By John Cronin
Three years ago today, my friend Thomas Berry died. It is a measure of the profound way in which he touched us that his death came as a shock, despite his 94 years and a prolonged infirmity. Thomas was one of our greatest environmental thinkers. I still feel that absent his guidance we are a little more lost than we would otherwise be. Reprinted below is a remembrance I wrote the on June 1, 2009, the day Thomas died:
On Sunday, May 31, Thomas Berry’s sister Margaret wrote his friends that Tom was “sinking rapidly.” On Monday, June 1, Margaret wrote again, this time to tell us that Tom had “died quietly at 6:25 AM.” To those who knew him, Tom was a towering figure, for more reasons than this space can accomodate. Here are a few thoughts on the passing of a great and dear man.
Twenty-five years ago, two friends and I sat with Tom Berry beneath a tree outside the farmhouse at Castle Rock in Garrison NY . . . sat and listened. It was a beautiful, late spring day of azure sky over the Hudson River Highlands.
For two hours, he removed us from the daily environmental politics with which we were preoccupied and spoke of the whole of life, particle to primate, each creature an elemental force without which Creation is incomplete. Absent was the rhetoric of strategy and tactics, of winners and losers, of who is good and who is bad. Instead, Tom talked of the human place, and of the transcendence of nature, of which we humans are an integral part, and to which we are meant to give voice.
He spoke of the human role in the universe story. “A story told by humans to one another that will also be the story that the wood thrush sings in the thicket, the story that the river recites in its downward journey,” he later wrote in The Dream of the Earth. =>
Tom’s fabric was a complex weave of spirituality, ecology, morality, love of cultures, and a deep humanism. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Confucianismwere among the myriad influences that provided the cosmological context that informed his world, and universe, view. In his work, he was eclectic in the best of ways — alternately philosophical, romantic and pragmatic, but sometimes stinging in his descriptions of the paradoxes and responsibilities of our species. In a paper he delivered at Harvard University in 1996 he wrote, “In the presence of the human, the natural world has no rights. We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide, and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide or geocide, the killing of the life systems themselves and even the killing of the Earth.”
For many, Tom was a surrogate for reflection and self-examination. His sheer existence on the planet gave comfort to those of us who, in the thick of courtroom, legislative and media battles, neglected to make time to reflect on our own. I count myself in those ranks more often than I care to acknowledge.
Tom was a gentle and powerful man, in that order. After that day in Garrison, I spent time with him at his home in North Carolina, and many times here in the Hudson Valley. I always came away intellectually challenged, and ethically humbled. I do not believe the latter would have pleased him. He never wore his morality as a badge of superiority.
He had something of the impish intellectual about him. He loved new ideas and equally loved challenging them, but did not make a display of his vast erudition. If, after probing discussion, your latest notion failed to meet his tests, he completed the exchange with a smile, maybe a friendly laugh.
Tom was a priest, of the Passionist order. His spiritual and cultural influences knew few bounds, still he was descended from the great Christian lineage of teachers and mystics, such as Aquinas, Teilhard, and Merton. He was a free agent, however, living on his own in North Carolina. I once probed him on his relationship to the priesthood but he demurred.
His book, The Great Work , is a magnificent treatise on hope and human possibility — out of humanity’s darkest times have come its brightest and most creative eras. In it Tom teaches that ecological principles should be the governing principles of our lives. He writes that our behavior toward the environment has brought us to one of those dark times but that the human species can be the promise, rather than the scourge, of the planet.
Tom’s observations about the unique role of the university in our environmental future formed the basis for the Environmental Consortium of Hudson Valley Colleges and Universities. He spoke at its first organizing meeting at Pace Law School on December 4, 2002. In The Great Work he wrote presciently and pointedly about the proper role for higher education:
Our present need is to know just how to move out of this alienation of the human into a more viable mode of presence to the natural world.
Here I propose that the religions are too pious, the corporations too plundering, the government too subservient to provide any adequate remedy. The universities, however, should have the insight and the freedom to provide the guidance needed by the human community. The universities should also have the critical capacity to influence over the other professions and other activities of society. In a special manner the universities have the contact with the younger generation needed to reorient the human community toward a greater awareness that the human exists, survives, and becomes whole only within the single great community of the planet Earth.
He was fascinated by the story of the Hudson River, its seeming demise and rise from the ashes. He particularly enjoyed the anecdotes of fishermen who led the charge against river pollution. He likened Robert H. Boyle, president of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, to Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior. When it came time for Tom to reflect on the Hudson in print he used the opportunity to reaffirm the very special place that the human occupies in nature’s scheme.
In The Dream of the Earth, in the chapter entitled, “The Hudson River Valley: A Bioregional Story,” he wrote:
This is the moment of change from a sense of the valley as subservient to human exploitation to a sense of the valley as an integral natural community which is itself the basic reality and the basic value, and of the human as having its true glory as a functioning member, rather than as a conquering invader, of this community. Our role is to be the instrument whereby the valley celebrates itself.
At a conference on environment and religion at Bard College a few years ago, I paraphrased Tom but neglected to credit his insight that the human should be a celebratory, even self-realizing instrument for nature. The speaker who followed me was a well-known environmental writer and scientist from Canada. He pilloried me for being anthropocentric. He offered an alternative and wonderfully poetic impromptu discourse on nature’s innate ability to celebrate itself – through the songs of birds, the play of animals, the flow and ebb of waters, the colors of the seasons.
Afterward, I sought him out. I explained that my idea was in fact Tom Berry’s, but that I had failed to do it justice. On hearing Tom’s name, he simply said, “Oh,” and returned to his chair in deep reflection. Even in his physical absence Tom could have that effect on people. I believe he always will.