Friday, August 1, 2008

Evening Thoughts

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.




Unknown said...

Here in Arch City (STL) a recent Post Disgrace article included the information that three members of an area church were restored their full rights after having been excommunicated for disagreeing with the local diocese who censured a priest. Their sin was employing him within their parish as the dispute continued. Shortly after he was transferred to outer Mongolia (or something akin) they obviously were given an opportunity to confess their sins, perhaps contribute a sizeable amount of money or influence, and wally! were reinstated. No one can ever come up with a good enough explanation for such.

Gary Kirby said...

How do I drop the old? With a little history and reason that tell me it was wrong. A friend placed a haunting prediction in my mind: “You’ll come back. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” I hope not. In my extreme moment I hope I have my mind enough not to request Extreme Unction.
So having dropped that old, soft comfort of eternity, a hard question knocks at the brain: how do I give meaning to a temporal life? How do I live with the thought that I did not become president? How do I face dying when my “words had forked no lightning.” Some of us can see empirical results in buildings, companies, books, children, or our mentorees. But a partial answer to me that leaves a little light on a darkening evening is our unseen, unknown, but amazingly powerful influence. What will be the sum of our personal influence on the world?
Before we do the math, an axiom: Our concept of humanity is a compilation of all the people we have met. Some have hurt us, some healed us, some boosted us, but most have only slightly altered our concept of good/bad—that is, people are generally good or evil. Everyone, even the stranger scowling or smiling who has breezed by, has adjusted our concept of humanity.
Sometimes a fleeting glance blows across our face with hurricane force: A college friend of mine was walking four blocks home to kill herself with a fast, final, no-last-call-possible suicide method. Having failed with other cries for help, this time she was determined. A young man passed her, smiled and said “Hi,” and that rocked her locked-in determination. When she reached her second floor apartment, she put away the chlorine and ammonia, and lived to graduate, to get a PhD in psychology, and to run a suicide prevention bureau in a large city.
The moral stuns: a simple smile from a stranger saved a life that dedicated itself to saving lives. How many lives did a smile save? And did the stranger ever know? Do you or I know the impact of our smiles, frowns, or touches of empathy.
The math: take the number of people you will fleetingly meet in your life and multiply it by itself several times and be stunned by your impact. Say, start with a thousand. Those thousand each meet a thousand (granted some will meet the same people) and you have a million people only one smile away from you. Those each meet a thousand (only two smiles away)—presto! A billion people! Granted your smile might not be life saving (but hey, it ain’t bad-- use it) but you firm their concept of humanity. Your smile, frown, or apathy has left them thinking humans are better or worse. You have rippled a changed in humanity’s self-concept, hence a change in humanity itself.
Damn we’re powerful. We can rest peacefully with that evening thought. And we can add to it in the evenings that are left. And if we all get lucky, maybe there will be an eternal smile for us somewhere. That’s a maybe then. Our smile’s a bright now.

Dr. Gary Kirby

Anonymous said...

The power of "a fleeting glance that blows across our face." I'll remember that as an evening thought destined to become a seed. It really speaks to my lifelong interest in "generativity," and it takes me past a misguided obsession with measurable results. Like most late-life wisdom, these thoughts come from the heart as well as the head, indeed from the whole life experience. Thank you, Dr. Gary Kirby.

Anonymous said...

I suspect our minds and spirits and hearts resemble the trees. The maples, oaks, sycamores, tulips, beeches, birches. The deciduous trees. I suspect we let something about us and the stories we live inside go, seasonally. I believe we let our loved ones and essential ideas go as the trees let their leaves go. Our friends and family leave us. Some changing and disappearing. Some perishing. What we know changes and very often disappears or perishes. But something new does come along, doesn't it? A friend of mine just turned 80. His parents, siblings (except for one surviving sister), wife, cousins, aunts, and uncles have all passed on. His job was eliminated by a recent flood, and he seldom sees his friends now, since they were work friends. He has just started volunteering lately at the local elementary school. He's looking forward to helping the fifth graders there learn how to read. Something new for him to organize his life around. A new premise. A new hypothesis. A new supposition. A new beginning. But all these new stories we make for ourselves to live inside. They have powerful resemblance to what we've left behind. Don't they? Like the trees, putting on new leaves, as long as they live.