Overview of Memorial Service
By Tara C. Trapani
On Saturday, September 26, one thousand people from points all around the globe gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to honor the memory and celebrate the life of Thomas Berry, author, professor, geologian, and respected elder of the religion and ecology movement.
The event began with the presentation of the Thomas Berry Award to Martin S. Kaplan, long-time supporter of the work of Thomas Berry and the fields of religion and ecology and interreligious dialogue. Mr. Kaplan gave the accompanying lecture and spoke of the vision of Thomas Berry and how we must all carry that vision into the future. The talk focused on climate change and was a strong appeal to political and religious leaders to respond to the findings of the IPCC report for the common good of present and future generations. In addition to Mr. Kaplan’s speech, remarks were given by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University, Senator Timothy Wirth, Ann Berry Somers of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, Stephen Dunn, CP, of the University of Toronto, Rick Clugston of the Earth Charter International Council, and Steven Rockefeller of Middlebury College.
Following the award ceremony was the memorial service for Thomas Berry—a celebration of his life and a gesture of gratitude from all present for his Great Work.
It began with a momentous procession including members of the Omega Dance Company, glorious banners by Ralph Lee and the Mettawee River Company, and accompanied by the music of Paul Winter on his hauntingly beautiful soprano saxophone and Tim Brumfield on the great Cathedral organ. Additional artistic tributes were offered by Eugene Friesen on cello, Kathleen Deignan, Danny Martin and the entire congregation gathered in song.
The music, dance, and artistry combined to uplift the crowd and carry all gathered there out of those walls of stone, into communion with all members of the community of Earth.
Paul Winter himself reflected that “it was a summit meeting of wisdom-keepers...all Thomas' children. I said to Jim Morton at the party: ‘the community that has emerged from this transformational oasis you created here, is itself a Cathedral.’ Ralph Lee's symbols-on-poles, and the Omega banners, worked brilliantly at the end, along with Tim's rapturous organ playing, and together it all seemed to spark that spontaneous and joyous recessional, the most celebrative I think I've ever seen for any event in the Cathedral. How Thomas would have loved that! And John's "whoop" was one of the great moments in the Cathedral's history, a prayer I'll long remember. It was truly an honor to take part in it.”
And in the words of another in attendance that day, Clare Hallward:
“I felt shaken as by a mighty wind, love as fire. We were all caught up in that beautifully orchestrated dance of joy unleashed. The music rang forth in revelation, a song of praise carried on wings of sound, a dimension of feeling beyond thought, expressing the explosion of creative love that brought the universe into being, whirling the longings of our hearts for love and belonging up among the rafters and the very stars. Affording us a glimpse of what Thomas called the Grand Liturgy of the Universe. Words no longer suffice to convey the moment.”
In addition to the music and dance, memories and reflections were offered by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University, Wangari Maathai of the Greenbelt Movement, Wm. Theodore de Bary of Columbia University, Brian Swimme of the California Institute of Integral Studies, and Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm, as well as a poem in Thomas Berry’s honor written and read by Brian Brown of Iona College. Stories both humorous and profound touched all present and gave a glimpse into both the humanity and the greatness of the man being remembered and honored there.
Lauren deBoer commented that “Thomas represented an older, deeper, more primary source of wisdom, one we need so much today. He brought that out in people, gave expression to the unexpressed in so many of us, made us feel less alone, less alienated, perhaps a little less sorrowful and more hopeful about what we can do about the desecration of the planet…I am grateful for the healing vision Thomas has given, both for my own healing and for that of the larger culture. May it endure for generations to come.”
Filled with that spirit of hope and healing the dancers, streaming banners, and triumphant music gave a final farewell and exuberant gesture of gratitude for the life and work of Thomas Berry, and a renewed commitment to carry on his vision and in the words of Martin Kaplan, to “choreograph our way into the future by listening intently to the music and dance of the Earth, and of all the species that share Earth with us.”
By Tara C. Trapani
The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale