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Coming Down to Earth: Sanctuary as Spiritual Companionship in a Time of Hopelessness and Climate Chaos

Coming Down to Earth:

Sanctuary as Spiritual Companionship in a Time of Hopelessness and Climate Chaos

FOR SPIRITUAL DIRECTORS INTERNATIONAL (SDI)

Bayo Akomolafe, Ph.D.

 

In this multi-form essay, Bayo Akomolafe weaves together a different understanding of spirituality and the sacred, one he suspects is vital if we are to collectively meet the challenges posed by the Anthropocene. Thinking through the ethics of the ‘relocated god of the Anthropocene’ compels us to reframe our relationships with the planet, and invites another sense of what the familiar practice of spiritual companionship could be about. Bayo’s thesis of the ‘sanctuary’ situates an interdisciplinary, decolonial gesture towards repositioning ourselves in a milieu of collapse. In the first part of the essay, Akomolafe sets the stage with an analysis of negative theology, the mystical traditions of apophasis, and how these reconfigure climate science and the Anthropocene. In the second part, Akomolafe dives into the implications of this treatment of the “world as imbued with god” for spiritual companionship and submits a manuduction in form of a strategy for ‘sanctuary’.

 

[PART ONE: FUGITIVITY]

 

“What if my greatest disappointments, or the aching of this life, is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?”

Laura Story

God with us?

There’s something strangely sacred about discontent. The itch that pines for a soothing balm. The broken heart that mourns a lost love. Lilith refusing the lordship of Adam. The sharp and stunted breaths of the runaway slave escaping through the plantation fields in the dead of night, his torn shirt and scarred back shocked by the wind. A bespectacled woman refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The fist of a political prisoner pointed skyward in ruthless hope.

In discontent, we meet the intriguing premise that home could be different than it is at the moment, and that reality is not as resolute or as stable as it appears. We are confronted with a crack in the wall of the familiar, a longing with no traceable lineage, a homesickness with neither medicine nor map, a memory of a place we do not know how to name, a feeling that “god”[1] is captivatingly close by. Indeed, the ineffable quality we rudely call “god” may not be disconnected from those evolutionary moments and opportune kairos events when something traversal – a glimpse of exploding stars in the skies above, the howling of wolves at just the right moment, the consciousness shifting alchemy of a few tasted mushrooms – pierced through the membranes of the habitual, and undid reality as it had been experienced. ‘God’ must be the way reality overwhelms itself; the messianic rift that tears open new dimensions of the ordinary, reintroducing it to itself; the disturbance that never permits the world to cool off absolutely into one thing or the other. The promiscuity of things.

So, if you tilted your head to the side as you looked really close, you might notice that the massive surge in protests and strikes against the status quo of corrupt politicians, climate catatonia, and rising costs of living over the last few months (September – November 2019), which swept through the streets of Hong Kong, Barcelona, Quito, Beirut, Santiago, London, and in up to 5000 locations in more than a hundred countries, were not just political and socio-economic events, but theological events. When you really consider it, it’s not a shocking hypothesis to think that the planetary upheavals engulfing the modern world right now tug on our metaphysics of the sacred, our ideas about what it means to be human, what a beautiful life might consist of, and what is worth striving for. Every burning flag, hurled Molotov cocktail, painted face, rubber bullet, swollen cry, upraised fist, bandana-shrouded head, and broken thigh bone (where police batons had struck) were items in collective sacraments for change. Prophecies for a more beautiful world.

Of the many protests that have taken place since September 2019, the Global Climate Strike (September 20-27) or Global Week for Future gained significant publicity – due in no small part to the influential activism of teenager Greta Thunberg. Between 6 million and 8 million people took to the streets demanding that their voices be heard in the gilded hallways of power. For a while the temples of power and their beleaguered priests were harangued by an angry mob insisting on an end to global warming. Analysts declared the strikes a success given the large numbers of people that participated.

But “success” is often a Trojan horse masking the continuity and deepening intelligence of the allegedly vanquished. Very often systems of oppression endorse their own critique, making room for dissent, so long as this is contained within the architecture of its preferred reality. Said another way, we will often reinforce the very dynamics we are trying to defeat with our opposition.

What do the protestors and the protested share? A loss of the miraculous[2], a notion of the paucity of power. Modernity, still traumatized by the loss of the sacred, is a theology of scarcity. It is the metaphysics of the exiled anthropomorphic god whose regime of indulgences the Enlightenment outlawed. Because modernity centralizes rationality/human experience, and instrumentalizes the nonhuman world as resource for human ends (that is, refusing to see the nonhuman world as powerful on its own terms), power and enchantment are always in short supply relative to deepening demand. One has to make a great effort to leave the homogenizing lull of suburbia for some distant, exotic location in order to feel alive, for instance. As the deadening rationality of modern civilization spreads, and as its circumference expands, the intimate magic of a relational world becomes even more contraband and expensive, reduced to a ‘high’ on a street corner.

And so it is hardly surprising that the very architecture of contemporary protests locates power at a distance, only to be bridged with millions of bodies in line, stentorian voices and great organizational effort with funding. Power is precious commodity. One must crank the alchemy of a multitude, one must scale up, one must build high towers, and one must speak the loudest in order to be felt, seen, and heard above the din of modern sleep. The ratio of millions of people to a few legislators and corporate lords is the equation at the heart of a machine that thinks with categories and generates scarcity. It is like engineering the energy of a constellation to suck out a drop of water from Dante’s hell. Is power so uncommon that our exhausted institutions, few and far between, are the only sites we can congregate at? Isn’t the material world (the one we in our hubris seek to save) infused with agency, power, longing and electrifying possibility – which the Yoruba people of West Africa that are observant of the Ifá nature religion call ‘asé’, a matrixial web of change that enlists human and nonhuman bodies in the co-production of reality? Cannot the world speak for itself?

To these questions, the emphatic response of modernity is no. Modernity has no room for the sacred; its logic is the extirpation of all influences that challenge the centrality of the ‘Man’. Even its imagination and performance of climate justice (often articulated as the effort to “defeat climate change”) is firmly anchored to the hope of colonial settlements: the dream of endless anthropocentric continuity, the yearning for permanence, the longing for suzerainty above the natural realm.

Concomitantly the god that is monumentalized by contemporary protests (like September’s) and the institutions protested against is too limited, too shrivelled up to hold the weight of the yearning of this moment. In short, god is not with us – and yet, as I will argue, it is a sense of the sacredness of all things (a sense that god is indeed with us!) that we need to meet the challenge of these restive times. The legacies of extractive capitalism, white supremacy, chattel slavery, racism, imperialism, ecocide and apartheid are inextricably entangled with the rational order left in the wake of a theology of separation. We must now ‘return’ to the sacred – but this ‘returning’ is not a simple recall of an original or a doubling down on the disturbing constructions of messianism that rendered god as an anthropomorphic figure awaiting the chosen and the holy at the end of history. We cannot return to a former sense of things. One must seek out a different sense of the sacred, a different understanding of what it means for god to be with us. And in this sense, we must rethink who we are.

 

Seeking solutions, becoming fugitive

We also have a tendency to root for the fugitive. We’re always on the side of the animal being chased.

Norman Jewison

At the turn of the millennium, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that human activity had grown so detrimental to the earth’s ecological systems that it could be said we are now living in a new geological epoch altogether. They named this new epoch the Anthropocene, an age christened after ‘Man’ and his outsized toxic influence on the planet.

The Holocene, the epoch the Anthropocene is believed to have replaced, and presently the official name (recognized by the stratigraphic authorities) for the slice of time we inhabit, began after the Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago. Proponents arguing for a change in name insist that the term Holocene does not tell an adequate story about the ontological weight of ‘Man’ on the planet. Only a few months ago, in May 2019, a small committee of 34 scientists voted to submit the proposal for the new name of the Anthropocene to the International Commission on Stratigraphy. As early as 2021, the name could become the official designation for our era. For those sympathetic to the conceptual clarity offered by Crutzen’s and Stoermer’s term, the term’s acceptance couldn’t come sooner: its wider acceptance would underscore the ecological dangers haunting the familiar. To these ones, we are no longer living in the post-glacial world that freed itself from its frigid incarceration to the elements, and which offered the right conditions for the flourishing of human settlements, language, culture, an understanding of time as progress, and the conceptual tools with which we have colonized the planet. Industrial societies, with their legacies of expansionism, extractivism and extermination, have since produced the steam engine, agricultural monocultures, skyrocketing pollution levels, and the atomic bomb. And now, we’ve spent all the goodwill we once had. We’ve outlived our welcome.

Today, climate scientists tell us that the planet is heating up faster than at measures recorded in pre-industrial societies – thanks to greenhouse gases that have the effect of trapping the sun’s heat on the planet instead of allowing them to continue their fluid migrations into space. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (one of the greenhouse gases implicated in global warming) has already exceeded 415 ppm (parts per million) –which is to say that in every 1 million molecules of gas, there are 415 molecules of carbon. This may not seem like a threatening figure, but the modesty of the statistic obscures the geological reality it represents. Scientists tell us the last time we experienced such high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is…well, never. Humans have never lived on such a warm planet. The sea levels were 50-60 feet higher, ice sheets didn’t exist, and wildfires were more frequent. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve pumped out billions of tons of emitted carbon dioxide, and steadily created a radical world that now seems more and more inconvenient. Current reports paint a picture of doom and gloom if we continue to do next to nothing to reduce carbon emissions and suck away the carbon already in the atmosphere.

In response to these troubles, a global movement has emerged to demand climate justice. Millions of concerned people are acting to stop the crisis. Silicon Valley techno-geeks insist we must invest primarily in developing smart technologies that could help us transition from fossil fuel-dependency to eco-friendly energy sources. A proliferation of speculative technologies (like BECCS: Bio-energy and Carbon Capture with Storage) has offered us climate solutions that propose to suck out carbon from the atmosphere, sequester said carbon, and then convert it into resources. Beyond carbon capture technologies, solar management techniques have come to the table – a table graced by heads of states, intergovernmental organizations, activists, scientists and deep-pocket technocrats.

Together with the stentorian voices of a few million, these polished arenas of solution-seeking make up a techno-bureaucratic, world-building machine whose most eminent product is ‘hope’, whose desire is justice, and whose morbid fear is the fugitivity that comes with being made homeless while at home. The year 2030, a new ‘deadline’ of sorts set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), now glows with a radioactive charm. It is the future we’re determined to enter unspoiled, the finish line that coaxes us into revving up our engines with reddened eyes. Our hopes for human permanence and the solutions that guarantee it are calibrated to this new timeline.

The problem with hope, however, is that it often filters away voices we need to listen to, realities we need to contend with, and valleys we need to pass through. Hope, when fetishized, often dismisses the gift of hopelessness, the place of surrender and deep humility: the point of descent where we come down to earth. Like justice, this instrumentalist hope can get in the way of emergent transformation.

The materiality of the hope that we are co-producing is specifically an assemblage of colonial impulses and concepts: I refer, for instance, to a temporality that believes time to be a linear track that flows from past to future – the same imperialistic understanding that imprisoned non-western, indigenous cultures to second-tier, third-tier societies behind the lodestar of western civilization; I write of the story of separation that treats humans as essentially exceptional, divorced from their environments, isolated in their selfhood, masters over the material realm; I write of the sociology of the social that crowns humans with agency, vitality, and movement, in contrast with the dead, mute and blind realm of the natural world.

This assemblage of concepts, ideas, practices, ideologies, gestures, bodies and meanings is the earth-curdling, world-worlding machine that offers solutions to the climate crisis. Even the term ‘Anthropocene’ is controversial in its readiness to lump all human communities together as if each is equally responsible for industrial-level pollutions. As if the word ‘human’ is a self-evident category that is not already simmering with tensions, elisions, disputations and troubling departures. It constructs action as a matter of future orientation, failing to notice its past legacies of extermination and the ghastly bodies of those that have subsidized the project of modernity. And then, to render the matter of climate collapse and ecological destruction intelligible to contemporary sense-making apparatuses, it seeks to squeeze the ‘Anthropocene’ into an operational framework of achievable goals, prompts and objectives: turn off your light bulbs, go vegan, fly less, fund a local NGO, protest capitalism, pass the Green New Deal. Not that these actions do not matter. They probably matter a great deal. However we can think in two registers at once: we can notice that these gestures are crucial, and we can notice at the same time that on a planetary scale the very notion of ‘Man’ (that is, not just the isolated figure of Man but the entangling conditions that make Man possible) is being called into question by ‘something’ greater than ourselves. Something incalculable and unnameable. Something that exceeds frameworks. Something that resists solutions. Something that traverses time and space, enlisting the present-future-past in its shocking prosecution of the phenomenon of Man.

The problem of the Anthropocene is not clear, the boundaries not well delineated. It means nothing and it means everything: it exceeds the categorical concerns of survival and perpetuity, of longevity and adaptability. This lack of clarity is not a testament to the inadequacies of our measuring devices. We are not dealing with a want of methods or confidence. We are dealing with the corrosive incertitude and indeterminacy of collapse. We are dealing with the earthliness of measurement and the fragility of our sense-making approaches. This is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship – something we can resist with masculine fervour. Something we can defeat if we tried hard enough.

From the phantom mutations of estuarine dinoflagellates pfiesteria piscicida, the potential thawing of permafrost that threaten the release of ancient super/zombie viruses, and the sudden alchemy of trinitite born in the nuclear explosion at Alamogordo (at the Trinity testing site, July 16, 1945; 5:29am), to the African migratory crises that continue to trouble the sovereign borders of Europe, the xenophobic tensions occasioned by loss and a poverty of imagination, and the worrying consolidation of power and resources in increasingly smaller elite groups of companies and nationalistic/fascistic agencies, the Anthropocene defies convenient intelligibility. To reduce today’s urgent events to carbon emissions would be to overlook the conditions that made those emissions possible. To rush towards a bureaucratically appointed deadline would be to forget that we’ve been here before, many times before: there are a billion black Anthropocenes and a billion more moments when the white epistemologies of arrival have broken bones and ended worlds. The squishy footfalls of 11 million mothers and fathers and toddlers boarding slave ships by West African coasts still reverberate across spacetime; they are not past or done with. Those worlds ended, much like Chinua Achebe’s tragic fictional indigenous hero of colonial interruptions, Okonkwo (in the premier African novel, ‘Things Fall Apart’), who found himself a fugitive in the belly of his own motherland. He would later hang himself by the umbilical cord, dangling in mid-air, suffocated by the very instruments that gifted him life, yams, wives and a home.[3]

In a sense, like Okonkwo, the Anthropocene means we are all fugitives. Or at least those of us gestating in modern worlds who have been touched by the material yearnings for stability and progress. We are being chased. The relentless curdling of the edges, the splashing of threatening ocean waves, the dimming of the sun by the dust in the air, and the disappearance of bees, all conspire to remove the post-Ice Age refuge we have long known as home. The ground has withdrawn her endorsement: we are no longer at ease.

We now live in fugitive times, and fugitive times require fugitive epistemologies, or ways of knowing. Deploying the settler epistemologies that contributed to the geo-ecological hostilities of the present risks reinforcing the dynamics we want to address. The promise of fugitivity, as we shall see, is that in a sense it helps resacralize the world, ministering to our weary bones by drawing ‘god’ closer – so intimately close, in fact, that we lose some of the categorical independence modernity burdened us with.

One might say fugitivity is the theology of incalculability and hopelessness. The fugitive rejects the promise of repair and refuses the hope of the established order. By clinging to outlawed desires, barely perceptible imaginations, alien gestures, the fugitive inhabits the moving wilds. S/he lives in open spaces, with rogue planets and stars astride a curious sky, in the tense betweenness of things. God, surprisingly in love  with the fugitive, often meets the fugitive in that space between stories to break him open, to show him a burning bush, to rename him, to gobble him up with mouth as wide as a whale’s, and then perhaps to spit him out again. Fugitivity is the site of hopelessness, of so-called defeat, of modest bearings and whispered songs. For citizens of the Anthropocene, who must meet the incomprehensibility of the moment, the fugitive’s path glows in the dark. There, where the path in the call to defeat leads, we might come face to face with something deeper than solutions. Something too sacred for words to embrace.

 

Hathor and the Call of ‘Rememberment’ 

Growing up a hybrid son of the African continent and the West meant I was often caught between worlds, never quite at home in the molten middle. The snow-covered landscapes of Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, televised from fantastical lands abroad, often left me wondering why it didn’t snow in the tropics. Why Santa Claus didn’t fill up our stockings with treats on Christmas morning. Europe and America became for me the lands of dreams. Alien, but intimately close to my heart. And because I spent my years growing up in the phantasmagorical arcades of the televised West, educated into the Eurocentric aspirations of a young African nation-state, and divorced from my own language, my own contexts seemed just as strange. For instance, why did my father and his friends pour libations to the ground? Why waste a perfectly good cup of wine?

There’s a story about libations that comes from ancient Kemet, now Egypt. This story has travelled with many peoples, and has lived in the bones of many families, becoming part of the treasures and cultural technologies of those stitched by the continent of Africa.

In this story, the god Ra appears as an old dishevelled drunkard, drooling by the side of the road, singing songs no one wants to listen to. Because Ra had degraded himself so thoroughly, people would often wander by and make fun of him – mocking his appearance, his forest of a beard, his slurred speech, his wasted divinity. One day, Ra, coming to his senses, flies back to the heavens. He is incensed, embarrassed, and vengeful. He calls upon his daughter (who also happens to be his wife and his mother), Hathor, to avenge him: “Go down there. Leave no stone unturned. Destroy all of mankind.” Ra’s will is Hathor’s pleasure, and she flies off to do his bidding. She arrives – and what an arriving! – and begins to lay waste to human settlements. No day fades into night without the ripping of flesh, the cracking of bones, and the creation of puddles of blood, which Hathor, goddess of rage, would then drink from as the sun sets.

For months, without fail, Hathor continues on her anthropophagic mission, destroying homes, communities, cities in her righteous plunder. The children of men would eventually pray, and when their entreaties touch the heavens, even Ra’s heart begins to soften. The Sun god recalls his daughter, but she is adamant. She cannot stop. Her original instructions were clear. Ra fears he cannot undo what he has already done, and calls the revenant communities of humans to a council meeting. There, both sides undone, god and flesh despairing in their not-knowing, a suggestion floats to the centre of the room: an idea. Someone stands and says: “Well, how about this? Ra ordered Hathor to destroy Man; what if we stopped being Man?” A countering question browbeats the nebulous proposal: “Just how do we do this?” Another voice, excited, offers a way: “Ah! A trick! We must trick Hathor into forgetting us. We must change our bodies so much that our blood becomes wine!” The day ends with a huddle and a plan.

As the sun rises the next day, it glistens over fresh of puddles of red fluid that now litters the streets of the country. Hathor arrives for the day’s work, notices the puddles, and is confused: how did she forget to drink this one up? And that one? And that one over there? Angry with herself, she rushes to the task and drinks the wine the people had spilled overnight. Before she gets too far, she becomes drunk herself and wanders off into oblivion. The people institute an ordinance: to never forget. To never let the memory of the crisis, the trickery at the heart of creation and perpetuity, slip by. To keep pouring libations to the earth.

This Hathorian call to remember is also the call to re-member (or reshape oneself). I use the word ‘rememberment’ to complicate the idea of memory. Rememberment is memory as anticipation, anticipation as fugitivity, and fugitivity as corporeal reconfiguration. But there will be more on re/memberment later.

The story of libations (known in Egyptology as the “Destruction of Mankind” and the “Deliverance of Mankind”) is the story of people losing their homes, becoming homeless, failing at addressing a crisis because the way they responded to the crisis was part of what occasioned the crisis. Reading this folktale through the climate issues of the day suggests to us that our best efforts may not be enough. But most importantly, it begins with a coherent god, proceeds with an exiled god, and ‘ends’ with a rehabilitated/diffracted god that is now intimate with creation, partaking in their humbling non-knowing.

What we rudely call “climate change” has a theological element to it that bears repeating. The dilemmas of today have emerged from a context that learned to see the sacred as distant, useless and backward. In desacralizing the world, the post/modern centralizes mankind. This anthropocentricity has material consequences. In seeing ourselves as independent, essential, whole, removed, distant, complete, sovereign and in control, we neglect the world that grants us our bodies. We fail to decorate the porosity and ongoing transcorporeality (a term by philosopher, Stacy Alaimo) that means we actually live through manifold bodies. We shut off the ecological intelligences and senses that might reframe our problems in surprising new ways. We deaden ourselves to the miraculous, to the gift of the cosmos, to the ecstasy that interpenetrates all things.

In climate chaos, we face a ‘Hathor’. Like the Anthropocene, she is unthinkable, incalculable: there is something unspeakable, unapproachable, and incalculable about climate crisis. This unspeakability is not hyperbole.[4]

This unspeakability is God in the details. The devil in the works. The texture of material involutions and molecular transgressions. Queering the idea that climate change is something suitably discrete – reducible either to carbon emissions or the spectre of adverse weathering patterns outside conference rooms or even trade negotiations that leave corporations with undue power over communities and the commons (as some insist). Hathor allows us tell a story that reframes “climate change” as a theo-geo-political moment – a time when the tentacularity of conservatively coherent bodies are more noticeable. A time of falling apart that is as much the world’s insurgency and resistance of human centrality as it is the ongoingness and contingency of god.

Hathor reminds us our prayers will not ‘do’; our self-reflexive practices and conscientious rituals in holiness will not do. Again, not that these aren’t important. Not that it is not possible to create a chemical agent that eats plastic items at the bottom of polluted rivers. Not that flying less and meditating more aren’t important. But that responsivity to this Hathorian black hole in the middle of the sky, this beacon of hopelessness, is not human in scope. Decoloniality enlists much more than humans, much more than shiny futures, much more than solutions in its swirling mass.

The coming down to earth that needs to happen now is not just a rigorous rejection of absolute centrality, not just the humiliation of Man, but the humiliation of god. The splintered divine. A coming down that sings “god is with us” in a way that makes the singer the sung and the sung, the singer.

 

The apophatic and the relocated god of the Anthropocene

My ultimate purpose is to show how thinking harder or working faster most likely reinforces the crises we are trying to evade. And that even ‘solutions’ might keep us in the trouble we want to nullify. And that in dwelling with the unspeakability of these times, however under-appreciated this might be in the current scheme of things, very important work is happening. It is the work of decorating the splintered divine and tending to the wounds arising from an unexpected explosion of the once distant Sacred. Tending to these wounds is not the work of closing them up. It is the work of keeping them open, tearing and eating the flesh of god – as Èsù, the Yoruba trickster, ate his own mother up. I link this perverse cannibalism and carnality to the practice of ‘spiritual companionship’, rethinking the practice from within.

I have written that the Anthropocene defies intelligibility, calling on a different way of knowing altogether. A sitting with non-knowing. What this time desires is a way of knowing that recognizes our complicated entanglements with our environments – however, as I have stressed earlier, the consequences for this move have effects on how we understand the sacred. If the sacred were far away, we will abuse the nearby. If the sacred were in the future, we will discountenance the present, spit on the elderly, and steel ourselves against dying as if it were a pathology. If the sacred were hidden in the inner worlds of our minds, we will think of the material world as an obstacle in the way of our promised transfigurations. To think ‘god with us’ is to come to a place where we are undone, where god is not some pristine figure already coherent and transcendent above spacetime but a Becoming with no circumference and no centre. God as both intriguing possibility and intimate impossibility.

Theologian Catherine Keller writes about 15th century German philosopher and mystic Nicolaus Cusanus, whose acentric universe predated Galileo and Copernicus. Nicolaus Cusanus is more readily recognized for his doctrine of docta ignorantia, a learned ignorance, a rigorous non-knowing through which god is glimpsed – but more on this later. His contributions to negative theology blasted open new ways of thinking about ‘god with us’.

Cusanus embraced a mystical negative theology that preferred to see god as shrouded in blinding darkness. One does not approach god with a basket full of cognitive elements. The mystical tradition of apophasis emerged as a strategy of meeting god by loosening ourselves from our addiction to making propositions about god. The idea is that ‘god’ is so beyond the impoverished frameworks of mortal conceptualization, so beyond language, so beyond any saying at all, so beyond the hubris of propositional truths, that to speak of ‘god’ is to muddy the waters of appreciation.  In contrast with the kataphatic traditions, apophasis (literally meaning “a saying away”) stresses a god beyond the confines of language. In saying away, we lose gravity, we float, until we arrive at the luminescent darkness of divine nothingness.

The problem with apophatic mysticism, however, was that it inhabited an Aristotelian cosmos that presumed the distance of god and the inferiority of the material world. God was outside the universe, external to it, separate from it – and so apophatic retreat resembled a hierarchy of pompous silence, with each successive layer a dismissal of the previous. Cusanus disappointed this system by rethinking god as immanent in creation – not entirely outside and not fully in, a lightening trace flashing in the sky, electrifying the entire broth but not reducible to the ingredients within the petri dish. For Cusanus, god is infinite, incarnated in you, me, chairs, phones, and ideas like neoliberalism: a trans-carnation or intra-carnation. God in us, god with us, us in god, us with god, us in us. Catherine Keller puts this new structure to work in her concept of apophatic entanglement, a meeting of the spiritual and the ordinary, cloud and crowd, a coming down to earth but also a sublimation of the material world to the fineness of the divine.

The striking image of coming down to earth is duplicitous. On the one hand, perhaps the most obvious sense of the phrase is a fall from ‘grace’ – a surrendering to the elements. Uttered within the milieu of climate collapse, “coming down to earth” might mean a planetary humiliation. Waking up to reality from a daydream. Facing the spectacle of empty oil fields and fossil fuels too deep to justify the costs of their extraction. Realizing that ice sheets meant to melt by 2070 are already disappearing in 2019.[5] Grasping the weight of the reports that suggest human civilization could ‘end’ or be irreparably damaged by the year 2050. Touching our own mortality as we realize our ancient quests for permanence and longevity helped shape, ironically, a planet inhospitable to our unexamined survival.

There’s a messianic sense in which a coming down to earth might be imagined as well. A return. A figure hoisted in the sky, garlanded by twirling clouds and an eager and righteous army. The stuff of my teenage dreams: the Christ calling for the saints to join him in mid-air. The Second Coming. The Kingdom of god in ecstatic disclosure.

When I write about coming down to earth, both senses are implied. They meet each other without the one being reduced to the other. Something akin to a meeting of opposites. Coincidentia oppositorum. The Fall and the Arrival. The Rupture and the Rapture. The Crowd and the Cloud. Being beaten by Facts and beholding Mystery. Where they touch, something happens: a new cosmology jumps into consideration. Something different is signalled. Coming down to earth comes to mean not a fall from grace, or the otherworldly invading the this-worldly from its independent domain, but the sacred and the ordinary becoming entangled. Not a Turn or a Return, but a re/turn: a reframing of everything.

This is the sense in which I write about coming down to earth. To point out that our times of climate crisis are so pervasive in their effects that they undo the antique Aristotelian-Newtonian universe we once inhabited: the one where humans were the centre of the social world, poised in their separability above the material world, just one measly rung below the pure transcendent sacred that exists outside of language, culture and experience. This world of convenient delineations is unfastened. Everything is falling apart. The old pillars that taught us our place in the grand scheme of things are crumbling to dust. Even the gods have not escaped the cataclysms of these days. Their bodies have fallen among the ruins. Better yet, they are incarnated in lowly places. In all places. A pan-carnation. An inter-carnation. The ultimate is now penultimate. Every ordinary surface now shimmers with the hint of the sacred, just as Cusanus imagined it. Every object is now porous, infected with mystery, wounded out of its modern incarceration and enlisted in a dance that connects each to each and all to all.

God couldn’t be any closer in this arrangement. Apophatic entanglement resacralizes everything, even contradictions. It brings the matters of boiling seas and permafrost and thermohaline circulation to the consideration of the sacred. It imbues facts and those who claim to wield them with the humility often reserved for mystery.

 

[PART TWO: SANCTUARY]

 

“…when we listen to music, we must refuse the idea that music happens only when the musician enters and picks up an instrument; music is also the anticipation of the performance and the noises of appreciation it generates and the speaking that happens through and around it, making it and loving it, being in it while listening.”

  • Jack Halberstam

 

The parable of the crowded room: revisiting spiritual companionship

The spiritual director opens her eyes to the sound of a knock on her door. Three polite taps followed by the squeezing of the door handle and the creaking sound of the door opening. She knows who comes. It’s too late to say it now, but she says it anyway, smiling as she does: “Come in, Halima.” Halima is her companion; she comes once or twice every two weeks – for two hours. Four months back, she had met Halima in a bar in Downtown Richmond. Halima, twenty-something year old daughter of Somalian immigrants, had all these questions about what the purpose of her life was, her relationship with god, and how she could heal from the brokenness and pain of being a child of displacements in the age of Trump. Halima was serving the drinks. The look in her eyes suggested she needed service of her own, someone to minister to her. When the drinking symposium had dispersed, she sat with Halima. The young Somalian-American spoke about feeling strange, about harbouring monsters who stood in the way of getting home. Halima cried then, surprised at herself for letting herself “go” in front of a stranger. “Maybe I am not that much of a stranger,” she told Halima. “We are never alone,” she continued, reassuringly, pulling out a card from her purse. Then they talked about hatching a companionship, a contemplative journey that might help guide Halima to the home she sought.

That was four months ago. Today, like on most days since that first day, Halima makes the appointment on time. Like a Swiss clock. The director raises her gaze to meet Halima’s, like she has done a hundred times before, taking in the strong reddish polish of her maple wood desk and the cavalcade of framed family photographs that line the surface in its sweep, and coming to rest on th-

“What’s this?” the director shrieks. Sure enough, her faithful spiritual companion stands before her, apparelled in her usual pale mauve hijab and torn jeans. But around her, peeking through the window above the transom behind Halima, crawling out of the flower pots, curled around the director’s framed certificates, oozing through the wallpapered walls, clawing their way through the infinitesimally narrow cracks of the floorboards, as if summoned in the maddening space of a blink, are creatures of every kind and form – splotched, striped, crinkled and wrinkled. The director is frozen stiff with fright; Halima, on the other hand, turning her head this way and that, starry-eyed, mouth hung open with wonder, seems entranced with the monsters that have sprouted through the veil of the familiar.

“Home”, Halima whispers under her bated breath.

***

At first blush, the inner work of spiritual transformation has little to do with the haunting biological life cycles of toxic dinoflagellates, melting icebergs and the transatlantic migrations of the dead shells of African Saharan diatoms. Not that spiritual direction and companionship aren’t invested in the world at large. They are. My own childhood spiritualities were shaped by a Christo-centric appreciation for a world the Lord had made and had called us to serve as faithful stewards. Some of my fondest Christian mystics and writers, such as Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, and Philip Yancey (whose book, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth are we missing?’ reinvigorated my teenage Christianity with new life) sublimated the natural world to the sublime heights of divine handiwork. Yancey, for instance, writes:

“I have come to understand faith as the highest form of integrated encounter. Faith puts together, assembles, re-orders, accepting the entire world as God’s handiwork. We live among clues, like rescuers sifting through pieces of stained glass shattered by a bomb, and only with a blueprint or some memory of original design can we begin to connect the shards, to assemble them into a pattern that makes sense of our world… Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds, but different expressions of the same reality. To encounter the world as a whole, we need a more supernatural awareness of the natural world.”

For Yancey the world is a code that can be discerned if we knew how to look. Spiritual direction, the mentoring practice that has not one singular origin but sprouts from multiple ecosystems of faith and belonging, traversing manifold cosmologies, cultures and approaches, but seemingly centred around the spiritual life and growth of a seeking companion and the maturity and eldership of a guiding mentor, might be said to be a harmonising of the algorithms of the inner life to the divine code lurking behind appearances.

The story told about the wise fish by Carolyn Gratton, in her book, The Age of Spiritual Guidance, presses this point home:

“It seems that there once were some fish who spent their days swimming around in search of water. Anxiously looking for their destination, they shared their worries and confusion with each other as they swam. One day they met a wise fish and asked him the question that had preoccupied them for so long: “Where is the sea?” The wise fish answered: “If you stop swimming so busily and struggling so anxiously, you would discover that you are already in the sea. You need look no further than where you already are.”[6]

Perhaps the point of the wise fish is that god is already around us, and the point of spiritual direction and its rituals of soul care is to wipe the smudge on our lenses that stop us from noticing that we inhabit god’s work and are, indeed, god’s handiwork ourselves. It is believed that by becoming more aware of these spiritual truths, spiritual transformation happens.

In a world starved of connection, the mentoring relationship found in spiritual companionship is a beautiful exemplification of the kinds of gestures we can make in times of trouble. By thinking of super nature as nature, the format makes possible conservatory kinds of gestures that potentially allow the world to flourish.

And yet, we can raise intriguing questions about this steward-like stance of spiritual companionship in light of the geo-theological crossings that feel possible today. For instance, on closer examination, the more popular practices of spiritual direction orbit around a very humanist notion of the world and of spirituality. Stewardship, though humbling a telluric craft, still privileges the human figure and the inner machinations and dynamics of human sentience – while relegating the material world to roles of passivity. In other words, the majesty of materiality is rendered mute as a factor in an equation that always ends up signifying the human.

We may come at this a different way. Where does spiritual companionship begin and end? What are the materials of this relationship? Through a very humanist lens, the relationship is formalized between companions, between an elder or mentor and the seeker. It begins with agreement, it takes place during sessions – and, if one wants to stretch the generosity of what happens – it embraces moments outside of sessions when the practices recommended during sessions are put to work.

But companioning never starts from scratch. A seeker comes to a session already corporeally altered by the nation-state, by pharmacological practices, by microbial lifeforms, by racializing sociomaterial arrangements, by the physicality and architecture of the city, by the excavatory dynamics of imperial ideologies, by the lingering shapeshifting affectations of the industrialized schooling, by the dehiscence of plants in the fullness of the pollination eruptions. The client is a non-homogenous, non-coherent assemblage of roving roots and nomadic limbs. The client never really arrives but is always postponed – always yet-to-come.

The same applies to the spiritual director. Non-human/posthumanist processes are always implied in the labours of companionship, but the distinction of spirituality is usually reserved for the ‘human’ within the heat of the compost. Save for a few objects dedicated to devotion or consecrated to deeper meaning, this sociology of spirituality rules out chairs, papers, pens, fans, iPhones, and desks from participating in the realm of the sacred. The world around isn’t just the stage upon which we stand to do the human things we do. Research increasingly demonstrates that we have hastily assigned consistency and stability to our bodies, and have been habituated away from noticing that we share bodies with the world around us, trafficking in ‘parts’, spilling through one another, eating up one another – a phenomenon material ecocriticist Stacy Alaimo calls ‘transcorporeality’. We are always in the storm of manifold changes, caught in a vortex of movements greater than us: the meaning of the human face, for instance, is experiencing seismic shifts with facial recognition software; the status of our bodies as human is undergoing revision as advancements in biological research expose microbial ecosystems in our guts. These changes, and more not mentioned here, suggest that the sacred also is in flux.

It is not only that our bodies (usually pried apart from some more essential core called the mind/soul) are not entirely ours, it is also the case that our minds are not as contained as we might think. In the book, Epistemic Situationism, authors Abrol Fairweather and Mark Alfano encourage readers to doubt that humans have abiding traits and pre-relational selves, choosing instead to burden environmental and often trivial factors with greater explanatory power than what is provided by allusions to inner virtue, cognitive achievement and rationality. From experimental psychological subjects becoming less judgmental of others and their world because of the softness of the furniture they sit in, to judges becoming likelier to give harsher judgements (unbeknownst to them) if they are hungry, a situationist reframe allows us to rehabilitate even the most insignificant objects around us as potentially body/mind-altering.

Stewardship, well-intentioned though it be, tends to reinstate the problematic human subject that is just as troubling in its starring role in the ongoing production called the Anthropocene. A posthumanist lens brings us to see that the world is alive – not merely bubbly, animated and sparkly in the sense that is entertaining and amusing to human observers. This aliveness is corrosive and interstitial: it means we come from each other, are constantly remaking each other, and can no longer claim to be self-referential beings.

A closely related point to name here about an anthropocentric examination of spirituality and spiritual becomings is the tethering of spiritual transformation to awareness. This comes from an evaluative move that implicitly promotes consciousness as a quality apart from the dead and deterministic motions of materials around us. Because consciousness is so inscrutably undecipherable and yet so vaguely familiar, it presents itself to us modern citizens as the most appropriate container of spirituality. But a relational world isn’t underlined by awareness, language, meaning or text. The world exceeds the methods we deploy to manage it. The world stretches beyond awareness. To presuppose that awareness is essential to spiritual transformation is to suggest a contentious and pre-emptive dualism that runs the risk of privileging humans and/or higher brained animals. To assert that awareness is uniformly available everywhere – in some pantheistic (which is different from a panentheistic) move – might seem like a conciliatory approach, except that it stretches the meaning of awareness so thinly that it comes to mean nothing. Moreover, in doing this, it becomes more difficult to make helpful distinctions between organisms that demonstrate sentience and others that don’t.[7]

Think of the multitudinous movements that make the world, the potent flows of nameless and yet-to-be named relationships that stretch the universe a sigh further than it once was, none of which require an operational awareness to delight their play. Is it possible to think of the stentorian call-and-response dynamics between electrified clouds and a charged earth, in lightning and thunder, as another example of companioning? When a wave collapses into a particle in a double-slit experiment, or when virtual particles – infinities self-touching other infinities – perform various experiments of their own in spacetime, can we think of this as spiritual even when we normally don’t ascribe awareness to particles and things in general? If these are orgasmic posthumanist instances of spiritual companionship, without the fulcrum of awareness centralized to give the relationship plot and purpose, then what is spiritual companionship for? Or what does it do? How do we think of it if unmoored from the anchorage of awareness-directed transformation?

 

The dangers of a ready-made god

Taking in a panoramic vision of the world as unspeakably intraconnected, entangled and entangling, and corrosive to the stability of the hitherto centralized human figure, does not mean one should call everything an instance of spiritual companionship. We do not want to lose sight of the very human capacity to grieve, to struggle, to feel pain, to know a sense of divinity, and to yearn for a community of other humans with which to bear the weight and impossibility of being alive. We do not want to lose sight of the endearing specificity of companionship.

And yet it is possible to be deeply in touch with the specificities that make spiritual companionship a unique relationship without fetishizing the relationship or extricating it from the performative streams of human and nonhuman effects that make the world. Doing that would be akin to lifting a smooth pebble from a river and then ignoring the contributions of watery forces in shaping the pebble over time when accounting for the object.

In other words, the goals, shape and body of spiritual companionship are always provisional, always emergent, always dynamically exchanging bodies, whether we are aware of this. We cannot always assume that the goal of companionship is spiritual transformation; we cannot presume that concept is always intelligible or available. We cannot even presuppose god’s presence is a done deal – in the sense of water always being around fish. As a matter of fact, and with deep respect to wise fish everywhere, water isn’t always around fish. Not unvaryingly. Especially in a time of unfortunate pollutions, when plastic items have become bona fide members of oceanic worlds, aqua is threaded through with more-than-aqua. God is not a static fixture, a dreamcatcher hanging over the doorway, a fixed eye in the cosmic sky.

In the first part of this essay, I wrote about the fugitivity of god. The indeterminacy of god. The shyness of god. And then I spoke about this figuration of godhood as a stranger and closer intimacy. An apophatic entanglement – bringing the distant and the nearby into a waltz without resolving the paradox by collapsing one into the other (this is what the strategy of panentheism makes possible: thinking of god as infusing and limning everything, while not being equal to everything). God is as such present and yet absent, a lingering absence and estranging presence. God doesn’t merely exist; god is a becoming. A possibility.

Put differently, god is being worked out. S/he is come down to earth in the face of Hathorian riddles, trying to figure out things with and for us. This is the fugitive god that is not in ‘his’ proper place, the homeless god, the not-knowing god, the splintered divine.

Allow me tug a little more on that listless but playful string jutting out of these Anthropocene grounds: spiritual companionship is no longer (or not exclusively) about a journey we must make, however spiritual we christen these particular journeys, not from here to there, not from this to that, not from less enlightened to more enlightened. If the sacred is spilled open, limning the ordinary with a restless tension, then our pilgrimage has no convenient beginning, no determinate destination, no confident plot, no findable landmarks. Confusion enters to disorient the orders we have assumed; the world has gone fugitive on us – and the ascension sites to our hoped-for divinity, the rapture sites where we all get personalized halos, and the altars where we worshipped, have been enfolded into the palimpsest of the land.[8]

We are collectively undone; the wall that divided us from the world at large is breached. Rupture in the stead of rapture.

Now we must now inhabit the cracks and ask how to make offerings to those cracks. Now we must seek out a wilder kinship with the alien insurgents that have joined us in the dyadic room of mentorship. A multitudinous space. We must now study with this brokenness to know how to feel, how to see, what to feel, what to imagine, what to ask. Sitting with this non-knowing as generative. We must go down to the underworlds where things are not proper, knowing spiritual companionship as a fugitive ‘Undercommons’.[9] We cannot afford refuge; we must make sanctuary.

 

Let us make sanctuary: Reclaiming sanctuary for the Anthropocene

Considering the spiritual, political, theological, biological, economic and ecological dimensions and complexities of our unique times, is there a correct way to respond to the Anthropocene? Is there a correct outcome we should be seeking – for instance, ending climate change? Should we be building tunnels and subterranean cities to escape air pollution? Should we devote more time developing alternative energy sources and new technologies? Should we leave behind our lives in the city and inhabit experimental communes and ecovillages? Perhaps, as multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos has suggested, we should be doing our utmost to get back to the moon and then build settlements there given the worsening conditions of life on earth.

A more troubling question to raise is this: given the transcorporeal entanglements between furniture and minds, between social arrangements and perception, what ways of asking and perceiving and imagining and wanting are excluded and occluded? Writing about the connections between structure, the questions we ask, and futurity, Jack Halberstam notes:

“We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. What we want after “the break” will be different from what we think we want before the break and both are necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break.”[10]

Halberstam links desire to ecology and context, refusing to situate it firmly within the human figure which, she understands, is porous and relational. If our desires emerge in part from/with our ecosystems, and then circle back to reinforce those arrangements, then what is obvious to us filters out other potential affections and capacities and experiments that might gesture towards wiser worlds. Such an analysis leads us to ask: what are we missing? And what kinds of study and work might we engage in to prepare ourselves to be met, to be “defeated decisively by ever greater things” (Rilke), and to take on new shapes? What connections can we be making now?

I am convinced (in the literal and strikingly relational/fragile sense of the word – being overcome) that the emergent traditions of spiritual companionship speak to a resilient longing for community, and offer a model for partnering with others to excavate new questions from an always abundant archive of memory and collective yearning. I am convinced – as I have written right from the beginning – that the Anthropocene is in part a theological moment, and that the powerlessness occasioned by contemporary political frameworks calls upon a different emancipatory strategy: one which notices a third way beyond being included and being excluded. I am captivated by the promise of fugitivity – not merely in its refusal to extract succour and hope from oppressive systems, but in its intimacy with hopelessness and homelessness, both motifs of our riven days.

By reading the practice of spiritual companionship through a relational metaphysics of the world, through an apophatic/panentheistic/process theology, through the sciences of hopelessness as figured in climate reports of breached thresholds, through a posthumanist rendering of an animistic world, through a lens that understands the pains of racialization but is also aware of the strategic limitations of identity politics, through the scandal of fugitivity, it is possible to imagine a wilder and wider coalition of bodies – a shared planetary vocation to launch into a katabasis of corrosive questions and touching encounters with the material world.

I call this ‘sanctuary’.

***

In medieval Europe, there were no lawyers and none of the juridical arrangements we are used to today. The dominant institution was the Roman Catholic Church, which granted wrongdoers temporary reprieve from their accusers. All a fugitive had to do was hold on to a part of the church building, its pillars or the ring that was gripped in the fierce jaw of an ornamental door knocker (called a sanctuary-knocker or hagoday), and then claim sanctuary. Such a person would then be taken into the church building and could not be apprehended or hurt while within the consecrated confines of the asylum.

But the sanctuary wasn’t a static refuge, a holding cell away from the limbs and growls of vengeance outside the window. The fugitives’ pursuers would often lie in wait for them outside; inside, the fugitives – their weapons taken from them so they couldn’t attack their assailants through the windows – were fed, ministered to, often educated in the ways of Christ, and sent on permanent exile.

I have often wondered about a feature of these post-judicial sites of fugitivity: perhaps a trivial side note to weightier considerations about common law in medieval Europe, the sanctuary knockers usually took the form of monstrous gargoyle-shaped entities. The adoption of monstrous heralds to sanctuary probably didn’t have any ponderous significance beyond decorative trends of the period. However, those details take on a new and urgent significance when sanctuary is revisited today.

In a reimagined notion of the sanctuary, the ‘monster’ plays a major role. The monster is an agent of reconfiguration and a critique of form; it disturbs the familiar and reshapes the bodies we are used to. It resists categorization in its corporeal excessiveness. The monster welcomes the fugitive, the broken, into sanctuary[11]; the place becomes a site for bodily reconfigurations. For re/memberment.

This re/memberment – a dis/membering that happens simultaneously with a re/membering, which is also a coming to touch the manifold bodies of memory and anticipation, absent and yet-to-come, that our bodies have always been conditioned by – is the objective of sanctuary. Why is re/memberment an issue here? Because in this analysis, ‘Man’ is being called into question by topographical shifts. The world is unsettling the stability that has made possible the matrixial web of relations we summarily refer to as ‘Man’. To disturb the centrality of ‘Man’ is to call into question not just the human figure but the extenuating circumstances of divinity that made such a figure possible. Remember, the Judeo-Christian texts urge us to consider that Man is made in the very image of god. In other words, god is also in the dock, and the jury is out. This image of god/man, historically deployed to serve the white propertied male[12], to justify the colonization of peoples, to demote black bodies and female bodies to bestial levels, and to elevate particular forms of knowing above others, has troubling legacies. This image wants to be composted, yearns for its discombobulation, yearns for the discipline of destruction. Sanctuary, with the modest input of the monster, invites this shapeshifting of man and god. An anthropoesis and theopoesis.[13]

The invitation of sanctuary is not to regain mastery over the elements, not to assert our dominance, not to propose control, not to defeat oppressive systems by launching critique and resistance, not to become holier and good citizens, not to become enlightened, and not to attach itself too tightly to any climate solution.[14] There is a not-knowing that stirs at the heart of this proposed enterprise, one which is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans: We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. This intercessory, inter/carnational groaning of sanctuary is a site of fragile inquiry, of festive celebration, of rigorous study, and of keen attention to what wants to be known.

We cannot enact our own shapeshifting programmatically, as if by dint of hard work, by the exertions of a single generation or by the mere exercise of human genius we could become other-than-human. The invitation is instead a modest coming down to earth: a taking care of our kin, departed and lingering; a learning how to become good ancestors; a cultivating of regimes of visuality that acknowledge the invisible; a cultivating of a sensitivity to the cacophony of the wilds that presses itself against the harmonies of the city; a playing with the brokenness that ironically binds me with my oppressor in a shocking vision of power that leans away from the colonizing binary of victory versus defeat.

The invitation to make sanctuary today is to acknowledge that we are fugitives, that home is no longer welcoming, and that maybe the ways we often seek to fix our problems are the problem itself.

My story of sanctuary is a fugitive site of dismantling ‘Man’ not by critique but by ironic intimacy – the kind that knows we are not exterior to the realities we find problematic. Nothing embodies this ironic intimacy quite like eating. When we eat something, tearing it apart with our teeth, ingesting it so that the thing becomes a part of us, we are performing this ironic intimacy I write about.

By eating ‘Man’ and eating god’s body eucharistically, in perverse anthropophagic and theophagic encounters, we diffract the image of god into something else we don’t know yet. First we gather in all the data points, we call in all the expectations we can articulate, all the rituals we perform in our often silent quests to be properly ‘human’, and then with story, with silence, with methodologies and improvisation that bring us into intimate research alliances with purportedly inanimate furniture around us, we tend to the things that stray away from these formulations. We tend to the wandering roots, to the tentacularities that deterritorialize our coherence, and then we share these alchemized threads as the loosening pixels of the image of god. By at/tending to and with/nessing our falling apart/together, bringing in the invisible, touching the troubling shadows that always cling to our fondest expressions of goodness, ‘studying’ in the Fred Moten sense of undercutting the tameness of the university, sharing new insights, yearnings, imaginations and desires, we open up a feral form of spiritual companionship that loves not the image but the constellation.

 

Rich ecologies and examples of sanctuary-making

Sanctuary is thus a research assemblage of two or more persons, nonhuman participants, the invitation of brokenness, the groaning of not-knowing, and the promise of monsters. It is not a newer improved version of practices of spiritual direction, but a fragile putting-into-work the very notion of companionship in a wilder world. Sanctuary is spiritual coalitioning, contemplactivism, com/post/activism, auto-eucharistic decoloniality, and black fugitivity (where blackness is not yet another hue in the identity project of modernity, but the counter-imperial wounding of fascist foundationalism). It is not a messianic rapture down the road leading to the future; it is a here-and-now approach we are already immersed in when we hold space together with others, when we give our time and space for an apophatic god to be glimpsed in the indeterminacy of becoming. Sanctuary is indeed ancient and old, and yet new and unprecedented.

While this paper wants to flesh out some of the contextualizing theoretical work that call upon this practice I call ‘sanctuary’, it will not dwell too heavily on the methods, ideas, events, structures and rituals that are emerging to substantiate it. By reading sanctuary as a phantomatic cousin to the quite established processes of companionship and soul care however, we can feel invited into a wider dialogue about its promises.

As I travel around the world, I am learning how ‘sanctuary’ is being enacted – perhaps not with that name. I am learning of (and increasingly hosting) strange forms of companionship that do not take as their brightest motivation the journey and pilgrimages of a seeker-client or the givenness of the sacred, but the invitation to lose shape, to acknowledge the generativity of failure, and the impossibility of our work in the Anthropocene. These activisms are neither premised on carbon reductionism nor tethered to an anorexic notion of justice. There is an awareness that justice often gets in the way of transformation. I am learning about groups working with death (an online course called Vulture), sharing jealousy like chickenpox (in Rajasthan, India), feet-washing ceremonies in Devon, and turning ‘Black Friday’ consumerism on its head by performing ‘Rainbow Friday’ gift circles instead.

In one enactment of spiritual coalitioning (where coalitioning is a broadening of the often-dyadic insularity of spiritual direction to account for the invisible, the nonhuman and the more-than-human in new and experimental ways) in Victoria BC, together with a cohort of more than 30 persons sitting in a circle, we entered a slow process of sharing the meanings of our names and who gave them to us while hailing each other by tossing one end of a ball or skein of yarn. Participants were invited to hold their end of the yarn when they had finished their narration and after they had passed on the rope. This invited new questions about identity and entanglement, during and after the ritual, especially when the cat-cradling geometric patterns that had emerged between us became an occasion for study.

Of course, this event was framed as a workshop, but it has informed new ideas on how to conjure sites of fugitivity and sanctuary-making wherever we are. With some regularity, such encounters could help participants cultivate a sense for the emergent otherwise.

 

Calling forth a network coalition of sanctuaries

It is possible to affirm that whatever we do in response to the Anthropocene will not be ‘enough’. There is no totalizing approach, method or idea that can address the incalculably rhizomatic dynamics of the ‘world’ in its ongoingness. All we can hope to do is to take risks, to grope in the dark. The promise of sanctuary, still in its infancy, treats the dark as data, not obstacle. By taking inspiration for the dark illumination of an apophatic god-in-her-becoming, from new materialisms and ecological feminisms that refuse to disconnect human bodies and human desires from their environments, sanctuary is a call to study together – to not be too constrained by the impulse to get to the light, and not to presume too much about spirituality, about god, about divine presence, and about the future. With sanctuary, new forms of doing become available; old forms of doing become appropriate.

As the year 2030 approaches, the machinic response of a powerful assemblage of bodies seeks to reinforce the very problematic logic of imperialism. The call to stop climate change by becoming benevolent masters of the planet, to keep trusting in electoral politics even in its enactment of colonial temporalities, to resist fascism by taking on its colours, to resist racism without pausing to notice how the identity containers of western imagination are themselves deeply disturbing, and to resist whiteness by retreating into the power spaces whiteness made possible stresses a desire for fugitivity (which in itself is not an answer or convenient resolution, but an opening out into the troubling confidence of the normal).

As has been implied throughout this essay, we are facing something wilder than a villain in climate collapse. It is not something that is yet to happen; it is something that is the condition for all the happenings today. The wall is not about to be breached according to a neat timeline; the dam is burst, and we are swimming in currents that have always been with us.

We need unprecedented forms of organizing. We need more than hope, more than just a plan. We need composting, the disciplining decentering of a different metaphysics of destruction. I believe this homelessness/hopelessness we are being habituated into, this summons to fugitivity, away from the ethics of inclusivity versus exclusivity, creates room for sanctuary – and not just ‘isolated’ practices, but a movement of shared inquiries into our times. An intergenerational yatra of researching the otherwise. A networking of approaches in a heterogenous ecology of multiple approaches to making sanctuary, each held together by the not-knowing and the accountability to others around us. A posthuman and posthumanist, liberation theology in which trees and desks are invited discussants and contributors.

This is the sanctuary we need: the one that knows the times are urgent, we must slow down.

***

Halima turned to her, drawing out a chair for herself, and lowering her body into it. “You once told me that God is stranger than our best ideas,” Halima said, looking squarely into the eyes of her still-frightened director. Above her, some of the strange creatures were making funny sounds, slinging across the room with secretions from other parts of the body, a twilight zone of queer critters invading the politeness of the room. “This is me; this is you,” Halima said to her. “This is god.” The director’s frozen visage slowly melted away, her eyes softening as she considered her companionship taking on new degrees she had not anticipated, and the delight of meeting the world anew.

She sat up in her chair, still quite uneasy.

“Okay,” she said, shaking her shoulders loose, “let’s meet our new friends.”

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] I have opted to write ‘god’ with a small ‘g’, in part due to my rejection (but not abandonment) of the ‘classic’ anthropomorphized iteration of Abrahamic faiths. Given my attractions to the mystical traditions of apophasis and of process theology, which sees god as an ongoing construction, I do not feel the need to think about god as a human-like figure who created humanity at the beginning of time. And yet, the concept of god feels alluring, almost necessary to our conversations in the Anthropocene. Tensions abound. By god I do not mean a Christo-centric one who sits outside of spacetime, the one who summoned the universe by creating it ex nihilo. Like Catherine Keller posits in her beautiful texts on the matter at hand, ‘god’ is my nickname for this gasp, this collective inhalatory moment that is the stuff of a relational universe and its condition. This ‘god’ is not the bearded white dude of my teenage years that snapped his fingers – in reverse-Thanos style – and made everything. This ‘god’ is a cloud in the camp of Israel; the Yoruba trickster god Èsù in transatlantic crossings with the slaves and their slavers; the troubling moment a wave collapses into a particle when ‘it’ realizes it is being watched.

[2] By the miraculous, I am not referring to a certain generosity that is only glimpsed in a relational universe, not a universe of isolated selves and things. The miraculous is neither an escape from, nor the postponement of, the ordinary. It is the indeterminacy or incertitude of the ordinary: the embarrassing excessiveness of a relational world that grants ‘things’ the scandalous capacity to be more than just things.

[3] It is important to note that many of the solutions offered are like plastic pebbles off the back of Goliath. For instance, there is currently a drive to plant more and more trees – an important move, no doubt. However, scientists also estimate that planting trees willy-nilly would only extract a fraction of the billions of tons of carbon we’ve co-produced for centuries. Even if we succeeded in covering every inch of land on earth with trees, we still wouldn’t be able to suck out everything in the atmosphere.

[4] I do not mean to reference the scale of what we already know. I do not mean to say that our oceans are being poisoned so much that the scale of it is unspeakable. I do not mean to point to gaps in our knowledges. To things on the backburner, left unsaid due to a dearth of research.

None of these senses rise up to meet the idea of unspeakability I want to honour.

And for good reason. The ‘unspeakable’ is evasive, hard to acknowledge in a world that privileges language and the modern rituals of indexing things. How do you speak about the unspeakable and leave it intact? Something feels violated in merely bringing up the matter – just as trying to understand the nature of nothing (perhaps by probing a void with the merest of needles) already disturbs its nothingness. To the extent that we can notice the unspeakable, I mean the ‘movement of things.’ Another name for the sacred. That things ‘move’, slip away from their uniforms, fall away from easy categorization, caught in a murmuration of transience, a symphony of loss and emergence, grieving together, humming together, escaping bodily integrity in any final sense, is what I think of as the unspeakable. Even these descriptions are part of this dying away – appearing in their disappearing, unsaid in their saying.

[5] https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/456112-greenlands-ice-sheet-wasnt-expected-to-melt-like-this-until-2070

[6] Carolyn Gratton, The Age of Spiritual Guidance, (1993; p.5).

[7] The aliveness that the world is predicated on isn’t necessarily one that requires all things, organic and non-organic subject-objects, to be similarly sentient or aware. We can allow for varying degrees of sentience and still think of the world as wondrously and sensuously alive because ‘aliveness’ here is conceived in terms of effects, how differences are made, how bodies become stable over time or lose stability.

[8] How is this true for you? How is it true that the places that used to be sacred are now poisoned? By the groanings of a land tired with industrialization? A drunken sea intoxicated with plastic? How are the changes around you altering your sense of the sacred or hospitable worship?

[9] From Fred Moten’s and Stefano Harney’s book, “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study”

[10] In Halberstam’s foreword for “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study”, by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2013; p. 6)

[11] If you are already whole, and thriving as a citizen, then there is no need for sanctuary. Only fugitives need sanctuary. To enter sanctuary is to be in touch with one’s dehiscence.

[12] Man is not just the occupant of the upper deck of the slave ship, but the slave ship and the transatlantic crossings it enacts

[13] An anthrotheopoesis? How god/man emerges.

[14] Sanctuary is not against solutions. Because the meaning of sanctuary isn’t final or without ambiguity, local imperatives will help shape what sanctuary participants (or sanctuary keepers) valorize. A diffractive inquiry is however necessary to the task of sanctuary work.

3 Comments
  • Iliana on March 11, 2020

    I’m ready to join this adventure!!

  • Joanne on March 27, 2020

    I am overwhelmed with gratitude and awe for this essay and the ideas you have offered here for contemplation

  • MIRIAM SAAVEDRA SERNA on June 6, 2020

    Wow… and Wow…so mystical and profound, but simple to understand.

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Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.