Address at Thomas Berry’s Vermont Funeral By Ann Berry Somers, Thomas Berry’s Niece June 8, 2009
My generation of the family did not know Thomas well when we were young. Occasionally he would come for a visit and, like my father’s other brothers, was very sure of himself and his ideas. My mother explained that he was a university professor, an important and noted thinker, and even wrote books. Wow. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote books or had an uncle who thought great thoughts and, although I was very impressed by the achievement and regarded him with a certain fascination, it seemed we were worlds apart. My cousins and siblings and I were growing up in the country, swimming in the lake, catching bugs and turtles, admiring snakes, and generally living a life quite distant from a New York academic who wrote about Eastern Religions. “Are you sure he is related to us?” I asked.
In 1995, after a long and illustrious career at Fordham University and the Riverdale Center for Religious Research, Thomas moved to Greensboro to be with his family. Although most of my generation still did not know him well, we were delighted to have the great and wonderful Thomas Berry living amongst us. What we did not realize then, was that were getting two in one. We were getting both Thomas Berry and Uncle Brother. We had always called him Uncle Brother because his 12 siblings called him Brother. This was always amusing to my friends but felt natural to me. When they heard he was a priest they good-naturedly dubbed him “Father Uncle Brother” and call him that still.
The Uncle Brother moniker took on new meaning when he moved home and became an active and caring part of our family, fully engaged with any of us who wanted to visit or talk. When he presided over our family celebrations he would do so with a tenderness and thoughtfulness that touches us still. He said many masses in our homes and always wanted everyone to share in communion. Sometimes his talking would go on longer that our young children wanted it to, but they piled up on the couches like puppies and did their best to stay engaged.
But sometimes it was not so easy to stay engaged, like the time we though he would catch on fire. He was getting older then and though not steady on his feet, still insisted on standing up to say mass despite our wishes that he be seated. One Christmas he, having become energized by his own words, was gesturing with increasing enthusiasm so that the sleeves of his vestments began dangling in the flame of the candles. Unaware, he continued waxing eloquent as we were held in suspense wondering if or when he would go up in an inferno right before our very eyes and hence we became distracted from his wise words, if only temporarily.
When he first returned to Greensboro, he and I would meet occasionally to talk, and in 2003 we began meeting weekly. Mostly at a local café where we ate breakfast every Sunday morning, sometimes talking so long and intently that the waitress would eventually ask us if we wanted to order lunch. These were always intellectually demanding encounters. I know they were for me and he claimed they were also for him. We discussed everything under Heaven, with urgency. We talked about the course of human events, passion, fulfillment, joy, ecstasy, sexuality, wisdom and wonder. We spoke of dreams and determination. You understand what I mean if you have ever spent time with Thomas, because you experienced this too.
My views of science were challenged by these conversations, as in the scientific world in which I operate; it is easy to abide by the view that all we need to know can be accessed through science. Thomas understood the great value of human reasoning as expressed in the scientific endeavor, but at the same time he also understood, and helped me understand, that reasoning alone does not reveal all that is real. The sacred nature of the universe is real, not something added on to the physical. Not only is it real, but it is the deepest aspect of reality. Reasoning alone will not give us what is needed for finding our way into the future. For this, we need the knowledge only accessible to us through other means such as the direct human experience of love, passion, enchantment, joy and terror. It is the role of artists, poets, and musicians, not scientists, to help us explore this type of knowledge.
The Great Story
The moon was shining over the bay
And Thomas asked the moon “What should I say?”
The moon answered “Tell them my story”
He asked the wind “What should I say?”
The wind answered “Tell them my story”
He posed the question to the red oak, “What should I say” and
The answer was the same “Tell them my story. Tell them the mountain story, the human story, the river story, the sacred story. Tell them the Great Story.”
Thomas told The Great Story as the moon, wind, and oak entreated him to. It is the story of the Great Self and the small self. A story which bears telling and retelling as if life itself depend on it.
The Great Story weaves our lives into a fabric of a narrative larger and more important than ourselves. It is both an old story and a new story. It is new in that important details have been revealed by science, such as the depth of time, the nature the energy transformations, and how new forms emerge from other forms. The story is old because the most fundamental part of the story emerged spontaneously as an original impulse of humanity, sung and danced by the earliest musicians and hunters and artists at the dawn of human consciousness, offering a way to apprehend and know our own being.
Thomas knew the story of the moon and the rivers and the earth and the humans were all the same story. And that the deep pathology of our time is to consider our story to be different from that of the others. One of the consequences of such thinking is that we begin to think our future will be different from that of the old forest or the salamanders, wetlands and meadows. Such thinking dissolves into absurdity when one is conscious of The Great Story.
The Great Self
During our meetings, I enjoyed challenging Thomas and often tried being provocative, sometimes because I had a question and sometimes just to see what he would say. He seemed to enjoy this and greeted my questions with good humor. For example, when he would talk about a Universe full of meaning, I would ask: “Well, what doesit mean?” He would laugh and say, ah, that is a good topic for us today!
He would go on to describe the universe as the Great Self and ourselves as the small self. “Every being has these two dimensions: its universal dimension and its individual dimension. Where the meaning or value is, is in the attraction between the Great Self and the small self. The satisfaction we experience when we lay down in the forest, see a turtle nest on a beach, or become mesmerized watching the flow of the river – these are tangible encounters with the Great Self, the source of our inspiration, and the dimension where we experience fulfillment. It is the same with music, or building a house. The different components don’t make sense by themselves; the parts only make sense together.”
Thomas also understood death as integral to the process of life and existence. When asked about his views on death in an interview, Thomas responded “We are born of others; we survive through others; we die into others. It is part of a total process, a community process, which is what the universe is. It is the world of the living – of birth, life, death. I think of it like a symphony,” he said: “There’s nothing that happens in time that does not have an eternal dimension. That is, like music, it is played through a sequence of notes or a sequence of time, but must be understood outside time. It must be understood simultaneously.”
“The first note and the last note have to be understood as the simultaneous experience of melody. And so the whole universe, in a certain sense, is played through in sequence but it also exists outside this sequence.”
(Now that will give a person something to chew on a while.)
When asked about the separation of body and soul or spirit at death, he replied “It is a total process, and the whole being is part of that process. Our disintegration [upon death] is the disintegration of a certain phase of a person’s being. But the whole life process is transcendent to a time process. Therefore birth and death are both contained in the reality of a person’s existence.”
“So we are as old as the universe and as big as the universe. That is our Great Self. We survive [death] in our Great Self.”
The future and our capacity to find our way
As regards the future, it may be useful to consider that recovering our awareness of the universe as a communion of subjects – not a collection of objects – is available to each one of us as our minds awaken to a world of wonder, our imaginations to a world of beauty, and our emotions to a world of intimacy.
We all have the capacity for acknowledging and working toward the larger fulfillment of the community which is the Great Self and fostering the relationship between the Great Self to the small self, for within this awakening is a new spirituality – one that Thomas says “requires no prophet or priest or saint” though the teachings of the prophets, gurus, sages and philosophers – are immensely important — and to that we would add the teachings of Thomas Berry. The new spirituality is guided by the Great Self.
So the symphony that was Thomas Berry has come to its natural end and today we commend him to The Great Self. The last few years brought challenges to him because of his disabilities. However, there was a constant flow of visitors from around the country and world. I was lucky enough to be with him during his last days and hours which were soulful and calm, as befitting Thomas Berry. In no small part this was because of the extraordinary care he received from the staff at his retirement home. Several times, when the caregivers had no expectation that there was an observer, I witnessed their simple gentle benevolences like a brief, soft stroke of a finger across his cheek, an extra pat on his hand or knee. I also saw Thomas’ response when he became alert and was comforted in knowing that his sister Margaret was nearby. Thomas had a great life and a good death. Aren’t we lucky to have had him in our lives! Thank you.