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Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > News > Father Thomas Berry — A Tribute

Father Thomas Berry — A Tribute

Shams Kairys

June 09, 2009

Thomas Berry, priest, visionary cosmologist and “geologian,” died peacefully on June 1st at age 94.

Berry was a gentle soul whose intimacy with nature and broad erudition enabled him to speak with a compelling voice about the immense story behind creation and this precious life on Earth, declaring “the Universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

He was painfully cognizant of the roots of our disconnection from and desecration of the natural world, and at the same time he gloried in the great gifts it bestows in each moment. He preached the redemptive power of recognizing that “the human being is less a being on the Earth or in the universe than a dimension of the Earth and indeed of the universe itself.”

An image of Thomas Berry.His message was tinged with wonder and warning, with reverence and a “sense of the numinous.” And he held hope for an integral planetary community including all human and non-human constituents ushering in an Ecozoic era where every being has its rightful place, role and voice.

Rich Heffern recounts: “Berry spent his childhood roaming the woods and meadows around his home in Greensboro, N.C. At the age of 11, he says, his sense of ‘the natural world in its numinous presence’ came to him when he discovered a new meadow on the outskirts of the town to which his family had just moved. ‘The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass,’ he said. ‘A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.’

It was not only the lilies, he said. ‘It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. ... This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good.’ By extension, he said, ‘a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being.’

He believed the only way to effectively function as individuals and as a species is to understand the history and functioning of our planet and of the wide universe itself, like sailors learning about their ship and the vast ocean on which it sails. ‘It takes a universe to make a child,’ he said, adding that he was ‘trying to establish a functional cosmology, not a theology.’ The amazing, mind-boggling cosmological perspective, he felt, can resuscitate human meaning and direction. The most important spiritual qualities, for Berry, were amazement and enchantment. Awe is healing. A sense of wonder is the therapy for our disconnection from the natural world.”

Drew Dellinger recalls Fr. Thomas speaking: “The Earth is precious. Species are precious,” he said, in that hushed, wavering voice that made you feel like you were listening to Lao Tzu himself. “Reverence will be total or it will not be at all,” he said. “Celebration is the key to the future.” Then Dellinger adds: “Thomas has a way of making you feel the immensity, the magnificence, and the mystery of the cosmos. He baptizes you into the presence of the galaxies, and transmits the sacredness and unity of the universe. Berry makes you feel your cosmic identity, and your connection to the Earth and the universe as an unfolding process.”

Matthew Fox wrote: “Thomas calls all of us to fall in love with the world in spite of the folly of human history. When he says ‘ecology is functional cosmology’—he creates 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 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. Berry’s notorious remark—that we should ‘put the Bible on a shelf for twenty years’—simply reflects a logical conclusion that to find that balance anew we must devote ourselves more to the revelation of nature, its mysticism and the ethics to be derived from that. 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, to ‘reinvent our species.’ His work is a profound work of human healing because it restores that lost identity and relationship and passion between the human and the cosmos.”

Quotations from Thomas Berry

The universe itself is the primary sacred community. All human religion should be considered as participation in the religious aspect of the universe itself. 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.

Our difficulty is that we have become autistic. We no longer listen to what the Earth, its landscape, its atmospheric phenomena and all its living forms, its mountains and valleys, the rain, the wind, and all the flora and fauna of the planet are telling us.

Our present urgency is to recover a sense of the primacy of the Universe as our fundamental context, and the primacy of the Earth as the matrix from which life has emerged and on which life depends. Recovering this sense is essential to establishing the framework for mutually enhancing human-Earth relations for the flourishing of life on the planet.

The Great Work, now as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans.

All human activities, professions, programs, and institutions must henceforth be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship.

In reality, there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its own inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings.

In every phase of our imaginative, aesthetic, and emotional lives we are profoundly dependent on this larger context of the surrounding world.

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role within the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. Only through this story of how the Universe came to be in the beginning and how it came to be as it is does a person come to appreciate the meaning of life or to derive the psychic energy needed to deal effectively with those crisis moments that occur in the life of the individual and in the life of the society. Such a story communicates the most sacred of mysteries. Our story not only interprets the past, it also guides and inspires our shaping of the future.

The Universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the Universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the Universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.

Both education and religion need to ground themselves within the story of the universe as we now understand this story through empirical knowledge. Within this functional cosmology, we can overcome our alienation and begin the renewal of life on a sustainable basis. This story is a numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision and the energy required to bring not only ourselves but the entire planet into a new order of magnificence.

The basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the Earth. If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the Sun, and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the Universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.

Wildness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneities of any being. It is that wellspring of creativity whence comes the instinctive activities 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.

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