Journeying into the ‘Great Work’

by Patricia Siemen


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Thomas Berry would have been 100 on Nov. 9, 2014. Many conferences around the world, including the “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to the Journey of the Universe,” held recently at Yale Divinity School, honored him on his centennial birthday. Berry’s influence on the world of science, ecology and religion, particularly at the beginning of the new millennial era, has been significant. It is an appropriate time to look at the emerging legacy of the “great work” he inspired in so many people.

Berry said that each cultural era has its own “great work” to accomplish. Ours is to reestablish our connection to nature and work toward sustainable lifestyles and systems that reverse the destruction we are currently inflicting on the planet. So how are we doing, in light of recent reports from the United Nations and the United States on the impacts of escalating climate disruption and the massive loss of biodiversity leading to ever greater extinction of species? How are people manifesting their commitment to their own “great work” in the midst of these global ecological threats, as well as cultural breakdowns, increased corporate economic hegemony, political paralysis, and rise of intolerance and acts of violence towards each other?

There is a theory in whole systems design that there can be no breakthrough without first, a breakdown. Culturally, economically and ecologically it appears that we are on the verge of massive breakdowns. At the same time, however, there are hopeful signs of breakthrough. The September Peoples Climate March in New York City, and sites around the world, demonstrated that over half a million people in the streets are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change. And they represented literally thousands of others who couldn’t travel to New York or London.

These marchers provided proof to world leaders that the people of the world want them to act to reduce carbon emissions at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in 2015. The agreed goal for the conference is to achieve a legally binding universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world. The lead-up to this conference will take place in Lima, Peru, in December. This mobilization of so many global peoples concerned about the health of the planet is a sign of breakthrough for Earth’s survival – if only the government representatives stay true to the will of the people rather than the profit balances of the extractive and fossil fuel industries.

People in all walks of life, including growing numbers of people of faith, are exercising their “great work” by making concrete choices to live more simply and sustainably. Examples abound as people join community supported agriculture projects, build campaigns that demand the labeling of genetically modified foods, support community transportation options and participate in shared economy initiatives such as lending coops for shared cars, tools, office space and food production.

The ongoing mobilization against tar sands production in Alberta and rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline is a significant “great work” often being led by First Nations People of Canada and Indigenous Peoples of the United States.  The amazing creativity and unity demonstrated in the April “Cowboy and Indians” March in Washington, D.C., is a great example of the “great work” manifested today. Berry would have been pleased at the symbolism of the alignment of traditional “enemies” and thereby creating a true “breakthrough” moment of unity for the sake of the land. The fact that the Keystone XL project has been successfully delayed for three years because of massive grassroots resistance to the oil and gas industry shows a growing consciousness to the grave consequences of burning tar sands oil and destroying fragile ecosystems in some areas of the pipeline trajectory.

In addition, numerous communities (many of them religious women’s communities) are resisting the laying of pipelines for transport of natural gas produced by increased hydrologic fracturing. People are resisting and mobilizing because of the threat of damage to the lands and waters that support the community of life. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has taken the lead in providing legal support to communities who want to resist such destruction of their natural communities. They have worked with over 100 local communities to adopt a “community bill of rights” that prohibits such destructive activities as fracking or bottled water extraction. These bills typically bestow legal rights on natural ecosystems and authorize citizens to have standing to bring corrective actions to enforce these rights. The communities daring to adopt such ordinances are definitely responding to the “great work” needed to be done in their communities.  All of these initiatives are examples of ordinary people responding to the “great work” of bringing forth more mutually enhancing relationships with the natural world.

The “Living Cosmology” conference at the Yale Divinity School also provided a further lens on Berry’s legacy, however. It was a time to underscore the importance of our telling a different story today within our Christian tradition: a story that reveals the sacred origin of the flaring forth of the Universe and the inscendant sacramentality of everything that exists. The panel on the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on Thomas Berry with John Haught and Ilia Delio was particularly engaging. It reinforced Berry’s assertion that the world needs a “new story,” a story that can bring meaning and a sense of belonging to humanity today. Indeed, as we move through breakdown to breakthrough, we need to know our role in the larger story of the Universe. It is a privileged place in bringing forth an evolved species’ consciousness that is grounded and rooted in love.

This “new” story is coherent with scientific evolution, but is more than materialistic science. It recognizes the psychic-spiritual dimension embedded within the Universe. For Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who deeply influenced Berry, this story of emergence is truly a sacred, revelatory story. Berry described this by saying that God “created a self-creating” universe. As Christians, we believe that the Divine was incarnated into humanity in Jesus; but according to Chardin, all of matter is originally incarnated with love. Thus for Christians, cosmogenesis, the act of evolving cosmic creation, is also Christogenesis. This Christic energy is infused and embedded within all matter. Therefore we live in a sacred, evolving universe that is striving to awaken us to bring forth a new consciousness and way of living. We might even evolve into a new species grounded in cosmic love for one another and for “all our relations.”

For the mystics and contemplatives among us, this reality has already been perceived. Now it is all of our “great work” to bring forth mutual love of each other and our denizens of our sacred home.

[Patricia Siemen, OP, JD, is a Dominican Sister from Adrian, Mich., and a civil attorney who works to protect the long-term ecological and spiritual health of humans and all members of the Earth community. She is director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law, Orlando, Fla.]