Living Earth

An Interview with Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis at Genesis Farm

If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture. ~ The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry

Rhonda Fabian: Paradise is waiting, and I forget sometimes. I don’t mean some promise of heaven in the afterlife. I mean here and now—the breath of the wind, the strange language of trees, the steady moon, and the rising sun. And please don’t say paradise is only for some of us, that if you are urban or poor or broken or homeless it is out of reach. I have been all those, yet paradise still trembled deep in my heart. For we are That—the confluence of energies and forces that make Life in this universe possible; the chemistry and gravity and the impulse to evolve; the interconnection of all things; all that is Real.

It takes reminding. And that’s why encounters with great teachers and wise elders are crucial. They help us touch the ultimate, or nirvana, or paradise—as you prefer. And once glimpsed, it is not possible to remain unchanged. That’s why I value Genesis Farm and the company of Sister Miriam MacGillis. She has the ability to make the sacred apparent, or rather to show how the spiritual co-exists with the physical, how they are not separate.

The demonstration gardens, the meditation paths, the silent Grove of Ancestors all exude the darshan or fragrant energy of the sacred. Sister Miriam has dedicated her life’s work to advancing the principles and practices of Thomas Berry, the great ‘Earth Scholar’ and cultural historian. His deep understanding of cosmology as ‘that which orients humans to the universe and to nature itself’ underlies the projects and initiatives at Genesis Farm.

In the tradition of Teilhard de Chardin, Berry believed that the evolving universe is gradually revealing itself to us and seeding a New Story for humanity. The ‘Great Work’ of actualizing this story will require radical transformation of all major human institutions. I was interested in learning how Genesis Farm is actively responding to the changing political climate, as well as the literal climate at this moment in time. Sister Miriam made it clear that to change the crisis requires adjusting humanity’s traditional explanations of the beginning of the world—changing our cosmology. She shared Thomas Berry’s Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe as essential groundwork to any discussion:

  1. Universe, our solar system, and planet Earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of Ultimate Mystery whence all things emerge into being.
  2. Universe is a unity, an interacting and intrinsically related community of beings bound together in an inseparable relationship in space and time. The unity of planet Earth is especially clear; each being of the planet is profoundly implicated in the existence and functioning of every other being of the planet.
  3. From its beginning, Universe is a spiritual (meaningful) as well as a physical reality.
  4. Universe has a violent as well as a harmonious aspect, but it is consistently creative in the larger arc of its development.
  5. The three basic laws of Universe or Cosmogenetic Principles at all levels of reality are differentiation, autopoiesis or subjectivity, and communion.
  6. The emergent process of Universe is irreversible and non-repeatable. The movement from non-life to life on planet Earth is a one-time event; so too the movement from life to the human form of consciousness.
  7. Earth, within the solar system, is a self-emergent, self-nourishing, self-governing, self-healing, self-educating community. All particular life systems in their being, their nourishment, their governing, their healing, and their education must integrate their functioning within this larger complex of mutually dependent Earth systems.
  8. The genetic coding process is the process through which the world of the living evolves, educates, and rules itself. At the human level, genetic coding mandates a further trans-genetic cultural coding by which specifically human qualities find expression. Cultural coding is carried on by educational processes.
  9. Earth is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.
  10. The human is that being in whom Universe attains reflexive consciousness of itself.
  11. Earth is primary; the human is derivative.
  12. The present human situation can be described in three sentences:
    1. In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of Earth.
    2. The desolation of Earth is becoming the destiny of the human.
    3. All human institutions, professions, programs, and activities must now be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

In light of these statements, it is proposed that the historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human at the species level with critical reflection within the community of life systems in a time-developmental context by means of story and shared dream experience

Kosmos | How does your understanding of Berry’s Twelve Principles speak to you in the present moment?

Sister Miriam | The physical changes, including climate chaos that we’re presently experiencing, are the greatest changes that have happened to Earth’s life in the last 65 million years, which scientists refer to as the Cenozoic Era. This amazing flourishing of life after the death of the dinosaurs is coming to an end, in large part due to the chemical toxicity humans have caused. Unfortunately, most people are unaware. That’s where the disconnect is—at a cosmological order. This destruction wasn’t intended. Chemical toxicity has not been an ethical consideration until very recently. The political climate, which is legitimating the change in the physical climate, is just a reflection of the foundation of thinking that is fundamental to all Western civilization—that humans are somehow separate from and superior to the rest of Life.

Thomas Berry identifies the four major institutions he feels are responsible for accentuating the crisis: the economic system, the educational system, the governmental system, and the religious systems of the West. These institutions unintentionally accentuate the prolonging of that erroneous belief system. And until that’s addressed, I don’t know how effective those four institutions can be, including our religious ones. They certainly are trying to be moral and ethical, but if the morals and ethics pertain only to how humans relate to each other and not how they relate to the natural world, then they still give sanction to the behavior that uses the natural world as a resource for our own benefit and gain.

Kosmos | Your emphasis for transformation is on rethinking and revisioning your efforts at the bioregional or local level. Why?

Sister Miriam | It was in 1982 that Thomas Berry wrote his seminal paper on bio-regionalism articulating how the living planet Earth is a unity but not a uniformity. The Earth is a community of differentiated bioregions where life has adapted to all the conditions that have occurred over the last four and a half billion years—the tectonic, the geological, the hydrological, soils, and waters. These differences are critical for the ways in which life has evolved and adapted. It is critical that humanity learn and pay attention to these differences.

The advancing and retreating of glaciers and how they affect the grinding down of mountains into top soils and the rising and lowering of the oceans are part of the particular story of a bio-region. You have to get a sense of that before you can understand why particular vegetation has taken root here rather than there. The vegetation has adapted, the birds have adapted, the microbes have adapted, the insects have adapted, the mammals have adapted. If they are around for 10,000 or 15,000 years, they figure it out, cooperating with and regenerating each other. We call that success an ecosystem.

The only way we can really be effective is to come home and understand our own ecosystems. This sequential process is the most fundamental learning we should be given. Only then we can ask: is our behavior enhancing what the natural world is doing, or is it the cause of the disease and the sickness? That is why our energies at Genesis Farm have been so focused on bioregionalism.

Kosmos | How does your activism include the spiritual healing as well as physical healing of your region?

Ceremonial Space. photography | rhonda fabian

Sister Miriam | Within the watershed of the Musconetcong River a group of people began meeting informally about our concerns. One was the encroachment of fracking gas pipes. Another was the enlargement of huge power lines needed to transport compressed gas. And a third was our shared concern about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which now dominate our regional farms. This transition to GMOs was encouraged by federal, state, and county agricultural advisors.

During the Revolutionary War era, colonists discovered there were huge supplies of iron and other minerals that could be used for the production of artillery. Quarries and mines rapidly spread. Large fresh water ponds were dammed to create Lake Hopatcong, which is the source of the Musconetcong River. In 1880, the government established Picatinny Arsenal on 6,500 acres surrounding Lake Hopatcong for manufacturing all kinds of weapons and artillery including chemical weapons. On their website, they’ll tell you they’re the supermarket of the world’s most lethal weapons.

There are superfund sites resulting from chemical accidents and discharges into this water basin. They have been going on for decades. However, under present federal policy, the military is exempt from the DEP regulations that would restrict this behavior from other similar companies. Knowing that our watersheds and aquifers are being contaminated in this way brings a deep grief and rage against the belief in war.

How do we bring a sense of the holy, the sacred, a sense of the inherent health and wholeness that you would associate with the divine back into how we relate to the river? We thought maybe in two ways, and one was creating ceremonies because ceremony and ritual are so central to the human spirit. They’re the basis of all religions—ceremonies and worship. We knew we had to start by saying “We’re sorry.”

So, small groups of people have gathered at different times and in different places along the river over the last three years. We have created ceremonies that say to the river and to the Lenape people who were abusively forced out that “We’re sorry.” Finding physical, soul-felt expressions of how to do that has been part of imagining,“Well, what would the river like? What is meaningful that would say, ‘We’re sorry?’” In the last three years, we have done over 17 rituals along the rivers in our water basin.

Secondly, we’ve had the idea of revisioning the ancient idea of pilgrimage. In just about every religious tradition, Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice. People set out to walk somewhere in a journey of discovery, both of themselves and of the meaning of life. It’s very ancient. It’s a central practice in Islam, in Judaism, in Buddhism, in Christianity. It seems to be archetypal. This sense of going on a journey of discovery is something humans do. So, we thought about creating a pilgrimage journey along the Musconetcong River.

Building on that universal human longing for self-discovery, we thought, “well, how about we start to construct a natural route along these 48 miles in which the earth, in this bioregion, these soils, these waters, this vegetation, could tell their own story of where they came from and how they got to be the way they are?” And to tell that as a sacred story. If any person in any religious tradition believes in a divine creator who created the universe, then the story that every river or mountain or lake tells about how it actually evolved would be a story of discovery. Sacred discovery. Sacred revelation. Sacred scripture revealing the mystery out of which it comes.

That’s where we are in the process now, working with various groups and organizations. We also realize that everyone has to become a water protector. It’s because of the total drenching and changing of the chemistry of the air, soil, and water and the pollution and sickness that’s resulting that we all are called to be protectors of the waters. That means we have to enter into the regulatory policy process, the political order. It means we have to participate in town meetings and in creating ordinances.

A demonstration garden at Genesis Farm. photography | rhonda fabian

Maybe, in a way, our generation had been asleep at the wheel, just waiting for others to take responsibility, wanting the Department of Environmental Protection or the Environmental Commission to protect us from unethical corporations. But we’re a corporate-owned country now. We are no longer a democracy as we once knew it. We’re going to have to rebuild the meanings of communities and towns and municipalities. We’re going to have to rethink our master plans and planning documents based on what Earth needs, not primarily based on what we want to have for our business purposes. Humans have to make a living too, but not at the expense of the Earth. No, that’s over.

But the deeper question is this: what has been the contribution of our interior souls? What have we contributed to the soul of the Earth? Fear? Selfishness? Ignorance? Refusal to change? Greed? That is unbearable for me.

Whatever we’re doing, that’s what we’re going to leave as our fossils in the interior soul of the planet.

Our ancestry stretches back through the life forms and into the stars, back to the beginning of the primeval fireball. This universe is a single, multiform, energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life. All of this is new. None of the great figures of human history were aware of this. Not Plato, not Aristotle, or the Hebrew prophets, or Confucius, or Newton, or any other world-maker. We are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe. We are the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole. Our future as a species will be forged within this new story of the world. ~ The Universe is a Green Dragon by Brian Swimme

Genesis Farm. photography | © angela evancie