Each time Adam touched a piece of the Story, he would see the hill where the oak once stood. He would see his grandfather's face. And he would ask, How can I take the words of a man I love and turn them upside down? How can I tell his Story backwards? (from The Story of Everything, Chap. 27)
It began in the morning. An 11-year-old named Thomas Berry had an experience of nature that led, in the afternoon of his life, to a New Story of the cosmos. Now Thomas is 93, a Passionist priest living in assisted care in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is late in his day. A former student, Mary Evelyn Tucker, has edited a collection of his papers and given them the title Evening Thoughts.
Tucker is currently co-director, with husband John Grim, of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. Thirty years ago, after spending two years in Japan, she enrolled in Berry's History of Religions program at Fordham University. She is dedicated to Berry as one who has helped us all come home. "He has literally guided us back to our original place of birth, the universe itself."
Evening Thoughts is a simple way to enter the mind and heart of Tucker's lifelong mentor. All the themes are there: The universe as primary, humans as derivative. The universe as sacred text, more a source of revelation than any Book. Consciousness as "a dimension of the primordial atom." You will also find Berry's thoughts on the effects of nation-states and transnational corporations on the larger Earth community.
But, written as they were over many years, these aren't exactly Berry's evening thoughts. And, for some reason I cannot explain, I want to know what cultural innovators think in the evening of their lives. When they come to the end, what do they make of the journey? Berry wrote famously of being "in between stories." We know what his New Story is. What became of the Old?
In the course of their lives some innovators seem to leave the Old without a second thought. They focus on the New, as indeed they must if there's an ocean to be crossed. But . . . a leaving with no guilt, no pain, no fear, no sense of loss? I'd like to know more. How was the Old Story taken in as a child? How deeply, how securely? (This was a key in a study I made decades ago of Catholics who left their church.) And once they embrace the New, do thoughts of the Old return, thoughts of the land they left?
So I wonder: when Father Berry says Mass, if indeed he does, what goes through his mind? What does he make, for example, of the Christian redemption story on which the Mass is based, on which his very priesthood is? He has seen that story as a problem. Does it have a place, any at all, in the New Story?
Some bring the Old along, but redefine it. This is what Michael Dowd, in the middle of his journey, is doing with evolutionary Christianity. This was what the Catholics I studied who remained in their church did. Their original internalization of "Catholic" was deep and secure, and so as adults they wanted to remain "Catholic" no matter how unorthodox they became. They lost the doctrine but kept the name. In these cases, the question becomes, is this the Old in name only?
Some let the answer die with them. Why, we wonder. Why not speak of the Old? Because of a love for it? A sense of betraying it? Or, perhaps, to keep followers on board? All of us, to some extent, play the role of intergenerational buffer: we block the transmission of something that was instilled in us, something we find damaging or just no longer true. We carry the burden but do not pass it on. The Old dies with us.
Still, I'd like to hear about it. I'd like to glean some wisdom for the journey. What should you expect when leaving the Old? How can you be released from it? How bring it along, find it again at the end? These are truly evening thoughts. Some are destined to leave no trace. Some are more like seeds.
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COPYRIGHT (C) 2008 JOHN N. KOTRE