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Cover story

Understanding the cosmos in a new way

NCR Staff

The groundbreaking work Fr. Thomas Berry, Passionist priest and Theologian, underlies the work of Dominican Sr. Miriam MacGillis.

MacGillis’ work is a case study in how the word gets around. In 1977, MacGillis, later the founder of Genesis Farm, in Blairstown, N.J., was on the staff of Global Education Associates.

Global Education Associates is the remarkable creation of Pat and the late Gerald Mische. It was founded in 1973 “in response to a world in which military competition and market-driven forces of globalization were trampling blindly on the dignity of the human being and the integrity of the natural world.”

In more than a quarter-century, Global Education Associates has grown into a network of individuals and organizations in more than 90 countries. It conducts programs in peace-building and global citizenship, and its direct affiliates include the Miriam College Center for Peace Education in the Philippines; the Toronto-based International Institute of Concern for Public Health; and Genesis Farm, MacGillis’ creation.

Twenty-two years ago MacGillis heard Berry for the first time. “After he finished delivering his paper I could not have told anyone what he said,” MacGillis recalled, “but I knew I had heard the most important thing I had ever heard.” Global Education Associates immediately asked Berry to provide other papers he had written and began to publish them. “The Whole Earth Papers” carried his insights worldwide.

Berry, said MacGillis, was basically saying there is a totally new context for understanding the universe-earth reality. “And unless we are moving into that context,” she continued, “we are trying to make an old context work.” MacGillis explained that “every culture has a cosmology, an origin story that attempts to not only explain how the world came to be, but tries to interpret what is incomprehensible about the mysteries of death and suffering, violence and decay -- the harsher aspects. Each culture’s cosmology has attempted to do that.”

“What has become clearer and clearer,” she said, “is that the existing cosmologies of the world, including our Western one, are based on the best humans knew about the world based on the unaided human senses. The reason we have changed so radically is that our senses have been extended by the microscope, the telescope and all of the incredible new technological instruments that have expanded our senses. That’s the bottom line.

“And that’s what Berry understood,” said MacGillis, coauthor with Mary C. McGuinness of Our Origin Story (Renew Books, Plainfield, N.J.).

MacGillis said that “the human inner-world of meaning has to then respond to what we’re seeing in the outer world. That, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, the universe is the most perfect revelation of the divine.”

“What’s happened,” she said, “is that we have come to understand the universe in a very primary way that was not available to us in the past 5,000 years. So, more than anything, I would say that understanding is revelatory of the deepest spiritual mysteries of existence.”

The Dominican Sisters’ Genesis Farm, the Sisters of Earth organization, all of the other activities, said MacGillis, are about “the attempt to bring some correction to the human course of events in terms of the Earth, which we are damaging on an unprecedented scale.”

“It is Berry’s work that has catalyzed so much of the movement, far more than any other cause -- especially among women religious,” she said, “but much, much broader, among the whole general public, too.”

MacGillis said once she understood what Berry was saying, “the implication for me was to try to find a way to make this concrete. In two ways,” she said. First, “in terms of how we -- the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, N.J. -- related to the land that had been given to us,” and also “how to create a space here where other people could come and engage in those questions.”

The Dominicans had 140 acres. Subsequently, they have been given an adjoining 86 acres. Now they have made a bigger gift themselves -- in order to stabilize the presence of Genesis Farm in the local community, the sisters have retired the development rights, and the property is owned by the state. “It took a lot of faith for the sisters to do that,” said MacGillis. “Nothing can happen on this land that is not connected to agriculture.”

It is a step many states are taking to preserve farms, she said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999