“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 ABEBooks.com.

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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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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