Nature’s freshness deep down things

The following poem by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is an example of how natural and theological language can work together to create a powerful expression of the divine in nature:

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Human toil and trade have resulted in a barren environment: “the soil is bare now.” We have forgotten (“not recked”) that God charged the world with divine grandeur (“his rod” – his awesome presence). But nature is seemingly renewed each morning, because the Holy Spirit is a steadfast warm presence hovering over the earth like a bird brooding, i.e., incubating, her eggs. God remains intimately engaged with creation. Written in 1877, the poem could be read as a reaction to the worst aspects of the Industrial Age. Seared, smeared, and smudged could well describe the factory workers in William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills.” However, Hopkins felt that nature had the ability to survive the damage inflicted by humanity in the name of progress and economic development: “nature is never spent.” Despite centuries of humanity’s covering the earth with commercial and agricultural activity, nature has displayed an amazing ability to refresh itself. But can we still have the same confidence that sustained him and others who had a deep faith in nature’s resilience?

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An Ocean of Matter

Like Thomas Berry (see preceding post), Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit geologist and paleontologist, was also deeply attracted by the natural world. Growing up in the Auvergne region of France, he explored its hilly terrain with an eye toward discovering natural objects which interested the budding scientist. In this activity, he was encouraged by his father, an amateur naturalist who collected stones, insects, and other specimens in the surrounding environment. But the young Teilhard was also motivated by a drive to find things that last, an early indication of a desire to identify eternal values which would eventually lead him to his version of Christian spirituality.

In his essay “The Heart of Matter,” Teilhard describes his early attraction to Matter (the capitalization is his) when, as a child of six or seven, he began to collect objects made o f iron. The lock-pin of a plow, a metal bolt, bullet shells from a firing-range provided bits of “the Absolute in the form of the Tangible,” pieces of the “Iron God” who is incorruptible. When the boy found his hidden metal treasure to be susceptible to scratches and rust, he turned to other minerals such as quartz and amethyst crystals. It was the beginning of an ever-widening process to identify Plenitude within the material world, a search for Consistence that eventually led him to a more universal “stuff,” the “Stuff of Things,” away from specific things like metal objects or minerals to “an Elemental permeating all things.” Although Teilhard’s journey was to take him into a more traditionally spiritual territory, he confesses he “was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter.”

In the years of his youth and young manhood, between the ages of ten and thirty, he became increasingly more interested in the vegetal and animal realms. From the perfections of the Solid and Incorruptible, he turned to the New and the Rare and began collecting zoological and botanical specimens. His more formal education introduced him to physics and its world of electrons, nuclei, waves, and “the vast cosmic realities” of energy, mass, permeability, radiation, curvatures, and so forth which later served Teilhard as “archetypes” for describing “the Christic.”

Here’s a citation for the essay mentioned above:

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. “The Heart of Matter.” In The Heart of Matter, 15-79. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.


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The Meadow

As a Catholic priest, Thomas Berry was intimately familiar with the biblical stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Moreover, his scholarly explorations introduced him to a multitude of stories from the other major religious traditions as well as indigenous cultures. But he also had personal stories which deeply influenced his writing and thinking, none more so than the following experience:

I was a young person then, some twelve years old. My family was moving from a more settled part of a Southern town out to the edge of town where the new house was still being built. The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.

It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do. Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet, as the years pass, this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life.

This “magic moment” proved to be a formative experience for Berry in a number of different areas of thought, e.g., economics, jurisprudence, political theory, but none more so than religion.

Religion too, it seems to me, takes its origin here in the deep mystery of this setting. The more a person thinks of the infinite number of interrelated activities taking place here the more mysterious it all becomes, the more meaning a person finds in the Maytime blooming of the lilies, the more awestruck a person might be in simply looking out over this little patch of meadowland. . . .

We might think of a viable future for the planet less as the result of some scientific insight or as dependent on some socio-economic arrangement than as participation in a symphony or as renewed presence to the vast cosmic liturgy. This insight was perhaps something that I vaguely experienced in that first view of the lilies blooming in the meadow across the creek.

This text has invited me to reflect about my own “magic moments,” those experiences that have shaped my life and thought. Perhaps that’s material for another post.  A more complete version of Berry’s text is available.

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The New Story

Spiritual practices are often deeply related to stories of religious figures. Christian contemplatives engage in lectio divina or holy reading of the Bible and thus are thoroughly familiar with its many narratives from the foundational creation stories to the four Gospels and Paul’s letters. Buddhist meditators know the story of Prince Siddhārtha Gautama of the Shakya clan who became known as the Buddha. Hindus revere the Bhagavad Gita and other stories found in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. Jews and Muslims also have their sacred narratives, many of which are shared with Christians.

Historically speaking, sacred texts were treasured by many as  sources of all we needed to know to give our life its fullest meaning.  That has certainly been true in the past. Is it still true today? In his seminal essay “The New Story.” Thomas Berry wrote:

We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs – with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction. We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.

What might a new story look like?  What elements should be included? Certainly science needs to be considered because it has radically restructured our understanding of the physical universe. Prior to the scientific age, people believed that the cosmos was filled with spiritual beings in realms above and below the earth’s surface. The spiritual journey was often portrayed as one traversing such realms, a great example being Dante’s path through hell, purgatory, and paradise. But because of contemporary physics and astronomy, the universe is now viewed as mostly a vast empty space (more accurately dark energy and dark matter) and a myriad of galaxies with no sign of life (that has been discovered yet). In his Pensees Pascal described his sense of insignificant smallness before such a cosmos:

I see the terrifying spaces of the universe that enclose me, and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am more in this place than in another, nor why this little time that is given me to live is assigned me at this point more than another out of all the eternity that has preceded me and out of all that will follow me.

Like Pascal, many in the West no longer viewed the vastnesses above the planet as a spiritually rich cosmos. How did this happen? Drawing on his studies as a cultural historian, Berry argued that because of the devastation wreaked by the Black Death on Europe in the Middle Ages (about a third of the population died in the 14th century), Christian spirituality turned away from the natural world and its potential for divine revelation. Instead it focused on the need for the soul’s release from the pains and sorrows of the physical realm. Medieval theologians could speak of the book of scripture and the book of nature as complementary sources of spiritual wisdom, while nature and the created universe have only more recently become central theological themes, probably because of the ecological crisis. When I searched Boston College Libraries’ online catalog for books with the subject heading “Nature–religious aspect,” I had the following results:

Number of titles with the subject heading “Nature–religious aspect” published during
1951-1956: 2
1961-1966: 3
1971-1976: 9
1981-1986: 36
1991-1996: 82
2001-2006: 45
2011-2016: 78

These numbers confirm what I’ve found to be the case during my involvement in theological research over the past four decades. The writings of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and others as well as climate change data being gathered by the scientific community, have had a significant impact on theologians and other religious writers, causing them to regard the natural world as a major focus of their work.

Berry argues that until quite recently we’ve had two narratives, a redemption story based on scripture and a creation story based on scientific research. Despite many worthwhile efforts to reconcile religion and science, the lack of a unifying vision led to the formation of two significant but intellectually separate segments in our society, a redemption community (most prominently evangelical Christians) and a creation community (secular scientists). I hope that we are beginning to see greater collaboration between the two groups.

For anyone wishing to read Berry’s essay, it is available on the web as a PDF.

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First thoughts . . .

For those of us seeking to root our life journey in a particular spirituality – some spiritual practice that can guide us and give our life meaning, we encounter a wide range of spiritual paths to choose from. Today, it is not unusual for members of a religious tradition to explore others as well. For example, there are Christians who attend yoga classes or do some form of Buddhist meditation. Moreover, there are spiritualities practiced by those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious; yoga again would be good example.

In this blog I will explore this spiritual landscape, viewing it as full of potential creativity for new forms of spiritual practice in general and Christian spirituality in particular. Theologies, visual and performing arts, literature, media all offer suggestive hints of where we might be going. The matrix for my reflections will be the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, two Catholic priests whose ideas about humanity’s spiritual evolution provide a great starting point for my own thoughts. I have found them particularly valuable because they care deeply about the vital role played by the earth and nature in humanity’s spiritual well-being. And climate change has made many of us aware of how important the natural world is to our inner as well as outer lives.

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