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June 19, 2009

The Most Awesome Place in the Universe

Meadow
"In this little meadow," wrote eco-theologian Thomas Berry, "the magnificence of life as celebration is manifested."
Photo: Artcatcher on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Sara Tucker

"It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow," wrote Thomas Berry in The Great Work. "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. . . . 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."

Berry, who died June 1 at the age of 94, is being remembered this month for the impact he made as an "Earth scholar" who wrote about the place where ecology and theology connect.

"To spend time with him was like getting a soul transfusion," wrote Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, in an e-mail to Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin.

An LA Times obit recounts how Berry, an ordained Catholic priest, "learned Sanskrit and Chinese to help his studies of Asian religions." He later "taught the history of world religions at Seton Hall University, St. John's University, and Fordham University." The Greensboro News-Record remembered him as "a leading ecological thinker" who taught that "trees, birdsall living thingshave rights. They require that people treat the natural world not as an object, but as a living being."

Throughout his life, Berry stressed the crucial importance, especially for children, of connecting with nature. "It takes a universe (to make a child," he wrote, "both( in outer form and inner( spirit. It takes (a universe to educate( a child. A universe (to fulfill a child."

"The most important spiritual qualities, for Berry, were amazement and enchantment," observed the National Catholic Reporter. "Awe is healing. A sense of wonder is the therapy for our disconnection from the natural world."

When Berry was in his 90s, frail from a series of strokes and residing in an assisted-living facility, he still tried to spend time outdoors every day, enjoying the natural world: "To be gifted with delight as a child, the giftedness should continue," he said. "The aging process is full of excitement that comes along with the pain of going through the changes. The giftedness continues."

Further reading:
* Thomas Berry and the Earth Community (video)
* The Meadow Across the Creek (essay from The Great Work)
* It Takes a Universe: An Interview with Thomas Berry (Appalachian Voices, 2006)
* Be Out There (National Wildlife Federation)

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