Thomas Berry was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order and an internationally recognized cultural historian. His writings and lectures focused on humanity’s relationship with the earth and the cosmos. He died last June at the age of ninety-four. The following essay is reprinted from his book The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, © 1999 by Thomas Berry. It appears here by permission of Bell Tower, a division of Random House, Inc.
I was a young person then, some twelve years old. My family was moving from a more settled part of a Southern town out to the edge of town where the new house was still being built. The house was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek, and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.
It was not only the lilies. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in an otherwise clear sky. It was not something conscious that happened just then. I went on about my life as any young person might do. Perhaps it was not simply this moment that made such a deep impression upon me. Perhaps it was a sensitivity that was developed throughout my childhood. Yet, as the years pass, this moment returns to me, and whenever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life.
This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; what is opposed to this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion and whatever.
That is good in economics that fosters the natural processes of this meadow. That is bad in economics that diminishes the capacity of this meadow to renew itself each spring and to provide a setting in which crickets can sing and birds can feed. Such meadows, I would later learn, are themselves in a continuing process of transformation. Yet these evolving biosystems deserve the opportunity to be themselves and to express their own inner qualities. As in economics so in jurisprudence and law and political affairs: that is good which recognizes the rights of this meadow and the creek and the woodlands beyond to exist and flourish in their ever-renewing seasonal expression, even while larger processes shape the bioregion in the larger sequence of transformations.
Religion too, it seems to me, takes its origin here in the deep mystery of this setting. The more a person thinks of the infinite number of interrelated activities taking place here, the more mysterious it all becomes, the more meaning a person finds in the Maytime blooming of the lilies, the more awestruck a person might be in simply looking out over this little patch of meadowland. It had none of the majesty of the Appalachian or the Western mountains, none of the immensity or the power of oceans, nor even the harsh magnificence of desert country; yet in this little meadow the magnificence of life as celebration is manifested in a manner as profound and as impressive as any other place that I have known in these past many years.
It seems to me we all had such experiences before we entered into an industrial way of life. The universe as manifestation of some primordial grandeur was recognized as the ultimate referent in any human understanding of the wonderful yet fearsome world about us. Every being achieved its full identity by its alignment with the universe itself. With indigenous peoples of the North American continent every formal activity was first situated in relation to the six directions of the universe: the four cardinal directions combined with the heavens above and Earth below. Only thus could any human activity be fully validated. . . .
This experience we observe even now in the indigenous peoples of the world. They live in a universe, in a cosmological order, whereas we, the peoples of the industrial world, no longer live in a universe. We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, in Disneyworld. We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of business, of work. We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner. Summer and winter are the same inside the mall. Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, shopping centers. We read books written with a strangely contrived alphabet. We no longer read the book of the universe.
Nor do we coordinate our world of human meaning with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment inherent in our very nature. Our children do not learn how to read the Great Book of Nature or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.
We have indeed become strange beings, so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. . . . Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them. . . .
The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. We frequently identify the loss of the interior spirit world of the human mind and emotions with the rise of modern mechanistic sciences. The more significant thing, however, is that we have lost the universe itself. We achieved extensive control over the mechanistic and even the biological functioning of the natural world, but this control itself has produced deadly consequences. We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning; we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced so many of those wonderful voices of the universe that once spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.
We no longer hear the voices of the rivers or the mountains, or the voices of the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. Everything about us has become an “it” rather than a “thou.”. . . We make everything referent to the human as the ultimate source of meaning and value, although this mode of thinking has led to catastrophe for ourselves as well as for a multitude of other beings. Yet in recent times we have begun to recognize that the universe itself is, in the phenomenal order, the only self-referent mode of being. All other modes of being, including the human, in their existence and in their functioning are universe-referent. This fact has been recognized through the centuries in the rituals of the various traditions.
From Paleolithic times humans have coordinated their ritual celebrations with various transformation moments of the natural world. Ultimately the universe, throughout its vast extent in space and its sequence of transformations in time, was seen as a single multiform celebratory expression. No other explanation is possible for the world we see around us. Birds fly and sing and perform their mating rituals. Flowers blossom. Rains nourish every living being. Each of the events in the natural world is a poem, a painting, a drama, a celebration. . . .
I would give a certain emphasis here on the need to understand the universe primarily as celebration. The human I would identify as that being in whom the universe celebrates itself and its numinous origins in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. . . .
The work before us is the task, not simply of ourselves, but of the entire planet and all its component members. While the damage done is immediately the work of the human, the healing cannot be the work simply of the human any more than the illness of some organ of the body can be healed simply through the efforts of that one organ. Every member of the body must bring its activity to the healing. So now the entire universe is involved in the healing of damaged Earth, more especially, of course, the forces of Earth with the assistance of the light and warmth of the sun. As Earth is, in a sense, a magic planet in the exquisite presence of its diverse members to each other, so this movement into the future must in some manner be brought about in ways ineffable to the human mind. We might think of a viable future for the planet less as the result of some scientific insight or as dependent on some socioeconomic arrangement than as participation in a symphony or as renewed presence to the vast cosmic liturgy. This insight was perhaps something that I vaguely experienced in that first view of the lilies blooming in the meadow across the creek.