When the Soul Speaks

Thomas Merton writes, “We have to learn the knack of free association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely.”

With these words, Merton invites us to dance between custom and nature, discipline and impulse, conscious and unconscious. He invites us to let the soul speak.

I often say that to do this dance, we need to take stock of the many episodes that have defined and shaped our life. These include ecstatic moments as well as painful moments that touched us deeply. These are the destiny signs that shaped our sense of the sacred and brought focus to our days.

And what better way to engage in this process than to write about it. I view writing as a process akin to gathering snow into a huge pile. As we delve into our unconscious and freely associate, we come across all the moments that shaped who we have become. We add each to the pile, and watch the pile grow. We see how each moment, each event, shaped our sense of the sacred. We see the sacred signature of each imprinted on our soul.

Having gone through this gathering process, we are free to take our accumulation of defining episodes and begin to design the contours of a narrative that we wish to unfold. As we design this new story, we punctuate each episode with reflection to clarify the purpose behind our words and thoughts. In this way, we expand and make shareable with the world the deeply personal process that allowed this articulation to happen.



An mri of the soul

One year ago,

a young white man

knelt and prayed with nine black people,

then shot all nine and took their lives.

What might be revealed by an MRI of his soul?


Just days ago,

a man stepped into an Orlando club,

began to shoot.

Forty-nine lost their lives,

others were wounded.

What would be revealed by an MRI of his soul?


Today we ask,

“How is peace possible when love is denied?”

The Golden Rule is not kept

when terror rules the soul.

Perhaps we need

another Selma moment for the soul.



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When I reflect on what Thomas Berry called “the great work,” my heart is moved with gratitude for his life and his vision, which remains with us today.

Thomas reminds us that to participate in the great work is to align our energies with the dynamic, unfolding energy of the universe. When this happens, God’s work becomes our work. As we align our personal destiny with the larger destiny of the universe, we are carried into the future by the creative energy of the divine that flows in and through our lives.

Thomas sheds light on his great work by recounting an experience that took place when he was eleven-years-old.

One day in May, he ventured beyond the family home to the meadow across the creek. As he gazed at the while lilies and at the clouds in the blue sky, saw the water glistening in the sunshine, and listened to the crickets in the meadow, he was moved to ecstasy.

The beauty of this experience touched his soul; it was as if this moment of grace left its sacred imprint on him. From that day forward, his work was guided by a simple principle: What was good for the meadow was good for the world. And what was not good for the meadow was not good for the world and should be avoided.

My own meadow is the St. Clair River—the beautiful body of water that connects Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair in the Great Lakes region. The river bears the name St. Clare of Assisi because it was discovered on the feast of St. Clare, well known for her love of God’s creation.

As a boy, I grew up on the shores of the St. Clair River and learned to swim in, skate on, and fish in its sacred waters. It was a poultice for my soul when I was sad and often a source of joy and celebration.

On one occasion, after I had been away from the St. Clair River for some time, as I approached the river, my mouth began to water. As a result, I became aware that I had a cellular relationship with the sacred waters of the St. Clair.

I often think that this body of water can be viewed as a metaphor for what unites us all and holds our world together. This uniting force brings together two countries (Canada and the United States), as well as heaven and earth, God and the world, and each individual and the larger community.

When I go to sleep at night, I sometimes remember its beauty as a sacrament of my soul and as a guide for living: That which unites is good; that which separates is not good. This principle informs the great work.

On many occasions, I have invited the participants in classes I taught to reflect on their childhood experiences of nature and to identify their own meadow experiences. They can then trace how their meadow experiences have guided their great work and influenced their destiny in the world. I invite you to do this reflection yourself now.

As we discover the focus of our great work, it also behooves us to think about how we can move away from this time in which humans are devastating the planet and move toward a time when we will be present to the planet in a more mutually enhancing way. Combining our personal work with the larger concerns of our epoch is our common task, our overarching great work.


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Remembering Muhammad Ali

On a recent Friday evening, the news broadcast I was watching was interrupted by an announcement: “Muhammad Ali, prize fighter, peace maker and a person who was bigger than life, has left us.”

I walked away from the television and picked up a book from the shelf; the title was Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. I opened the book and read, “Best wishes, Muhammad Ali.” I had purchased it at what was then Cody’s Books in Berkeley one memorable night when Ali visited the area to launch his biography.

Now, my mind was flooded with memories about boxing and the amazing person who had just left us. I recalled going with my father and some neighbors to watch a Gillette Cavalcade of Sports boxing match on television. We did not have a TV in our home at that time, prior to 1960.

I also remembered a group of us cramming into a closet at the seminary to listen to the Cassius Clay become the heavyweight champion of the world by defeating Sonny Liston in 1963. We had to huddle in the closed because the seminary rules did not allow us to listen to the radio.

And there was the time that Ali lost his boxing license after refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. He famously said, “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong.”

I went to Chicago’s Navy Pier to watch him train after that ban was lifted. I also watched him in theaters, which had showed pay-for-view matches in those days, and gathered in friends’ homes to watch him on TV toward the end of his career.

I looked again at the signature in my book. It was on a piece of paper placed there by Ali, not signed by his hand. Even then, the Parkinson’s that eventually took his life did not permit him to sign his name.

As I went to sleep that Friday night, familiar phrases such as “float like a butterfly,” “sting like a bee,” and “you can’t hit what you can’t see” wafted through my mind.

Today I remain grateful for the life of a man who transcended boxing. He was a man of courage, heart, and conviction. This grandson of a slave refused to be a “white man’s Negro.” Through unimaginable contests—including the Thrilla in Manila in the Philippines, and the Rumble in the Jungle in Africa—boxing introduced this remarkable person to the world. As a result, we came to know and revere a man of spiritual greatness, and true American hero.

Thank you, Muhammad Ali.



All I Have to Say

I want to tell you about the world

we hope to live in.


A world that’s welcoming,

where we all belong.


Not a world that is static and stuck,

full of abstractions and ideas;

rather a world of compassion and love.


A place of belonging and hope,

where every puppy, plant and person

awakens each morning to a wondrous day.


A world full of enthusiasm and zest.

This is all I have to say.



Integral Ecology

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is well known for its progressive culture, and many programs dedicated to uplifting the poor and saving the Earth. One such program is St. Mary’s Center, a courageous beacon of light in Oakland that promises a better, healthier life to the homeless, recovery for the addicted, and food for the hungry. Another project is the Ecology Center in Berkeley, which for decades has been a resource for a broad spectrum of ecological concerns, including making wholesome food available through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ markets. Yes, good work—both social and ecological—continues to take place in Oakland and Berkeley, and now in many others towns and cities around the country and beyond, as well.

There is a long and noble Catholic tradition focused on the care of the poor, homeless, and hungry. Religious communities of women, especially, have dedicated their lives to the care of the anawim—the most poor, the powerless, and those without a voice in society. A response to the cry of the Earth has been a less significant priority for most Catholics. However, in recent years, a few voices have begun to arise. Fr. Thomas Berry, CP, priest and scholar of cultural history, sought to bridge the divide we have maintained between the human and other-than-human worlds. With a courageous and prophetic voice, he proclaimed, “You can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.”

Berry’s often quoted phrase “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects” speaks directly to his vision of an integral ecology. In this statement, he emphasizes how we exist in relationship with the Earth, as people of the Earth, and stresses the depths and interconnection in all our relationships. This spiritual-physical communion can be understood as foundational for integral ecology.

Another leading voice is that of Leonardo Boff. In The Cry of the Earth, the Cry of the Poor, he unites his concern for those overwhelmed by poverty in the barrios of Brazil with his concern for the parched, arid lands of his home country. The first to use the term “integral ecology” in print, he writes about the need to connect our spiritual vision with the needs of the people.

The work of Berry and Boff is foundational to the vision of integral ecology named by Pope Francis in his letter to the world, “Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home.” In his encyclical, he writes, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” And he says, “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach … so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

Integral ecology implies a departure from the prior emphasis on social over ecological concerns, and instills a new relationship between society and nature that will hopefully result in the preservation of the planet.

As I contemplate the words of Pope Francis, I look back on my own personal journey and how I explored social and ecological justice through my own writing. When I first was introduced to Thomas Berry’s creation spirituality and the new cosmology, I was confronted with a challenging question: how could I integrate my background in community development and organization with what I was learning about the universe and the three dynamics principles named by Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry? These three principles are differentiation (nothing in the universe is the same) communion (everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent), and interiority (there is a deep subjectivity in each expression of creation).

I coined the term geo-justice to represent the dynamic integration of my past experience with what I was discovering about spirituality and cosmology. Specifically, differentiation became the context for justice in the local here-and-now of our lives; communion became the global dimension of our planetary reality; interiority became the psycho-social component. I went on to develop the geo-justice vision and ground it in additional components of dialogue and theology. I called this further development engaged cosmology, borrowing from the vision of liberation theology and the Catholic Action method of “see, judge, and act.”

Geo-justice provides an opportunity to explore what we observe going on in the world through the eyes of the Christian gospel. This reflection can lead to actions through which we are able to heal the discrepancy between our vision and our practice, to heal the divide between the world as it is and the world as we would like it to be, between the social and the ecological.

Pope Francis writes, “We are part of nature.… It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems…. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

The tenets of integral ecology forecast in the writings of Leonardo Boff and Thomas Berry have now been powerfully announced to the world by the pastor of the planet, Pope Francis. We have reason to hope and anticipate a time when the poor can be fed and housed and the natural world protected and celebrated. I envision a time when Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” bursts forth in song, when the melodies of the winged ones transform that spring into symphony of song, when children of every species prosper and our love renews the face of the Earth.

It will be new time of conversion at every level, a time of spiritual, theological, structural, and organizational construction. A new world will become possible—a world where we experience “God in all things, and all things in God”; a world that is inclusive, interdependent, and interrelated.



Max Comes Home

Springbank Retreat is a sacred place where women from around the world gather to renew their spirit, refresh their energy, and reflect on the beauty of creation as they drink in the divine creativity that infuses their souls and all of life.


Among the Springbank community are a number of four-legged friends that Thomas Merton referred to as saints. One member of this canine community is a shy, beautiful creature called Max.


On occasion, Max likes to wander off the property. Once while I was staying at Springbank, Max disappeared on Easter Sunday. He did not return the next day. When he still had not appeared after several days, we began to wonder if some harm had befallen Max. We feared it was possible that he would never return.


On the Wednesday after that Easter, several of us were working on the community’s prayer lodge. At the end of the day, I suggested we pray for Max and send out our energy for his safe return.


There were five of us. We joined hands and formed a circle, and began to pray. As energy flowed from hand to body to hand, we imagined a cone of energy surrounding us and extending to Max, wherever he might be. Our prayer was to cleanse, purify, and protect him. We imagined the energy surrounding Max and inviting him home.


One member of our group said she could sense Max. She assured us that he was alive. We concluded our prayer circle and went off into the night.


The next morning we received good news: Max had come home and was enjoying an abundant breakfast. It seemed that our prayer had been answered. Our prayer for Max had invited him home.




I want to tell you about discovery,

tell you about who I am,

about what I believe,

about faith, about justice,

about what I hope to say—

whether you believe it or not.


Justice is all I have to say.

When you tell me about sorrow and joy,

about the wound inside,

about organizing as your first act,

about recognizing others,

justice is all I have to say.


Justice making creates good companions

who eat common bread,

consume the food of freedom,

celebrate what is not to be found in books,

peer into silence and solitude.


Discover the wilderness

you dare to call your life.

Describe the scribe of your spirit,

the spirit who guides your uncertain pen

and reveals secrets yet untold.



Steph in the Zone

In recent weeks, the media has been fueled with news about the condition of the knee of Stephen Curry, star of the Golden State Warriors and the most valuable player in the National Basketball Association. Having suffered a sprain, he was out of the lineup for more than two weeks. When he returned this past Monday, his exact role in the game was uncertain. He did not start and instead sat on the bench on a stationary bike, trying to prepare to reenter the game.


When he came onto the court, he missed nine of his first ten shots. But then as the game progressed, something marvelous happened. Steph stepped into the zone. His shots began to fall. When he scored 17 points during overtime to almost singlehandedly win the game, he set an all-time record. He was back!


Michael Murphy and Rhea White wrote a book called In the Zone, about the transcendent experience in sports. That book was written 20 years ago, but it could have been about Steph on Monday night. Steph was in the zone. As we watched, his mind, body, and spirit coalesced, and he was able to transcend the limits of space and time and lead his team to victory. One after another 3-point shot flew through the hoop. And it all looked so effortless. Congratulations, Warriors!


People gather at sporting events so they can feel part of the community of life. They like competition; they want to see a win. But sometimes it is more than just that. By following the magic of Stephen Curry, each of us is also in some way inspired to do more than we might otherwise do, to transcend what we might think we are. To become planetary people who live in the zone. 



Welcome Home

Father Henri Nouwen is one of the most widely read spiritual writers of my lifetime. Throughout his ministry, Henri would travel to a place and immerse himself in the culture and living tradition of its people. It was his practice to stay for a while and write about the place and his experience of its spirituality. Among the fruits of his journey was the Genesee Diary, which told the story of his time at the Abbey of the Genesee in western New York. Another significant phase of pilgrimage was his time as pastor of L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, Canada, which he chronicled in The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey.


When he arrived at Daybreak, Henri became immersed in the community inspired by the life and work of Jean Vanier. Born in Switzerland to Canadian parents, Vanier settled in France as a young man in 1945. Later his life took a more spiritual turn, and he became aware of the plight of those institutionalized due to their developmental disabilities. He invited two men who were disabled to live with him. Ultimately, this inspired the founding of more than a hundred L’Arche communities around the world. One of these is the Daybreak community situated north of Toronto. When Henri settled into his new home there, Vanier said to him, “Henri, I think you have found your home.” These were prophetic words, as it turned out that Henri spent his final days at Daybreak.


As I reflect today on the life and work of both Jean Vanier and Henry Nouwen, I recall again Jean’s words to Henri. May they be for all of us the encouragement we need to also find a true home.