Refuge: A Definition and Two Spiritual Exercises

One million Armenians were forced to leave their homes in Anatolia in 1915, and many either died or were murdered on their way to Syria.

In this post I explore the definition of the word ‘refuge,’ and describe two spiritual exercises that arose out of that exploration. The word ‘refuge’ can be used as a noun or a verb. The following quotation gives the noun definition as found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged):

1 ref∙uge ‘re(,)fyüj. esp. before a syllable-increasing suffix -_fyә’j n -s [ME, fr. MF, fr. L. refugium, fr. refugere to run away, avoid, escape, fr. re– + fugere to run away, flee — more at FUGITIVE] 1: shelter or protection from danger or distress < seek ~ in flight > < take ~ in the home of a friend > < a house of ~ > 2a: a home for those who are destitute, homeless, or in disgrace b: a sanctuary for birds or wild animals c: a mountain hut or cabin erected to serve as sleeping quarters for mountaineers d: a safety zone for pedestrians crossing a street in heavy traffic: SAFETY ISLAND 3: a means of resort for help in difficulty : RESOURCE < patriotism is the last ~ of a scoundrel – Samuel Johnson > < The ivory tower . . . as a place of ~ from unpleasant reality – H. N. Russell >

As I contemplated the five verbal examples embedded in this definition; with their deep roots and entanglements, their interior groans and sighs, and their uncertain habitations and delights; I sensed within me a welter of feelings and impressions; some strong, some weak, but all profoundly human.

  • Seek refuge in flight
  • take refuge in the home of a friend
  • a house of refuge
  • patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
  • The ivory tower . . . as a place of refuge from unpleasant reality

As I continued my contemplation of the full definition, two spiritual exercises came to mind—exercises for me to carry out over the next few days:

Spiritual Exercise #1: Meditate on the five verbal examples and write a paragraph expressing how they touch on the life I am now living.

Spiritual Exercise #2: Explore the three cross-references appearing in the definition―FUGITIVE, SAFETY ISLAND, and RESOURCE—and write a paragraph expressing how they touch on the life I am now living.

NOTE: In an upcoming post, I will include some notes on the nature and character of ‘spiritual exercise’ as I intend it in this context and throughout this blog.

We Are All Refugees Now.

Greeks fleeing the Destruction of Psara in 1824 (painting by Nikolaos Gyzis).

“Our Gallant Ship” is now entering its second year. During its first year the focus was broad and comprehensive, covering climate science, politics, mitigation, activism, population, and much more.

In this second year the focus will be much tighter and will take the title of this entry as its central existential focus and reality: We are all refugees now.

The Only Courage Required of Us

In Pierre Hadot’s little book, “The Present Alone is Our Happiness,” he says: “I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.” This sentiment is one I share with him, in philosophy but also in art. The kinds of art that interest me are those that aim at just this same conception. They are “conceived as a transformation of one’s perception of the world.” My own life-long work in art has had this aim and goal.

Pierre Hadot (1922-2010)

As “Our Gallant Ship” enters its second year, this is the goal I would like to set out front. During its first year, 2019, I published much about climate change, climate science, and all the various political and social dynamics that surround and (often) envelope it. But, along the way, back in May, something happened to me, something spontaneous and on an altogether different level of experience. This experience was so strong that, for a number of months, I did not know what to do or how to proceed. So I paused. I paused for a long time, sensing that, to be honest with myself, I needed to withdraw until I had a better understanding of how to move forward.

Though I have spoken about this with very few people, I will now speak about it openly. Beginning with my next post, I will explore many of the issues that have occupied my thoughts and explorations over the past few months.

The following words from Rainer Maria Rilke speak directly to the point:

We must accept our existence as completely as possible; everything, even what is inconceivable, is to become possible in it. Basically, the only courage required of us is to be face up to the strange, the marvelous, and the inexplicable. . . . The fear of the inexplicable has impoverished not only the existence of the individual, but also the relations of person to person, it has taken them away from the river of possibilities, to shelter them in a safe place on the bank.” Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, August, 1904

From this day forward, the winter solstice of 2019, I will begin to steer Our Gallant Ship into this deeper water. I will explore how, given the existential crisis we now face, we can learn to “accept our existence as completely as possible,” and allow “everything, even what is inconceivable” to “become possible in it.”

“When a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.”

Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Fate.”

“Nature is no sentimentalist,—does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust. The cold, inconsiderate of persons, tingles your blood, benumbs your feet, freezes a man like an apple. The diseases, the elements, fortune, gravity, lightning, respect no persons. The way of Providence is a little rude. The habit of snake and spider, the snap of the tiger and other leapers and bloody jumpers, the crackle of the bones of his prey in the coil of the anaconda,—these are in the system, and our habits are like theirs. You have just dined, and, however scrupulously the slaughter-house is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,—expensive races,—race living at the expense of race. The planet is liable to shocks from comets, perturbations from planets, rendings from earthquake and volcano, alterations of climate, precessions of equinoxes. Rivers dry up by opening of the forest. The sea changes its bed. Towns and counties fall into it. At Lisbon, an earthquake killed men like flies. At Naples, three years ago, ten thousand persons were crushed in a few minutes. The scurvy at sea; the sword of the climate in the west of Africa, at Cayenne, at Panama, at New Orleans, cut off men like a massacre. Our western prairie shakes with fever and ague. The cholera, the small-pox, have proved as mortal to some tribes, as a frost to the crickets, which, having filled the summer with noise, are silenced by a fall of the temperature of one night. Without uncovering what does not concern us, or counting how many species of parasites hang on a bombyx; or groping after intestinal parasites, or infusory biters, or the obscurities of alternate generation;—the forms of the shark, the labrus, the jaw of the sea-wolf paved with crushing teeth, the weapons of the grampus, and other warriors hidden in the sea,—are hints of ferocity in the interiors of nature. Let us not deny it up and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity.”

. . . .

“The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages,—leaf after leaf,—never returning one. One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium, fish; then, saurians,—rude forms, in which she has only blocked her future statue, concealing under these unwieldy monsters the fine type of her coming king. The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born. But when a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.”

. . . .

“The truth is in the air, and the most impressionable brain will announce it first, but all will announce it a few minutes later. So women, as most susceptible, are the best index of the coming hour. So the great man, that is, the man most imbued with the spirit of the time, is the impressionable man,—of a fiber irritable and delicate, like iodine to light. He feels the infinitesimal attractions. His mind is righter than others, because he yields to a current so feeble as can be felt only by a needle delicately poised.”

. . . .

“Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity, which secures that all is made of one piece; that plaintiff and defendant, friend and enemy, animal and planet, food and eater, are of one kind. In astronomy, is vast space, but no foreign system; in geology, vast time, but the same laws as today. Why should we be afraid of Nature, which is no other than “philosophy and theology embodied?” Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements? Let us build to the Beautiful Necessity, which makes man brave in believing that he cannot shun a danger that is appointed, nor incur one that is not; to the Necessity which rudely or softly educates him to the perception that there are no contingencies; that Law rules throughout existence, a Law which is not intelligent but intelligence,—not personal nor impersonal,—it disdains words and passes understanding; it dissolves persons; it vivifies nature; yet solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence.”

Whenever something is wrong, something is too big: The problem of unmanageable proportions.

Delhi Traffic Jam

Recommended Exercise: Meditate on the following texts and then express the ideas that come to mind. Time limit: 3 hours.

“The answer to all questions underlying our problems today is the size factor—not unemployment, not warfare, not juvenile delinquency, not business fluctuations, not Black Mondays, Black Fridays, or Black Tuesdays. What matters is the enormous scale of these maladies. It’s huge! The world today is faced with the consequences of nuclear power, but the problems can be solved only by tackling the scale of it and the huge nations that need it, not by demonstrating against it. These huge nations cannot exist, poor creatures, without nuclear power, which is so efficient—so efficient that only 5% of the population is needed to contribute to the economic upkeep; all the rest must be tied to the bureaucracy or the military or the educational institutions that teach people to spend their time with no purpose. The fundamental effect is a vast increase in our human numbers; if there is to be a way out, these numbers must be reduced, and the way to reduce them is by reducing the size of nations, which at a smaller scale no longer depend on nuclear power but instead on muscle power, small electric power, wind power, and so forth.” — Leopold Kohr

The following texts are from Paul Kingsnorth’s essay on Leopold Kohr.

“Kohr’s claim was that society’s problems were not caused by particular forms of social or economic organization, but by their size. Socialism, anarchism, capitalism, democracy, monarchy – all could work well on what he called “the human scale”: a scale at which people could play a part in the systems that governed their lives. But once scaled up to the level of modern states, all systems became oppressors. Changing the system, or the ideology that it claimed inspiration from, would not prevent that oppression – as any number of revolutions have shown – because “the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself”.”

. . .

“Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for “whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions”. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.”

. . .

The last texts are from James Lovelock’s “The Revenge of Gaia.’

The root of our problems with the environment comes from a lack of constraint on the growth of population. There is no single right number of people that we can have as a goal: the number varies with our way of life on the planet and the state of its health. It has varied naturally from a few million when we were hunters and gatherers to a fraction of a billion as simple farmers’ but now it has grown to over six billion, which is wholly unsustainable in the present state of Gaia, even if we had the will and the ability to cut back. (ed. This was written in 2006, the population in 2019 is about 7.4 billion; and the forecast for 2050 is about 9.5 billion)

. . .

“Personally I think we would be wise to aim at a stabilized population of about half to one billion, and then we would be free to live in many different ways without harming Gaia.”

Again: Meditate on the texts and then express the ideas that come to mind. Time limit: 3 hours.


Leopold Kohr (1909-1994) was an openhearted, urbane, convivial man who loved intellectual companionship and discussion. He was an economist, jurist, political scientist, and self-described philosophical anarchist. Believing in the effectiveness of returning to the local level to solve the problems affecting humankind, he saw small self-governing communities as best able to solve their problems with their own resources. Read more . . .

Paul Kingsnorth – I am 75% English, 25% Greek Cypriot, 100% European and 0% European Union. I share 96% of my genetic material with chimpanzees and 60% with bananas. I am descended from the Viking Earls of the Orkney Isles. I live with my English-Punjabi wife and our two children in the west of Ireland, where 85% of the men are descended from eastern Mediterranean farmers. I’m a writer. I mainly write novels, poetry and essays. Read more . . .

James Lovelock – James Ephraim Lovelock, CH CBE FRS (born 26 July 1919) is an independent scientist, environmentalist, and futurist who lives in Dorset, England. He is best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system. Read more . . .

To sit by the wounded and soothe them

What happens to hope when our chances of avoiding catastrophe fall away, and we begin to see there is no way out of the present climate crisis, no matter how many lights we turn off, no matter how many wind turbines we install? How does hope change as the earth’s climate becomes less and less hospitable and less and less controllable? Project us forward to the year 2030, when we will probably know for certain that the catastrophe is full upon us. What will our hope look like then?

In a haunting and beautifully written contribution to Dark Mountain, Issue #15, Ingrid M. Rieser discusses the work of researcher Vanessa Andreotti who says there are at least three paths open to us “if we decide the current system is not ‘fixable.’

First, we might try “hacking the system – using the system’s resources to create something which undermines or defies logic. But when attempting to play the system, you always run the risk of being played instead.” Second, we might “leave altogether and try to set up a new, separate alternative, simply walking out (think eco-villages). But in both cases, she says, “you will risk ‘reproducing modernity’s violence’. Inadvertently bringing with you the very evils you hoped to escape.” Put in Buddhist terms: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Our old habits, character traits, and personal problems will tag along with us. Though we may change our residence ninety-nine times, our inveterate tendencies and unwholesome mental formations will remain—warm as toast, and tight as a drum.

But, according to Andreotti, there is a third path – that of hospicing. Rieser says that we think of hospicing “as caring for the dying, and that is exactly how Andreotti and her colleagues intend it.” They see this kind of hospicing as: “sitting with a system in decline, learning from its history, offering palliative care, seeing oneself in that which is dying, attending to the integrity of the process, dealing with tantrums, incontinence, anger and hopelessness, ‘cleaning up’, and clearing the space for something new. This is unlikely to be a glamorous process; it will entail may frustrations, an uncertain timeline, and unforeseeable outcomes without guarantees.”

For many of us, hospicing will be an essential, perhaps primary, component of our response to the present climate and environmental crisis. And, the crucial first step in the process is to tell the truth. For the greatest gift one can give a dying person is to gently take their hand, look them straight in the eye, and, with radical tenderness and great compassion, say to them ‘Dear friend, you are dying.’ This is what a friend should do. One must not lie to them. One must not pretend it isn’t so. One must not give them false hopes. For hope can be an obstacle, it can allow us to persist in our present way of life entirely immersed in a soothing bath of wishful thinking and self-deception, blunting the immediacy and urgency of what lies at hand.

In all of this, I think of the following lines from Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘The Wound-Dresser’:

Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.

Hope: Danger’s Comforter

In the next few weeks, I will focus on hope as it pertains to the present climate disruption. This first meditation is from Thucydides. I offer it without comment, and suggest that the good reader to meditate on the text for an hour or so and try to express the ideas that come to mind. The portion I’ve selected is from the famous Melian Dialogue. This is the discussion in which the Athenians articulate the bald facts of perennial power-politics when they say to the Melians: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must (lines 87-89).” Here are the remarks that bear upon the question of hope:

Melians: “It were surely great baseness and cowardice in us who are still free not to try everything that can be tried . . . to submit is to give ourselves over to despair, while action still preserves for us a hope that we may stand erect.

Athenians: “Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources, if not without loss at all events without ruin; but its nature is to be extravagant, and those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colors only when they are ruined; but so long as the discovery would enable them to guard against it, it is never found wanting. Let not this be the case with you, who are weak and hang on a single turn of the scale; nor be like the vulgar, who, abandoning such security as human means may still afford, when visible hopes fail them in extremity, turn to invisible, to prophecies and oracles, and other such inventions that delude men with hopes to their destruction.