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Diamonds And Volcanoes

Yes, the world is descending into gloom. The hidden gems will be made and revealed
Mayon volcano eruption at night, Philippines

Well, he’s finally done it: Damon Linker has out gloomed and out doomed even me. From his latest, in which he says that the economy is bound to go into the crapper, Covid is going to get worse, people are getting madder and crazier, and stuff:

When it comes to the pandemic, a significant portion of the population of the United States has succumbed to magical thinking. But a natural process like the transmission of a contagious disease doesn’t care one bit about the lies with which a person, a community, or a country consoles itself. The virus will spread according to its own logic no matter what we think or how ignorant we will ourselves to be. That’s why I’ve begun to fear COVID is just going to mow us down.

What kind of social, economic, and political disruptions are we likely to see as it happens? I shudder to think. Especially after observing the unanticipated nationwide conflagration that followed the killing of George Floyd. As my colleague Noah Millman argued during the early, most volatile portion of the unrest, it made sense to think of the looting and burning as “the coronavirus riots” — because the video of Floyd’s final minutes of life was not sufficient to explain them. The manifest injustice captured on a cell phone and broadcast to the world online — like many others before — was of course the absolutely necessary condition of the protests, but there also needed to be a pent-up, bored, lonely, frustrated, and volatile population craving a cause for there to be destructive unrest.

Now imagine a nation in which the ranks of the unemployed grow every week for months on end, constantly provoked by its president, some terrified of infection, others claiming it’s a conspiracy, nearly everyone disgusted by institutional incompetence — and then the economy really starts to tank, with waves of bankruptcies and layoffs, a flood of evictions leading to a huge increase in homelessness, a bigger wave of urban crime than we’ve already seen, foreclosures that push banks to the brink and erase the equity of homeowners, and a belated stock market crash that wipes out the retirement funds of half the country.

Tick, tick, boom.

Read it all, but only if you have a bottle of whisky near to hand.

You’ll find it strange to hear from me, but I’m feeling a bit more hopeful these days. Not optimistic — I don’t see any reason for optimism — but hopeful. It’s nothing that’s really discussable at length here, but I can tell you that it involves signs manifesting in the lives of people I don’t even know, but who are in touch with me, indicating that the divine is active in their lives (I’m speaking broadly on purpose). Just extraordinary stuff — enough to keep my spirits up, for sure. This kind of thing is a reminder that there is meaning behind the veil.

One of the good things that has been happening to me lately is discovering the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and getting back into the writing of Paul Kingsnorth. I read over the weekend his 2019 book Savage Gods, which is about writing (the savage gods are words) through a midlife crisis. This line:

The world happens on the other side of a thin gauze and I can only ever break through by accident and all my life the gauze has been there and I have never believed in the world, have never believed it was real, and the only time I have ever really, truly felt alive, ever really felt I could break through it, tear it, come out into the real has been when I am writing.

… reminded me of Tarkovsky, who wrote about how art is a portal to transcendence and eternity. More Tarkovsky:

The meaning of religious truth is hope. Philosophy seeks the truth, defining the meaning of human activity, the limits of human reason, the meaning of existence, even when the philosopher reaches the conclusion that existence is senseless, and human effort—futile.

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

Touched by a masterpiece, a person begins to hear in himself that same call of truth which prompted the artist to his creative act. When a link is established between the work and its beholder, the latter experiences a sublime, purging trauma. Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognise and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.

Tarkovsky says that any and all art that has any meaning must be “an act of sacrifice.” Whenever Tarkovsky talks about art, I read him as also talking about religion. Recently I was e-mailing with a reader who has recently begun to have a hunger for God, despite having been a lifelong atheist. He said that one thing that has kept him away from faith all these years has been the belief that Christianity is nothing but fussy moralism (he didn’t put it quite like that, but that’s what he meant). He had no idea how deep and rich the actual tradition is until very recently. Inspired by his e-mail, I sent him this photo of a page from the Orthodox theologian and priest Dumitru Staniloae’s great book Orthodox Spirituality:



Staniloae is talking about St. Maximus the Confessor, who suffered torture for his faith, and who later died in the year 662. Now, if the only thing you thought Christianity was is politics (progressive or conservative) and moralism, wouldn’t it knock you out of your chair to discover this?

Tell me, Christian or otherwise, are you sure that the world is as you think it is? Are you sure that you have found all there is to find? Maybe, as we were talking in another thread, you have been looking all your life at what seemed to be a meaningless forest, but suddenly, you see a trail that was there all along, but hidden from your eyes. There it is. You are only able to see it because everything is shaking loose.

When everything shakes loose, that is a time of holy fear. For me, the journey into Christianity has been a pilgrimage into a living mystery, one that started with awe — that is, holy fear — in the nave of the Chartres Cathedral, when I was seventeen, and that has continued in fits and starts ever since. I have learned the hard way how true is the wisdom that Tarkovsky speaks, and the saints have spoken: that there is no spiritual progress, or artistic progress, without sacrifice. It just cannot be done. In Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev, the iconographer rediscovers his vocation when he understands that true art requires sacrifice, and emerges from the experience of suffering. Rublev had lost his faith in art, overwhelmed by the pain and cruelty of medieval Russia. But then it was revealed to him that pain and beauty are intimately related. As Tarkovsky puts it so memorably in his nonfiction book Sculpting In Time:

Diamonds are not found in black earth; they have to be sought near volcanoes.

We are living in a time in which the volcanoes are rumbling back to life. This is frightening. It might kill us. But it might also help us to become fully alive, if you follow me. Pay attention to the things being revealed to you now. There will be diamonds.

Tell us all, readers, about the diamonds you have found near the volcanoes in your life — especially the diamonds you are harvesting right now.



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