On a Thursday afternoon in the fall of 1984, Thomas Berry, CP, was the guest at our graduate program on Culture and Spirituality at Holy Names University. Prior to that day, I had frequently heard of Thomas and the annual colloquiums he led at a retreat center on the shores of Lake Erie. Our paths had crossed, but I had not yet met him. His most significant work, The Dream of the Earth, would not be published for another four years.
As I listened to his words on that afternoon, I knew the man before me was a person of towering intellect and a special kind of Passionist. He was a member of the Congregation of the Passion, and his passion was enthusiastically expressed in his passion for the Earth. He was 70-years-old but he was on the threshold of a new era in his life. Deep in his sensitive soul, he was moved by a foreboding that had enveloped him since childhood, and that had overflowed in his heart in an ecstatic moment as he wandered in the meadow across the creek on the property where his family was building a new home. Even early in his life—a time just on the heels of the second industrial revolution—he had sensed the devastation that was about to come. Now he was propelled into the most fruitful years of his great work.
The 1970s and 1980s were a time of existential angst across the Western world. Members of the believing community were unaware of the sacramentality of their tradition. The stories from scripture about the beginning of things seemed distant and incapable of touching the recesses of their souls.
Having read the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas knew the insights of evolutionary science were compatible with spirit and replete with activating energy. He also saw that the story of the universe as told by science was inadequate in itself because it lacked a sense of the sacred. He was convinced humanity needed a new story to breathe “fresh energy and a zest for life” into the Christian tradition inherited from the Bible.
Thus, the universe story was being born within the mind and heart of Thomas. In the future, he would develop it further, together with evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme and scholar of Eastern thought and Taoism, Mary Evelyn Tucker.
The universe story has been studied and taught in many places around the world in the years since, especially by religious women, the prophetic wing of the Church. I joined with other colleagues and friends to design graduate programs that reflected the magnitude of Thomas’s work and vision. On that fateful afternoon, however, I was unaware that what I was hearing marked a significant beginning to what I and many others now celebrate was his great work.