Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"The Dream of the Earth" by Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry is a Catholic priest, monk, ecologist and a gifted writer.  This book consists of 16 essays on the universe, the earth, and the creatures that live on “this privileged planet,” as he calls it.  They include the topics of creative energy, technology, spirituality and other aspects of earth study, set in the broad context of  “a fantastic universe,” with its great swirling galaxies, its super novas…our solar system.  He gives the history of the universe, of the earth, and of the creatures that lived in it, including humans, whom he calls “the latest arrivals,” after 25 billion years of history of the universe, and after 4.4 billion years of the history of the earth.

Fr. Berry traces the journey of humankind through its many cultures, civilizations and relationships with the earth from the beginning to modern times, which he says is now undergoing the greatest crisis the world has ever known.  Earth scientists say we are losing 10,000 species each year, and this rate of loss is increasing.

Considering the humans in our part of the world, Berry expresses the greatest admiration for the Indians who populated the Americas, claiming that everything was safe and secure until the invasion of the white man.  He speaks admirably of the Indian’s ability  to interact creatively with the earth.  He also claims that they could very well help shape the future of this continent, and that we have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.  Some of their tribal chiefs were among the greatest leaders we have ever known.

The scope of this book is so vast…covering many billions of years.  It is impossible to do it justice in a brief report such as this.  Read it, and see how marvelous it is!

"The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future" by Thomas Berry

Fr. Berry is called “the leading spokesperson for the earth,” that his great ecological insight at this moment in history illuminates the path we need to take in the areas of ethics, politics, economics and education if both we and the earth are to survive.  Quite a sobering statement!  Berry speaks of the challenging future that lies ahead of us as we begin the 21st century.

The author says that we have lost contact with the universe, and that living with the earth in a cooperative manner instead of depleting its riches and selfishly dominating and exploiting it, is the work of everyone on earth…beginning now and continuing into the future.  He says we are entering into an era more crucial than at any other time in the history of the universe, that living here now is both a privilege and an awesome responsibility to which we must respond with all means available.  The manner of humans living on the earth with the other creatures and riches of our planet must be re-invented in order to avoid total destruction….a process that is well underway.  We must no longer consider ourselves the center of the universe, nor can we allow politics or corporations to dictate our actions.

As is all of Berry’s books, he ends with a lengthy bibliography of sources, more than enough to last a lifetime for the serious student of care for Mother Earth.  The entire book is a profound and eloquent call to action, not to be taken lightly.  Read it if you possibly can!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Henri Nouwen, Writings Selected, by Robert A. Jonas

 For any reader who does not know Henri Nouwen, one of the most popular spiritual writers of our day, this small book would be an excellent one to begin with.  In the first 79 pages the author, who is a close friend and a psychotherapist, gives a detailed biographical sketch of Henri Nouwen, not only his life and career, but with insights into him as an extraordinary person, deeply spiritual and also plagued with inner turmoil.

Henri Nouwen was born in Holland in 1932.  As a child he was unique, restless and active, always “on the go.” Even at an early age he was entranced by the Roman Catholic Mass, especially the Eucharist.  Jesus became his life-long mentor and model.  He studied in Jesuit schools and later in a Dutch seminary, where he studied the usual theology and Scripture and also psychology, at his request.  After his ordination he spent two years at the Meninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas, exploring human psychology.  He then returned to Holland, obtained a doctorate in theology, taught for a time in a Dutch university and went back to the U.S., where he was a professor at Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale.  He was a gifted teacher, and his lectures and seminars were always given to a packed audience.

Nouwen was also interested in social justice.  He mourned the death of Jack and Robeet Kennedy, attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, marched with the Blacks in Atlanta, and with Buddhist monks in protest of the Vietnam War.  In the 1970’s he felt called to Latin America, where he lived for two years in a poor barrio in Lima, Peru, later spent some time in Mexico and in Nicaragua, where he spoke with the Sandinistas.

He lived intensely, kept close contact with countless friends (including a family of trapeze performers he met in Europe), sent gifts and answered every letter he received.  His love for people, his need for friendship and sharing of ideas, and his inability to say no to any request kept him at a dizzying pace, often with 18 hour days.  He often suffered from exhaustion and felt spiritually drained.  In 1988 he spent 7 months of recuperation     in Winnipeg after a severe emotional collapse.

Besides being a popular speaker, Nouwen was a gifted writer, authoring some thirty books, plus essays, journals and countless letters.  Despite his lofty education and many years of teaching on the university level, he wrote in a simple style, heart to heart, avoiding theological terms or vocabulary beyond the scope of the majority of adults, around the themes of blessedness, brokenness, death and resurrection.  His readers included people of all faiths. In a recent survey asking 3,400 Protestant church leaders who had most influenced them, he ranked second, ahead of Billy Graham.  His own study included Hindu and Zen sources besides Sacred Scripture and Catholic documents.  Most of his books are small, with the exception of his masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son,  which he wrote after contemplating for hours the massive original painting done by Rembrandt of the same title, in an art museum in Russia. The book is as remarkable as the painting.

After a frenetic but fruitful life, and after disregarding a warning to slow down, he died of a massive heart attack in 1997 in Canada, at age 65.  Not having learned to pace his activities or to say no to any request, he literally worked himself to death. 

I invite you to do yourself a favor, and read this book or any others by Henri Nouwen. You will find him spiritually enriching and inspiring.   

"When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature" by Thomas Merton

In this small book we see Thomas Merton very much akin to St. Francis in his love of creation.  For 169 pages he expresses poetically his love of trees, mountains, birds, flowers…everything in nature.  He says that he and these creatures form an ecological balance.  Merton also speaks of “non-ecology.”  Examples include the destructive un-balance of nature caused by poisons, bombs, fallout, exploitation – with contaminated water, ruined land, chemicals in the soil and machinery ravaging the ground.

He says also that wealth is poison, that there is no misery that can compare with that of those who live with total success of technology, that the greatest poverty is among the prosperous.  Speaking to people in Third World countries where they have nothing, he asks if they imagine that they would no longer in need if they were to become as prosperous as those living in the United States.  He answers “No,” that there they would be in even greater need.

Merton does not extol poverty as a basic virtue, as does Francis, and he says that for himself he needs to live alone, in the silence of the forest, where the dark warmth of the world is his love, that he needs to be alone at “the resurrection of the day,” at the moment when the affairs of governments, of cities, of war departments seem of little worth.

So Merton’s idea of poverty and his insistence of needing to be alone in the enjoyment of nature differ radically from Francis’ extolling of “Lady Poverty,” and his love for brotherhood.  But it is very interesting to see to what extent Merton’s ideas are quite “Franciscan.”

This book paints a new picture of Thomas Merton and his spirituality.  I think you would enjoy it.

"The Shattered Lantern, Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God," by Ronald Rolheiser

The title of this book is taken from an ancient tale of a mad man who comes to a town, goes into the town square, faces the crowd of townspeople, shatters the lighted lantern and shouts loudly, “God is dead!  And we have killed Him!

The majority of us, followers of one of the world’s great  religions that believe in the one God…Jewish, Islam and Christianity…know that God is not dead but very much alive, in the universe, in heaven on earth, all around us and within us.  But the problem, says the author, is that at times we cannot find God.

Those of us who live in the western part of the word, particularly in Europe and the U.S.,  have several traits, Rolheiser claims, that militate against our finding God.  He lists these as narcissism, pragmatism, unbridled restlessness, and the loss of the ancient instinct for astonishment.  We are too caught up in ourselves, in our own welfare, needs and wants, too full of ourselves to have room for any other, even God.

We are too caught up with busy-ness, efficiency, sensibleness and practicality. We see what is good and true as what works.  Science alone is trustworthy and believable.  We all believe there is an atom, although none of us has seen it.  We cannot see God, and therefore we secretly doubt that God exists, even though we say we are believers.  We are a restless people, not restful.  We are greedy for experience of all kinds, are dissatisfied if our expectations are not fully met, see all tension as tragic. We are impatient. We feel as always behind schedule, that our work is never done. We have lost the wonder of a child, who sees beauty as more important than usefulness

Rolheiser says the only way to find God is to be a contemplative.  We can theologize, know about, speak of God, but we do not speak to God nor listen to God, nor truly know God as a person, the One who is of the most importance in our lives.  In the course of history there have been many contemplatives…St. John of the Cross, St Francis, St. Therese, and countless others.  On reading this book and following Rolheiser as he enfleshes his convictions, we can ask ourselves if all this can be ours, if we can find God as others have.  We may well be inspired to search, to try.  It could change our lives!