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The Great Community of the Earth

At a special event held during the UN Summit for Religious and Spiritual Leaders in August, Thomas Berry told these stories of our common dreams for the Earth

During these past two days much has been accomplished to advance the cause of peace by our discussions and simply by our being with each other. We have learned to trust and admire each other and to share with each other the traditions we represent.

This evening I suggest that we continue this presence to each other by looking beyond ourselves to the larger universe we live in. If it were convenient, I would suggest that we go outside this building, that we go beyond all the light and noise of the city and look up at the sky overarching the Earth. At this time in the evening we would see the stars begin to appear as the sun disappears over the horizon. The light of day gives way to the darkness of night. A stillness, a healing quiet comes over the landscape.

It's a moment when some other world makes itself known, a numinous presence beyond human understanding. We experience the wonder of things as the vast realms of space overwhelm the limitations of our human minds. As the sky turns golden and the clouds reflect the blazing colors of evening, we participate for a moment in the forgiveness, the peace, the intimacy of all things with each other.

Parents hold their children more closely and tell them stories as they go off into dreamland, wonderful stories of times gone by, stories of the animals, of the good fairies, adventure stories of heroic wanderings through the wilderness, stories of dragons threatening to devour the people and of courageous persons who saved our world in perilous times.

These final thoughts of the day are continued in the minds of children as even in their sleep they begin to dream of their own future, dreams of the noble deeds that would give meaning to their lives. Whether awake or asleep, the world of wonder fills their minds, the world of beauty fills their imagination, the world of intimacy fills their emotions.

When we look back over our own lives, we realize that whatever of significance we have achieved in our own personal lives and in the larger cultural domain has been the fulfillment of thoughts and dreams that we had early in our lives, dreams that sustained us when we encountered difficulties through the years.

Beyond the dreams of our personal future, there are the shared dreams that give shape and form to each of our cultural traditions. Because this other world cannot be explained by any technical or scientific language, we present it by analogy and myth and story. Even beyond childhood, this is the world of the human mind.

So tonight, as we look up at the evening sky with the stars emerging faintly against the fading background of the sunset, we think of the mythic foundations of our future. We need to engage in a shared dream experience.

The experiences that we have spoken of as we look up at the starry sky at night and in the morning see the landscape revealed as the sun dawns over the Earth — these reveal a physical world but also a more profound world that cannot be bought with money, cannot be manufactured with technology, cannot be listed on the stock market, cannot be made in the chemical laboratory, cannot be reproduced with all our genetic engineering, cannot be sent by e-mail. These experiences require only that we follow the deepest feelings of the human soul.

What we look for is no longer the Pax Romana, the peace of imperial Rome, nor is it simply the Pax Humana, the peace among humans, but the Pax Gaia, the peace of earth and every being on the Earth. This is the original and the final peace, the peace granted by whatever power it is that brings our world into being. Within the universe, the planet Earth with all its wonder is the place for the meeting of the divine and the human.

As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth. The natural world tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you. Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human. For I offer you a communion with the divine. I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other. I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other. In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.

All these benefits the Earth gives to us, individually, in our communities, and throughout the entire Earth. Yet we cannot be fully nourished in the depths of our being if we try to isolate ourselves individually or if we seek to deprive others of their share by increasing our own, for the food that we eat nourishes us in both our souls and our bodies. To eat alone is to be starved in some part of our being.

We need to reflect that our individual delight in the song of the birds and the sound of the crickets and cicadas in the evening is enhanced, not diminished, when we listen together with our families and our friends. We experience an easing of the tensions that develop between us, for the songs that we hear draw us into the intimacy of the same psychic space. So it is with music. Our folk music as well as the symphonies of Mozart or Beethoven draw an unlimited number of persons into the same soulspace.

Perhaps our greatest resource for peace is in an awareness that we enrich ourselves when we share our possessions with others. We discover peace when we learn to esteem those goods whereby we benefit ourselves in proportion as we give them to others. The very structure and functioning of the universe and of the planet Earth reveal an indescribable diversity bound in an all-embracing unity. The heavens themselves are curved over the earth in an encompassing embrace.

Here I would recall the experience of Henry Thoreau, an American naturalist of the mid-19th century who lived a very simple life with few personal possessions. At one time he was attracted to purchase an especially beautiful bit of land with a pasture and a wooded area. He even made a deposit. But then he realized that it was not necessary to purchase the land because, he reasoned, he already possessed the land in its wonder and its beauty as he passed by each day. This intimacy with the land could not be taken away from him, no matter who owned the land in its physical reality. So indeed that same bit of land could be owned in its wonder and beauty by an unlimited number of persons, even though in its physical reality it might be owned by a single person.

Such was the argument of Mencius, the Chinese writer. He taught the emperor that he should open up the royal park for others, since it would be an even greater joy to have others present with him, just as at a musical concert each of us enjoys the music, not diminishing but increasing our own joy as we share it with others. So, too, in the Boddhisattva tradition of India there were those such as Shanti Deva, in the fifth century of our era, who took a vow to refuse beatitude itself until all living creatures were saved. For only when they participated in his joy could he be fully caught up in the delight of paradise.

It has taken these many centuries for us to meet with each other in the comprehensive manner that is now possible. While for the many long centuries we had fragments of information concerning each other, we can now come together, speak with each other, dine with each other. Above all we can tell our stories to each other.

Tonight we might recall the ancient law of hospitality whereby the wanderer was welcomed. So it was with Ulysses in his long voyage home after the Trojan war. When exhausted and driven ashore on occasion and surrounded by a people that he had never met before, he was consistently rested, invited to dine with the people of the place, and then in the quiet moment afterward was invited to tell his story. So it has been, I trust, with each of us in these past few days. To some extent we have been able to tell our stories to each other. Now a new phase in all our stories has begun, as we begin to shape the Great Story of all peoples.

I would suggest that we see these early years of the 21st century as the period when we discover the great community of the Earth, a comprehensive community of all the living and non-living components of the planet. We are just discovering that the human project is itself a component of the Earth project, that our intimacy with the Earth is our way to intimacy with each other. Such are the foundations of our journey into the future.


From remarks made at the August 30, 2000, Thomas Berry Award and Lecture, sponsored by the Center for Respect of Life and Environment and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at the UN Millennium World Peace Summit for Religious and Spiritual Leaders. Thomas Berry is a cultural historian, author, and teacher of religion now living in the southern Appalachians. Illustrations by Ruth Richards.

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