite its cultural and historical limitations, the whole idea of apocalypse is linked so closely to the concept of repentance and salvation that this caricature has undermined some important spiritual material for our health and growth. Nightmare material is filled with important messages for the sleeper and it is often nightmares that plague us until we resolve the obstacle to our development.
Two dreams that impeded my freedom to think and to understand myself as a child of God will probably seem simple and obvious to the reader, but they took me forty years to resolve into meaning. They constitute my own psychological apocalypse. The first nightmare would begin in the midst of a pleasant dream or a dream of running from pursuit, but it always had the same conclusion. I would be presented with a dead end, or in the pleasant dream, I would choose to ride up an escalator, shimmy up an opening in the floor; but by choice or by force, I would find myself heading up an opening which became smaller and smaller, squeezing my head and blinding me, then beginning to suffocate me, until I awoke in a great panic, heart pounding, sweating and scared. I would forget then about the dream, packing it away in the hope that it would never re-appear. I was also afraid to tell anyone the dream. If I tried, my heart would being to pound just as it had in the dream. I finally understood this to by my dream of birth, my unwilling and incomprehensible push into a world in which I have never felt I fit very well.
The second dream begins in great beauty. I am lying on a carpet of grass, or snow, looking up at the night-time sky that is full of stars and Northern Lights. I am so captured by the beauty that I long to rise up to soar amongst the lights in the sky. And I do! Eventually, I also realize that I am totally, irrevocably, eternally alone in the midst of what is a cold and alien beauty. From this terrible isolation, I also used to awaken screaming. I thought of this as my “death” dream, an ironic dream for one who so cherishes solitude. And so I lived the first four decades of my life avoiding the twin nightmares of birth and death, avoiding confronting the apocalypse, the terrifying revelation that would set me free to live.
The apocalypse of the heart is an event of cosmic significance. Each one of us participates in the whole and that whole can only be transformed by the actions of the individuals within it. We can act only as the Spirit stirs the whole to transform each of us in the midst of it. As in every time, there is a special way in which God is shaking the earth to bring about a new moment in our relationship, a new moment in salvation.
Apocalypse, like the second coming, is a process rather than an historical event; it is part of the fabric of our awareness in this creation. Apocalypse is the beach; the advent of the Risen Christ is the tide, ebbing and flowing with great power upon our shores. It never ends and it is never exactly the same, except in how it happens. Each time different artifacts are left upon the shore and different objects are swept out to sea. We can choose to be helpless in the face of this power; we can hide from it; we can drown in it. We can open ourselves to its power to bring new life, as well as to bring an end to some things; we can be participants or we can be bystanders, but the tide will flow regardless. The only way to live is to accept the salty ocean on our shores and to dig out the treasures that the tide has left behind.
I think that our hearts need to explode within us before we can negotiate the strand of ocean upon which we stand. We tend to think of this time as brief, but it is eternity and we are creating our eternity as we stand within it. The heart cannot explode into spiritual consciousness until it is touched by the divine. Often that touch can be felt only in our pain, the kind of pain that is profound and feels like death and isolation. Grief, personal rejection, persecution, terror, assault — all these strong feelings and experiences have the power to break through the artificial shell of our own consciousness, to force us to feel the existential truth of our existence. We are alone and no one can truly be present with us. Our modern method for dealing with despair is to medicate the suffering. We do not want to experience the only thing that can bring us freedom from the prison; many of us never find the doorway. The first step, then, on the spiritual journey is to know with every fibre of our being that this is it, this consciousness, this isolation, this aloneness is reality. I think of this as the moment before creation when the divine aches with loneliness that cannot be resolved without the concept of birth.
This solitary suffering yields to a de-centring of the universe in a curious way. Once one understands oneself to be alone and allows oneself to feel this deep sorrow, it becomes necessary to look around and become aware of the isolated consciousness of all that lives and breathes, at least as far as humans go, to stand with God in the moment before love. Perhaps other creatures have a different sense, but few other creatures can tolerate or survive isolation either. Once one realizes that this ultimate loneliness is the condition of birth into the world, this “Me” is as isolated and lonely as every other “me;” this experience is the constant universal. At that point, compassion becomes a possibility; empathy becomes an experience, not an ethical or sentimental choice. On the cross, Jesus says, “They do not know what they are doing.” At the grave of Lazarus, Jesus weeps even though he has the power to change the situation. Why does he weep? Because this is the human condition; it is the purpose of his existence to bridge the divine and human loneliness in a moment of flesh and fear and isolation and death.
Until we experience this terrible knowing, we cannot allow God to penetrate our hearts; it is at this moment of crucifixion in our souls, that moment when we know that neither our intellects nor our will can save us, that the divine can break open the tombs that have been the false hopes of our hearts, the prison of our egos. Our rush to heal others, to protect others from this moment is a desperate effort to prove that there is meaning, there is a way out of this trap. If we can prevent this terrible experience for others, then maybe somehow there will be a way for us too. Maybe someone can save us. And so we try to raise Lazarus. But was Lazarus grateful? Did he want to be pulled back into life only to re-experience death at a later date? The moment of compassionate involvement with the world is ultimately a selfish but loving desire to re-make the world to exclude this experience; thus, the author does not leave Jesus to his tears, but has him raise Lazarus.
For our compassion to be freeing rather than another escape plan, we need to learn how to be the recipients of care. For Christians, I believe that this can come only through a profound sense of being ultimately forgiven — of being forgiven that we are human, fragile, limited in knowledge, physically too weak to save ourselves from death and psychic pain. We need to be forgiven for not being God but the creature of God. We thought we were supposed to be something else, yet we discover how little we can do; we discover that the power we do have can be destructive, regardless of our intentions. We discover that our efforts have limits to their benefits. We are not God.
Yet we are God. That is the paradox of the gift of the explusion from Eden. Like God, we have self-awareness and the power to choose not merely out of instinct or even emotion, but out of a synthesis of feeling, spirit, intellect, and will. Like God, we know the terrible anomie of isolation; like God, we ache for another who will understand and love us. Jesus’ life reminds us that we are called as a species to be a bridge, a creature that loves the clay into which it curls its feet, loves it so much in fact that we hate to leave it. We are also a creature that has a built in sense of destiny, of relationship and experience of all that is more than the gift of our glorious senses. We are little, yet we have acquired great power over life and death; we are powerful, yet we do not actually understand the Great Life with which we tinker. The mystery eludes the grasp of our technological minds.
To live our lives with both joy and serenity means that we must experience this internal apocalypse in which God both breaks into our lives and then seems to abandon us to the stars. We must experience the labour pains that are the sign of the birth of a new self, a self that will shiver in the cold, initially, until we are claimed by delight and warmth. It is the point at which we are able to accept our limits, to know the truth of the stars and the inevitability of the clay, that our compassion first for the love and the isolation of God, then for the creatures of God, allows the riders to sweep through, cleansing us of fear and doubt. We need to wear spiritual bifocals in which we see what is close with clarity, knowing that it is ephemeral and our efforts are broken, beautiful and necessary shells on the shore. But we have distance lenses too; the length of our sight is our home within the heart of God, a home that is not fixed in either the joys or the sorrows of the present, but participates in a cosmic relationship with that which IS.
This passionate detachment frees us to love ourselves and others in the moment, as well as to work against all that is destructive within the creation. At the same time, we are freed for the long view that minimizes our own importance beyond this moment, this event, this interchange. It is the paradox that every moment is limited in time, yet every moment exists forever. Like an indestructible necklace, we loop on a bead with every breath, every action, every word. Each bead is eternal and precious, but each is only one bead, one piece of a much larger design. How will we adorn the Holy One?
Finally, back to my dreams. One of the things I learned from these dreams was how reluctant I was to let things be, to rest, to wait patiently. One of the reasons they tormented me for so long was that I could not accept them or myself. I had to be busy running or pushing; I could not allow anyone else to help me nor could I stop to see another way, to see beyond. I could not see myself being born into light and hope. I could not relinquish my terror of birth into this body, or birth that will one day deliver me from this body. I could not trust God enough to allow for even suffering to have meaning. The freedom that I craved was the freedom of the Sabbath, but until I stopped working and striving, until I learned to prepare my heart for adoration and mystery, I could not be comforted; there was never time within my urgency.
This moment is the most important of my life and I want to live it with as much passion and integrity as I can. This moment is already passing into God’s mind and I must let it go, knowing that its resolution and its gift are held within the mind of God. I am alone and yet I am never lost to God. I must treasure every moment and yet I must treat them all as part of history. I am called to strive for justice and compassion, and I can do nothing. I must work hard and I must simply be in order to love the One who makes me and unmakes me moment by moment, within time and despite it. I am a grain of sand and yet without me, there would be no beach. I am every grain of sand; yet I am isolated in my life. God is coming now, this moment, and the next one too. God’s signs and portents are here, and they are then. In the mind of God, the adornment has been completed and yet it is in progress. I am being born and yet I live; I am dying to be born. Blessed be God, in truth and beauty and wholeness, forever and for now.
Questions for Reflection
1. How do you understand your own birth and death?
2. How has God’s revelation of salvation come to you?
3. What does salvation mean for you?
4. What apocalypse is coming in your life?
 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. The Book of Revelation, published by Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988, p. 138.
(“Apocalypse of the Heart,” Salted with Fire: Radical Healing for an Apocalyptic Age, artemis enterprise © 1996, pp. 110-115.)