Thomas Berry was a Passionist monk and a passionate lover of the Earth. He called himself a “geologian,” and he tirelessly shared a vision of the sacredness of the universe, the Earth, and the human whose role, he believed, is to participate co-creatively in the magnificent evolutionary process of the cosmos. On this tenth anniversary of his passing some one hundred of us who had been deeply affected by his work gathered together to celebrate the publication of his new biography, share memories of knowing him, describe how his legacy lives on in our work, and receive support for developing our vision for carrying on the task of transforming western culture from anthropocentric to ecocentric.
On the first day of the conference we met at Timberlake Earth Sanctuary in nearby Greensboro, North Carolina where some 1,800 children a year are given experiences of connecting with the natural world. Thomas was born and spent his formative years in Greensboro and, after teaching throughout the world, returned to Greensboro for the last, very productive, years of his life. He had deeply touched Carolyn Toben who, with his wise counsel, developed Timberlake. We broke into small groups to share the first of several questions that we would discuss throughout the gathering, “How has Thomas Berry touched your life?”
I vividly remember my first encounter with Thomas. In the Spring of 1990 I was struggling to hold together my three passions — for being in nature, for spiritual fellowship, and for creative work. In reading The Dream of the Earth I had been deeply moved by Thomas Berry’s ability to lyrically weave together the material and spiritual dimensions of life with a celebration of human creativity. Moving from the urban Bay Area to rural North Carolina, I had been experiencing many encounters with animals in both the outer wild and the inner wild of dreams and fervently holding the question of what it means when myths and fairy tales and indigenous people all over the world say that animals speak to us. What does it mean that wild animals speak to us?
At the time our son was in middle school. He told us he was writing a book called The Quest. One night he asked me to send him on a quest. I wrote out this Quest for him to take to an Earth Day II school campout:
In polluting the land, air, and waters and in clearing land for development of housing, shopping center, and roads we are destroying the habitats of many species. Without their homes they can’t live. We have lost our ancient deep connection with animals. We regard them only as pets or as food, or as entertaining attractions. That’s why we allow this.
Yet the stories of peoples from all over the world and from all different times tell of communication with wild animals, of animals and people speaking to each other, helping each other in times of need, even of animals being able to transform into people and people into animals. What have we forgotten?
A quest is to find something, an object or an answer to a quest-ion. Your mission, Tristan, should you choose to accept it, is to find out about the native animals who live in your habitat, these Piedmont woods, fields, and streams. And to answer the question: What is communication with animals, and how does it happen?
At the same time there was to be an ecumenical conference on Land Stewardship at Brown’s Summit, where Thomas Berry would speak. I was excited at the opportunity to experience the coming together of spiritual communities in relation to nature. Communities of nature and of spirit were both important to me, but they were rarely joined together. When I arrived I was enjoying a walk in the lush forest amidst wonderful mosses, lichen covered rocks, and wildflowers when suddenly I came upon a very large, lumpy, black rat snake lying right across the path, stopping me in my tracks. A rat snake when confronted kinks itself and becomes motionless. We looked at each other for a long time. I took this as a synchronous appearance. Snakes sense the world around them through picking up vibrations with their entire bodies and tasting the smells in the air by flicking their tongues. This alerted me to tune into my senses and trust my feelings in what was about to unfold.
The presentations were all about stewardship and the ethics and responsibilities of land use. I kept thinking about what I’d overheard a young man say in the morning, that we needed to gain a spiritual relationship with the land, hear the land speaking to us. Yes, I didn’t want to hear about stewardship. I wanted to learn about voice. I wanted to ask the American Indian man sitting nearby what he knew about hearing nature’s voices and to say that this stewardship talk bothered me because it seemed patriarchal. Just then Thomas Berry stood up and said, “It’s not enough to talk about stewardship. We must listen to the voices of the trees, the voices of the animals, the voices of the land.” It was as if he’d heard my thoughts and spoke to me! Ah, here were words that I wanted to listen to!
I went up to him afterwards (wearing my mountain lion earrings for courage) and told him that I had had experiences of plants and trees as a child that I recognized as communication, but not animals. At first he started to talk about having a dog, but I stared him in the eye, and, looking deeply back into my eyes, he said, “You get the communication, you just don’t recognize it. It’s not in the form you expected.” As he spoke I remembered that I had been having these synchronous experiences and dreams of animals. Maybe these were forms of communication — I just wasn’t recognizing them as such. Thus began a life-long exploration of synchronicity and kinship with wild animals and with this man who I felt to be a mentor in such matters. Here at Timberlake many people shared similar experiences of being spoken to very personally by Thomas on a level that deeply supported their unique interests.
Thereafter I heard Thomas Berry speak many times – at Duke, at Carolina, at our local Jung Society, at Earth Spirit Rising, and at many other conferences and gatherings over the years. He continues to speak to me. In preparing for the conference I read an old paper of his, Elders: Their Creative Role in the Human Community, in which he called upon us to take up the role of elders and tell our personal stories of “bio-cultural regionalism” with “a high level of emotional-aesthetic-spiritual communion with the natural world.” These two phrases leaped out at me, his voice loudly supporting what I feel called to convey in my own work as an elder.
I am grateful to Herman Greene of the Center for Ecozoic Studies for reminding us of some of Thomas Berry’s sensual, evocative, love-filled later writings. It is difficult to select out passages as all of his writing is gorgeous, but here are a few to savor: in The Great Work Thomas said, “This we need to know, how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.” (p.51) “The historic mission of our times is to reinvent the human — at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story, and shared dream experience.”(p.159) He goes on to tell us that in order to create a new ecological civilization, “A new revelatory experience is needed, an experience [in which] human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process.”(p.165) “In the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration. It is all an exuberant expression of existence itself.” (p.170) To engage in this work we “must feel we are supported by the same power that brought the Earth into being, that power that spun galaxies into space, that lit the sun and brought the moon into its orbit.”(p.174)
Thomas did not mince words. In The Sacred Universe he said, “We are bringing about a devastation of Earth such as the planet has never experienced in the four and a half billion years of its formation. . . We are changing the chemistry of the planet, we are disturbing the biosystems, and we are altering the geological structure and functioning of the planet, all of which took some hundreds of millions and even billions of years to bring into being.” (p.119) He invoked instead a vision of mystical oneness: “The deepest mystery of all this is surely the manner in which these forms of life from the plankton in the sea and the bacteria in the soil to the giant sequoia or to the most massive mammals, are ultimately related to one another in the comprehensive bonding of all the life systems. Genetically speaking every living being is coded not only in regard to its own interior processes but in relation to the entire complex of earthly being.” (p.111) We need a new story, a scientifically informed, functional cosmology: “Spirituality would be understood not as some new piety, rather it would be understood as creative participation in Earth community.” (p.15)
In Evening Thoughts he said, “The universe from the beginning has been a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material reality. Within this context the human activates one of the deepest dimensions of the universe and is, thus, integral with the universe from its beginning. . . . Any creative deed at the human level is a continuation of the creativity of the universe.”(p. 57, 59)
On the second and third days of the conference we convened at Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute, meeting in a round red-roofed lakeside gazebo. In small-group circles we again shared our answers to questions such as, “What form is your work taking in the world, and how is it being guided by your relationship with Thomas Berry?” I described the four aspects of the work of Earth Sanctuaries: to tell stories of earth-spirit pilgrimages, to create Temenos Garden Sanctuary, to draw and describe the diverse habitats of plants and animals in our bioregion, and to celebrate life in seasonal ceremonies. But it was later, in conversation with a wise young woman, that I realized that Thomas has become an ancestor of spiritual lineage with whom I can continue to have a relationship, to converse intimately in spirit, asking for his guidance. And, with his love for this land, he is surely an ancestor of Place.
At the end of our time together, as we sat in concentric circles in the gazebo, we were given twenty minutes of silence to reflect on one last question, “What is emergent from this gathering?” Our time had been filled with wonderfully animated human talk. I tend to get lonely when the non-humans are missing. I felt an urge to invite in to our midst some of the critters who had been busy carrying on their lives behind the scenes of our gathering. They spoke this poem to me, and I felt Thomas’s presence again as I stood and read it to the fellowship:
On the Tenth Anniversary of Thomas Berry’s Passing
A swallow sculpts a green smile
of a nest on a beam of the barn above
all our comings and goings.
Cricket frogs shake their marble-
filled rattles louder
than our sweet words of praise.
Tiger swallowtails puddle on the
muddy edge of the lake between
willows and the tag alder, in which
a red-rumped assassin bug lurks,
slurping sustenance, as do we.
Swift swallows swoop over
the water nabbing bugs for those
yellow-mouthed babies lined up
at the edge of new life.
Elder flowers, white dinner plate doilies,
hover on the edge of becoming
May we become elders and flowers
and medicine as our Elder
Berry has been for us.
Text and photos (c) 2019 Betty Lou Chaika, except where noted.
Berry, Thomas. 1988. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Reprinted 2015. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press.
—. 1999. The Great Work. New York: Bell Tower.
Berry, Thomas and Tucker, M.E. (eds.). 2006. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as a Sacred Community. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. Reprinted 2015 Berkeley: Counterpoint Press.
— and Tucker, M.E. (eds.). 2009. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Columbia University Press.
Greene, Herman. March-April, 2019. “Discoveries Made upon Re-Reading Thomas Berry’s Later Books.” in The Ecozoic Review.
Tucker, M.E., Grim, J., Angyal, A. 2019. Thomas Berry: A Biography. New York: Columbia University Press.