“Something we’re just learning how to see”

When I take a walk in the woods, I’m entering a complex ecosystem of trees, shrubs, ferns, insects, birds, in other words a dynamic community of a variety of life forms. Like the research participants walking through green spaces in the study described in my previous post, I feel meditative and more open to observing the life around me. But I wonder: Am I also really tuning into the communal activity that surrounds me? I suspect that I’m missing an amazing level of relationship among flora and fauna that escapes my usual means of perception. Here’s an excerpt from a recent novel, The Overstory by Richard Powers (highly recommended), that describes the activity beneath my feet as I move among the trees and shrubs:

Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information. . . .

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer. . . .

In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species – whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry – bear heavily or not at all, together as a community. . . .

Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees. (TO, 218)

This two minute video from the BBC provides similar information:

 

Thomas Berry wants us to see this “Wood Wide Web” as a community based on relationships between living beings, not a random tangle of things:

In the emerging Ecozoic era, we experience the universe as a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. We hear the voices of all the living creatures. We recognize, understand, and respond to the voices of the crickets in the fields, the flowers in the meadows, the trees in the woodlands, and the birds all around us; all of these voices resound within us in a universal chorus of delight in existence. (TB, 76)

Patricia Westerford, Powers’ fictional botantist in The Overstory (quoted above), is passionate about introducing people to the “something marvelous” that “is happening underground.”  In future posts, I’ll explore what scientists are eager to tell us about the natural world: all those “somethings” in this “universal chorus of delight in existence” we’re just learning how to see.

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A Walk in the Woods

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, June 1862. Republished online.

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Many of us will agree with Thoreau that a walk through nature can have a wonderfully restorative effect. Some doctors have even prescribed it as a way of reducing stress and increasing a sense of well-being. (See this article for more about “forest therapy” and the Japanese practice of “forest bathing.”). What are the causes of this beneficial experience? The beauty of the natural environment? The silence of the forest (underscored by birdsong and the rustling of trees) compared to our usual noisy soundscape? It’s hard to argue with audio ecologist Gordon Hempton who says that silence is hard to come by these days – it’s like an endangered species. (Krista Tippett interviews Hempton on her On Being podcast.)

Scientists have only recently been able to observe what actually happens within our brains while we take a walk in the woods. Brain wave measurements or cognitive tests in a variety of experiments have shown beneficial effects of being engaged with nature, for example a greater calm, a meditative state of mind, or an improved ability to concentrate. But there hasn’t been a way of capturing brain wave data while we are taking that walk. That changed with the development of a wearable version of the electroencephalogram (EEG), an instrument that collects brain wave patterns. This version of an EEG enabled researchers to conduct a study where the brain waves were recorded of a group of participants walking through three different types of areas, one of which was a “green space.” The results of the study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine “showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone; and higher engagement when moving out of it.” I can’t help but smile whenever science with its carefully methodical approach simply confirms what we know to be true from experience. (I take the report’s meaning of engagement to be the same as Thoreau’s “worldly engagements.”) A summary of this study titled “Easing Brain Fatigue with a Walk in the Park” appeared in the New York Times.

More of us live in cities than ever before. At the same time, popular journals and magazines carry articles about ways to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Might an environment composed of mostly concrete and glass cause these psychologically negative states? To find out if there are any causal links, psychologists and other scientists are engaged in the relatively new science of urban stress. (See, for example, this article in the research journal Nature.)

Some city-dwellers are turning to meditation, yoga, tai-chi, and other practices that offer ways of creating a more balanced and peaceful space in their lives. As mentioned above, another path for dealing with stress has been forest therapy or forest bathing. Its success has led to the formation of a professional organization for forest therapists as well as the availability of consulting services. Clearly this approach is meant for people who have lost their ability to connect with nature on their own or never had any such ability, the latter case perhaps more true of people who grew up in the city. All the more reason to take seriously Thomas Berry’s thoughts about the need for people to be introduced to nature at an early stage in their lives, especially children being raised in an urban environment:

A truly human intimacy with Earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the trees and grasses and flowers, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land, to the entire range of natural phenomena. . . . (TB, 34)

The photo at the top of this post is from Harvard Forest. Located in Petersham, Massachusetts, its mission is “to develop and implement interdisciplinary research and education programs investigating the ways in which physical, biological and human systems interact to change our earth.” City born and raised, I have a lot to learn about the natural world and so was truly grateful to learn what its various educational materials had to offer on recent visits. But even without a deeper knowledge of forest ecology (for example, unable to name or say anything intelligent about the flora around me), I have always enjoyed a walk in the woods, be it in a park or the countryside, thankful for its gifts of quiet and moments of reflection.

Given the recent surge of interest in the scientific study of trees and forests (e.g., the popularity of The Inner Life of Trees), I will do a bit more exploring in future posts about their potential role in our spiritual lives.

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Praying with the Earth

The ageless mountains are full of your glory
the vast seas swell with your might
the shining skies expand beyond our imagining
so we pause to praise
we wait in wonder
we listen to learn
of the mountain glory within us
of the sea force in our veins
of love’s shining infinity.
Grant us the grace, O God,
to serve this inner universe of soul among us.

-from Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell.

An ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, John Philip Newell received his Ph.D. in Ecclesiastical History from the University of Edinburgh. He has served as a spiritual teacher and retreat director in various capacities including Warden of Iona Abbey in Scotland, Scholar in Spirituality at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, and is currently Companion Theologian for Casa del Sol in New Mexico, a national education and retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church. Last year, he delivered the 17th Annual Evelyn Underhill Lecture in Christian Spirituality at Boston College; a video of his talk is available.

One in a series of prayer books by Newell, Praying with the Earth (2011) offers morning and evening prayers for Sunday through Saturday interspersed with brief scriptural passages, in this case from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. The book’s dedication reads “To Nahum and Rahmah, my Jewish brother and Muslim sister, whose teachings feed my soul and whose souls feed my longings for peace.” Newell intends the work to be a contribution toward realizing peace; its twofold aim is for Christians “to learn from the wisdom of other parts of the family [i.e., Judaism and Islam], and to recover, or perhaps hear for the first time, some of the lost wisdom in our own branch of the family.” Like his previous prayer books, it’s a slim volume (72 pages) with artwork interwoven throughout, in this instance art from the three Abrahamic traditions.

Whenever I’ve turned to these prayers over the years, I’ve experienced them as poems rich in natural imagery expressing God’s presence within us and throughout the earth. In the book’s Preface, Newell describes a course he taught with a Jew and a Muslim that focused on teachings of peace in the three religions. These prayer-poems are Newell’s way of offering a spiritual practice that crosses traditional boundaries to bring people together. At the same time, he is continuing his long term effort “to recover . . . some of the lost wisdom of our own branch of the family” which I take to refer to Celtic Christianity, a topic he has written about in other works, e.g., Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (1997).  Many (including myself) have been attracted to Celtic spirituality because its path is one of forming an intimate relationship between spiritual and natural realms, between God and the human soul, a relationship if realized leads to peace.

At the setting of the sun
in the darkness of the night
with the whiteness of the moon in its splendour
we move with the earth as it turns
we are carried by the hours in their passing
we enter the dark with our years
to seek shelter in night’s sanctuary
to find strength for our souls
to know peace in our prayers and our resting.
At the setting of the sun
in the darkness of the night
with the whiteness of the moon in its splendour
we seek peace.

-from Praying With the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell.


Suggested readings:

Davies, Oliver, and Thomas O’Loughlin. Celtic Spirituality. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. An excellent introduction to Celtic Christianity in its earliest centuries.

Miller, Trevor. “Celtic Spirituality – A Beginner’s Guide.” Northumbria Community. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/articles/celtic-spirituality-a-beginners-guide/. An introduction by a member of a community committed to “embrace and express an ongoing exploration into a new way for living, through a new monasticism.”

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“Everything That Rises Must Converge”

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was a writer whose Catholic faith deeply informed her fiction, and no thinker influenced her more than Teilhard de Chardin. Afflicted with lupus, an autoimmune disease that led to her early death, she found comfort in Teilhard’s spiritual writings as well as his evolutionary theology. Writing for her Georgia diocesan publication, she reviewed both The Phenomenon of Man (earlier title of The Human Phenomenon), Teilhard’s most extensive work about evolution, and The Divine Milieu, considered his major work of spirituality. In the latter work, she found a teaching that reinforced her faith in the spiritual significance of her disease: Teilhard’s insights about “passive diminishment” or unavoidable suffering. About The Phenomenon of Man she wrote that Teilhard “asserts that creation is still in full gestation and that the duty of the Christian is to cooperate with it.” (PG, 87)

O’Connor came to Teilhard late in her short life, but his ideas made their way into her work. In her article comparing their ideas about good and evil , Sue Whatley writes

In a letter to friend Rosalyn Barnes, O’Connor indicated that Teilhard’s laws governed not only the title but the substance of her story and beyond: “I have also written and sold to New World Writing a story called “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, which is a physical proposition that I found in Pere Teilhard, and am applying to a certain situation in the Southern states and indeed in all the world” . . . . It is also within this system that we find O’Connor’s inability (perhaps refusal) to make absolute the elements of evil and the elements of good.

The “certain situation” was enduring racism. The two main characters in the story, a mother and her son, hold apparently opposite views about African Americans. The context is O’Connor’s South in the late 50’s and early 60’s when Jim Crow laws were being erased but racist attitudes persisted. The mother cannot abide the fact that “Negroes” are allowed to ride in the same part of the bus as she can. Her son vehemently criticizes her racism. But as Whatley points out, neither character can be described in absolute terms of good or bad. The mother sacrificed a great deal to raise her son, and the son is full of hateful condescension toward her.

O’Connor was attracted to Teilhard’s vision of the deep interrelationship of spirit and matter. In the story’s title, “Everything That Rises” refers to the entirety of creation as it continuously emerges and evolves throughout time. The rest of the title, “Must Converge,” captures Teilhard’s notion of an evolutionary trajectory towards the Omega or Christ. Energy for the journey toward Omega is provided by love, but the common human condition is a chaotic tangle of good and evil, hate and love.

Teilhard argued that science provided ample evidence of humanity’s evolution toward a spiritual unity despite our many conflicts. All races, religions, and cultures will continue to intermingle and interact more and more, eventually identifying as a single earth community, a plurality in unity. But the certainty of that outcome doesn’t absolve us from doing the work needed to attain it. Complementing Teilhard’s notion of “passive diminishment” is his insistence on the spiritual significance of our daily efforts, our work whereby we cooperate with divine action in the world.

Each one of our works, by its more or less remote or direct effect upon the spiritual world, helps to make perfect Christ in his mystical totality. That is the fullest possible answer to the question: How can we, following the call of St. Paul, see God in all the active half of our lives? In fact, through the unceasing operation of the Incarnation, the divine so thoroughly permeates all our creaturely energies that, in order to meet it and lay hold on it, we cold not find a more fitting setting than that of our action. (DM, 31)

But O’Connor’s story ends violently as the son’s and mother’s actions lead to terrible results. While her belief in God’s intimate and active presence in his creation was fundamental to her faith, the success of her art reflects her deep awareness of human fallibility. Indeed, her stories can serve as illustrations of Teilhard’s notion of “groping” or trial and error (tâtonnement), or one of the ways that life moves forward in its development. Despite her reservations about some of his theology, I think she’d have agreed with those who, like Kathleen Duffy, argue that Teilhard should be ranked with Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, and other significant Catholic theologians as a Doctor of the Church.

At this writing, a copy of the short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is freely available.

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“The sacred place where life begins”

Indigenous peoples around the world have for centuries been considered inferior, both racially and culturally, to people of European ancestry. This has certainly been true in the US which has an awful history of systematic violence toward Native Americans by white settlers and governmental actions and policies. Many Christians believed that Indians needed to be “saved” through conversion to the “true faith.” But in recent decades, the traditional spiritual wisdom of our country’s native peoples has gained greater respect as a resource for all of us in a time when answers to our ecological crises are becoming desperately needed.

I grew up with some knowledge of the many injustices inflicted upon Native Americans, but it wasn’t until a graduate course I took almost four decades ago on world religions taught by Thomas Berry that I learned about the significant role indigenous peoples could play in reconnecting the rest of us to the earth. In one of his essays, he wrote:

Fortunately, we have the native peoples of the North American continent what must surely be considered in the immediacy of its experience, in its emotional sensitivities, and in its mode of expressions, one of the most integral traditions of human intimacy with Earth, with the entire range of natural phenomena, and with the many living beings which constitute the life community. Even minimal contact with the native peoples of this continent is often an exhilarating experience in itself, an experience that is heightened rather than diminished by the disintegrating period through which they themselves have passed. In their traditional mystique of Earth, they are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future. (TB, 42)

On numerous occasions Berry entered into dialogue with indigenous North Americans who recognized the depth of his appreciation of nature. In a volume of selected texts from Berry’s works, the book’s editors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim* describe such an encounter:

Berry himself entered many times into dialogue with First Nations leaders, such as at a gathering at Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada. After hearing Berry speak publicly on this occasion, Mohawk leader Tom Porter called him “grandfather.” He observed with great admiration that Berry’s words reminded him of the elders of his youth. (TB, 39)

Berry’s teaching on this subject made a deep impression on me, so I read with great interest a report about a session last week during the Episcopal Church’s General Convention where Native Alaskan Bernadette Demientieff gave a moving description of the effects oil drilling could have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain and consequently on her people’s way of life. The Refuge was opened up by the current administration and Congress for oil and natural gas exploitation, thereby threatening the native caribou herds which are essential for the Gwich’in people’s existence. For the Gwich’in, the Refuge’s coastal plain is “the sacred place where life begins,” a beautiful phrase many of us might feel describes a particular landscape with special meaning in our lives.


*Tucker and Grim both studied at Fordham University with Thomas Berry. Grim’s dissertation focused on Anishinabe/Ojibway shamanism.

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Learning to see

In November 2016, I attended a retreat at the Garrison Institute, a renovated former Capuchin Monastery in a scenic setting by the Hudson River. Presentations by Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and priest, provided a contemplative approach to exploring the spiritual dimension of evolution. The retreat’s guidebook included selected short texts taken from writings by theologians, spiritual teachers, and mystics including Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Berry:

Each particular being in the universe is needed by the entire universe. With this understanding of our profound kinship with all life, we can establish the the basis for a flourishing Earth community, . . .  A vast mystery is being enacted in which we participate in a unique way.

During the retreat, part of my free time was spent reading The Human Phenomenon where Teilhard invites us to see the earth as having undergone three major stages of development since its birth as a planet, stages that can be described as three concentric spheres, the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere (cf. the preceding post).  Because of the evocative power of the book’s vision and the retreat’s contemplative focus on God’s love in an evolving universe, my outdoor walks during this time became meditations on particular aspects of the monastery grounds: the remarkable outcroppings of stone; the deep green of moss amidst the autumn colors of shrubs, trees, and fallen leaves; the evidence everywhere of human activity including the monastery and its current inhabitants, but also artifacts and symbols from different religious traditions to be found within and outside the building. In other words, I was learning to see the many aspects of my surroundings as parts of the whole of what Berry calls the Earth community.

Tibetan prayer flags

The Dalai Lama

 

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It’s all about seeing

Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon (previous translation title The Phenomenon of Man) begins with the following prologue:

These pages represent an effort to see and to show what the human being becomes, what the human being requires, if placed wholly and completely in the context of appearance. . . .

We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe. From this stems the fundamental plan of my work: prelife, life, and thought – three events that outline in the past and command for the future (superlife!) one same trajectory: the curve of the human phenomenon. (HP: 3, 5)

For Teilhard the paleontologist, the context for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe includes the fossil record of prehistoric eras and data from biology and anthropology as well as more recent information. He viewed the evidence as clearly showing the earth has evolved in successive stages: prelife, life, humanity and ultimately human thought. The evolutionary process can be described as having formed three concentric spheres: the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere.

Moreover, evolution is not a random process or a mechanism of natural selection (e.g., “survival of the fittest”) but a trajectory, a curve, that echoes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s equally hopeful statement (borrowed from the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” For Teilhard, the arc is shaped by love and directed by ever greater love toward God.

Love is going through a “change of state” in the noosphere; and, if what all the great religions teach us is correct, it is in this new direction that humanity’s collective passage to God is being mapped out. (PTC: 158)

Teilhard certainly had his critics who believed him far too optimistic in his ideas about human evolution and progress. I’ll focus on this criticism in a future post.


Note: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) refers to Teilhard in its definition of noosphere:

The part of the biosphere occupied by thinking humanity; spec. (with reference to the writing of P. Teilhard de Chardin) a stage or sphere of evolutionary development characterized by (the emergence or dominance of) consciousness, the mind, and interpersonal relationships, postulated as following the stage of the establishment of human life.

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