When the Catholic priest Thomas Berry died in 2009, obituaries were not sure what to call him. “Cultural historian” was the preferred title. “Theologian” didn’t quite encompass his work, and he had preferred the term “geologian” instead. Born in Greensboro in 1914, Berry studied Asian languages and religions, Native American culture, founded the graduate program on religions at Fordham University, among other studies and work throughout his life — all in the search of a spirituality that combines religion and nature.
In “The Great Work,” Berry wrote about his profound spiritual experience at a meadow when he was 11 years old. The experience was the basis for his spiritual development and intellectual thought for the rest of his life. “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformations is good, what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good,” he wrote.
Berry’s writing is soft yet powerful. It flows, and is difficult to quote and pull from. You end up reading the whole book but not being able to describe what you just read, and not wanting to either, but instead just to let the writing settle. The writing flows gently like water or like a breeze, and you delight in his love of the word “numinous.”
Here is an excerpt from “The Dream of the Earth,” by Thomas Berry, published in 1988.
We are returning to our native place after a long absence, meeting once again with our kin in the earth community. For too long we have been away somewhere, entranced with our industrial world of wires and wheels, concrete and steel, and our unending highways, where we race back and forth in continual frenzy.
The world of life, of spontaneity, the world of dawn and sunset and glittering stars in the dark night heavens, the world of wind and rain, of meadow flowers and flowing streams, of hickory and oak and maple and spruce and pineland forests, the world of desert sand and prairie grasses, and within all this the eagle and the hawk, the mockingbird and the chickadee, the deer and the wolf and the beer, the coyote, the raccoon, the whale and the seal, and the salmon returning upstream to spawn — all this, the wilderness world recently rediscovered with heightened emotional sensitivity, is an experience not far from that of Dante meeting Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, where she descends amid a cloud of blossoms. It was a long wait for Dante, so aware of his infidelities, yet struck anew and inwardly “pierced,” as when, hardly out of his childhood, he had first seen Beatrice. The “ancient flame” was lit again in the depths of his being. In that meeting, Dante is describing not only a personal experience, but the experience of the entire human community at the moment of reconciliation with the divine after the long period of alienation and human wandering away from the true center.
Something of this feeling of intimacy we now experience as we recover our presence within the earth community. This is something more than working out a viable economy, something more than ecology, more even than Deep Ecology, is able to express. This is a sense of presence, a realization that the earth community is a wilderness community that will not be bargained with; nor will it simply be studied or examined or made an object of any kind; nor will it be domesticated or trivialized as a setting for vacation indulgence, except under duress and by oppressions which it cannot escape. When this does take place in an abusive way, a vengeance awaits the human, for when the other living species are violated so extensively, the human itself is imperiled.
If the earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality. We have even forgotten our primordial capacity for language at the elementary level of song and dance, wherein we share our existence with the animals and with all natural phenomena. Witness how the Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande enter into the eagle dance, the buffalo dance, and the deer dance; how the Navajo become intimate with the larger community through their dry-paintings and their chantway ceremonies; how the peoples of the Northwest express their identity through their totem animals; how the Hopi enter into communication with desert rattlesnakes in their ritual dances. This mutual presence finds expression also in poetry and in story form, especially in the trickster stories of the Plains Indians in which Coyote performs his never-ending magic. Such modes of presence to the living world we still carry deep within ourselves, beyond all the suppressions and even the antagonism imposed by our cultural traditions.
Even within our own Western traditions at our greater moments of expression, we find this presence, as in Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and even in the diurnal and seasonal liturgies. The dawn and evening liturgies, especially, give expression to the natural phenomena in their numinous qualities. Also, in the bestiaries of the medieval period, we find a special mode of drawing the animal world into the world of human converse. In their symbolisms and especially in the moral qualities associated with the various animals, we find a mutual revelatory experience. These animal stories have a playfulness about them, something of a common language, a capacity to care for each other. Yet these movements toward intensive sharing with the natural world were constantly turned aside by a spiritual aversion, even by a sense that humans were inherently cut off from any true sharing of life. At best they were drawn into a human context in some subservient way, often in a derogatory way, as when we projected our own vicious qualities onto such animals such as the wolf, the rat, the snake, the worm, and the insects. We seldom entered their wilderness world with true empathy.
The change has begun, however, in every phase of human activity, in all our professions and institutions. Greenpeace on the sea and Earth First! on the land are asserting our primary loyalties to the community of earth. The poetry of Gary Snyder communicates something of the “wild sacred” quality of the earth. In his music Paul Winter is responding to the cry of the wolf and the song of the whale. Roger Tory Peterson has brought us intimately into the world of the birds. Joy Adamson has entered into the world of the lions of Africa; Dian Fossey the social world of the gentle gorilla. John Lilly has been profoundly absorbed into the consciousness of the dolphin. Farley Mowat and Barry Lopez have come to an intimate understanding of the gray wolf of North America. Others have learned the dance language of the bees and the songs of the crickets.
What is fascinating about these intimate associations with various living forms of the earth is that we are establishing not only an acquaintance with the general life and emotions of the various species, but also an intimate rapport, even an affective relationship, with individual animals within their wilderness context. Personal names are given to individual whales. Indeed, individual wild animals are entering into history. This can be observed in the burial of Digit, the special gorilla friend of Dian Fossey’s. Fossey’s own death by human assault gives abundant evidence that if we are often imperiled in the wilderness context of the animals, we are also imperiled in the disturbed conditions of what we generally designate as civilized society.
Just now one of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world is not simply to sustain their own traditions, but to call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being. Our only hope is in a renewal of those primordial experiences out of which the shaping of our more sublime human qualities could take place. While our own experiences can never again have the immediacy or the compelling quality that characterized this earlier period, we are experiencing a postcritical naiveté, a type of presence to the earth and all its inhabitants that includes, and also transcends, the scientific understanding that now is available to us from these long years of observation and reflection.
Fortunately we have in the native peoples of the North American continent what must surely be considered in the immediacy of its experience, in its emotional sensitivities, and in its modes of expressions, one of the most integral traditions of human intimacy with the earth, with the entire range of natural phenomena, and with the many living beings which constitute the life community. Even minimal contact with the native peoples of this continent is an exhilarating experience in itself, an experience that is heightened rather than diminished by the disintegrating period through which they themselves have passed. In their traditional mystique of the earth, they are emerging as one of our surest guides into a viable future.
Throughout their period of dissolution, when so many tribes have been extinguished, the surviving peoples have manifested what seems to be an indestructible psychic orientation toward the basic structure and functioning of the earth, despite all our efforts to impose on them our own aggressive attitude toward the natural world. In our postcritical naiveté we are now in a period when we become capable once again of experiencing the immediacy of life, the entrancing presence to the natural phenomena about us. It is quite interesting to realize that our scientific story of the universe is giving us a new appreciation for these earlier stories that come down to us through peoples who have continued their existence outside the constraints of our civilizations.
Presently we are returning to the primordial community of the universe, the earth, and all living beings. Each has its own voice, its role, its power over the whole. But, most important, each has its special symbolism. The excitement of life is in the numinous experience wherein we are given to each other in that larger celebration of existence in which all things attain their highest expression, for the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event.