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Tribute to Thomas Berry

posted by drew

12.05.08

Thomas Berry at the Temple of Minerva, Assisi, Italy, 1991 Thomas Berry at the Temple of Minerva, Assisi, Italy, 1991

Thomas Berry at the Temple of Minerva, Assisi, Italy, 1991   (Photo: Drew Dellinger)

 

The Center for Ecozoic Studies has published a special issue of their journal, "The Ecozoic,"  focused on Thomas Berry, the influential environmental writer and thinker. Over 150 of Berry's friends, students, and appreciators contributed reflections on Thomas and his work, including noted activist Joanna Macy and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

I was grateful to be able to contribute the following piece, "Travels with Thomas Berry," in honor of Father Thomas and his immensely significant work and profound cosmological vision.

--Drew

 

 

Travels with Thomas Berry

By Drew Dellinger

Thomas Berry can shift your worldview with a single sentence.

For example, imagine that one minute you are just a simple person, thinking simple thoughts, and then the next minute you hear Tom Berry say: "The universe--throughout its vast extent in space, and its long sequence of transformations in time--is a single, multiform, celebratory event." And furthermore, Berry says, you, as a human, "are that being in whom the universe reflects on and celebrates itself."

(Say what? The universe is a celebration . . . and I am the universe thinking about itself?)

Imagine that one minute you are a slacker college student, at an 'eco-hippie' school in Arizona, and then the next minute you are told: "The entire college project can been seen as that of enabling the student to understand the immense story of the universe and the role of the student in creating the next phase of the story."

(Do what now? Help create the next phase of the universe story?)

And say, for instance, that you are majoring in Religious Studies, and Thomas Berry sends you his essay, "The Cosmology of Religions," and the first sentences read: "The universe itself is the primary sacred community. All human religion should be considered as participation in the religious aspect of the universe itself."

And say, for example, that all this blows your mind.

Thomas Berry flipped wigs everywhere he went, because Thomas has a way of making you feel the immensity, the magnificence, and the mystery of the cosmos. He baptizes you into the presence of the galaxies, and transmits the sacredness and unity of the universe. Berry makes you feel your cosmic identity, and your connection to the earth and the universe as an unfolding process.

********

My introduction to Berry's work was his 1988 collection of essays, The Dream of the Earth. In 1990 I met Father Thomas for the first time and heard him speak at the Earth & Spirit conference in Seattle.

On the opening night of the conference, after stirring talks by Brian Swimme and Joanna Macy, Berry gave a speech that lit the room on fire. He invoked the depths of environmental destruction and the mass extinction crisis, saying, "We have to be terrorized by what we have done, but not without hope." He suggested that we put the Bible on the shelf for twenty years until we learn to read the scripture of the natural world. He said we should put Webster's Dictionary on the shelf as well, because we needed a new language to guide us into an ecological future.

He said the dark side of the Western tradition was its treatment of the natural world as objects to be used and exploited. He said we needed a new religious consciousness that saw the Earth as primary. And of course he uttered his sublime mantra and ethical formula: "The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects."

For the first time in my life, I knew I was in the presence of a prophet. Later that evening another speaker said humorously, "I've been thinking that if they were to make a movie of the new cosmology, Joanna Macy would be played by Katharine Hepburn. Brian Swimme would be played by Steve Martin. And Thomas Berry would be played by Yoda."

I had come to the conference with my friend and fellow student, Steve Snider, who was also becoming a Berry enthusiast. We spoke with Thomas and told him how much his work inspired us. We invited him to visit Prescott College someday. Tom gave me his plain white business card, which simply read, "THOMAS BERRY," and at the bottom: "Riverdale Center of Religious Research." (I carried it around in my wallet for years, until I saw that the edge was getting frayed.)

Through good fortune, Steve and I had the chance to study with Thomas during the summers of '91-'93, and through Father Tom's generosity we were able to enlist him as a mentor. I have a cascade of wonderful memories from these last 18 years.

I recall studying with Thomas in Assisi, Italy, in '91 and learning more from him in nine days than I had in any previous year of schooling. This was during the era of the Bush/Quayle administration, and when the topic of politics arose, Tom said that the only politician he had any hope for was Senator Al Gore. Later that Fall I ran into Senator Gore at a conference and I passed along the compliment. In return, Gore told me this story: One day he was talking to Thomas about his critiques of Christianity, and he asked Father Tom, "How come you haven't been excommunicated yet?" Thomas just shrugged and said softly, "They don't understand my work."

I remember when Thomas came to Prescott College in the winter of '92 and gave a speech so moving it brought tears to the eyes of several listeners. "The Earth is precious. Species are precious," he said, in that hushed, wavering voice that made you feel like you were listening to Lao Tzu himself. "Reverence will be total or it will not be at all," he said. "Celebration is the key to the future. It's the key to human energies. You can't have energies if you don't celebrate. Prescott College should be a place that celebrates the universe, that celebrates the deep mystery of things, in a meaningful way."

The second summer studying with Thomas in Italy, he had agreed to return on the condition that he could teach Dante. So in the mornings he guided us through The Divine Comedy and in the afternoons he discussed ecology and cosmology. Berry reveled in Dante's epic poem, delighting in the grandeur of Beatrice, as well as the obscure political and historical references that went over all our heads.

I'll never forget sitting on a bench in Ecuador with Steve and Thomas, looking at the stars sparkling above the dark blue mountains, drinking beer from big brown bottles as Tom discoursed on Teilhard de Chardin. On that trip we visited a traditional healer, and the shaman, Don Esteban, remarked that Thomas had "a very strong spirit."

In 1994 many of Tom's friends and former students came together to celebrate his 80th birthday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Not long after, Steve and I helped Thomas move some of his books and papers from his Riverdale Center on the Hudson River, south to the land of his birth in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was awesome to see Tom at Riverdale, surrounded by 9000 books: Jung; Teilhard; Bergson; Eisley; texts in Sanskrit, Chinese and Pali. We also saw the Great Red Oak that sheltered it all.

********

This past weekend I was on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, giving a workshop in the Whidbey Institute's Thomas Berry Hall for their annual Thomas Berry Legacy event. I performed my poetry, much of it inspired by Tom's cosmological vision. I also gave a talk titled," At the Confluence of Cosmology, Ecology and Justice: Thomas Berry, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Path into the Future."

Several years ago I met with Thomas in Greensboro and told him about the topic of my doctoral dissertation, which explores the connections between cosmology, ecology and social justice, using Berry's work and the thought of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Cosmology is the foundation of justice," Tom said. "That would be the ultimate binding force between myself and King: the recognition that the universe supports justice. It's amazing how profound King was in his thinking."

"The idea of the soul of an age, or the soul of a civilization, is what you will be dealing with," continued Thomas, "because King wanted to change the soul of the modern world. Not just technologically; not just to get higher wages, or to even get physically improved conditions, but to change the inner world. That's why when he had that 'I Have a Dream' thing, that was a vision and a soul-type experience of a transformed world--not a more mechanically effective world--but something different, something new. . . . What we're faced with now, and with King's ideas, what we're faced with, is a change in the soul of our world."

As Thomas now approaches his 94th year, it is fitting that we celebrate the contribution he has made toward transforming the soul of our world. As we face the daunting challenges of the current crisis, including climate change, mass extinction, access to food and water, green jobs and social justice, Berry's thought will continue to grow in its importance as a beacon for the present and the future.

Thank you, Thomas, for your wisdom, graciousness and authenticity; for combining the sensitivity of a mystic with the audacity of a prophet. Thank you for perceiving the planet with the soul of a poet, helping us hear the voices of the cosmos in every breeze, in every leaf, in every star, in every smile.

Sadly, the Great Red Oak at Riverdale has been felled. However, I have in my possession an acorn from this tree, which I gathered as a sacred talisman while visiting Tom in 1995. It is clear that the acorns of Berry's teaching are carried in the hearts and minds of many, many people. May the seeds of Thomas' vision and communion with the cosmos continue to blossom--for the Earth, all species, and all of us.

Filed under Cosmology


12 comments for "Tribute to Thomas Berry"

Neal Rogin says:
December 19, 2008 at 01:17 AM

Your words, dear Brother Drew, reach to the center of my soul, and that center is the One Self of all of us.

I am blessed by your friendship.

I came a across an old note card, a note to myself from several years ago. It said, "God does not exist. Existence is God."

Thank you.

Paul Conway says:
December 19, 2008 at 01:34 PM

Thomas Berry inspires me every time I see him in the Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream symposium. Meanwhile, to read the collection of comments by him, above lead me to believe he IS a true prophet. Thank you, Drew. I hope to see you again at a Global Gathering of the Pachamama Alliance. You, too, are extraordinarily inspirational. Paul Conway

Eric Saunders says:
December 24, 2008 at 03:25 PM

I met Thomas Berry in the summer of 1991 at a place called the Holy Cross Centre for Ecology and Spirituality located near Port Burwell Ontario. For some reason he sought the company of my wife and I and our 2 children on several occasions. During one of the meals he actually left the group he was sitting with to come and sit with us. Another time as we were walking from one building to another he broke into a semi run to catch up to me. On this occasion he listened to me and my ideas and the way I put things together in a way that I had never experienced before or since. I normally don't say very much but Thomas ,on this occasion had me talking like a child ,my thoughts pouring from me completely uninhibited. When I was finished he gave me the greatest compliment of my life when he said " wow I can't believe how much you think like me"! I've wondered ever since exactly what he meant by that.I suspect that he saw a similar patterning of organizing ideas,but I don't know for sure. He gave me his address and asked me to write. I never did. I was so afraid that he would be disappointed with me that I couldn't bear it. What he didn't know was that I had a deep wound burned into my psychy from years of being abused that made it so unbearable to disappoint someone that I simply wouldn't try. If I could say anything to him it would be to apoligize for not taking the risk and for doubting his character.

Pancho Ramos Stierle says:
January 04, 2009 at 09:19 AM

I can only be grateful for the inspiration I have received from father Thomas and you hermano Drew.

The delightful ride on the arm of Orion, with you two as spiritual companionships, has been beyond inspiring.

As I read your touching acorn story, it brings to mind the "Man Who Planted Trees" and sure grandpa Thomas has been sowing many seeds of critical thinking/feeling to form an Amazon of citizens of the World:

From sowing the seeds of restorative justice, strong sequoias of light will grow to illuminate the path of peace towards a healthy Earth CommUnity.

Nothing is harder than conceiving what has not yet being imagined.

Yes let's celebrate! 'cuz Love is the breath of the Cosmos ;-) and we are planetizing the Ahimsa Revolution! :-)

Carpe Diem and have a ONE-derful day! If you want to be a rebel, be kind. Human-kind, be both. Pancho

Pancho Ramos Stierle says:
June 14, 2009 at 12:45 AM

"The lights of stars that were extinguished ages ago still reaches us. So it is with great men and women who died centuries ago, but still reach us with the radiations of their personalities." --Kahlil Gibran

Love is the breath of the Cosmos... in this way father Thomas will be always with us.

Vinaoba Bhave another of my favorite revolutionaries, as Thomas, said:

"The spreading of revolutionary ideas is no part of the government's duty. In fact, revolutions cannot be organized and brought about by the established institutions of politics. The government can only act on an idea when it has been generally accepted, and then it is compelled to act on it. We say that in India we have democracy, then the government is the servant and the people are the masters. When you want to get an idea accepted, do you explain it to the servant or to the master? If you put it before the master and he approves, he will instruct his clerk to prepare the deed of gift. That is why I am putting my ideas before you—it is you, the people, who are the masters."

Many thanks for enriching our lives father Thomas and for nourishing our beings at the soulular level with your revolutionary ideas and your magnificent love. Now that you are fully spirit, your disciples will carry your flame more powerful than ever!

You and I are not "we"; you and I are ONE.

In celebration for your extraordinary and inspiring life, One of your millions of grandsons, in service and solidarity, Pancho

PS: A beautiful description from the YES! magazine back in 2006: http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=1406

Glenys Livingstone says:
September 01, 2009 at 11:07 PM

Drew, this is great: One day he (Al Gore) was talking to Thomas about his critiques of Christianity, and he asked Father Tom, "How come you haven't been excommunicated yet?" Thomas just shrugged and said softly, "They don't understand my work."

I have often wondered about that myself ... and what a great answer. ... great article here too thank you.

Cate Cabot says:
October 02, 2009 at 09:48 PM

Thank you, Drew, for this homage to Father Thomas. We have been so blessed and informed by his life and the lineage carries on through so many. Your unique and potent walk gives us yet another expression and leadership in this dear world.

nicole says:
October 03, 2009 at 12:10 AM

thank you, drew, for this powerful piece... for your inspiration, for adding to the immortalizing presence of thomas berry in this limitless time and space. i feel much gratitude this evening for your words and for thomas' words, which remind me of the unity and presence of God in all things and our innate and universal tendency to flourish... so very necessary for me to hear again and again in these perilous and, occasionally, seemingly hopeless, times. my tears tonight as i read this tribute evoke a very deep longing and visceral grief... juxtaposed with energetic passion, fervent hope and faith... your beautiful poetry and activism are inspiration to us all and i feel blessed to walk along this path beside you... and for your leadership and bright light. thank you.

Patricia Houston says:
October 03, 2009 at 04:14 PM

Drew, These are truly beautiful words spoken for a beautiful man. I was also privileged to know Thomas for over 20 years, the great teacher,and to listen to him speak and read his books. He changed my life and deepened my spirituality. I know we will still find him when we need him. Here in Victoria we have a poetry night every Friday called Planet Earth poetry. Last week I read your poem "Hymn to the Sacred Body" { which is my favourite} and people just loved it! There was a flurry of interest and comments like "who is this?" "Where did you find him?" I am delighted to be a promoter of your work and thrilled that you are coming here in May. I also mentioned that at the poetry night. Please keep writing more, this ailing planet needs all the help we can give.

agnes miclat cacayan says:
November 18, 2009 at 05:37 AM

delighted to know that Eros (with a capital E) is back!

Steve Snider says:
December 12, 2009 at 03:24 PM

We gotta plant that acorn!!!! And place your story on a plaque below. Damn I love T.B. Nice work Drew.

Deborah says:
November 09, 2011 at 10:20 PM

beautiful, heartfelt, inpsiring, honoring ... love and respect

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drew dellinger

Drew Dellinger

Drew Dellinger is a speaker, poet, writer, teacher, and founder of Planetize the Movement. He has inspired minds and hearts at over 1000 events around the planet, performing poetry and keynoting on justice, ecology, cosmology, activism, democracy and compassion.
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