Tom Berry — Greensboro, North Carolina (Photo: Drew Dellinger)
This weekend, the Sophia Center in Oakland, CA, hosted a wonderful conference called "Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology," honoring and exploring the work of Father Thomas.
Brian Swimme opened the gathering with a great talk, chronicling his personal journey with Tom and elucidating the remarkable experience of being in the presence of a sage. One of the signs of a sage, said Brian, is that, in their company, you recognize who you are. They awaken in you a fuller, deeper sense of self.
Swimme told a story of eating at Thomas’ favorite spot, the Broadway Diner in the Bronx. As the waitress refilled their coffee cups and walked away, Thomas said to Brian, ‘There’s no way you can repay her for that act. That isn’t a monetary transaction. That’s an infinite act of kindness. She has just poured her life into our lives.’ Like Dante, perceiving the Divine in the person of Beatrice, Thomas Berry had the ability to see the infinity in an ordinary instant.
The next morning, Steve Dunn, a fellow Catholic brother in Berry’s Passionist Order, shared some memories of knowing Father Tom for five decades. Steve recalled how Berry was fired from his first teaching job for teaching Karl Marx to college students in the middle of the McCarthy era. As a young seminarian in his twenties, Dunn and his colleagues were discouraged from too much contact with Tom Berry, for fear they might acquire subversive ideas. Nevertheless, Steve Dunn would often visit Thomas for confession. One day, Steve came to confession in Tom’s small room, which was filled with books stacked from floor to ceiling. Kneeling before the priest in accordance with tradition, Steve shared some problem that was weighing on his mind. After he had poured his heart out to Tom, Father Berry said, ‘I have something that might be helpful to you.’ Thomas rose and walked across his bed to reach a high shelf, but just as he put his hand on the book, he suddenly stopped and said, ‘You don’t read Chinese, do you?’
This anecdote makes me think of how, decades later, Thomas Berry is offering us the deep wisdom of the Earth, but we in the modern, industrial world have lost the capacity to read the language of the planet. Berry seems to know what guidance we need, if only we could understand the text of the living cosmos.
Sister Gail Worcelo reflected on Thomas’ mentorship, describing him as a man of profound courtesy, transparency and honesty, with no pretense.
On Friday evening, John Grim, another long-time student and friend of Berry, gave an impressive and erudite talk on Thomas and Teilhard de Chardin as global prophets. Berry, said Grim, abides in reverence, like a yogi, with the capacity to abide in deep reverence even in the midst of immense challenges.
Saturday morning I was honored to share my poem, "hieroglyphic stairway," before an excellent and inspiring talk by Mary Evelyn Tucker. "Cosmology is about the aliveness of the universe," Tucker said. She spoke of some formative influences on Thomas Berry, such as his earthy epiphany in a Carolina meadow, and the sense of rhythm–the daily rhythm of things–that monastic life gave him. "The meadow across the creek awakened him to the magic, and the monastery gave him a sense of the mystery," said Tucker.
It was nice to see old friends and committed colleagues such as China Galland, Paloma Pavel and fellow students from CIIS.
On Friday and Saturday afternoons I presented a workshop titled "Thomas Berry and the Poetry of the Cosmos." I shared some of the ideas I’d gleaned from Thomas during my 18 years of knowing him, and suggested that Berry’s approach to the universe is fundamentally poetic.
On Saturday evening the Irish author Diarmuid O’Murchu presented on "Theological Implications of the New Cosmology." Among many interesting and important points, O’Murchu emphasized the subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching and his rejection of hierarchical authority. He said that the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ is a faulty Greek translation from the original Aramaic. In the language that Jesus spoke, the idea is more properly understood as ‘reigning and ruling so that everybody is empowered to reign and rule.’ O’Murchu cited an article from John Dominic Crossan (my favorite Jesus scholar) in which Crossan states that ‘the kingdom of God’ should be translated as ‘the companionship of empowerment.’
All in all, it was a fabulous weekend of learning, and a moving celebration of the vision of Thomas Berry. Many thanks to Jim Conlon and all the folks at Sophia Center who organized the gathering. And infinite thanks to Thomas Berry for his sublime presence and gracious authenticity, and for helping us hear the voices of the cosmos in every breeze, in every leaf, in every star, in every smile.
Several speakers referenced the Great Red Oak that grew beside Thomas’ home in Riverdale, NY, and Berry’s deep affection for this magnificent tree. The dedication to Berry’s masterwork, The Dream of the Earth, reads: "To the Great Red Oak, beneath whose sheltering branches this book was written." Many of us shared in Tom’s sadness when this tree was cut down. What most folks don’t know is that I have in my possession an acorn from this tree, which I gathered as a sacred talisman while visiting Thomas at Riverdale in 1995. What the conference this weekend clearly showed is 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.