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A Kosmos Interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis
Editor’s note: On September 3, 2016 I had the great honor of enjoying a day with Sister Miriam MacGillis and our mutual friend, social activist Judy Wicks, at Genesis Farm in northern New Jersey. Walking the land with two remarkable women, I had a pervasive sense of being in both a physical space and a metaphysical one. Over a lovely and simple lunch, sitting amid the trees behind Sister Miriam’s home, we discussed what it will take to restore our communion with the Earth. We continued this conversation via email. (R. Fabian)
…The whole thing is grace. Everything of the Universe—everything that has brought forth the carbon in my body, my body itself, the trees that are shining outside my window, the bees that are flying around collecting pollen—it’s all grace if we recognize it. It’s there for us.” – Sister Miriam MacGillis
Kosmos: How has the concept of Earth Literacy informed and inspired the mission of Genesis Farm?
Miriam MacGillis: ‘Earth Literacy’ is a term often used by Thomas Berry. He would say that we are not literate in the language and meaning of the natural world, the planet Earth and the greater cosmos from which everything has emerged. Our literacy has been centered only on the last few thousand years of human history which has shaped our perceptions about our identity and purpose. Earth Literacy suggests a process of learning the bigger story out of which everything has come, which has only recently been enabled by the scientific instruments we created, expanding our ability to see, hear and explore aspects of the inner and outer processes of this evolving Universe.
Thomas Berry’s insights into the “bio-spiritual-psychic nature of the universe” from its beginnings over 13 billion years ago, provided a scientific confirmation of the total unity of the Universe, Earth, Life and human life. It called into question the fundamental principles on which western civilization had been developing over the last five thousand years, a worldview that assumed only humans possessed souls, spirit, psyches. This worldview relegated all other existence to mere physical matter and incorporated that thinking into our major western institutions which continue to selectively give rights to humans and no rights to what is not human. It explains why human fictions like corporations have more rights than rivers or seeds or mountains or eco-systems.
In the late 1980’s, a group of people were gathered by Dr. McGregor Smith of Miami-Dade College, to develop curricula around these ideas for colleges and universities. This group used the term Earth Literacy to describe this academic program and to underscore its implications across all disciplines. A paper by Thomas Berry titled The American College in the Ecological Age, was a seminal resource and later became a chapter in his book, The Dream of the Earth. It was revolutionary.
Genesis Farm was part of this group and by 1993 we were offering the first accredited graduate courses in Earth Literacy through St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. This university, in collaboration with Miami-Dade College and the efforts of McGregor Smith, was pivotal in pioneering this work.
Thomas Berry’s work was central to the focus of the mission of Genesis Farm. I first heard him speak in 1977 while I was still on the staff of Global Education Associates. This organization founded by Gerald and Patricia Mische was also central to the focus of Genesis Farm, grounded as it was in the unity of the planet and the imperative of moving beyond the intense nationalism and militarism of the nation state system.
Thomas Berry also emphasized the needs for human societies to recognize that while Earth is a living unity with itself, Earth is also highly differentiated in the bio-regions which have taken shape over the five billion years of the planet’s existence. Because of all the complexities of its tectonic activity and its distance to Sun and Moon and other planets in the solar system, each region of Earth needs to be understood in its own evolutionary terms. Each region’s landforms, waters, climates and evolving communities of life are unique and highly vulnerable to the human societies which reside there, often without this prior understanding to temper the raw force of their technologies.
From our beginnings in 1980 until now, these ideas have inspired and totally challenged our small efforts to understand and share them.
Kosmos: What do you mean by the term ‘resacralizing’ the land and water?
Miriam MacGillis: The great American poet, Kentucky farmer and agrarian philosopher, Wendell Berry said “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”
The realization that the entire Earth and all its life communities are the primary revelation of the divine, is a mystery we are immersed in on these lands comprising Genesis Farm and in this bioregion. From this perspective, every place is fundamentally, inherently sacred. It is a fragment of the most sacred text out of which the divine or the Great Mystery can be encountered. To desecrate it is not only sacrilegious but is also blasphemous. Western cultures especially have not been able to understand that our abstract understandings of the divine need to be corrected to include what Thomas Berry would describe as ‘the primary revelation, the primary sacred text’, from which our different cultural texts were derived in the first place. Thus he challenged all the worlds’ religions to go back to their “origin stories” and without losing any of the wisdom they might contain, adjust them to the cosmological deficiencies they are now able to correct.
In the more recent years of growing ecological awareness, geologists, hydrologists, ecologists and others have been suggesting that the actual scale of a watershed is an appropriate scale to begin the restorative work necessary to correct the massive destruction, poisoning and habitat extinction that has accompanied the last century of industrialization.
For the last several years, through a very slow process of awareness and many, many conversations with people along the Musconetcong River Valley and watershed, we have been giving rise to the belief that at this scale we can contribute to the restoration and healing of our watershed both spiritually and physically. It will take mutually supporting collaboration to rid it of poisons related to its history in industrial chemical agriculture and manufacturing and weapons development.
Equally important, we sense it is absolutely essential that we acknowledge the violence done to the Lenape people who were the first peoples of this bioregion and watershed. Whatever our European ancestors and we have done here we have done on stolen lands. It is critical that this is acknowledged and that restitution be given in whatever ways are possible.
So too, the river and lands are violated. We create rituals of atonement to acknowledge this reality and to ask the spirits of the Lenape as well as the rivers and soils for guidance to address the alienation in our own minds and hearts. Hoping to join with multiple efforts of many groups and organizations involved in conservation and preservation work, we are planning to map a contemporary “way of pilgrimage”. A pilgrimage route through this water basin will provide an ancient experience of the archetypal journey into self-discovery and discovery of the sacredness of place. It will also open its vast geological story and its sacred legacy of life, abundance and beauty to be preserved at all cost.
Our attempt to restore the lands is through grass-roots organizing encouraging farmers and land owners to stop the flow of agricultural poisons and genetically-engineered crops from the soils of this river valley and to transition their farms into sources of affordable, healthy foods for all the people and animals of the watershed. One of our first projects is helping transition some farms into growing vital, chemical-free grains, restoring local mills, and encouraging bakers to provide bread from locally grown, safe and nutritious flours.
We believe the scale of most watersheds provides an attainable vision for resacralizing the desecrated places almost anywhere on this continent. We also believe it is essential that we heal the alienation from the natural world in our own hearts and minds and work to recover from our own addictions to consumerism. The mantra Genesis Farm holds in its present form of mission is: “Restoring Paradise: one watershed at a time.”
Economic growth, progress, development, fossil fuel energy, massive corporatization and war making have become relentless and ferocious physical forces. These forces have become institutionalized and increasingly centralized. It is possible in this dire hour of destruction to correct the cosmological course of this alienation and to recover our fundamental embeddedness and dependency on the entire Earth as a single sacred community.
All photos | Rhonda Fabian
More About the Work at Genesis Farm
The first edition of this book (published in 2013) fostered the emergence of the “Spiritual Ecology Movement,” which recognizes the need for a spiritual response to our present ecological crisis. It drew an overwhelmingly positive response from readers, many of whom are asking the simple question, “What can I do?”
This second expanded edition offers new chapters, including two from younger authors who are putting the principles of spiritual ecology into action, working with their hands as well as their hearts. It also includes a new preface and revised chapter by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, that reference two major recent events: the publication of Pope Francis’s encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” which brought into the mainstream the idea that “the ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual problem”; and the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, which saw representatives from nearly 200 countries come together to address global warming, including faith leaders from many traditions.
Bringing together voices from Buddhism, Sufism, Christianity, and Native American traditions, as well as from physics, deep psychology, and other environmental disciplines, this book calls on us to reassess our underlying attitudes and beliefs about the Earth and wake up to our spiritual as well as physical responsibilities toward the planet.
Contributors include: Chief Oren Lyons, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sandra Ingerman, Joanna Macy, Sister Miriam MacGillis, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Fr. Richard Rohr, Bill Plotkin, Jules Cashford, Wendell Berry, Winona LaDuke, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Brian Swimme, and others.
An Excerpt from an interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis reprinted from the new expanded edition of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth with permission from The Golden Sufi Center (2016). www.spiritualecology.org
This land we inhabit was given as a gift to my Congregation of Dominican Sisters. One of the first things we did was to put it into preservation so that it would be safe from development. So even if the Dominican Sisters were to lose this land, it’s deed-restricted and the state holds that conservation easement, that covenant. It can’t become a mall or a condo; it has to remain in farming and open space. If somebody gave you sacred texts to hold in your library, you would make sure they weren’t subject to being violated—so that’s an analogy.
Some twenty-plus years ago, we also dedicated a section of the land here to the wild, saying, “Humans are not permitted here.” It’s a sanctuary. It’s going to be left alone—we are not mature enough to go there. Let it be what it wants to be and it will reveal itself. And a hundred, two hundred years from now, who knows what will be there? The idea was to constrain our inquisitiveness and our need to control it, or even to know it.
And so these things seem simple. We’ve also marked the equinoxes and solstices for thirty years here. As humans who are part of this land, we honor our unity with all the community of life as we circle the Sun at a particular moment in time. Whether we are entering into the phase of springtime renewal or summer ripeness, autumn inwardness or winter pregnancy, we just keep doing it.
Because that is the true endowment we carry in the collective consciousness of our human species, and it’s written into the DNA of our bodies, even though we’re not usually aware of that. But it’s written into the DNA and memory of every single creature on this land. We carry that memory. We try to recover the memory of the whole inside ourselves—reconnect with that phenomenon. And it’s sacred in its nature. Totally, totally sacred.
And then we have a little garden where we plant old varieties of seeds that have never been hybridized. The planet’s seeds are in terrible danger, and we’re just a very, very small part of a global movement in great alarm over what is happening to seeds. Not only through hybridization—which has accelerated because all the tiny local seed companies have been bought by huge corporations—but far more alarming because more and more companies like Monsanto are buying up the seed stock of the planet and then manipulating them and patenting them and claiming ownership of them.
The engineering of seeds and animals and all of life is a basic violation of the DNA memory. It’s very real—it’s happening. Monsanto has patents on all kinds of seeds and has manipulated government and government policies to give them the right to plant these seeds everywhere. Their pollen then moves out into the commons: the air, the water, the soil. The birds pick it up. The bees pick it up and transfer it unknowingly to the rest of the plants.
Our work is to help people understand the sacramental aspect of seeds, this primary revelation of the sacred in seeds. When you think of how many generations of plants have adapted to a place as members of an ecosystem over eons of time—before humans—and have creatively worked their way into that community of all beings and have both given themselves to it and been nourished by it—this is a primary sacred community. It’s the primary source of a region’s health, its sustainability, its ability to regenerate.