Thomas Berry and the earth's passion

by Stephen Dunn, C.P.
We have heard in this Cathedral
Bach's Passion
The Lamentations of Jeremiah
Ancient experiences of darkness over the earth
Light born anew
But now, darkness deeper than even God
Can reach with a quick healing power.

What sound,
What song,
What cry appropriate
What cry can bring a healing
When a million year rainfall
Can hardly wash away the life destroying stain?
The arch of the Cathedral itself takes on the shape
Of the uplifted throat of the wolf
Lamenting our present destiny
Beseeching humankind
To bring back the sun
To let the flowers bloom in the meadows,
The rivers run through the hills
And let the Earth
And all its living creatures
Live their
And Abundant life.

The Second Vatican Council alerted the Catholic world to the plight of the poor in a dramatic way. As a "sign of the times." We were encouraged to see it as religiously significant -- the Holy Spirit teaching us new dimensions of the virtue of justice. It became possible to extend our sense of the sufferings -- the Passion of Jesus to include the poor and speak of the Passion of the poor -- calling us beyond a moral response to a religious investment of meaning. For Thomas Berry, as the above stanzas from his poem Morningside Cathedral suggest, it is crucially important for Christians to respond in a similar way to the Passion of the Earth.

It has been my privilege to know Thomas Berry for well over forty years -- at first rather vaguely, but in the last two decades or so, rather intensely. I've always known him as a Passionist, but more specifically, as one who pushed the envelope of what it means to be a Passionist at the dawn of the 3rd millennium. Maybe I can describe what this has meant in terms of smaller envelopes successively building the encompassing one of being a Passionist.

It is no secret that Thomas is a man of towering intellect. That gift has always played havoc with his role in a community dedicated to popular preaching rather than, say, university teaching. But, because he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of his gift, Thomas' life as a Passionist has had a threatening dimension to many of his brethren and a stimulating power with others. I count myself in this last group.

All Passionists in the era of Thomas Berry's training and for the first half of his years in the priesthood lived a quite cloistered life. Thomas was no exception. But he pushed this envelope too. Precisely because of the scope of his intellectual energy, one could say he demonstrated a paradoxical reading of the Gospel dictum to be "in the world but not of the world"­he was in the cloister, but his mentality was the opposite of cloistered. He had a deep yearning to understand the complexities of human culture in history and the role of religion in that history.

One day a few years ago, after a particularly ardent talk he gave at the Centre for Ecology and Spirituality at Port Burwell, he observed playfully, in his North Carolina drawl, "that he really got caught up in "preachment." This may be one of the most important Passionist envelopes he has pushed, to larger dimensions. In the years of my own training as a Passionist, the year after ordination was not called a "Pastoral Year," helping the young priest gain confidence in diversified ministries, although it accomplished that. Rather, it was called a year of "Sacred Eloquence" because preaching­and learning to do it well­was among the highest of Passionist priorities.

Thomas Berry became convinced that his message as a preacher needed to be addressed first of all to the general public of our society.

Thomas Berry, C.P. and Stephen Dunn, C.P.This has two major consequences: first, one must address issues of common concern, not just issues of current interest to the Catholic or Christian communities. Second, in many cases Catholic and Christian symbols need to be recast in order to speak authentically to what at first might have seemed to be simply secular concerns. In this he has been an outstanding example of how preaching becomes transformed in light of the "signs of the times." right: Thomas Berry, C.P. and Stephen Dunn, C.P.

This work of contemporary preaching, the rhetorical power to engage the listener in both the problem and the solution, is his great strength and a major way in which he demonstrates a religiously important way of being a Passionist today.

Thomas Berry is convinced that the major concern of contemporary society is the future of the planet and the human role in that future. He is equally convinced that the scientific insights of this century have provided us with a story of the cosmos and the planet earth that can beat the alienation from the earth that is so ruinously expressed in our industrial economies. That story also has the potential to heat the religious alienation from the earth that condemns most Christian preaching to a deafening silence regarding the Passion of the Earth.

How fitting that the Passionist, Thomas Berry, should have broken this impasse. How important to shift the focus from wonderment or fear over envelopes being pushed to yield new dimensions and turn rather to a deeper understanding of his message and a deepening response to it, in the conviction that, as Thomas himself says,

"The basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brighter for the continent and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture." Dream of the Earth, 137

One way we could gradually gain the ability to think in terms of the Passion of the earth would be to imitate the ancient monks and nuns and make a prayerful event of dawn and dusk.

In the best of all worlds, we would inform ourselves about what cosmology can teach us about the earth's intimate relation to the sun. But at least we can learn to treasure the gift of the sun and feel the pain of earth as it suffers: its living energy choked by industrial pollution -- its latest inhabitants, humankind, aggressively killing off other species.

And every day we can pray that dawn will once again become life giving and dusk once more have the promise of renewed life -- our gift from the sun.

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