Saturday, October 03, 2009

Reflections on Thomas Berry Memorial at St. John the Divine in New York

Dear Friends,

I'd like to share my reflections with you on this memoria
l service. I took no notes, so I am relying on what stands most clearly in my memory from a week ago. These are only highlights of many remarkable expressions from the speakers and artists there. I hope it imparts something of how special this memorial was and of my gratitude to the organizers for the opportunity to celebrate, grieve, and honor a great man.

Earth is Primary, the Human Derivative:
Reflections on the Thomas Berry Award and Memorial Service
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Cathedral of St. John the Divine

As I walked through the massive front entrance of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I knew I was passing through a portal. It wasn’t just that the cathedral was a sacred space and was so inspiring in its soaring arches and stained glass. It was as
much why we were there and who we were. It was passage into sacred time as a community drawn and held by a common passion. There were familiar faces of colleagues and friends from my years as editor of EarthLight magazine, but many more were faces I did not recognize. We were all there to honor the passage of our greatest elder. To celebrate his life, perhaps to begin to glimpse a way to carry forward his work on Earth.

The program began with a processional and with dancers weaving through the crowd, trailing banners that symbolized life on Earth and the water planet. Organ strains pulsed through the cavernous space.

As people began to speak, I began to identify a unifying theme throughout: To find the wisdom to go forward, we need to go back; back to a more primal knowledge, to the source of our identity as a species.

Mary Evelyn Tucker, scholar at Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, spoke from he
r long history with Thomas – first as student, then friend, colleague, and editor of his writings. Even with the impressive scope of his intellect and depth of his knowledge as a cultural historian, she said, he never lost touch with a more primary consciousness, what she called “migratory” knowledge. By way of illustration, she spoke of the red knot sandpiper which breeds far in the northern Arctic. After they hatch and are old enough to fly, the young sandpipers begin their migration, preceding the adult sandpipers. Even so, the young birds follow the age old routes and stop off where sandpipers have always stopped. They know without learning it from their parents. They draw on their genetic inheritance.

Thomas drew on that kind of knowledge, bred in the bone, never lost touch with it, she said. And more importantly, he found a way to share it, along with his more scholarly insights. It occurs to me that this is what might be what drew so many to his writings. They touched on something age old and lost within us. (I recently gave a copy of Dream of the Earth to a colleague of mine in water conservation at the water utility where I currently work. He said that after years of environmental work and feeling burned out, this book has changed his life and given him renewed energy for his work.) In a related vein, Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm spoke of one of Thomas’s deepest insights that it was our genetic coding we need to consult for guidance, that cultural knowledge is not enough.

Brian Swimme shared both humorous and insightful stories about Thomas. He spoke of a time early on in his relationship with Thomas when Brian was excitedly telling him that what he really wanted to do was to reach “enlightenment.” Thomas looked at him and said, “ok…but why aim so low? What is really more important for the human, at this time in history, is to create mutually enhancing relations with the non-human Earth community.”

He also related a story of being at a conference with Thomas and others which focused on a discussion of the role of the Hero down through human history, including what heroes are there today, what heroes are needed? After providing what Brian said was a remarkable summation of all that was said at the conference, Thomas began speaking about Earth’s biodiversity. He ended his summation by calling attention to a singing bird outside and said, “that singing bird is the hero of the new story.”

On another occasion, Brian was passionately telling Thomas, over a cup of coffee in a café, that he had figured out the source of the problem in industrial society and what needed to be done. We don’t truly account for the cost of anything, he said. If the price we pay for things were brought into sync with the true costs, we would consume much less and we would stop the assault on the natural world. Thomas was silent for a while, then brought Brian’s attention to the waitress. Her act of bringing them a cup of coffee was one of infinite generosity. Further, he said, it took the entire Universe to bring them the cup of coffee in front of them. “Brian,” he said, “you will never be able to fully pay for that cup of coffee.”

Paul Winter was there and played an awesomely beautiful saxophone solo that broke me open. His music also seemed to be a journey back to a more primary knowledge through sound. I looked upward and around and thought of Thomas’s image of the throat of the wolf howling, so like the soaring cavern of the cathedral. It was an image that many evoked during the service and is also the image on the cover of a new anthology of writings. Produced by Herman Greene (who was present at the service) and friends at the Center for Ecozoic Studies, the anthology is a moving tribute to Thomas Berry by dozens of people from all walks of life.

What I noticed throughout the service, was a realization that Thomas represented an older, deeper, more primary source of wisdom, one we need so much today. He brought that out in people, gave expression to the unexpressed in so many of us, made us feel less alone, less alienated, perhaps a little less sorrowful and more hopeful about what we can do about the desecration of the planet.

A few days after I returned from the service, I was experiencing some despair over what I considered to be some key failures in my life. I was grieving lost opportunities, times when I was overcome by fear and shrank back from truly engaging with life, regretting decisions and actions that seemed shortsighted as I thought back on them. I was trying to give expression to all of this to Diana, my partner. She listened, then simply asked me, “what would Thomas tell you?” I was silent for a while, and then it came to me: go to the Earth for guidance. Trust the Universe, because you are the Universe trying to give birth, through you, to one more strand of its diverse expression. There is no need to be afraid.

Then Diana asked me, “and what does the Earth tell you?” After a few moments, what came was so clear. It seemed like the kind of older wisdom that so many were referring to in the memorial for Thomas. Let me share my response as a poem:


Be like a tree. Stay rooted in the dream.
Give yourself fully to the changing seasons.
There is a time to leaf and flower,
A time to release and be dormant.

A tree doesn’t worry or fret
about whether it is an oak or a bay laurel,
a sycamore or an elm.
It gives itself fully to its aliveness.

A tree doesn’t worry about success or failure,
because they don’t exist.
They are only concepts in the mind.
Be like a tree. Hold your limbs upward
to beseech the sky.

I am grateful for the healing vision Thomas has given, both for my own healing and for that of the larger culture. May it endure for generations to come.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:30 PM  

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