Powers of the Universe: Cataclysm

Cataclysm, as Brian Swimme teaches in his DVD series: “Powers of the Universe”, is as essential to reality as emergence. The destructions, degradations and disasters of the universe are part of the story of its life, a movement from a complex to a simple state that allows for the emergence of newness.

Imagine a star twenty times the size of our sun. The force of gravity would reduce it to a cinder were it not for the opposing energy sent forth from its heart, created by the fusing of hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei. This activity allows it to maintain, in Swimme’s words, “a seething equilibrium” for some ten million years.

But when the hydrogen has all been transformed into helium, that fusion process ends. Gravity causes the star to collapse into a smaller space until its core heats up to the temperature required to fuse helium into carbon. The cycle repeats as carbon fuses into oxygen, then oxygen into silicon and on and on until only iron remains. Iron releases no energy when it fuses; nothing is left to push out from the star’s centre to oppose the force of gravity. The star can only implode upon itself and in seconds a multi-million year process is over; a massive star becomes a mere speck.

But the energy of the implosion has crushed the constituent electrons and protons together to form neutrons, releasing more elementary particles called neutrinos. This reverses the imploding movement to blast the star apart in a firework display more brilliant than a galaxy of shining stars. As it expands a nucleosynthesis takes place, creating the nuclei of all the elements of the universe. In this supernova explosion are birthed the elements that will form our planet and our bodies. (for a fuller explication of this process, see Chapter 3: “The Emanating Brilliance of Stars” in  Journey of the Universe,  co-authored by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011)

The life story of a star is an astounding example of cataclysm giving birth to new life. But the power of cataclysm is seen in many aspects of life in the universe. Two hundred and fifty million years ago (when our earth was already ancient of days at age four billion and a bit…) a cataclysm occurred that eliminated 96% of marine species and 70% of land species. Swimme says that huge die-offs occur roughly every one hundred million years, and we are right in the middle of one now. Whatever our capacities for conscious denial, Swimme believes, our hearts and our bodies feel this awareness in a rising sense of frustration, of regret, of failure.

I would add to that a profound sense of grief. I recall watching a power-point that singer/songwriter Carolyn McDade prepared to illustrate the species in my own bio-region under threat of extinction. As I watched the unique, startling beauty of each form of life, the soulful eyes of owls, reptiles, birds, otters, small mammals, gazing back at me from the screen, I was shaken by a grief so sudden and wrenching that I wept. All the while, Carolyn’s voice sang as a prayer of pleading, “let them continue on….” Later that summer I saw in the river near my home an otter with a mate and young, and felt a deep joy…

Concurrent with this extinction of species is the desertification of land, the shrinking rain forests, the dying rivers and lakes. As though engaged in a death dance between nature and man-made structures, we see the waning into near-extinction of many of the religious, political, economic, education, health and societal systems in which we had once placed our trust.

Is there a graced way to live into a period of cataclysm? Swimme suggests that we might identify with the power that is destroying us by consciously surrendering aspects of ourselves, our society, our way of being in the world, that no longer serve us, thus enabling the universe to pulverize those aspects…We can try to see the destruction of consumer culture as part of the earth’s work of cataclysm, seeking to free us, to free our lives.

When cataclysm strikes an area of the planet through flood or fire, earthquake, tornado or tsunami, haven’t we heard voices raised that dared to bless the disaster that revealed what is worth valuing in life?

The twentieth century mystic Etty Hillesum, shortly before her death in Auswitch, wrote words that might be a light for us in this time: I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days, also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. And in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the end.

This is our moment, Brian Swimme believes, our star exploding, ready to create emeralds and giraffes, ready to release us into a new earth community.IMG_0007

For the next level of growth, of deepening, something has to wake us up, shake us up. It may take a tornado to blow us all the way to Oz where the greatest gifts await us. Jean Houston says that the call of this time of Cataclysm is to “radical reinvention” in order to speciate, to become a deepening spirit of the earth for her new emergence. Never before in history have so many devoted themselves to develop fully, to regard problems as opportunities in work clothes. Encouraging us that we have just the right gifts on just the right planet to bring this new earth community to life, Jean adds, “You are blessed to be alive at this time.”

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