We take for granted the ground we stand on. We live at 86-45 Edgerton Boulevard, Queens, Long Island, New York, USA, but the ground we stand on goes deeper than that.
The monastery we live in stands on the highest point of a spine of volcanic rock that goes back at least 400 million years, when the continent was being formed.
About 22,000 years ago the last glacier, the height of a skyscraper, came down from Canada and stopped here. Our monastery stands where the glacier stopped. As it receded and melted the glacier gave us the land we stand on now.
Southeast of us the glacier formed clay flatlands and sandy beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean. The winding depressions in our area, like Midland Parkway next to us, were streams from the glacier bringing sand and clay and rocks to the flatlands east of us.
North of us the last glacier left the waters that became Long Island Sound. The glaciers also left water in the aquifer that still provides drinking water for most of Long Island today.
About 12,000 years ago, the first humans arrived here. Small bands of Indians lived in settlements near streams and waterways where they fished and hunted for game.Then, we came here.
Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si that we need a long view of life for the days ahead, because we’re facing a world that will be radically transformed by climate change. To prepare, Pope Francis says, we need “an ecological conversion.”
That certainly means knowing more about the physical world we live in, so that we can understand it and care for it. Some say since the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century we have concentrated too much on the human world and prioritized it too much. We’ve neglected creation and the ground we stand on.
That means also remembering that God created the heavens and the earth and God has a plan for the world. God must remain in the picture of the changing physical world, otherwise life becomes chaotic. We can’t depend on science alone.
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, while accepting science and its findings, said that besides scientific knowledge, we should mine our own religious traditions for the wisdom and hope they give and he said to look at the Book of Genesis and our spiritual and sacramental traditions to face the future.
Our location here in Queens, particularly our garden, on the edge of a spine of volcanic rock, offers a valuable place for cosmic reflection. Our Mary Garden, based on the garden of Genesis, sees creation with eyes of faith and also with eyes of earthy experience. Water creates the garden, bringing life to everything else. Four rivers flow to the four corners of the earth. The plants in the four quadrants of the garden represent the staples of life– beauty, medicine and food.
Mary stands in our garden as the representative of redeemed humanity, holding in her arms Christ, the Redeemer. She rejoices in creation before her and presents the one, “through whom all things were made,” who blesses the world with hope. Mary also, as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus, knows he has promised a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold, I make all things new,”
Mary’s statue stands on the stump of a large cedar tree, a tree whose roots reach deepest into the earth. At the base of the stump are rocks; most come from parts of our continent swept up by the ancient glacier and deposited here. We put some rocks from the Holy Land there, and a friend recently gave us a rock from Ireland to add to it.
The flowers in the Mary Garden bring the various colors and shapes of the world’s plant life here. Flowers are perhaps the most popular “immigrants” of the plant world, coming from everywhere, welcomed everywhere. Many of them, like the marigold, “Mary’s Gold”, are particularly associated with the Mother of Jesus.
Our Mary garden stands next to a grotto recalling Mary’s appearance at Lourdes in the 19th century when faith in France was eroding in an age of skepticism. Her appearances later at Fatima and the strong devotion to her that persists today remind us she is a permanent witness to Jesus Christ, who promised to remain with us “all days”, even days when the foundations of the earth are shaken. Mary’s a witness who comes when times are bad.
The concept of the Mary Garden developed in 13th century Europe when, during the “Black Death”, people believed a cursed earth caused millions to die. Today as the earth enters its own “passion” the Mary Garden offers a rich resource of Christian wisdom and hope for the days ahead.
God loves the world. It is good.
Thomas Berry, a Biography by Mary Evelyn Tucker John Grim and Andrew Angyal, Columbia University Press, 2019 is available.
I was one of Fr. Thomas Berry’s first students. It was at Holy Cross Preparatory Seminary in Dunkirk, NY in 1950. Tom taught history to seminarians that year and I was in his class.
I remember the first day he came into class with a stack of booklets in his hands. “We have to know what’s going on today in the world,” he said, “and so we’re going to study The Communist Manifesto.”
Now remember, this was 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy had begun a witch-hunt to root out Communist sympathizers and The Communist Manifesto was on the church’s list of forbidden books. We studied it.
Tom never mentioned Joe Mc Carthy or the threats of a Communist takeover in Europe or what was happening then in China. No, he was interested in where the Communist Manifesto came from. Beyond Karl Marx and Lenin, he traced it back to the Jewish prophets and their demands for justice for the poor and human rights. The long view of history was what interested him.
After the Communist Manifesto, we studied St. Augustine’s City of God. Two loves are building two cities, Augustine said. Again, Tom didn’t dwell much on the historical events used by Augustine to illustrate his theory of history. It was the overall dynamic of the two loves in conflict over time that interested him.
From Augustine, we studied Christopher Dawson and his book The Making of Europe. Dawson, one of the 20th century’s “meta-historians,” wasn’t interested only in Europe; he was interested in the whole panorama of civilizations that came before it. That was Tom’s interest too.
As far as I remember, Tom didn’t speak of the universe and its evolution, his focus in later years, yet you could see him heading that way. He had a mind for the long view of things.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si also has a mind for the long view of things. The pope doesn’t quote from The Communist Manifesto, but he insists, more strongly than the manifesto, on the rights of the poor, to which he joins a strong insistence on the rights of the earth.
Can we also hear echoes of Augustine’s City of God in Laudato Si? I think so. The pope speaks of two loves in conflict. There’s the love that builds the city of man. How describe it today? How about blind consumerism; we love things too much. We love our vision of material progress too much. We love our technology too much. We love our control over the earth too much. We love ourselves too much. The result is “global indifference” to an environment falling apart. (Laudato Si, 9,14)
Opposing that love is a love the pope sees in Francis of Assisi, “who was particularly concerned for God’s creation, for the poor and the outcast…he would call all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’… If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (LS, 13)
Berry, like the pope in Laudato Si, accepted science’s view of our environment, yet also like the pope he distanced himself from a major trait of the era of the Enlightenment which unfortunately causes us in the western world “to see ourselves as lords and masters of our environment, entitled to plunder her at will.” (LS, 2)
Science teaches us a lot about our environment and its perilous condition today, but knowledge is one thing and love is another. Two loves are at work. Love doesn’t always follow what we know, especially if our hearts are fixed on something else. Love is hard to change.
The evironment doesn’t seem to be a big issue in our churches, in the media or in the political world. We seem to be avoiding what the pope calls “an ecological conversion.”
It’s not going to happen overnight through some quick fix. We need to get ready for the long haul. And what does that mean? We need wise teachers and leaders to guide us, like Thomas Berry and Pope Francis.
“The present time is not a time for desperation, but for hopeful activity.” Thomas Berry, CP
Monday Acts 14,5-18; John 14, 21-26
Tuesday Acts 14,19-28; John 14, 27-31
Wednesday Acts 15,1-6; John 15, 1-8
Thursday Acts 15, 7-21; John 15, 9-11
Friday Acts 15, 22-31; John 15, 12-17
Saturday Acts 16,1-10; John 15,18-21
The gospel readings for the remainder of the Easter season are from the Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel. Jesus says he is going to the Father. What does that mean, his disciples wonder.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus says, yet he will not be with them as he was before, but he will be with them as God is always with them. Now, the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, will teach them all things; Jesus’ presence will be signs.
The Acts of the Apostles continue to describe the church’s journey in time. This week’s readings describe the successful missionary efforts of Paul and Barnabas among the gentiles in the Asia Minor cities of Lystra, Derbe, and Pisidia. The mission raises questions in the Jewish Christian community at Jerusalem. Are the gentiles taking over? To meet what some considered a threat and others an opportunity, a council was called in Jerusalem, which has enormous consequences for the church.
Conflict causes the church to grow, Pope Francis said some time ago: “But some in Jerusalem, when they heard this, became ‘nervous and sent Barnabas on an “apostolic visitation”: perhaps, with a little sense of humor we could say that this was the theological beginning of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: this apostolic visit by Barnabas. He saw, and he saw that things were going well.”
Previously in his homily, the pope said that persecution or crises bring growth, often hidden. In the 1960s and 70s, as the church in the western world experienced critical times and decline, tremendous growth took place in Africa, Asia, and South America. Today there are 1.2 billion Catholics in a world of 6 billion people.
And it’s not over yet.
I’m celebrating Mass all this week in the chapel in the spiritual center at St.Mary’s Parish, Colts Neck, NJ. The chapel was designed by Fr. William Bausch, pastor of St. Mary’s for many years, a prolific author, superb homilist and a priest beloved by his people. He recently published a book, at 90 years old!
The chapel windows behind the altar face a garden and a distant row of trees. A weathered cross from the first parish church stands in the garden. The natural world, which has given us bread and wine, and the parish of the past join us as we give thanks at Mass to God the Creator, through Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
The chapel altar is carved from a tree, one of its branches providing a stand for the book of the altar. So the trees of the forest are here too.
The altar stands under an octagonal roof. Here we have the mystery of the eight day, the day that never ends, the place Jesus prepares for us, as he says in the gospel of John today.
“Master, we do not know where we are going,” Thomas says in today’s gospel. Here in signs the place is pointed out. The Cross of Jesus ends in a garden.
In the Acts of the Apostles, which we read through the Easter season, Luke describes the development of the church mainly through the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul. In the later chapters of Acts it’s mostly Paul.
But it’s important that we recognize they’re not the only ones who make the church grow. After Jesus ascended into heaven, forty days after his resurrection, a group of his followers go back to the upper room in Jerusalem, Luke reports. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of them.
All of them are eyewitnesses to what Jesus said and did before he ascended into heaven. They have a key role in the development of his church. Not only have they seen and heard what Jesus said and did, they’re given prophetic gifts for preaching and teaching and guiding other believers. Inspired by the Holy Spirit they tell others what that mystery means. They told others then; they tell us now, they will tell those who come after us. They’re permanent eyewitnesses.
Here’s Luke’s description of them: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” (Acts 1, 12-14)
Though Luke singles out Peter and Paul, this larger foundational group is at the heart of the church’s growth. He wouldn’t want us to forget these “eyewitnesses” in that growing church. Luke especially wouldn’t want us to forget Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mary is the key eyewitness. She witnesses to the birth and origin of Jesus Christ and she also was a witness to his death and resurrection.
Early pilgrims to the Holy Land often brought home relics and icons to recall their visit, like the icon pictured above. It represents Mary’s role as eyewitness. She knew he was God’s Son, not the “son of a carpenter.
She also knew he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose again on the third day.
She is his most important witness. We remember her this month, May.
The daily Mass readings for Eastertime, from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of John, are so different in tone. The Acts of the Apostles is a fast-moving account of a developing church spreading rapidly through the world through people like Paul of Tarsus and his companions. Blazing new trails and visiting new places, they’d be frequent flyers today, always on the go.
The supper-room discourse of Jesus from the Gospel of John, on the other hand, seem to move slowly, repeating, lingering over the words of Jesus to his disciples. Listen, be quiet, sit still, they say. Don’t go anywhere at all.
St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, was inspired by St. Paul, the Apostle, to preach and to teach. Many of his letters end telling readers he has to go, he’s off to preach somewhere. He was a “frequent flyer.”
But the Gospel of John also inspired him; it was the basis for his teaching on prayer. Keep in God’s presence, in pure faith, he often said. Enter that inner room and remain there. Don’t go anywhere.
“It’s not important for you to feel the Divine Presence, but very important to continue in pure faith, without comfort, loving God who satisfies our longings. Remain like a child resting on the bosom of God in faithful silence and holy love. Remain there in the higher part of your soul paying no attention to the noise of the enemy outside. Stay in that room with your Divine Spouse…Be what Saint John Chrysostom says to be: silent clay offered to the potter. Give yourself to your Maker. What a beautiful saying! What the clay gives to the potter, give to your Creator. The clay is silent; the potter does with it what he wills. If he breaks it or throws away, it is silent and content, because it knows it’s in the king’s royal gallery.” (Letter 1515)
Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, Galilee’s rulers then, appreciated the prospects then and they created a network of roads and large cities – Tiberius, Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima on the sea– to export goods from Galilee to the rest of the world. Could this information help us appreciate the miracle of Jesus, feeding the crowd bread and some fish?
“I am the bread of life”, Jesus says in today’s gospel from John. I’m the source of your blessings and everything that is. God the creator works through me. Moses asked for bread for his people journeying from Egypt. Jesus says: “I am the bread of life.”
Jesus makes a divine claim in this miraculous sign, feeding a multitude. The crowd wants to make him king, (John 6, 15) but the kingship they see doesn’t approach the kingship that’s his. It’s much too small. Jesus rejects their plan.
In a wonderful commentary on Jesus as the bread of life, the early theologian Origen says that Jesus calls himself bread because he is “nourishment of every kind,” not just nourishment of our bodies. He nourishes our minds and our souls; he brings life to creation itself. When we ask “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re asking for everything that nourishes our “true humanity, made in the image of God.”
Jesus is the bread that helps us “grow in the likeness of our creator.” (On Prayer 27,2) Sometimes– in fact most of the time–we don’t know the nourishment we or our world needs, but God does. “The true bread come down from heaven” knows how to feed us.
“Give us this day our daily bread.”