Transcript of Miriam Mac Gillis’s speech
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I am reminded that the contemplative gaze is itself a proper activity in the universe. We are so designed, so beautifully equipped for contemplation of what is; and insomuch as the traditional development of our faith context in the past, that contemplation was on the realm of mystery, the realm of the sublime, the realm of how humans had perceived the relationship of the divine with them in time and space.
I have come to have such a deep appreciation for the contemplative gaze among scientists.
Both gazes – one coming out of intuitive knowing (mystical knowing) and one coming out of a set of rigorous conditions on which one contemplates the truth – are assets of our humanity. And we live in a time now when so much of the contemplation of the universe, earth, of life, of flowers, of everything is leading into a new understanding, a new way of seeing for us of the human species. And without that tremendous contribution of the scientific community we could not even have these visions, which are windows into the mystery of life.

Thomas Berry, a historian of world cultures, has written much about the need for our human species, and in particular Western civilisations to explore the threshold of the new cosmology in order to give us purpose and meaning in the sense of identity as we move into the future.
He talks about the essential aspect of human consciousness, which is in a certain sense our mind. Our minds are totally dependent on the outer world, which invokes a wonder which brings forth the mind to search for truth. And he says that an essential part of our human-ness is to be people of imagination. Imagination is a particularly human capacity, and this too is evoked by an outer world of beauty. And then he talks about the aspect of our human-ness which is related to our emotions and our feelings, which the outer world awakens and activates within us. And so as Aristotle might have said, all knowledge, whether spiritual or intellectual comes out of the senses and then we respond. Or as Thomas Berry would say, the outer world activates the inner world and causes, brings forth, that contemplative gaze and then the awesome capacity to imagine and to respond with feeling and the depth of what our human souls carry.

So I wanted to say a few words about what this has meant for me, as a lay person really. I am a Dominican Nun and my background is in art, painting and teaching; and about thirty years ago I feel I was knocked off my horse like Saul of Tarsus and my life was just turned totally around by some of the implications that were coming through, in two different ways.
Firstly that the extreme crisis being caused on the planet in terms of its ecological integrity and even its capacity to go on were the result of human activity, and secondly what we have come to see and understand through the amazing instruments that scientists have created to move out into the outer world at scales and distances which our forbears could never have imagined or done. This was revealing that we were at a very very critical moment. And the realisation of that has, I suspect, been a deep part of my faith journey.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist intuited this story. Born in 1881, just moving into a world where this kind of research and investigation and observation was starting to crystallise, he intuited that matter was not just matter but was spirit. He sensed that the  universe was evolving, not just in its physical aspects  but as a deeply spiritual process. He knew this in some way and as a member of the Jesuit order,  He knew somehow that these two strands could come together – that these two aspects of the contemplative gaze, faith and science, ought not to be in contradiction to each other. He died in 1955, after the trauma of World War two, before the Hubble telescope was created but deeply concerned about what he thought would be an implosion in the loss of psychic energy in the human species. He feared that if we did not develop our capacities to see (and by that we might say into evolutionary time and space ) that we wouldn’t have an adequate vision of the outer world to activate the energies needed to take through our emerging crises in order to open up a different direction into the future.
And so he spoke about the importance of seeing. He said we would either see or we would perish. 
 
I want to suggest that as people of faith who now see these revelatory images of the inner and outer ranges of the known universe, that we are now contemplating the existence of all that has been there for these 13.7 billion years but we have never before been able to see. We are a very young species and for the last two and a half million years (and especially the last one hundred and fifty thousand years or so) we have been grappling with our limited and unaided sense organs to answer the questions of where we are. Who we are…how we are…why we are. How, we have asked, did we get here? What is life? What is death? Why are things the way they are?  And the awakening of the human mind, the imagination, and  the emotions has been evoked over the long historic process of our human development.  We have been creating and deepening our most profound human capacities through the use of our senses, stories and meaning systems.

Thomas Berry often says “Do you know what time it is?”. And he means that in terms of its relevance to us who are living now, our generation must come to grips with the fact that we are living at the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era. Now the Cenozoic era is the last sixty five million years in which all the magnificent and diverse life forms blossom forth as  the multiplicity of organisms which are part of this living planet. And Berry suggests that all of this had to precede the human in order to activate the human mind in its ability to wonder and think, and the imagination to a participate in a world of such tremendous beauty, and our emotions to a world of such intimacy. Yet, as we gather here in this church this evening, we are the generation awakening to the realisation that our human, industrial, economic activity is bringing the Cenozoic Era to an end. The chemistry of the water has changed, the chemistry of the air has changed, the basic patterns of climate are changing. The loss of habitat, the loss of species is unprecedented in the last sixty five million years and as we awaken to this we have to wonder – how did this happen?
We are not evil. This was not deliberate. We didn’t set out to do this. Berry suggests that we are in a  crisis of cosmology (of our understanding of how we relate to the universe).


A part of what our ancestors tried to provide was a meaningful story that would give purpose to their lives, to explain suffering and hardship and motivate themselves to joy and justice and virtue and satisfaction. But there was no way our ancestors could have known this longer, deeper journey and all the relationships, the trillions upon trillions of relationships that atoms and molecules have gone through to be part of a planet that is alive in its own right. Our ancestors could not know that. Many of their diverse origin stories were created to give meaning to the human community.  In the stories of western civilizations, these stories often described the human as being intrinsically different from the rest of the natural order.  They described the human as separate from the rest of the universe and planet because, they said, the human was uniquely and directly infused with a spiritual soul by a spiritual Divine creator.

And so we have in a certain sense moved through these last thousands of years believing that we were separate from the rest of the created world and we were the only ones with soul, the only ones with psyche, the only ones with this capacity for self-reflective consciousness – and the rest of the universe, the rest of the earth was simply matter; stuff, physical components that had no inherent meaning or value in their own right except to be of service to the human.

And now we are being called to awaken from a state of entrancement with those ideas. Thomas Berry suggests that these (traditional) stories and ideas give us a sense that our destiny is - to be liberated out of the conditions of the natural order.  They suggest that earth has fallen into a temporary flawed condition from its original state of perfection.  They suggest that our human disobedience introduced death and pain and suffering.  And they suggest that Earth is a collection of matter, of physical material objects which are devoid of spirit and have no inherent value and meaning of their own. They are perceived to be created only for the purpose of being of use to the human.

Berry suggests that having lived out these perceptions, western society is being given a new revelation powerful enough to awaken us from our destructive behaviours toward the natural world.  We are seeing with new eyes, such as through the Hubble telescope or at the quantum level into the profound inner and outer unity of all being.  He describes this capacity to see the sacred unity of the whole and our participation in it as a moment of grace.

And so the galaxies and stars that we see, the sounds that we hear and the depths of intimate relationships we observe in the universe are the ways in which the universe, in us, is capable  of looking back on itself – this is a monumental new threshold through which we are being invited to pass. It is our generation, our children’s generation who are being invited to move out of a consumer based, materialistic society to become a contemplative society.  We are awakening into a radiant universe where our role is to see and to be present to that radiance and beauty within the far ranges of inner and outer space and time.


Thomas Berry also says that we have not been abandoned even as we awaken to the bitter and devastating realization of our actions. So much that has been ruined. But we have each other in our gradual and universal awakening.  And we have the wisdom of all the earth’s peoples. And we have the wisdom of these new insights which bless us. “Blessed are they who could not see what you see, but believed; who could not hear what you hear, but believed”.  Bonded with the wisdoms of all Earth’s people, their diverse cultures and religions,this new endowment  of the evolutionary story, the whole journey, is enough to set our minds and our hearts and our imaginations into the direction of choosing life. The ecological aspect of this is so clear now. We know this more than ever. We cannot eat contaminated food and think that we are going to bring forth life and energy for the great work of the future. We cannot drink contaminated water and use it for baptism. We cannot be healthy people on a sick planet.

So it is a whole new realisation and it brings a deep call to conversion. It comes at a moment when we choose to explore it with a contemplative heart.  It is a profound revelation; but its implications will not be easy.

I would like to end with a sense of my own journey as a person of faith who believes in the mystery of the whole thing, the holiness of the whole thing; but for whom the divine needs a larger context to reveal profound insights that were not always understandable to me in an earlier phase of my life, or to the generations before us – like the unity of the whole thing, and like the dynamic that races through the universe causing diversity and differentiation.
We have lived over the last thousands of years thinking that differentiation in human art forms, in ritual, in religion, in languages was somehow a problem and had to be brought into a uniformity. But we now see that the differences are in fact the aspects of the wisdom needed by us as we struggle to go forward.  The inner mysterious realm of spirit is the center of all being. The communion of all in a vast community of being is the full blossoming of the gravitational bond. This universe does not hold itself together except through a union with itself and that union, in its expansion into space and its changes in time, allows for all the individuation and creative processes within us to stream forth.

And so the shifts we will be asked to make will ask quite a bit of us – and then it causes us to ponder what we mean by faith. Paul says that faith and knowledge are not the same thing. What you know, you know; you don’t have to believe. But what you don’t know, you believe – and that’s a deeper aspect.

It occurred to me in my own journey, that I used to think that faith was turning around looking back into time and space and saying I believed certain patterns, people, events in history which confirmed certain aspects of revelation. And I haven’t turned away from that, but what I realise now is that we are in a developing universe that isn’t finished, was never finished and perhaps won’t be finished. That you can’t freeze- dry a particular moment or a particular aspect of the truth and say that’s the sum total of all truth, that sacred revelation is over…So when we move from a static universe to one that’s developing, we cannot move forward with the kind of certitude about our images of God for which we have constantly gone to war to defend. This  universe demands a deep humility. And so faith now is to allow ourselves to believe in the future and its purposefulness.  It asks that we absorb into our consciousness all the richness of the faith traditions out of which we come, and be those energies, those qualities, and then, out of them, bring forth the next emerging capacity for wisdom so that we can envision the future in a stance of faith and faithfulness.. To have faith in the future demands a new depth of faith that no generation before was asked to create.

I would like to end with two short poems by Adrienne Rich who speaks to this. She says:
Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.
If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.
Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.
If you do not go through
it is possible
to live worthily
to maintain your attitudes
to hold your position
to die bravely
but much will blind you,
much will evade you,
at what cost who knows?
The door itself
makes no promises.
It is only a door.
And then this very short poem that speaks of our time.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save.
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot
With those who
Age after age
Rehearsed it with no extraordinary power


I suggest this is just the beginning of the world.

I suggest this is just the beginning of the world.