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. 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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Praying with Teilhard de Chardin

One of 28 titles in the Companions for the Journey series published by Saint Mary’s Press, Praying with Teilhard de Chardin by James W. Skehan, SJ, offers both an excellent introductory essay about Teilhard’s life and accomplishments and a way to engage with Teilhard’s spiritual vision. Skehan is particularly suited for showing how Teilhard can be a resource for prayer and meditation. While active as a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics (now the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences) at Boston College, he shared Teilhard’s passion for geological research. Both were profoundly shaped by their membership in the Jesuit order, an order that historically was interested in the sciences as a natural outcome of its Ignatian spirituality. Like Teilhard, he found deep connections between faith and science. Asked about any perceived conflict between the two, he responded:

If you look at a beautiful sunset, or how mountains are formed, or observe how continents move, you can view it either as science or as God speaking to you, or both. I do both. What I do as a scientist is no different from what I do listening to the cosmic word of God. It’s nice to have both [science and faith] – in fact, it makes everything so exhilarating. What could be more marvelous?

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but used copies are available via Amazon and

Skehan, James William. Praying with Teilhard De Chardin. Companions for the Journey. Winona, Minn.: Saint Mary’s Press, 2001.

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Cynthia Bourgeault on Teilhard

In 2016, Cynthia Bourgeault offered a five week online course on Teilhard via the Spirituality & Practice website (a wonderful resource, I should add). Titled “Teilhard for Our Times,” the course provided an introduction to the main themes of Teilhard’s thought. I can highly recommend taking it; the course is still available, although not in its original real time version where participants and Bourgeault were able to share their thoughts and reactions online after each session.

Here’s the text from the course’s first of fifteen sessions as an example of Bourgeault’s accessible approach to introducing Teilhard’s ideas:

Session 1: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Some twenty years ago now, the well-known cosmologist Brian Swimme (author of The Universe Story) made a pilgrimage to New York City to seek out Thomas Berry, that venerable patriarch of the ecological movement. Swimme was deeply troubled by the continuing rate of destruction of our planet and wondered what words of wisdom Berry might have to offer.

To Swimme’s great surprise, Berry pondered the question silently for a few moments, then pulled down a book from among the thousands on his bookshelf and handed it to his visitor. It was a well-worn copy of The Human Phenomenon by the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Swimme was initially disappointed — he recalled a quick read-through of the book back in his Jesuit high school days, but had found nothing there to intrigue him. What’s more, Teilhard’s strange blend of science and mysticism was decidedly out of fashion among the cosmologists and evolutionary scientists Swimme now worked with. Why was this old stuff back in his face again? But Berry’s next words stopped him dead in his tracks.

“I fully expect,” said Thomas Berry, “that in the next millennium Teilhard will be generally regarded as the fourth major thinker of the western Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard.”

Wow! That’s quite the statement about a person whose work is still a largely unexplored spiritual terrain. Although the scene is slowly shifting, Teilhard remains a brilliant singularity whose unified cosmic vision has been fully embraced neither by the Church nor by the scientific community, those institutions he served so faithfully his entire life. In his own era, Teilhard was definitely a voice crying in the wilderness, a visionary decades ahead of his time whose fate, like most visionaries, was to be universally misunderstood and rejected. His fellow scientists scratched their heads. The Catholic Church exiled him and forbade the publication of his writings during his lifetime.

But unease came from the other quarters as well. To those steeped in traditional “perennial philosophy” metaphysics, his vision seemed to fly in the face of foundational assumptions. Rather than seeing spirit and matter as opposing substances (with the spiritual journey envisioned as an escape from matter), he saw spirit and matter as two phases in a single evolutionary dynamism. And as for the sweeping global changes that most spiritual pundits rail against — urbanization, globalization, even the population explosion and nuclear energy — he responded, “Bring it on!” He seemed to be taking his cues from a completely different roadmap, and the leap was simply too great for most people to follow. After an initial flurry of interest in his work in the sixties (his death in 1955 ended the publication ban on his works), his name largely faded from view.

But as the decades rolled on, people began to notice that his many of his wild ideas were in fact beginning to materialize. There was a flurry of interest in the social media a few months ago when someone noted how a passage in The Human Phenomenon essentially predicts the internet. And while this may be reading in a bit, the underlying truth remains: Teilhard envisioned the planet in the conditions we now actually find ourselves in — dynamic, interwoven, vibrant, crowded — and he offered a roadmap for dealing with this accelerated rate of change not with fear and paralysis, but with hope. In deep time, he insists (i.e., the fourteen billion years that the universe story has been unfolding) the ground has been rising steadily to meet our feet, and there is no reason to lose either our way or our nerve. As the unfolding of the 21st century confirms more and more of what he saying, people are coming around for another look.

His work may initially feel a bit intimidating, loaded with unfamiliar terms and challenging intellectual leaps. But fundamentally his ideas all radiate out from a central vision — sometimes called “The Teilhardian synthesis” — which is clearly set forth and not that difficult to unpack. Over the course of this e-course I will be doing just that: breaking his vision down into bite-sized chunks so that you can wrap your mind around it. I think you’ll find that it’s worth digging for.

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