Spirituality &
Social Change


A Tribute to Thomas Berry

Father Thomas Berry, a member of the Passionist order,
died June 1, 2009 at the age of 94.

The author of eight books and countless essays, Berry liked to be known as a cultural historian and “Earth scholar.”

The Dream of the Earth, published in 1998, fundamentally changed the entire conversation about environmentalism and eco-psychology.

One of the best-selling books in the entire history of the Sierra Club, The Dream of the Earth brought forward the core worldviews and understanding of indigenous cultures.

This book inspired an entire generation of new environmental activists with a more complex and heart-centered approach to the Earth and all creatures and energy systems of the universe.

His book stands with Silent Spring as a bright light and foundational legacy for the environmental movement and eco-psychologists.

Although he published later works, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, published in 1999 provides “the other bookend” to the seminal vision of The Dream of the Earth.

In The Great Work, Berry lays out a clear challenge for current and future environmental activists and an overarching mandate for the next century. Our overall task, according to Berry, is to repair the wide-ranging damage to the Earth created by what world renowned mythology Mircae Eliade described as “the fall into the modernity.”

Berry clearly understood and amplified what Eliade meant when he said” The fall into modernity is the single most catastrophic event to ever afflict the human spirit.

In The Great Work Berry tells us that the four threads that will help us recover and heal ourselves and the Earth from the pervasive damage of the Industrial Revolution and come together to weave the fabric of our future are

First, indigenous worldview
Second, women’s consciousness and love of the earth
Third, the gifts and intellectual clarity provided by modern science and
Fourth, the wisdom of the classical religious and spiritual traditions.

Here is a memorial tribute from his niece, Ann Berry Somers:

“Thomas understood the great value of human reasoning as expressed in the scientific endeavor, but at the same time he also understood, and helped me understand, that reasoning alone does not reveal all that is real. The sacred nature of the universe is real, not something added on to the physical. Not only is it real, but it is the deepest aspect of reality.

Reasoning alone will not give us what is needed for finding our way into the future. For this, we need the knowledge only accessible to us through other means such as the direct human experience of love, passion, enchantment, joy and terror. It is the role of artists, poets, and musicians, not scientists, to help us explore this type of knowledge.

The Great Story

The moon was shining over the bay
And Thomas asked the moon “What should I say?”
The moon answered “Tell them my story”
He asked the wind “What should I say?”
The wind answered “Tell them my story”
He posed the question to the red oak, “What should I say” and
The answer was the same “Tell them my story. Tell them the mountain story, the human story, the river story, the sacred story. Tell them the Great Story.”

Thomas told The Great Story as the moon, wind, and oak entreated him to. It is the story of the Great Self and the small self. A story which bears telling and retelling as if life itself depend on it.

The Great Story weaves our lives into a fabric of a narrative larger and more important than ourselves. It is both an old story and a new story. It is new in that important details have been revealed by science, such as the depth of time, the nature the energy transformations, and how new forms emerge from other forms.

The story is old because the most fundamental part of the story emerged spontaneously as an original impulse of humanity, sung and danced by the earliest musicians and hunters and artists at the dawn of human consciousness, offering a way to apprehend and know our own being.

Thomas knew the story of the moon and the rivers and the earth and the humans were all the same story. And that the deep pathology of our time is to consider our story to be different from that of the others.

One of the consequences of such thinking is that we begin to think our future will be different from that of the old forest or the salamanders, wetlands and meadows. Such thinking dissolves into absurdity when one is conscious of The Great Story.

The Great Self

During our meetings, I enjoyed challenging Thomas and often tried being provocative, sometimes because I had a question and sometimes just to see what he would say. He seemed to enjoy this and greeted my questions with good humor. For example, when he would talk about a Universe full of meaning, I would ask: “Well, what does it mean?” He would laugh and say, ah, that is a good topic for us today!

He would go on to describe the universe as the Great Self and ourselves as the small self. “Every being has these two dimensions: its universal dimension and its individual dimension. Where the meaning or value is, is in the attraction between the Great Self and the small self.

The satisfaction we experience when we lay down in the forest, see a turtle nest on a beach, or become mesmerized watching the flow of the river – these are tangible encounters with the Great Self, the source of our inspiration, and the dimension where we experience fulfillment. It is the same with music, or building a house. The different components don’t make sense by themselves; the parts only make sense together.”

Thomas also understood death as integral to the process of life and existence. When asked about his views on death in an interview, Thomas responded “We are born of others; we survive through others; we die into others. It is part of a total process, a community process, which is what the universe is.

It is the world of the living - of birth, life, death. I think of it like a symphony,” he said: “There’s nothing that happens in time that does not have an eternal dimension. That is, like music, it is played through a sequence of notes or a sequence of time, but must be understood outside time. It must be understood simultaneously.”

“The first note and the last note have to be understood as the simultaneous experience of melody. And so the whole universe, in a certain sense, is played through in sequence but it also exists outside this sequence.”

“So we are as old as the universe and as big as the universe. That is our Great Self. We survive [death] in our Great Self.”

The future and our capacity to find our way: As regards the future, it may be useful to consider that recovering our awareness of the universe as a communion of subjects – not a collection of objects – is available to each one of us as our minds awaken to a world of wonder, our imaginations to a world of beauty, and our emotions to a world of intimacy.

We all have the capacity for acknowledging and working toward the larger fulfillment of the community which is the Great Self and fostering the relationship between the Great Self to the small self.

For within this awakening is a new spirituality – one that Thomas says “requires no prophet or priest or saint” though the teachings of the prophets, gurus, sages and philosophers - are immensely important --- and to that we would add the teachings of Thomas Berry. The new spirituality is guided by the Great Self.

So the symphony that was Thomas Berry has come to its natural end and today we commend him to The Great Self.”

©2010, Forrest Craver

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Man becomes great exactly in the degree to which he works for the welfare
of his fellow man. - Mahatma Gandhi

Forrest Craver has been doing men’s work for more than 20 years. He was senior interviewer for Wingspan: Journal of the Male Spirit for many years. He has led or co-led more than 40 retreats or workshops for men including The Mankind Project, Men in Recovery, and regional clergy retreats for United Methodist and ELCA denominations. He is a lawyer and a nationally recognized fundraising consultant for nonprofit groups. He is the author of a short book of Spiritual Poetry entitled “This Well Has No Bottom” and is finishing a book about intergenerational breakthrough approaches for boys and men in American culture. His websites are cravercreativeservices.com/and transitioncolorado.ning.com/profile/forrestcraver or eMail.He lives and works in the Denver metro area.

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