“I speak of the earth as subject, not as object. I am concerned with the maternal principle out of which we were born and whence we derive all that we are and all that we have. In our totality we are born of the earth. We are earthlings. The earth is our origin, our nourishment, our support, our guide.” ~ The Spirituality of the Earth, Thomas Berry
Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009) was a Passionist priest, religious historian, and a pioneer in ecological theology. He strongly believed that revelation was not found just in books or in some undefined future, but rather was right here on earth. Described as an ‘eco-theologian,’ he was an early advocate of the notion that the ecological crisis was a crisis of the spirit.
I learned of Berry’s work years ago while doing a Masters degree in Earth Literacy. He became a guiding star as my knowledge of and thoughts about spirituality and ecology expanded. It all started for Berry with a mystical experience he had as a child that shaped his view of the power of nature. Read an excerpt below.
The Meadow Across the Creek
“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.”
* Read more at Berry’s website
The Universe Story
“The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
One of Berry’s frequent collaborators was scientist Brian Swimme. They brought together the worlds of astronomy, physics, biology, anthropology, and theology, and created a new story of the development and evolution of the universe, the earth, and humanity.
According to Swimme, “the ultimate aim of the Universe is a fullness of differentiation, the deepest subjectivity, and the most intimate communion.” What does this mean? And, how can we bring this Universe story to our photography?
Differentiation – or “No two snowflakes are alike.”
See the value in diversity and show it through your photographs. Recognize that, not only is each subject different, but each moment is as well. Everything in the Universe (including us) is in a constant state of becoming. Therefore, each moment is always brand new. If that doesn’t invite wonder, I don’t know what will.
Subjectivity – or the sacred is in all things.
Whatever your beliefs, I think that most of us would agree that there is an indefinable and unchanging essence in everything. To some, this is called the soul. It is the source of its beauty. We can learn to recognize this essence and point to it through our photography by taking a long, loving look and then looking again. We know it when we see it.
Communion – or “We are all connected.”
We sometimes get stuck in thinking that we are apart from or separate from nature; that we live on the earth, when in fact we are an integral part of the whole. We are embedded. Everything that happens, in fact each moments, changes us in some way. We too affect everything else just by our presence. We are the earth. And, this is a wonderful thing.
“We see quite clearly that what happens to the nonhuman, happens to the human. What happens to the outer world, happens to the inner world.” ~ Thomas Berry, The Great Work
Perhaps one of our tasks as a photographer is to tell this story of the Universe through our pictures. Images are powerful reminders that by caring for the earth, we care for ourselves.
Learn more about Thomas Berry
A Profile of Thomas Berry – Article from EarthLight Magazine #34, Summer, 1999
Michael Dowd honours Thomas Berry – Michael Dowd has produced a thoughtful, timely, challenging and readable synthesis of science and spirituality in the spirit of Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin.
Thomas Berry short video on Humans and Nature
Documentary on Thomas Berry – Bullfrog Films. Portrays the life and work of the famous eco-theologian.