Photo: Winter Trees

091225_0035 Edit Filter C Watercolor2 Filter Edits White

Copyright © 2009-2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved. 21 December, 2012. For more images go to http://www.gardenoflightphotography.com

Putting a little warmth into winter on this chilly Minnesota day of 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 to -15 Celsius). The good news: from now on the days become longer, brighter, and eventually (after February, that is) warmer.

Even Souls in Heaven Keep Growing

A friend was looking back at her life and wondering if she could have done better. Had she been living up to her potential so far? Was there something she had missed, she wondered: opportunities for personal growth, for walking the high road, for giving herself more fully to God. She’s a spiritual individual with a deep desire to serve God, and she was making an assessment of her efforts.

“Of course you could have done better,” I said. “We can always do better because there is always room for improvement.” God is infinite, so reaching for the divine within ourselves involves a stretch with no end point. We may gain some measure of enlightenment along the way, but there is no single moment of final bliss, no entry into nirvana or a state of Heaven once and for all with no further growth to follow. Thank God for that. To stop growing would be spiritual death.

The soul, our true self, is divine in nature and thus also timeless, like God. That gives us eternity in which to grow, which means even the souls in Heaven continue to unfold. On a particularly difficult day on Earth, when we feel the weight of our Earth-bound existence too acutely, it helps to know that we have this in common with the angels.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

On Being and Becoming

We sat curled up on the couch and a comfy chair, feet on ottomans to avoid the cool winter floor, warm cups of tea in hand. There we sat for hours, my friend and I, like armchair explorers traveling to distant lands and through the ages. Foreign dictionaries, a world atlas, and search engines were at the ready, should we require facts and figures along the way.

Students of history and the timeless quest for higher truths, we have few topics we won’t examine, or on which we haven’t already found some answers along with new questions. Asking questions is the fastest way to open the door to what you don’t yet know. After all, growing comes from investigating the unknown as much as from understanding what you already know, and we were fully prepared for a foray into the mysteries and wonders of life.

Soon we found ourselves considering the art of being and becoming. Whatever we are today, whatever state of consciousness we hold, is the sum total of all our past experience. More specifically, it’s the result of what we have learned from our experiences. In other words, living much is not the objective, learning much from even the smallest experience is.

Becoming, we agreed, is not a matter of alchemy—of transmuting a substance into something it was not—but of gaining an awareness of what we already are. It sounds esoteric, I know, but it’s really quite simple. Growth is not a process of adding something that was missing but of gradually tuning in to what we had all along. We are divine beings at the outset, it isn’t something we must be transformed into. Becoming is simply a matter of realizing who and what we are.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Altar of Love

The vast majority of us aren’t prone to anti-social behavior, but we aren’t always civil and courteous either. We don’t always keep to the highest principles and side with the force of love. Every day we make decisions that are either debasing or civilizing. So what are our standards? Do we give ourselves, then others, the dignity we all deserve as children of God? What kind of an example do we set?

Big or small, depending on our character, the tests are always there. When others seek to pull us in the wrong direction, do we stand our ground? Do we resist the temptation to succumb to our lower instincts and turn instead to the wisdom of our higher self? Do we choose the lazy way forward or will we work for the blessings of an ever-expanding heart?

The tests can be subtle, hidden in things so common, even widely encouraged, that they are easy to dismiss. “Breaking down” and eating foods we know we shouldn’t—it’s just one piece of cake, pie, or chocolate, or one donut or pint of ice cream, so no big deal, right? Watching silly online videos that claim to be funny yet show a cruel streak. Or bending rules when we know it’s wrong. Indulgences we wouldn’t be proud to announce. Cheating on a test. Lying to a spouse. All harm our dignity and civility and tear at the bonds of love that exist between us and others. Although God never stops loving us, our choices may indicate an unfortunate lack of reciprocity.

At home, at work, and with friends we are faced with the daily, implied question of where to draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t, what is constructive and what brings about a degree of collapse, what is wise or kind and what is foolish or hurtful. Every choice is between creation and destruction, love and power, life and death.

From moment to moment, even in the little decisions—such as the attitude we hold and the words we speak—it comes down to this: at which altar will you worship today? Darkness is simply what automatically fills the vacuum produced by an absence of love. It’s the default state that results if we stop living in the name of God.

So why would we? Willfulness. Selfishness. Fear. Our human nature tends in the opposite direction of our divine nature. Creatures of both Heaven and Earth, we choose the source of our influence one decision at a time. Whether we walk a high road or a low road depends on where we place our attention. Those who open their hearts to a higher power through prayer, meditation, and contemplation of the wonders of life act with wisdom and goodness.

A life centered on the divine—as both the source and the ultimate aim of our thoughts and actions—invariably leads to worshipping life. Love the life-giver and you will also love that which God imbues with life. Serve God and you must serve others, listening to their cares and attending to their wounds, walking with them when they pass through a valley of shadows and rejoicing with them in their times of triumph. The only way to open the heart to light and life is to find our way to the altar of love.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Death Worshippers

Destruction is a tempting force for those who do not recognize the sanctity of life. Darkness pulls on individuals who have turned their backs on the light and have given their hearts over to the god of destruction. Evil worships death, and death worshippers commit evil acts.

When cold hearts and calculating minds release the hounds of hell upon innocents, society seeks a motive. But evil does not run on reason and logic, that’s what makes it evil. Typically, the action is not compulsive but a choice. What stuns us most is that someone would use the divine gift of free will not to glorify God and serve Creation but to end a precious life.

Psychologists and criminologists will offer their assessments, assigning labels such as criminal psychopathy, sociopathy, and narcissism. You think? We don’t need fancy terms where experience and common sense provide all the insight we require into human nature.

We’ve seen it all before: Caligula and Nero in antiquity, Hitler and Mussolini not so long ago. Pick a century and you will find them—sometimes on the world stage, sometimes on their own pathetic little soap boxes, raining anger (from whatever weapons are in the arsenal of their place and time) down upon an unsuspecting populace.

Evil cannot be eradicated, nor often prevented, but it can be predicted as a social phenomenon if we will only look through the lens of history. Societies that revel in destruction tend to devolve until they burn themselves out. Recall the blood-bath of the Roman circus on any day of the week; state-sponsored entertainment for all classes of citizens and a mark of Roman-ness exported even to the farthest reaches of the Empire.

In the Christian era, despite centuries of preaching about the God of love and forgiveness, the Inquisition yielded bonfire festivals of executions as authorities put an end to what they considered heretics. And after the so-called Age of Enlightenment, no brighter than the others as the French Revolution proved, Western civilization still descended to the unspeakable sorrows of the Holocaust.

The Ancient Romans used living humans and animals in deadly spectacles staged for the public. We, meanwhile, have the technology to create virtual reality and indulge in its mind-bending perversions in the privacy of our homes. The fact that we are ever so willing to use our God-given imagination to design, then worship at, altars to the god of death says all we need to know about the state of our own consciousness and the destiny of our culture. Like dying fireworks, such cultures ultimately plummet to the ground, empty shells devoid of either a light to be admired or the power that once sent them soaring for all to see.

Where, then, did the modern world begin to lose altitude? How and when did it submit to the god of destruction? As always in the human story, it was the moment it stopped serving life. Once it turned from gratitude to entitlement, from giving in charity to taking what it hadn’t earned, from creating to tearing down, its trajectory was set. It is a timeless recipe for cultural collapse repeated in every age.

How does a culture make a one-eighty and turn toward darkness—apparently without noticing since it does little to stop it? It is a feature of darkness that those who are in it cannot see where they are headed. Also, it happens by degree: by subtle shifts and the pushing back of the line between acceptable and depraved a few inches at a time.

It happens when we allow ourselves and those we choose to admire, our children and their teachers, and our intellectual and political leaders to settle for less and indulge more. We set the bar lower to make it easier for more people to jump it rather than teach the culture to jump higher. The lowest common denominator is something most can handle, the thinking goes, so why force people to stretch? Exercise, most will agree, is an unpleasant business. Some even rationalize their lack of self-discipline as kindness toward others: we wouldn’t want anyone to strain themselves.

Nothing keeps us from succeeding more than not even trying.

After an attack such as the recent one on the school in Newtown, Connecticut it is always clear that the perpetrator has reduced beings of flesh and spirit to props in his own play—not even a supporting cast but mere scenery. In such cases, people are simply things to be added or subtracted on his whim, like set pieces in his production. Or like virtual figures in a violent video game. In the real world, however, you can’t bring the characters back by restarting the program.

The conditions of the moment speak loudly about the way we apply our imagination and how we direct our attention. But that doesn’t mean we’re listening. Despite a growing body of studies to the contrary, we insist that our obsessions and indulgences have no significant effects on us or others. “Oh, but make-believe isn’t real,” we say, “so it causes no real harm.”

Hollywood nods vigorously in agreement as it rakes in hundreds of millions a year on carefully constructed and lavishly appointed cinematic altars—not so much to the human spirit or the art of creativity but to death and destruction. And there’s no chance hot-shot producers will turn down the volume on their war-games any time soon.

With unabashed hypocrisy Hollywood glorifies violence, desensitizes young minds, and wires brains of all ages for gun abuse even as it decries the Second Amendment and responsible gun use. Leave it to the glitterati, who have benefited more than most from The Constitution’s free speech and other freedoms, to seek to curtail the rights of their audience. Chutzpa doesn’t begin to cover it. But self-service might.

It may be true that “no humans were harmed in the making of this video game or movie.” But can the same be said for the weeks, months, and years that follow repeated watching? A daily regimen of de-sensitizing, de-valuing, and de-humanizing fare must eventually destroy a culture by stripping all dignity from the soul.

Playing with the forces of darkness leads to an inevitable end: it’s a game we can’t win. And we can ill afford the personal or social cost of cultural bankruptcy.

This is but one of many lessons for us to learn from such violation of human life and common decency as occurred in Newtown, and they will all be covered by boundless analysis and philosophical wrangling in the times ahead. School security and procedures, gun laws, how to train citizens to recognize warning signs, the mental health system, the quality and quantity of parenting, the lack of spiritual focus and guidance in an increasingly secular society, and many other subjects will crowd the airwaves and dig into bandwidth.

There will be plenty of time for all that and more; time must eventually be made for it, because we sorely need to address our culture’s broken spiritual compass. But for now, and certainly this week, we can only say, God bless.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.