Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 21, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Posted in Catholicism, war and violence | 2 Comments
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As I was going through stacks of  articles and reviews that I’ve published in years past, I came across this one, written soon after 9/11 and published in EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference. I lived in Berkeley, California at the time. I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and unfortunately, much of it can be applied to this Christmas as well, with different men from the East–and the West–bearing new but no less grief-laden gifts.


One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. The next issue of one publication I write for is coming out in December, so the editor wishes I would write something about Christmas. Ho-ho-ho. But today is October 11, 2001, and everywhere I turn I find bombed skyscrapers and fear of anthrax.

In this conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a secular construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but all those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a while, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.

Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story. In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter. John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight” (19:38-39).

A week or so after the September 11 attacks, the writer Karen Armstrong had a conversation about Islam with NPR’s Terry Gross. At the end of the interview Gross asked Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience. Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation. If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer. We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.


“American Catholic” is a complex term, amalgamated from the optimism of America’s Enlightenment origins and the suffering of immigrant Catholicism. Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three. I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.

In recent years Catholic feminists have joined their Protestant sisters in struggling with the meaning of the cross for Christianity, and particularly for women. In Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker argue that the cross can be of no further use for women because it leads them to identify with victimization and self-sacrifice.

In Embracing Travail:Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects, as do Brown and Parker, the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin. But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross. For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves. In my own research, I find that some American Catholics, at least, know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears. Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.

In many respects, I am a New Yorker. My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city. As an adult, I loved every minute of the decade I lived in New York, identifying with its energy—at last I was someplace where being in a hurry isn’t a failing! —and relishing the sense that everything I could want was a subway ride away. When I try to explain my perpetual homesickness to my California colleagues, they who are forever on their way to the redwoods or the Pacific, I invariably speak of my longing for skyscrapers, the ones in Philadelphia, but even more, those in Manhattan.

The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility. I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends. But like a lot of other Americans, I didn’t pay enough attention to the first bombing of those towers in 1993. When I called the Windows on the World the following year, to see about reserving space for my wedding dinner, I got a tape announcing that due to the recent terrorist attack, the restaurant was closed.

Today when I look at photographs of what remains of the World Trade Center, it doesn’t look much like a Christmas tree at all. The shards of building that are left standing look to me a lot more like a severe, modernist crucifix with jagged ribs piercing the sky. I imagine they won’t look that way for long, though. Given the wealth and arrogance of this country, skyscrapers will probably rise again on that bombed Golgotha-like landscape. And who knows? I may even come to love them. But I will never love them as optimistically as I did their predecessors. .

Even this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, it is likely that a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols. Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation. But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something our recent history has taught us all too well:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

Perhaps this year we will be better able than we have been in the past to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.


What if We Prayed–or Preached–Differently?

March 12, 2014 at 11:44 am | Posted in Environment | 9 Comments
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Lately, I’ve been reading Thomas Berry. Berry was a “geologian”–an ecological theologian–who began decades ago talking about the environment, and the universe, and the cosmos, and how we’d better start taking them all more seriously. At Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm in southwest Ohio, we were reading Berry’s articles on this sort of thing in mimeographed form, before they were published, in the mid-1970s.

Just now I’m reading Berry’s The Great Work (1999). Throughout its two-hundred pages, Berry argues that we must leave behind the current era of planetary destruction  and move into a period when we humans become present to the Earth in a manner that is mutually enhancing. What we need, he tells us, is a new story of the universe, a “numinous revelatory story that could evoke the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.” (71). Fifteen years after the book’s publication, with glaciers melting and extreme weather events multiplying, we need such a story even more.

But where do we get it? Reading Berry has me asking this question as I’ve attended various Catholic services during and just prior to this holy season of Lent.

First there was the Gospel for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, Matt. 6:24 to 34. It’s a well-known reading, in which Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about their lives. God knows we need to hear that.  But I was struck by the passage about the birds. “Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap…Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” 

Now two thousand years ago, this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say; religions like Judaism were working to get people to recognize their dignity and not behave like animals. But today, we are destroying approximately three hundred species a day, and we know, as Jesus did not, that these species are an essential part of planetary survival, providing, for example, bacteria to be used in the drugs of the future, not to mention in food production, cleaning the air, etc. Maybe it’s time we stopped telling ourselves that we are of more value than other species. When I mentioned this to the priest on the way out after Mass, he looked at me as if I’d said that Jesus had actually been a hedgehog.

Then there was Ash Wednesday, with the famous verse spoken by the minister as she/he applies ashes to foreheads: “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” As with Jesus’ statement about the birds, there was good reason for the authors to use the word “dust,” (or “sand,” as it was in the Latin)  when the original story was written in Genesis. There’s a lot more sand in the Middle East than there is in North America, so lots of people probably did end up getting buried in it. And even today, most people no doubt get the basic idea–the burnt palm from which the ashes come is a metaphor for death. And more people get cremated all the time. But imagine if the verse were “Remember you are earth, and unto earth you shall return,” and the minister rubbed dirt on our foreheads each Ash Wednesday. Or that he (would that it were she!) preached that we really do come from the earth and will return there. Maybe then we Christians would start demanding that the government no longer allow the destruction of our topsoil at the current terrifying rate.

Finally, there was the liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, at a progressive parish in Manhattan. I made it through all three readings without being reminded directly of the contributions the Christian tradition has made to human alienation from the cosmos. But then there was this verse in the Offertory hymn which was aimed at inspiring hope in the worshippers: “Look to God when cynics say our planet’s doom is sealed. Look to God by whose great pow’r the dead were raised and the lepers were healed.”

Of course, if you take the words literally, they’re fine. Earth’s doom isn’t sealed. But half the people in this country believe that climate change is a fraud. And a good number more believe that it really is coming, but that that’s fine too, because it’s just a sign of the end times and the return of Jesus. Maybe hymn writers need to be a bit more careful about encouraging such attitudes.

And some of us who are less confident about the end times as a solution note that in its 2013 report, the UN’s 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have approximately fifteen years to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before certain aspects of climate change become irreversible. Maybe those of us who fear doom is over the horizon aren’t so much cynics as realists. And maybe genuine hope involves demanding that our clergy start preaching about planetary survival and that our government stop allowing the fossil fuel industry to trade that survival for big bucks.

Spiritual Ecology: A Review

December 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following review is longer than 500 words because I wrote it before I decided to slow down.  ( :   Previous versions of it appeared in two of the world-famous rags for which I write: Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Ed. Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2013.  280 pp. 

Odd as it may sound in this era of “spiritual but not religious,” I am wary of the word “spiritual.” You might be, too, had you lived eleven years in Berkeley, California, the land of beautiful people chanting OM in two-hundred-dollar Lululemon outfits.

But I decided to read Spiritual Ecology anyway because the climate change work I’ve been doing makes my need for a stronger spiritual base painfully apparent. You can spend only so much time reading and writing about the pending end of the planet without needing a serious infusion of hope.

I began by reading three essays by Catholic environmentalists—Thomas Berry, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis and Richard Rohr—and another by Thomas Berry students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. I had read Berry’s early work in mimeographed form at Grailville in the 1970s and was glad to return to it here in his “The World of Wonder.” Berry, who died in 2009, drew on his mastery of world religions and Teilhard de Chardin to fashion a Universe Story in the service of planetary transformation. In “The World of Wonder” he challenges us to literally see the natural world as a sacred antidote to the imminent extinction of species brought on by individualism and the industrialism. Yet he manages to communicate this as a fundamentally numinous task, one that gives the reader hope.

The interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis highlights the central role of Berry’s Universe Story in hands-on farming and environmental education at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey. And the co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim, acknowledge Berry implicitly in “The Next Transition.” The culmination of the 13.4 billion year evolutionary process, we learn, is a “Great Transition” or “Turning” from hyper- individualism and environmental destruction to kinship and sustainability—a hopeful vision indeed.

Yet my favorite essay in this bunch is Franciscan Richard Rohr’s feisty “Creation as the Body of God.” Rohr begins with a refreshing acknowledgment of the big role that “very poor Christian theology” and its harmful notions of physicality and embodiment have played in our current environmental crisis. What about “our supposed belief that the Eternal Word of God became ‘flesh,’ ” he wonders. (235) He then uses Christian theology, from Paul and Augustine, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sally McFague, to argue that the world is indeed the body of God. It seems, Rohr suggests, that the only thing that will make us recognize our common oneness with all people and all creation is the common suffering that our planetary destruction promises. But God and God’s goodness will have the last word.

I was also deeply moved by the Native American selections in Spiritual Ecology–in large part because they embody the union of spirit and matter that “very poor Christian theology” tears apart. In “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, tells us that the spiritual side of nature is absolute, for which we must give constant thanks, but that we’d also better get off our lazy asses and make our leaders change their ways. Similarly, in her essay “In The Time of Sacred Places” indigenous activist Winona LaDuke details the indivisible connections between religious rituals, the people who celebrate them, the ancient land where they live, and the creatures that live with them. Examples include the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California and the Nur salmon there, and between the Abnishanaabeg of Lake Michigan and the wolves and wild rice that sustain them. Similarly, the subcontinental Indian activist Vandana Shiva identifies food itself as the inextricable bond between creator and created.

Unfortunately, another batch of essays in Spiritual Ecology is a good deal less helpful than these memorable depictions of the oneness of all creation. Written by white male “spiritual teachers,” they draw primarily on exhortation and repetition to get the party line across: CREATION IS SACRED they tell us, again, and again, and again. One of the offenders in this regard is the editor of the collection, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. In his introduction and again in the final essay, Vaughn-Lee reinscribes repeatedly the either/or that underpins so much of modern culture—but this time it’s either separate, isolated, materialist lives or else virtuous ones lived in unity with nature. God forbid he acknowledge that many of us live lives that oscillate between the two. And Jungian analyst Jules Cashford reinscribes another noxious polarity by adulating Gaia, the “Earth Mother,” even as he quotes exclusively male scientists and environmentalists throughout his essay.

Fortunately, a number of other essays offset these spiritual-in-the-worst-sense efforts. Whatever concerns I have about Buddhism being otherworldly are swept away by Zen Roshi Susan Murphy’s history of a genetically patented hybrid tomato raised by Mexican farmers for $2.50 a day, fumigated with toxic chemicals whose wastes are then shipped to Alabama to poison the black community there while the tomatoes are sold on plastic foam trays in cardboard boxes made in Canada and shipped all over North America in refrigerated trucks whose coolants destroy the ozone layer. This is a juggernaut, Murphy reminds us, in which we all collude. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist bells of mindfulness some of us have had the pleasure of hearing have become less beautiful but no less essential: they’re the floods, droughts, melting sea ice, and hurricanes that signal global warming. Only if we become mindful of the damage we are doing to Mother Earth is enlightenment possible.

And for Buddhist eco-philosopher and spiritual activist Joanna Macy, the western individualist ego is being replaced by a wider construct, an “ecological self.” Rooted in our collective mourning for the imminent demise of the planet, we are coming to realize, for example, that we are not protecting the rainforest down there, but rather we are the rainforest protecting itself.

Spiritual Ecology is by no means the only volume that introduces westerners to the foundational oneness of nature and the spirit. For those who want to begin understanding that oneness, however, the essays I’ve discussed here, and others in Spiritual Ecology, are a pretty good place to start.

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.

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