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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The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry (1934- ), farmer, environmentalist, author of poems, novels, short stories, and essays, resides near his birth place in Kentucky. His poetry often reveals his deep reverence for the earth, like in the following example.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

From Selected Poems, Counterpoint Press, 1999.

Some consider his Sabbaths poems among his best. Here is an example. In the video, Berry introduces the poem by asking a question: “The big question, of course, for us as humans is: How do you get to the Sabbath? How do you get to a point of rest that is legitimate and deserved?”

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The Avowal

A year before her death, Denise Levertov published two slim collections of her poetry, each volume with a particular focus or theme. In the Foreword to the volume devoted to a selection of her religious poems, she explains:

Included here are poems from seven separate volumes, the earliest dating from 1978; and although the sequence is not wholly chronological it does, to some extent, trace my own slow movement from agnosticism to Christian faith, a movement incorporating much of doubt and questioning as well as of affirmation . . . .

The other volume contains some of her “ecologically concerned” and nature poems. Given the importance of these two themes in Levertov’s writing, it’s no surprise that some of her best poems would weave the two together, for example the following:

The Avowal
For Carolyn Kizer and John Woodbridge,
Recalling Our Celebration
of George Herbert’s Birthday, 1983

As swimmers dare
to face the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Citations for the two books:

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Compositions based on climate data

So much about climate change is communicated by numbers and graphs (e.g., rising temperatures, increasing carbon dioxide levels, etc.), and often illustrated by alarming visual evidence in photos and videos. But the human spirit can be engaged on many levels. Recently, I discovered some musicians who are trying to express their concerns about climate change using their musical instruments. The source of their inspiration comes from what may seem to us as unpromising material: climate data.

Here is the first example, a composition for string quartet by Daniel Crawford: The sound of climate change from the Amazon to the Arctic.

The second example is a larger, more ambitious effort: the Climate Music Project. The Project consists of a team of composers, climate scientists, and other collaborators led by founder Stephan Crawford and his co-producer Fran Schulberg. While the Project’s compositions have been performed in public settings like Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, there aren’t any audio or video recordings available for streaming or purchase. Here’s a short video on how the music is composed.

In an interview for The Verge, Crawford explained what he hoped the Project could achieve:

When we did our premiere in 2015 at the Planetarium in Oakland, during the audience engagement section, a woman in the audience stood up and said, “You know, I was listening to the music and I was watching the years count up and I was watching the data animation and I said to myself, that’s how the music sounded when I was born. And that’s how the music sounded when my daughter was born. And that’s how the music could sound when my granddaughter might be born.” For the first time in her life, what had been a very abstract issue became suddenly very personal to her and shifted within the context of her family’s own historical arc. And for her that was very powerful. We do see that that is one of the effects of the music.

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Missa Gaia – Earth Mass

Missa Gaia, subtitled A Mass in Celebration of Mother Earth Recorded Live in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Grand Canyon, first became available as a CD in 1982. The back cover provides additional details about the musicians: “Paul Winter and The Paul Winter Consort, with the chorus, choristers, and pipe organ of the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, along with the voices of wolf, whale and loon.” The Mass is dedicated to St. Francis whose Canticle of Brother Sun provides the text for the work’s opening composition. This section, along with many of the other sections, is available on YouTube. A personal favorite is the Missa’s Blue Green Hills of Earth. The complete Mass is a magnificent work that deserves a hearing at least twice a year, on Earth Day (April 22) and the Feast of St. Francis (October 4).

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine celebrates a St. Francis Animal Blessing on the first Sunday of October each year. Missa Gaia is performed during the liturgy which includes a procession of animals. Preparation for the event and the event itself was captured on video and is available on a DVD titled A Celebration of Creation.


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Book: Earth’s Echo: Sacred Encounters with Nature, by Robert M. Hamma

The basic theme running through this book of brief spiritual texts and prayers is that God has infused nature with his presence, just as he is present within each one of us. In his introductory chapter, Hamma writes:

So while the assertion that nature reveals God is not surprising, the claim that nature is a sacred presence in itself may be. To say this is to say that nature does not merely point to God or reveal God the way a painting reveals the artist; it is to claim even more. Mystics in the great religious traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism, have often made the assertion that we in our humanity participate in a real way in the life of God. If we may dare to claim some participation in the life of God, some presence of divinity within us, can we not also say that nature too participates in divinity and that God is present in it? “If you wish to know the divine,” the Buddha said, “feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.”

Each of the chapters 2 through 6 take its inspiration from a different type of landscape: shore, forest, desert, river, mountain. Each chapter follows the a fourfold pattern modeled after lectio divina (Latin for divine reading). Traditionally, lectio‘s four steps are lectio (reading – usually scripture but it could be other spiritual texts), meditatio (meditating on the text), oratio (praying as a response to the text), and contemplatio (contemplating in silence on God’s presence). The four steps have also been called reading, ruminating, responding, resting. Hamma chooses to call them paying attention, pondering, responding, and surrendering. The paying attention section is a short text by a selected author on that chapter’s landscape. The pondering and responding sections are reflective texts by Hamma, the latter in poetic form. The surrendering section is a brief aphorism by another author that “speaks to each passage [the paying attention text] and provides a thought to carry us through the day.”

Here, for example, is the first reading in the the forest chapter. It’s by Thomas Berry.

The world of life, of spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset and starlight, the world of soil and sunshine, of meadow and woodland, of hickory and oak and maple and hemlock and pineland forests, of wildlife dwelling around us, of the river and its well-being — all of this some of us are discovering for the first time as the integral community in which we live. Here we experience the reality and the values that evoke in us our deepest moments of reflection, our revelatory experience of the ultimate mystery of things. Here . . . we receive those larger intuitions that lead us to dance and sing, intuitions that activate our imaginative powers in their most creative functions.

The surrendering aphorism is from the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): “The trees and stone will teach you what you never learn from the masters.”

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Evangelical Christians and Climate Change

In a previous post, I mentioned Berry’s idea that two communities, the redemption community, most prominently Evangelical Christians, and the creation community, have developed in the West since the Middle Ages, the former basing its understanding of the natural word on a literal reading of scripture and the latter on science. But have all Evangelicals dismissed the evidence provided by environmental science for climate change? Not entirely. According to a Pew Research Center report based on data gathered in August 2014, while 70% of white evangelicals either think that the warming of the earth is due to natural patterns or reject the evidence for warming, 28% do accept the evidence and believe that climate change is caused by human activity. In other words, as of mid 2014 at least one in four white evangelicals agreed with the growing numbers of Americans who believe in climate science and humanity’s responsibility behind the alarming data.

Efforts to persuade their fellow believers about the reality and seriousness of the problem are being made by some Evangelicals, for example groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, and evangelical climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe (in 2014 named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people).  We can only hope that these efforts will eventually succeed and the two communities will be as one when regarding the earth’s future.

A streaming video of Hayhoe in conversation with Boston College theologian Stephen Pope is available.

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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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