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Day 31

I was raised in an apocalyptic religion, I suppose you could say.

The world is ending, my mother told me. Not now, but soon. Wickedness will increase as will “wars and rumors of wars.” I was little, and knew nothing of wickedness. But I did know that it was bad to smoke, so I imagined that when Jesus returned, I would have to wade through at least a small sea of cigarette butts to meet him. It was ridiculous, but visualizing the physical accumulation of evil was necessary for me to understand the earth's deserving of destruction.

It's not clear whether Jesus actually cared about the apocalypse. John the Baptist certainly did, and so did the early Christians. But many scholars believe that Jesus preached “the kingdom of God” as a spiritual realm that already exists- a subversive world in which the poor are rich and the sinners are loved as wholly as the saints. This world, hardly perceptible, had to be brought into being by the most devoted of disciples. But these very disciples Jesus chose quickly began to translate this kingdom materially, as an actual reign that God would bring back at the end of apocalyptic era.

The world will end- eventually. This is important to imagine, that not only humans have deaths, but planets and species. Whether the personal or global blackness comes first, it’s always and forever coming. Now, tomorrow, in a century. The end is born into our bones, like destruction quivers in the belly of the earth. The message of the apocalypse is something like: be grateful and stay awake until the blackness sets you free.

It’s November, and the ecstatics of a color-mad fall have whimpered into burlap brown, rust-red, sage-green.

I sit on the porch and think: The world is fading slowly.

This phrase is bigger than autumn, I realize; it covers the panorama of human activity. Before the flames (of destruction), the fade (of awareness).

Marx said that "religion is the opium of the masses." A brilliant phrase: pithy and often true. But in its purest forms, religion is not opium, but a quickening of inner and outer reality. Inner landscapes diversify and multiply, the outer world richens with awareness, and injustices become clearer as distortions of divine order. Even ascetic practices (fasting, sexual abstinence, etc.) only exist in order to exaggerate the value of the flesh. Fasting teaches us to love food without partaking of it, a glimpse into the spiritual world where there is gratitude and no necessity. Abstaining from sex allows sensuality to spill into the nooks and crannies of the ordinary world, and not just reside in the bodies of those we crave. In its truest forms, the religious life magnifies and more-ifies the world without shirking from the holy ordinary.

Perhaps today Marx could rightly claim that "distraction is the opium of the masses." Social media. Smartphones. Screens.

I sound much older than I am, but I have already seen the changes. Social media photos are brighter and sharper than real life. Like the imaginings of ancient Christians who postponed joy for the promise of an immaterial heaven, we moderns trade mundane reality (which nevertheless vibrates with innate meaning) for the empty heart of non-reality (outwardly stimulating, but inwardly cold). Images, images, images, and not a single body to orbit our shared space, not a single pair of present eyes.

The fade: the nearly imperceptible softening of our moral and sensual sensibilities, the gradual graying of materiality, even as the imaginary entrances us with promises of more colorful life. Our "ordinarys" are too much for us: we cannot face the beauty with bravery, so we flee to screens. The screens don't petition for attention, the screens penalize focus, softening the boredom and imperfections of a person or a thing until the person or the thing disappears entirely, replaced by a comforting abstraction, a non-reality.

The "apocalypse" is nothing but the inevitable death of all living things: a truth so simple that if we let it live beside us, it could radically save our lives. To know that the creation of the universe hinges on such small acts of biological mercy, that our own existence is nearly impossibly true, that our ends are perpetually being delayed by sheer force of God's will, to know that one day His will will weaken and so will we: this is what it means to be saved from the fade, to live always on the edge of the flames.


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