opening ourselves with the hinging daylight hours

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thomas Berry

Perhaps one of the most influential and inspiring writers of our time has passed away.  

It was a Tuesday morning at the Greenhouse early in June. My neighbor, up the street came and gave me a book called, Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry.  It is a prophetic book, recentering the place of the human on holy ground, with great responsibility. I was given this book on the day that Thomas Berry died. When my neighbor gave it to me, we didn't know that he had died yet. Thomas Berry died a little over a month ago. He is a man of the land, from the Appalachian Piedmont, intimate with the the natural world, and quite prophetic of our current cosmic context.   He was a Catholic Monk and professor of History, and yes he is a writer. We enter into the great work  of physical justice. Berry hears and shares the story of the earth, a story of goodness,  and human greed,  and the redemption of the earth. Miriam Macgillis of Genesis Farm writes, The “Great Work” was the title of one of his books in which he suggests that each of us has a great work to do in bringing our planet out of the destructive forces of our present age into a harmonious relationship with the natural world for the sake of the future. All of us alive today have our irreplaceable work to do in this historic moment.
Berry's Riverside Center along the Hudson has become a model for the Center For Transformation, a think tank to awaken us to the consequences of human induced global environmental degredation.

On Friday the Camden Center For Transformation hosted a commemoration of Thomas Berry. We entered the garden together and sat beside the fire.  The rye from the garden sat on the table. It is our communion. We walked around the garden and reflected on our communion with the land that brings us life eternal. Then from our different voices we read these words from Thomas Berry:

Essential principles of Thomas Berry 


The universe is a communion and a community.  We ourselves are that communion become conscious of itself. 

The earth is a community of beings, not a collection of objects. 

Only in a viable natural world can there be a viable human world. 

The human is less a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth.  We have no existence except within the earth and the universe. 

The human is that being in which the universe comes to itself in a special mode of conscious reflection. 

The human is seen as an intrusion or as an addendum and thus finds no real place in the story of the universe.  In reality the human activates the most profound dimension of the universe itself, its capacity to reflect on and celebrate itself in conscious awareness. 

If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, it is because we live among such awesome magnificence.  If we have powers of imagination, these are activated by the magic display of color and sound, of form and movement, such as we observe… 

If we lived on the moon, our mind and emotion, our speech and imagination, our sense of the Divine would all reflect the desolation of the lunar landscape 

We should be clear about what happens when we destroy living forms of this planet.  The first consequence is that we destroy modes of divine presence. 

The industrial order keeps its control over human activities because of the energy generated by the mythic quality of its vision. 

Ever heightened consumption was the way to ultimate human fulfillment.  Every earthly being was reduced from its status as a sacred reality to that of being a “natural resource” available for human use. 

We are no longer sustained by the ever renewing cycle of nature; we live now within the cycle of production and consumption.  

For the first time we are determining the destiny of the earth in a comprehensive and irreversible manner. 

The earth will solve its problems, and possibly ours too, if we let the earth function in its own ways.  We need only listen to what the earth is telling us. 

It’s all a question of story… An integral story has not emerged and no community can exist without a unifying story. 

Whatever fiction exists on Wall Street, the earth is a faithful scribe, a faultless calculator, a superb bookkeeper; we will be held responsible for every bit of our economic folly. 

Our secular, rational, industrial society, with its amazing scientific insights and technological skills has established the first radically anthropocentric society and has thereby broken the primary law of the universe…. the law that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member. 

This is the moment of change from a sense of the earth as subservient to human exploitation to a sense of the earth as an integral natural community, and of the human as a functioning member rather than as a conquering invader.  Our role has to be the instrument whereby the earth celebrates itself in the stories we tell and the songs we sing 

Please hear more of his words:

Here are some words that Matthew Fox  shared of Thomas Berry :

Our friend and mentor to many of us, Thomas Berry, died peacefully at 6:35 AM this morning. We are all grateful to him for his generosity of spirit and of mind, his love of marrying science and religion, his integrity and passion for justice and especially eco-justice, and his hard work in learning, teaching and mentoring. He was a man of wisdom and a man of grace.〓〓Below are a few words I spoke a few years ago at a gathering to honor him and he was present for that gathering. (This has been posted on my web page for a few years.)〓〓Now Thomas joins the ancestors. And he leaves behind much work for all of us to do. All part of the Great Work of which he wrote so eloquently.
Matthew Fox

Some Thoughts on Thomas Berry’s Contributions to the Western Spiritual Tradition
By Rev. Matthew Fox, PhD.
Caribbean poet and Nobel prizewinner Derek Wallcott says: “For every poet it is always morning in the world; history a forgotten, insomniac night. The fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world in spite of history.”
I believe Walcott names an accomplishment of Thomas’ poetic and mystical sideThomas calls all of us to fall in love with the world in spite of the folly of human history. Thomascreates a context when he says “ecology is functional cosmology”--a context in which we can recover the zeal that comes from falling in love with the world once again. He puts our own personal and collective histories into context and he puts the context into a sacred context by reminding us that the primary sacrament is the universe itself. Every other sacrament, being and action is derivative of that holy sacrament.
When I think of Thomas I am reminded of the great mentor relationships of western history. I think of Teilhard de Chardin’s influence on Thomas Berry in the same light that I think of Plato’s influence on Aristotle and Albert the Great’s influence on ThomasAquinas for example. Thomas had a mentor and all studies show that when young men have mentors they go into deeper paths and new spirals of achievement.
Speaking in general terms and using a biblical metaphor, I think Thomas stands up as a kind of new Moses leading all religious people, people of religious sensibilities and certainly Christians, out of a bondage of a land of anthropocentrism to a land of cosmology and ecology, a land flowing with milk and honey. A land that promises to respond to the great needs of the great human heart. He leads us out of the land of “autism” (his word) into a land of renewed communication with other beings and other species who are in fact very eager to communicate, to reveal themselves to us. He leads us out of the land of “academic barbarism” (his wordswhich I love) to a land of educational responsibility where the power of knowledge is subsumed to the greater common good. Where PhD’s instead of destroying the earth (his observation) are employing wisdom to save the earth and her beauty. He leads us out of a land of psychologism where disenchantment, cynicism, trivia, inertia, violence, commercialism and what Thomas calls the “illusory world of advertising” reign, into a land of enchantment, beauty, wonder, intimacy become are our valuesa place where caring matters.
He leads us out of the land of domestication to revelry of the sacred which always has something in common with the wild. For example, he writes: “Wildness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneities of any being. It is that wellspring of creativity whence comes the instinctive activates that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young: to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea. This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist and the power of the shaman.” How beautifullyThomas marries the wild energy, the sacred energy of the more than human world with human creativity in that powerful passage. Such a reminder that we are capable as a species of domesticating even Divinity Itself, making Divinity into our tidy images.Thomas leads us out of the land of boredom to a sense of awe and with awe comes gratitude and with awe comes reverence--what Thomas calls a “sense of the numinous.” In this way he is setting faith in the premodern context of the sacredness of all creation, of cosmology, of the more than human.
If a “new Moses” is too strong a term for some to name Thomas’ contribution, then surely we could settle on another term, “prophet.” The primary work of the prophet as Rabbi Heschel teaches, is to “interfere.” And Thomas is nothing if not a great interferer. He is so subtle about it they haven’t caught up with him yet. Prophets wake a sleeping people and Thomas does that. Prophets cry in the wilderness and Thomas does that. Prophets call people who are wallowing in injustice and neglect back to justice andThomas does that. He calls us to Eco-Justice which is the necessary context for all other justice struggles be they economic, racial, gender or class. He calls us as the prophets of old did to the Great Work and thus to leave trivial work behind. He calls us to reach for the Ecozoic Age and indeed, in his thoroughly challenging phrase, to “reinvent our species.”
In trying to assess Thomas’ contribution to western spirituality, I believe we are assisted by his own work. In a brief essay on Hildegard of Bingen he wrote this about western spirituality: “Thus far Christians have been so concerned with redemption out of this world, so attached to their spiritual life development or their social mission of reconciliation that they have had little time for their serious attention to the earth. Nor do Christians seem to be aware of the futility of social transformations proceeding on an historical-industrial rather than on a comprehensive ecological basis….We find relatively few Christian guides in the past to enlighten or to inspire us to a more functional relationship between the human and the natural worlds.” But then Thomas offers three examples of the past: Benedict offered an agrarian model, he being the father of course of western monasticism; Francis of Assisi offered a model based on the universal community of creatures; Hildegard is a third model with her sense of the earth as “a region of delight, we might almost say of pagan delight” which she has found from within her own experience and in a “unique model of Christian communion.” Hildegard writes: “The entire world has been embraced by this kiss [of God and creation].” Thomas adds: “Because of this erotic bond, the earth becomes luxuriant in its every aspect.” I propose that Thomas enfolds Benedict’s agrarian model, Francis’ community model and Hildegard’s erotic model into his work.
I see in his work a fourth model which I would call the cosmic scientific model and I think the precursor of this model is in fact Thomas’ own namesake whom he quotes so often, St. Thomas Aquinas of the 13th century who was condemned three times by the church before they canonized him a saint. Like Thomas Berry, Aquinas had the imagination, the scientific curiosity and the courage to propose a whole new direction for Christian theology in his day and the direction was that of incorporating science and of course the breakthrough science of Aquinas' day was Aristotle, a pagan, who came to Europe by way of Islam. Aristotle came double-tainted into Christianity and this is why Aquinas was condemned three times because he was working overtime with those who were more than Christian.
Some of Aquinas' observations follow. “Faith comes in two volumes: Nature and the Bible.” We all know Thomas Berry’s notorious remark that he has repeated more than oncethat we should “put the Bible on a shelf for twenty years”. This is simply a logical conclusion that we have been overdoing the book-bit in the name of revelation at least since the invention of the printing press. Why is it that by now EVERY seminary, every school that pretends to be training spiritual leaders, does not have scientists on its faculty telling us the revelation of nature, its mysticism and the ethics to be derived from that as well as biblical theologians? We must find the balance anew between the revelation of nature and the revelation of the Bible.
In fact in the Bible there is a whole tradition, the wisdom tradition, scholars now agree was the tradition of the historic Jesus which is total nature mysticism. One prevalent teaching of scholars today is that Jesus as a child, being considered illegitimate, was excluded from the synagogue so he went out and played in nature while others were meeting to pray indoors and that radicalized him. It comes through in all of his parables and all of his teaching which are all nature based. Wisdom literature is not based on reading books. Jesus was illiterate like most of his country people.
Another connection between Aquinas and BerryBerry is of course carrying this in all new directions-- is Aquinas' observation that “every human person is capax universi (capable of the universe).” That’s who we are as a species. That’s how big we are and neither our souls nor our hearts nor our minds will be satisfied and therefore relieved of temptations to greed and power until they are reset in the context of cosmology and the universe itself. In this regard the exciting teachings of the universe story in our time that emerges from the work of Thomas and Brian Swimme in recovering a universe story fulfills Aquinas’ observation.
Consider for example the great Otto Rank, the father of humanistic psychology who broke with Freud over many issues. Rank came to the conclusion that the number one problem for human beings is the feeling of separation that begins with leaving the womb which was our universe for nine months and the rest of life is about trying to find a reunion with the cosmos. He says: “We surrender ourselves in art or love to a potential restoration with the union of the cosmos which once existed and was then lost.” He talks about “original wound” (much better than “original sin”) that haunts our species. This is that wound: That we feel separated from the cosmos. He says the only solution is the Unio Mystica, being one with the all, in tune with the cosmos. And indigenous people all know about this. Rank said: “This identification is an echo of an original identity not only merely of child and mother but of everything living. Witness the reverence of the primitives for animals. In humans identification aims at reestablishing a lost identity with the cosmic process that has to be surrendered and continuously reestablished in the course of self-development.” Thomas Berry's work is a profound work of human healing because it restores that lost identify and relationship and passion between the human and the cosmos.
Gaston Bachelard, the late twentieth century French philosopher, comments on what happens when cosmos and psyche reconnect. In the Poetics of Space he talks of the holy trinity of Immensity, Intensity and Intimacy. When you have an experience of ImmensityinThomas’ words, an experience of the cosmos, or relationship to it, it is an intense experience. All awe is both an intense and intimate experience. Humans cannot separate the immense, intense and intimate experience and Thomas Berry by leading us into a cosmic awareness again, an awareness as important for our hearts as for our minds, is bathing us anew in Immensity, Intensity and Intimacy far beyond any mere anthropocentric relationship could ever do for us.
Bachelard declares that “grandeur progresses in the world in proportion to the deepening of intimacy…a primal value.” We have to take back immensity as a primal intimate value where “we are no longer shut up in the weight of the prison of our own beings.” The new cosmology helps us to do this and so do solitude and meditation. I honor Thomas and Aquinas and others who are helping us to name the vastness of our souls. Ernest Holmes put it this way: “Spirituality is a word that is often misused.” (He said this 100 years ago!) “From our viewpoint, spirituality is one’s recognition of the universe as a living presence of the good, truth, beauty, peace, power and love.” Holmes recognizes that spirituality is not spirituality if it is psychologizedif it is not about the universe. Holmes was right and Thomas Berry is right.
Thomas Berry carries us into diversity as well. Many western philosophers have fought over the issue of the one vs. the many but neither Aquinas nor Thomas Berry is the least bit in doubt about the resolution. Many times I’ve heard Berry quote Aquinas on exactly this issue of the wealth of diversity. Berry calls the universe the primary artist. “In every phase of our imaginative, aesthetic, and emotional lives we are profoundly dependent on this larger context of the surrounding world.” The tragedy of the ecological crisis is a soul crisis because we have been gifted with so much. Aquinas says: “Because the divine goodness could not be adequately expressed by one creature alone, God has produced many and diverse creatures so what is wanting in one in the representation of divine goodness might be supplied by another. Thus the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness ….” So the celebration of diversity is honored in both Aquinas andBerry’s thinking.
The sense of cosmology, looking at the whole and not the part, is intrinsic to all post-modern thinking but also to all premodern thinking including Aquinas and indigenous people This is how Aquinas put it: “Divinity is better represented by the whole universe than by any single thing….Not only are individual creatures images of God but so too is the whole cosmos.” How many theologians or preachers have you ever heard say thatthat the cosmos is an image of God? Thomas Berry says it. Aquinas says: “God has produced a work in which the divine likeness is clearly reflected: I mean by this the world itself.” The world itself is a mirror of the Sacred, a mirror of Divinity, a face of God, a Christ, a Buddha, Shekinah, the Goddesscall it what you willall that is renamed in ThomasBerry’s contribution.v
Another dimension to Berry’s work that is pushed in Aquinas is that of asking the question: What is the human’s role in all this? Why are we here? Aquinas says: “God wills that humans exist for the sake of the perfection of the universe.” By ‘perfection’ he means bringing to completion the tasks of the universe. Like Thomas Berry he is setting us in an ethical context of carrying on the Universe’s work. As Aquinas very bluntly puts it: “It is false to say that humanity is the most excellent being in the universe. The most excellent being in the universe is the universe itself.” And he says “we bless God by recognizing the divine goodness.” If I were to pick one line for Thomas Berry’s epitaph it would be that. Thomas taught us to see with new eyes (old new eyes?) the divine goodness, to see the beauty within all systemseco, cosmic, fireball, relationship of microcosm (atoms) to macrocosm. He reseeds the goodness or blessing that is inherent in all of being.
It’s interesting that many traditions of the world propose that the consequence of seeing the world cosmically and seeing it in a context of goodness is right behavior. Without this consciousness we are short on right behavior. For example, Black Elk says: “The human heart is a sanctuary at the center of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the Eye of the Great Spirit….” Thus our cosmology becomes our ethics. Black Elk continues: “The first peacewhich is the most important peaceis that which comes in the souls of people when they realize their oneness with all its powers….” Thomas Berry draws us to this very teaching, that at the center of all hearts lies the center of the universe and Wanka Tanka the Holy One. If Black Elk is correct, then Thomas is an ethical teacher showing us the way to recover our peacefulness and ways of reconnecting to the powers of the universe itself.
Still another dimension to Thomas Berry’s work is intimacy, a common word in his work. Aquinas put intimacy this way: “God is in all things in the most intimate way. Insofar as a thing has existence it is like God.” This is what Black Elk is saying: Wankan Tanka is within all things; Hildegard said “no creature lacks an intimate life.” So our questing for intimacy is responded to by the yearning for intimacy from other beings of the universe and this planet. We have a right to intimacy and things are set up biased in favor of intimacy. An anthropocentric consciousness is not capable of providing intimacy and this is why television is run over with soap operasan infinite amount, unending number, of pseudo-love shows that are destined not to satisfy. Intimacy is found in a more than human context and we are invited to participate.
Another dimension to Berry’s work that carries us to the next century is his profound study of deep ecumenism which embraces the wisdom of all our religious traditions and of science itself. He brings together what has been rent asunder in the 17th century, science’s wisdom and the potential wisdom of religion. We see in Thomas the yoga of study itself. By his life style Thomas reminds us of something that our educational system has practically forgotten and that is that learning itself is prayer. Learning itself can be a spiritual practice. The pursuit of truth is a spiritual act, a meditation. The rabbis of old knew thisstudying Torah is prayer. Aquinas knew thathis study was his prayer. Our secularization of education has sucked out of us the joy and commitment and thrill and yoga that study is. The excitement and spiritual experience of learning is so often left behind. Whether you study languages, mathematics, science, if you bring your heart to it, it is a spiritual discipline. We thank Thomas for that as well as Aquinas.
And finally, Thomas Berry is a true elder to the youngso important in our time. The young are yearning for elders and there are so few. What can you say of the captains of industry, the Enrons, the Andersons, the Talibans, the World Coms, the Vaticans in this moment of history? They all suffer from a terminal disease called Patriarchal Excess and from Adultism. They want to use the youth but are not there to awaken the stories of the youth. And Thomas Berry has been inspiring youth for years. The real work of the elder is to pass on stories that motivate the young to be generous and alive and use their god-given gifts to effect history so that history will not be the nightmare that Walcott named it but will be closer to that “love of the world” that it can become.Thomas Berry has done this for so many individuals. Recently I received a letter from a 22 year old Jesuit novice who told me this story: He read my work and found Thomas Berrythat way and decided to take a Greyhound bus down to North Carolina to spend a day with Thomas. “Now I know what I have to do with the rest of my life and what my generation has to do,” he wrote me. That is eldership. That is the kind of effect Thomas’ being and work have had on countless people and will have. I visited Earth Haven in North Carolina, an off the grid community, drawing very bright people to commit their lives to what is sustainable. This is the monastery of the twenty first century. To get to the 22nd century there will be people this generous and this alive to truly alter our ways of living on this earth. They are beholden to Thomas Berry and his work and Tom has visited them.
These are just two examples of Thomas Berry as elder. In effecting the relationship of young and old he is challenging everyone to grow into our role as elders and to reject our culture’s heresy of ‘retirement’ as finding the nearest golf course and squatting there until they bury you. Instead, start investing your time, wisdom, imagination and excess money if you have some into those movements that can make us sustainable and carry our species into a 22nd century that will be more honorable.
If human history survives and our species survives into the 22nd century, I believe that history will record that among us a certain prophet rose in the latter part of the 20th century imbued with the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, the intellect of Aquinas, the eros of Hildegard, the humility of Francis, the science of Einstein, and the courage and imagination of Jesus. His name was Thomas Berry. We will remember him by carrying on his vision, by building institutions and movements and infiltrating all of our professions from education to politics to business to worship with his many and sustainable visions.
�"m 2004 Matthew Fox


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