To Read Thomas Berry, Start Here

August 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In the 1970s, I lived for a number of years with twenty-five or so other women in a Catholic feminist community on an organic farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio. The community was called Grailville, and the years I spent there changed my life.

It would be hard to tell you in one blog or even many the extraordinary things I learned and experienced while I was living at Grailville. But what I want to tell you about today concerns  a Roman Catholic  priest named Thomas Berry who visited the Grailville community from time to time and talked with us. The US Grail–the women’s movement of which Grailville was (and is) the national center–had been part of the “back to the land” movement from its early years, and by the 1970s the environmental movement was definitely underway, with books appearing like E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.   But Berry, a Passionist monk and professor of world religions at Fordham University in New York, was presenting some truly original ideas about the relationship between the earth and the creation stories of the world religions.

Between Berry’s visits, we would read and discuss mimeographed copies of his recently written articles. One of them, “The New Story,” proposed an entirely new creation-centered framework for understanding the universe in place of the redemption-centered framework that had served the west for more than a millennium. In 1987, the Catholic intellectual journal Cross Currents, co-edited by the Grail’s old friend Bill Birmingham, published several of these essays, including “The New Story,” and in 1990, Berry published his groundbreaking The Dream of the Earth in the Sierra Club’s Nature and Natural Philosophy Library. Today, Berry, sometimes described as a “geologian” rather than a “theologian,” is widely considered a pioneer in religious environmentalism. Reading and discussing Berry’s ideas with him in the 1970s had a profound impact on what I believe and how I live my life.

Now, Orbis Books has published a collection of Berry’s essays, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth. This short, compact volume of readable articles is an excellent overview of Berry’s thinking in cosmic/religious environmentalism. The introduction by two leaders in the religion and ecology movement, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, clarifies Berry’s importance in the movement.  Among the other contributions, published by Berry between 1982 and 2000, are pieces on “Christianity and Ecology,” a manifesto about what is required of Christianity if the planet is to survive;  “The Wisdom of the Cross,” in which Berry rereads the crucifixion in light of the entire history of the cosmos; and  “Women Religious: Voices of the Earth,” a paean to the pioneering environmental work of US Catholic Sisters.

As I read these essays, it comes to me that what Berry says here is far more directly critical of Catholic and Christian teaching than is Quest for the Living God, the book by the Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson which was recently singled out for reprimand by the US Catholic bishops. But Berry was never treated the way Johnson has been (though his forebear Teilhard de Chardin certainly was, and more.) Part of the reason for this is that it was a different set of bishops who were reading Berry’s essays (or not bothering to read them). Also, Berry didn’t claim to be writing theology; the bishops may feel less responsible for “a geologian” or “cultural historian,” as Berry sometimes described himself. Or maybe it’s just more maddening when a Catholic Sister raises these questions.

Regardless of the reason, Berry’s work should not be underestimated just because the US Catholic bishops haven’t denounced it. It’s a radical revisioning of the relationship between God and the cosmos, one badly needed as the planet heats up and our environmental options dwindle. I only wish that a wide range of American Christians would read these essays and act on them.

A Wonderful Read

January 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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The following is my review of American Madonna, a terrific new book about devotion to the Virgin Mary in Mexico and among Mexican migrants in the US. It’s for sale on Amazon and from other on-line book sources.

American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary. By Deirdre Cornell. Orbis Press, 2010. 190 pp. $18.00

In her first book, A Priceless View, author Deirdre Cornell returns to her childhood home, Newburgh, NY, to share the life of the burgeoning migrant community there. But by the last few pages, she knows that she will leave. And her prediction is fulfilled: in 2004, Deirdre and her husband Kenney and three children move to rural Oaxaca, Mexico, as Maryknoll lay missioners, to deepen their understanding of the migrant cultures surrounding them in upstate New York. In American Madonna, Deirdre welcomes us into that experience.

At the heart of Deirdre’s reflections is Mary, the Mother of God. Here in the U.S., what with women’s liberation and the assimilation of white ethnic Catholics into the American middle class, devotion to the ostensibly sweet, passive Virgin Mary would seem a thing of the past. Yet as Deirdre observes, pilgrimages to sites of Marian apparitions around the world have mushroomed in the modern period, while the Madonna, bearing the marks of her various local inculturations, helps huge numbers of Latin American migrants in their journeys across the border to a new life in the North. Indeed, as Deirdre makes clear, the Virgin Mary is an ideal patroness for our globalized age, crossing borders during her lifetime between Israel and Egypt, and in her Assumption, between earth and heaven, even as she has accompanied travelers, missionaries and migrants across borders over the centuries.

Deirdre organizes American Madonna around three different manifestations of Mary: the Virgin of Solitude, the mourning Mother at the foot of the cross who watches over the capital of the southeastern Mexican province of Oaxaca; Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose apparition to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 1532 marks the beginning of the inculturation of Christianity among the indigenous peoples of Mexico; and my own particular favorite, Our Lady of Juquila, whose diminutive triangular figure has protected hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at her shrine on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca since 1719. In all cases, the Madonna crosses borders with her devotés, whether they are the Spanish missionaries who brought her with them to the Americas, the pilgrims journeying over hazardous terrain to reach her, or the migrants who bear her north and sometimes return home to her motherly embrace.

It would be a pity for you to conclude from this that American Madonna is a theological study of the Virgin Mary, however. It is that, in part, but it is also much more. Indeed, what makes this book a wonderful read is the deftness with which Deirdre weaves together the multiple strands comprising the reality of the Madonna. The lives of Mexicans encountered on both sides of the border comprise one such strand; the history of the various Marian apparitions and the communities they inhabit is another. A third is the complex figure of the Virgin herself, her ancient history, her sexist appropriations, the protection and liberation she bestows on her followers. Yet another is the anthropology of pilgrimage and community, rendered accessible by clear writing.

And pulling it all together is the lyric voice of the author herself, from the wonderful portrayal, in the first chapter, of her own journey away from and back to Mary, to the traditional benedición with which her Oaxacan neighbors send her and her family back to the US at the conclusion. Indeed, it becomes clear as one drinks in this book that the “American Madonna” of the title is as much the mother who brings her high-risk twins to term in the middle of her time in Mexico as it is the Madonna with whom she crosses and re-crosses borders throughout. Those of us still inclined to wonder how the Virgin Mary can inspire communities and individuals to resist their oppression have only to read Deirdre’s mesmerizing connection of the bonding process between mother and child–in this case, her own–with the solidarity engendered by devotion to the Virgin Mary in Oaxaca. As she asks, “Can we from the dominant culture catch new glimpses of our mother–even when she does not look like us–in images that originated beyond our borders?”

(This review was published in a slightly revised form in the December 2010 edition of Gumbo, the monthly newsletter of the Grail in the USA, a women’s movement of which Deirdre Cornell and I are both members.)

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