The Great Work Underway

By Larry Rasmussen

The Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary, Baguio, Luzon, The Philippines, is Berry's "Great Work" already underway. The mountain knob at the intersection of Marcos Highway and Santo Tomas Road is home to the Center for the Integrity of Creation, the Environmental Theater, the Fourteen Stations of the Cosmic Journey on the grounds, and the Bio-Shelter and its own cosmic journey in the stained glass of the chapel. The entire complex, spirituality, and eco-justice work is the new amidst the old, often the new resurrected from the old. It is ancient and avant-garde at once, the transformation of deep Christian traditions now as Earth-honoring faith. Thomas Berry's stamp is clearly here, yet this is Filipino in art, architecture, and spiritual expression. Local community is integral to Earth—and cosmos—as the comprehensive community. The Sanctuary already embodies the transition from "the human devastation of Earth" to a time "when humans [are] present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner" (p. 3, The Great Work).

Keywords: Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary, Thomas Berry, The Great Work

On a July afternoon in 1990, an hour or so after the school children had been dismissed for the day, the ground of the fabled Cordillera mountains shuddered, heaved, settled, and slid. An earthquake of 7+ on the Richter scale rocked Baguio, the City of Pines, and laid it low. Devastation was massive and the loss of life staggering, not least because a second strong tremor arrived forty minutes after the first—just long enough to lure people back into their weakened homes to survey the ruin and take shelter from the torrential rains that continued to fall. The epicenter itself was some thirty miles away, and Baguio probably should not have buckled as it did. But the gold, silver, and copper mines that have hollowed out these steep mountains rendered the city more vulnerable than it otherwise would have been. At least that is the conviction of most of the populace, itself both dependent on international mining and timbering corporations and resentful of them. The extractive economy provides them work and then hauls the wealth away, leaving the scars and a population that must grudgingly ask for more.

Atop the mountain knob defined by the Marcos Highway and Santo Tomas Road, the sixty-two-year-old convent of the Maryknoll Sisters lay in ruins. Like the adjoining school, it had rested on one of the fault lines. After emergency care, the question quickly became, what now? Rebuild somehow and take up where we left off—primarily elementary education and social justice advocacy work with the urban poor and the tribal communities of the surrounding mountains—or what?

Over the course of the next seven years, an answer took form: The Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary, with its Center for the Integrity of Creation, its Cosmic Journey, and its Bio-Shelter. The Bio-Shelter commands the immediate attention of anyone coming around the busy corner (the Sanctuary is in a heavily populated part of the city). One large and two small pyramidal structures of blue and white and green stand against the sky, with much wood, glass, stone and ironwork, and a remarkable sense of openness that complements the feel and smell of sunlight on pine. The style, ancient and avant-garde at once, draws its basic lines from the traditional houses of the Ifugao peoples of the Cordillera and at the same time is sleek, simple and "hi-tech" in the best manner of modern architecture and engineering. The entire complex is the new amidst the old, the new often resurrected from the old. A small hermitage for guests on retreat sits in the garden close by, itself built of recycled convent ruins and resting on the slab where the convent kitchen had been. Next door the jagged old convent foundations now host the flowered archways of the new Environmental Theater where children from the School for the Deaf in the Center for the Integrity of Creation dance Earth Prayers to open a seminar, conference or other meeting at the Sanctuary. In the Bio-Shelter itself the exquisite and locally designed and crafted cabinets, tables, chairs, door moldings, staircase and banister are all from the three large mountain pines that had to be felled to make room for the house. The fallen pines themselves were replaced by ten seedlings each and, in a ritual created for the occasion, were thanked for their gifts to the ongoing community.

Whether and to rebuild and in what manner required extensive discernment (not to say fund raising!). Several of the sisters had lived, as many before them, in spare, ascetic quarters in their ministries in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in the Philippines. Should they do so here as well? The decision for the state-of-the-art Bio-Shelter was that it would be home to the sisters, hospitality to guests, and, perhaps above all, a medium of Earth education and spirituality. Thus it was designed on the religious premise that "inner" and "outer" are not separate domains so much as different dimensions of the same cosmic reality and on the design premise that practical inspiration comes from and through nature. Windows and skylights are maximized with a view to mountain sunlight. Rainwater running down the skylights and roof is collected and piped through the pillars of the Sacred Space (the shelter's chapel) out into an area where a future wetland is planned. Solar heating is used extensively, together with maximum recycling and composting of materials of all kinds. A commitment to the bio-region and its peoples means purchasing local materials and furnishings, using local building materials and the crafts and designs of local workers, gardening and decorating with indigenous plant species, reforesting with tree species native to these grounds and so on.

In short, the house is a shelter wholly integrated into the notion and fact of the ecological sanctuary itself. Yes, the casual passerby could easily confuse it with a prize-winning domicile featured in a prestigious architecture magazine; such are its lines and beauty. But that house would be owned by the wealthy and would be somewhere else, purposely oV-site to the common peoples of modest means, much less the squatters, of Campo Sioco "barangay" (neighborhood). In any event, that house would miss the purpose of this one—to serve the Earth in this place, amidst its serious degradation, and to do so with beauty and a way to live, modestly, humbly, in tune with nature, even cosmos.

The quiet, octagonal shaft in the very center of the Bio-Shelter— its Sacred Space—is the first of two "cosmic journeys" the visitor or retreatant might make. Its enclosed space, sharply vertical yet womb-like, stills all who enter and lifts the eye to the rich colors of eight stained glass windows (eight, the number of both the windows and the walls, is a symbol of new creation). Here, in the vivid glass, is a "cosmic journey" told in Filipino—the fish of the South China sea, the mountains and stormy skies of the Cordillera, its life-giving rains and lush foliage, the mountain peoples themselves, the lilies met in the wild, the animals that are part of every village neighborhood, the Philippine eagle (a large, endangered raptor and national symbol), and the beginning itself, the "first" window common to creation everywhere, with its the brilliant, aboriginal flaming forth of the universe from the heart of God. From the glass the eye is drawn even higher to the open space above, circled with a wrought iron balcony and a brief pause of open air before completion in the translucent pyramid of the roof and the sky beyond. As the visitor sits quietly, the eye is drawn down again, however, now to a low wooden platform a foot off the floor. Rather, there are two. The lower one is not quite a semicircle, its straight side is flush against the white wall, and it sits below its smaller counterpart some four feet higher. On one is the tabernacle from the old convent chapel, on both are the artist's presentation of the sacred in the materials of the ordinary—today it is a gnarled, polished portion of a dark tree with dried flowers in its crevices, wood shavings at its base, and reeds, upright and tied with grasses in local traditional style, next to several candles. The true center is in the stone floor, however. It is a four-directional Chi Rho in brass, sign of the Cosmic Christ.

People do utter words here, and sing. Yet most utterances are the quiet ones of prayer and the stilled heart. This is obviously the axis mundi and the path to the heartbeat of Earth and the cosmos itself, a space sensed immediately as sacred even when the pilgrim may or may not have noted the significance of doors opening from the east and exiting to the west, or that the entry itself is graced in stone with the house lizard that is the symbol of prosperity and well-being for peoples of the region and their land.

Most visitors, in any event, find themselves on the other "cosmic journey." This one is just downhill from the Bio-Shelter and is fashioned as fourteen stations wound around the mountainscape of the Sanctuary. Its entrance sign, a conscious reply to Dante's at the portico of Hell ("All who enter here, abandon hope") reads: "All who enter here, enjoy." It is not the last evidence of whimsy on the cosmic journey.

The cool altitude, sun, and light, rolling fog that earn Baguio, the City of Pines, the reputation of one of the favored destinations in the Philippines draw many to this pilgrimage trail, as does the eco-justice ministry of the Sanctuary. The striking beauty of the Bio-Shelter has its counterpart—and context—in the striking beauty of this particular landscape. The stations themselves are quite simple, meant to invite reflection and with enough space for an appropriate ritual or just a pause. Like the Stations of the Cross, they are laid out in chronological order to tell a story far from over and given to re-telling in endless ways. The universe comes into being fifteen billion years ago; planet earth emerges five billion years ago; the oceans emerge; dinosaurs emerge; mammals emerge; birds emerge; flowers emerge; primates and early humans emerge; an arching bridge and a meadow stand in for the human hunting/gathering period while a cluster of huts stands in for the beginnings of settled, agricultural society; a well of sweet water comes next and a womb-shape fountain flowing with the waters of life; the journey ends with an extended station presenting primal and present religions and with clear communication of their shared sense of creation as sacred.

The Sanctuary is Thomas Berry's "great work" on the ground and underway. His writings are clearly part of its inspiration. But it is now internalized by the Philippine community itself and expressed and embodied in their fashion. The gardener, mechanic, potter, teacher of the deaf, or receptionist may lead visitors on the Cosmic Journey, as well as the Sisters. And the advocacy groups for the urban poor and the tribal mountain communities are at home with this story as well. In varying degree, it is their own.

The Great Work was my constant companion on the trip that took me to The Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary and five other Christian communities living fidelity to God as fidelity to Earth. I had long been persuaded by Berry and others that "commercial-industrial obsessions" (p. 3) have disrupted indispensable biosystems to such a degree that life as we have come to live it is unsustainable on modernity's terms. And that we are poised by the harsh grace of necessity to undertake a different "great work" than that of the present epoch, whatever its dramatic and genuine achievements in science, technology, industry, commerce, medicine, and finance. I have also, under Berry's tutelage, puzzled mightily over the problem for human agency and responsibility of the "disconnect" of human exercise of "macrophase power" and "microphase ethics" (p. 101). We simply don't have a picture of the moral universe in our heads and hearts commensurate with our real-life impact on the systems of which we are wholly a (dominating) part. We run with a microphrase sense of responsibility and we "do" spiritual-moral formation on a microphrase scale attuned to immediate worlds. Our religio-cultural traditions and the great political-economic orders that largely define our world do not act in ways that assume Earth as the integral, comprehensive community. So humans have inherent rights, but other-than-human life does not. Human individuals and communities claim our loyalties while a bio-region and the planet as a whole do not. Commercial transactions are to be fair and honest—and subject to legal recourse when they are not—yet these are not requisites of their impact beyond the human transactors (the impact on those mountains of Baguio and their flora and fauna, for example). And spiritual values routinely address our dissatisfactions by reference to the consolations of transearthly experience.

Or, to use another example, we may have some notion about where to begin in matters of suicide and homicide, and increasingly genocide; but it does not seem to carry over to any sense for biocide or geocide (Berry, 100-102). This is all microphrase formation of character and conscience, carried on while we wield macrophrase power. These transgressions mean, in a word, that we badly need a religious and moral conversion to Earth, not to say cosmos, if "ecozoic" rather than "technozoic" (p. 55) is to characterize the coming great work. "Growing people up" for a different world, one that assumes Earth as the comprehensive community, is the task, a task which understands that human ethics are derivative from Earth and the ecological imperative, not vice versa.

So I am grateful for—and inspired by!—the Baguio mountain people and their stunning Sanctuary. Their hands-on story of the emergent universe as the enfolding sacred journey, the pilgrimage of our lives and all life, lives into the great work. It "grows people up" for macrophase ethics and a contrite, though joyous, spirit. They are doing community spiritual-moral formation proper to the transition from a period of "the human devastation of Earth" to a period quot;when humans [are] present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner" (p. 3). God bless 'em! And Thomas, too.

Larry L. Rasmussen, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics, Union Theological Seminary, New York City


  • Berry, Thomas. 2000. The Great Work. New York: Harmony Books.

Republished with permission from Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, Volume 5 no 11/111 2001, published by Brill