Genesis Farm | Tribute to Thomas Berry

By Sister Miriam MacGillis

Miriam Therese MacGillis is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey. She lives and works at Genesis Farm, which she co-founded in 1980 with the sponsorship of her Dominican congregation. Beginning in the 1980’s Miriam coordinated programs exploring the work of author and ‘geologian’, Thomas Berry, as he has interpreted the New Cosmology.

photo | Genesis Farm, courtesy Betsey Crawford

In the early 1980s, soon after coming to this land, we hosted a special workshop/retreat for a group of people who regularly attended Alcohol Anonymous meetings at a site nearby. We framed the retreat around constructing a special circle of stones, laid out by a Chippewa Elder called Sun Bear. The design for the Medicine Wheel came to Sun Bear through a vision.  With his Medicine Tribe in Spokane, Washington, he published it in a book called The Medicine Wheel in 1980. Because he shared it so freely, we felt it was not inappropriate to explore and work with it in the context of “recovery”.

That retreat had intimations of what has slowly come to evolve here— an addiction/recovery program integrating the perspectives of a “new cosmology” with the wisdom of the 12-Step program in sobriety. This was an idea inspired early in the 1990s by the writings of psychotherapist, Anne Wilson Schaeff, and the insights and experiments shared by Albert LaChance, founder of Greenspirit.

The belief that there is a separation of humans from the rest of existence has plagued western societies for the last 3,000-5,000 years. Cultural historian, Thomas Berry focused much of his study and writing on this major flaw in the origin stories of western classical traditions. These traditions implied that there is a disconnection or discontinuity between humans, who possess a transcendent soul, and everything else in the Universe, which were not infused with soul. Everything else was believed to lack transcendent ensoulment because of their basic physical, material nature.

Thomas Berry suggested that a belief in this discontinuity from Earth and Cosmos is the source of our cultural addiction to meaninglessness, materialism, consumerism and the myth of unrestrained progress. He called it a “deep cultural pathology, which would necessitate a deep cultural therapy”. He believed the seeds of a deep cultural therapy were accessible in a new origin story that revealed the continuity and seamlessness of an emerging Cosmos, Earth, life, human life and human consciousness; relationships discovered by empirical observation in more recent times. This new story insists that every individual person and every individual atom, every star, every substance, stone, plant, insect, animal, river and microbe has an identity originating at the beginning of the Universe; each sharing community and purpose with every other being in existence.

In late, 1984, we were advised to visit a Cherokee Tribal Chief, who resided near Culver Lake NJ, about 35 minutes away. His name was Chief Thundercloud. Soon after, he came to Genesis Farm, identified a particular tree on the land, and opened a unique window into the inner powers and connections present in the depths of all existence. This inner realm was familiar to him- a surviving legacy of indigenous peoples. It was an unfamiliar realm to those of us gathered as he identified the “Grandfather Tree” and explained the tree’s role in the future of Genesis Farm. It was later, as we gradually pursued our study of the inner and outer dimensions of an evolving Universe, especially through quantum physics, that we realized the pervasive presence of that inner mysterious realm and began to grasp the intuitive wisdom Chief Thundercloud expressed in his ceremony.

Both experiences left a deep imprint on our founding years. They leaned us into a direction that reverenced the enduring inner realm of indigenous peoples and cultures. They drew us into a longing to learn that wisdom and later to face into the shocking history of indigenous oppression authorized and condoned by the royal and ecclesiastical powers of Europe during the expansion of colonialism.

Thomas Berry with Miriam MacGillis at Genesis Farm, presenting a seedling of the Great Red Oak from Riverdale in 1990

On June 1, we will mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Thomas Berry, himself an historian of indigenous culture and wisdom. Thomas’s thinking and vision became the cornerstone on which the work of Genesis Farm has emerged over these nearly 40 years.

For the last 10 years we have been guided by a particular valley on this land. With its stream and hillsides, it has become a place of great mystery. It is called the Valley of Aluna, a place of pilgrimage into “deep-time”, not only cosmological, geological and biological time, but into the depths of that ensouled realm from whence come myths and dreams, archetypes and visions as well as the unlimited capacities to imagine and reinvent our individual and collective human identity and destiny.

On one of the two hillsides we have created a “Pathway of the Four Fold Wisdom”. Its inspiration was drawn from a chapter by the same name in Thomas Berry’s major work, The Great Work published in 1999.

In this chapter Thomas suggested that as our human species awakens to the depth of the crises caused by so much of our reckless behavior, we are not necessarily abandoned. He reminds us that Universe and Earth provide all that is needed for our awakening and that we are connected to a legacy of wisdom, laid down by the collective wisdom of all the humans who have lived before us. But he also warns us that the window of opportunity for this awakening does not remain open indefinitely.

Thomas advised that we need the wisdom endowed by four major periods of human creativity. We need the wisdom of indigenous people, originating in Paleolithic times and brilliantly enduring throughout the planet today. Similarly we need the wisdom of women laid down in the creativity of the Neolithic village period. It persists in its resistance to the entrenched patriarchy playing out in so many of our present crises. We need wisdom from the diverse classical religions and cultures of more recent and familiar history. And we can acquire a new-found wisdom if we allow ourselves to see through the lens of the empirical discoveries revealed through our scientific instruments of observation. This is the lens into an unbroken continuity with all that is.

We can draw a new wisdom and a new courage through the insights of all four of these testaments of human creativity. Just as no one facet of a diamond can lay claim to be the sole or best illumination of its light, neither can one human tradition claim to be the total source of illumination of an Ultimate Mystery out of which everything proceeds. Any such claim perpetuates isolation and estrangement from the others. Our unity is Earth. We are Earthlings. We share a common birth out of a common star.

Over many years we have gathered on the Path of the Fourfold Wisdom to mark each of the eight seasonal changes experienced in this region. We seek to “reinvent” ourselves as part of the community of all other beings of the land. We align ourselves in the desire to learn and commune with them. We seek to grow in the four sources of human wisdom, even as we search for the courage to acknowledge their limitations and shadows, especially those patterns of plundering the natural world arising from our own addiction to unrestrained economic and industrial growth.

On June 1, in honor of Thomas Berry and to mark the 10th anniversary of his death, Genesis Farm staff will gather for a ritual. Once again we will construct a circle of stones in the Medicine Wheel pattern as envisioned and shared by Sun Bear. In the light of devastating climate catastrophes and the implosion of so many of our human institutions we will imprint on the land our deep desire to be aligned in the service of all life. It will symbolize our response to the cries of the children and

Greta Thunberg, at World Economic Forum in Davos, January 25, 2019. photo | Mattias Nutt

the young people asking us for their threatened future. We cannot turn away from the urgent words of Greta Thunberg speaking on their behalf. Nor can we abandon any children to the bombs, starvation, caging, ugliness and trauma of the recklessness of this generation of adults. They are telling us they don’t want our words of hope they want our actions.

We suggest to all our friends and colleagues who have been touched by the life of Thomas Berry to pause sometime on June 1st, whether alone, or with family and friends to create a ritual of beauty wherever you are.

Every place is sacred. Every being is an unrepeatable mystery. Every dark prison reflects the frozen soul of a culture that perpetuates disrespect and poverty and then blames the victims of that poverty.

We can join in actions of fierce resistance to the forces of despair, hatred, prejudice, oppression, unbridled cruelty and ignorance. We can also do something to bring forth beauty. Plant and nurture a seed, a garden. Light a candle. Give your gifts and beauty away, like the candle gives away its light. It does not charge money or interest.

Even after all this time, Sun never says to Earth, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that; it lights up the whole sky.
– Hafiz