Autumn is the time of year when most of us in the Northern Hemisphere think about the end of things. As daylight disappears from our skies, leaves fall, crops are gathered in, and animals disappear in search of burrows or warmer climates, we cannot help but think about our own mortality. If we are wise, we use that opportunity of reflection on the change of seasons, for to quote one of my favorite films, remember that “no matter what you do, you’re going to die – just like everybody else.” That is true whether the end is slow and gradual, like the change from autumn to winter, or whether it comes suddenly in some sort of cataclysm. And so today, although I have not seen much coverage in the mainstream media in this country, there is an event taking place on the other side of the pond that, at least in theory, might be one of those more violent ends that all of us worry about, yet cannot prepare for.
Since late July scientists have recorded over 10,000 tremors – yes, you read that correctly – on the island of El Hierro, the westernmost of the chain of islands that form The Canaries. We are now beginning to see evidence of intensifying activity from a volcano just off the coast, which is spewing ash and debris as it rises to the surface, creating what will very soon be a new island for the possessions of the Spanish Crown. Now why should any of this matter to you, Mr. Washingtonian or Miss New Yorker, you may ask yourself: after all, the same thing is going on in other parts of the world all the time, such as in the state of Hawaii.
Well as it turns out, seismic activity in The Canaries is a little bit more worrisome to American scientists than you might expect for a place so far away. While there is a great deal of arguing back and forth about this point, some scientists believe that The Canaries are a ticking time bomb for the East Coast of the United States. The Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge on La Palma, the main island in The Canaries, is roughly about 6,300 feet high at its highest point. Some scientists have theorized that there is a giant chunk of the ridge which, if seismic or volcanic activity increased in The Canaries, could crack, causing a side of the mountain to slide off and fall violently into the Atlantic.
If that occurred, then the doomsday scenario is that there could be a catastrophic tsunami in the wake of the collapse, which could inundate the entire the Eastern Seaboard, flooding cities from Boston to Norfolk. Right now, no one is saying that the enormous amount of seismic and volcanic activity at the western end of The Canaries is going to cause this to happen, but given that we are dealing with a chain of volcanic islands along a fault line, one cannot be certain of anything. This is admittedly not exactly a pleasant thought and, truthfully, not one that we can do much of anything about, save keeping an eye on things and hoping that the vigilance of scientists will give some warning if this worse-case scenario does, in fact, come to pass.
With respect to those of my readers in the UK, of course, these concerns about a collapsing mountain in The Canaries affecting the East Coast of the United States do not necessarily apply (other than perhaps in empathy), but the end times as a subject is certainly something that continues to capture some part of even the British popular imagination. Through early January, for example, Tate Britain is hosting an exhibition on the work of the Victorian painter John Martin, an artist particularly obsessed by the Apocalypse who was very popular in his day, but is no longer a household name. This is perhaps due in part to an increased secularization of British society, but for all that his work has not lost any of its power: Steven Spielberg should be so lucky to pull off an image as arresting as one of Martin’s envisioning of the end of days. For Christians everywhere, as Martin understood, vigilance in preparation for the end of all things is something that we are urged to embrace at all times, or ignore at our peril.
As it happens, Christianity provides its adherents with a regular reminder of the fact that the end is inevitable. While most of us in the Western world think of the calendar year as coming to a close on December 31st, for Catholics the liturgical year comes to an end much earlier, on the Feast of Christ the King, which this year we will celebrate on November 20th. Every month of November, Catholics listen at mass to readings from the Bible discussing the end of the world, and the Second Coming of Christ. We are reminded that, despite the best efforts of people like Al Gore or radio evangelists in California, no one knows the day nor hour when the end will actually take place; we are also warned that we should always be vigilant and prepared for it, whenever it may come.
When the ground shakes, volcanoes erupt, tidal waves inundate, and people die, such events are a more violent reminder of our inevitable end. Perhaps we will be fortunate and die peacefully in our beds, and such terrible, uncontrollable events will not directly touch us or anyone that we love. Yet these events, when we learn of them, ought to shake us up out of our complacency when it comes to how we look at and live our lives. If you do not know when or how the end will come, then it is worth asking yourself whether you are going to be able to say goodbye in a frame of mind that acknowledges you have done the best you could, with the time and graces that have been given to you.