Cosmology

Paul Winter and Missa Gaia

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There are a number of personal strands in the announcement that Paul Winter will receive the Thomas Berry Award at the coming conference of the American Teillhard Association annual meeting to be held at the Cathedral of St, John the Divine in New York City. While I am a supportive newcomer to the worlds of Berry and Theillard, I had a small connection with Paul Winter several decades ago.

Winter is a jazz musician of considerable prominence. His original sextet toured the world and was the first jazz combo to play at the White House. His later Consort has existed for years with a rotating membership. In the 1970’s Winter became interested in another species and its ability to make music - whales - and travelled with Greenpeace to try interaction with them and his soprano saxaphone. This encounter later produced the Missa Gaia or Earth Mass, which had its world premiere at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1981 and continues to be performed there each year. Performers include a chorus, vocal soloists, the jazz consort and an assortment of recorded whales, wolves and other animals, whose songs often provided the inspiration for the melodies. You can hear the entire mass here as well as several selections on YouTube.

It’s not surprising that Winter and Thomas Berry connected in New York City when they were both involved in shifting our consciousness to the beauties of the natural world and our responsibility to protect it. My own threads are many. I taught at a small Episcopal School near the Cathedral from 1960 -1963. The school at the time was in the process of raising funds to build a new facility and used one the Cathedrals’s chapels for the school to start the day. The work was premiered in Canada as part of the Joy of Singing International Choral Festival in 1989 by the Consort with the Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir conducted by Robert Cooper. As the Executive Director of the provincial service organization for choirs at the time I was a last minute adult recruit buried in the alto section when the conductor thought it needed an extra voice two. It was one of the most inspiring and enjoyable performing experiences of my life.

While I probably won’t make the award ceremony, it is gratifying to know that I will hear the Missa Gaui performed again in Toronto by a local choir and joined by some of Canada’s best classical, jazz and gospel musicians.

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You can find more about the Toronto concert here. And it is also good to know that Thomas Berry wrote a beautiful poem after attending a Winder Solstice performane of this work, which is the last entry in one of his books. You can find a brief quote from it elsewhere on this site.




We're New Here

Reading the news this morning gives a perspective that we humans still have a lot to learn about our behaviour. Whether it is government officials who have elements in their past that have come to light or whether the world’s richest man can be blackmailed, human stories are gripping the morning in print and online. News about the state of climate change takes a back seat.

For all that, we are rather recent arrivals as this graphic shows. Individual stories pale beside the changes that we are making to the planet.

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A New Story

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On a November morning, the sunrise can be spectacular, arousing a sense of awe.  It’s rare to take in the beauty of the natural world and the environment designed and built by humans from the same vantage point.  City dwellers may still enjoy seeing natural beauty during the day, but the bright lights have masked the visible stars of the night sky.  Those living in less populated areas may still have that advantage.

A recent exhibit, Anthropocene, on display at both the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, highlights what we humans have done to plunder and devastate our natural environment. This show is not the first to focus on this tragedy. More than thirty years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, expressed a need for a new story expanding on the one we find in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  He reminds us that earlier theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas placed equal importance on learning from the Book of Nature.  What scientists now know about cosmology – the origin and nature of the universe - is astounding.

 Berry inspired colleagues to present this story in an award-winning film called Journey of the Universe. Since its release in 2014, the film and accompanying book have caused responses from a variety of Christian communities supporting Berry’s argument of the need for reassessment. This challenge is both complicated and contentious.  When Copernicus discovered that we were not the centre of the universe, his news was not well received. Nor were Darwin’s findings. Science has discovered that our milky way is only one among billions of galaxies.  The writers of the early books of the Bible had a lesser sense of history and it was limited to a very small part of planet earth.

 Journey and the first Genesis story share common elements.  Both start in darkness.  Light emerges, then water, then earth, then plants, then birds and animals and finally human beings.  In the Genesis story, creation is complete and humans become the focus of history.   In Journey, creation evolves in stages through billions of years and continues to do so.

 At the recent consecration of our new bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, we acknowledged that we are settlers.  What we celebrate less is indigenous peoples’ reverence for the earth - they see themselves as subjects alongside animals, vegetation and stars.  In contrast, we live in a world where anything other than ourselves is viewed as an object for our use and exploitation. The last 65 billion years of the Cenozoic geological period were the earth’s most creative and flourishing.  But in the last four hundred years we’ve managed to reverse the process of creative evolution - eliminating forests and species, polluting rivers and oceans, and robbing the earth of its resources.  And even as we put humans at the centre, we are selective about which humans, preferring those nearest and dearest and most like ourselves.

 Putting humans at the centre has a history and takes us back through 19th and 20th century industrialism and the earlier writings of Newton and Descartes, who proclaimed that everything that was not human was merely matter.  But we can also go further back to the two biblical creation stories, noting that the redemption story, where the world is dangerous and tempting, has prevailed over the creation account.  Within this context, we have taken the directive to have dominion over the earth and turned it into domination.

 People of faith now have an opportunity to learn.  Thomas Berry proposed more than 15 years ago that Christian and other religious communities can join with modern science communities to become part of a new Ecozoic era, where we return to intimacy with the earth and our place in the universe. When the earth itself becomes sacred to us, we recover both a sense of our miniscule presence as individuals – and at the same time, our sacred responsibility for it, owing to our gift of human consciousness.  It means rethinking the frameworks of theology and its implications - for liturgies, formation, stewardship, laws, governance, and for the challenges of our time – climate change, technology and the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. Meanwhile we have obsessed about gender and sexuality – not expressing with gratitude the wonder of the cosmos and our proper place in it.

 The first step is awareness.  Go to see Anthropocene.  Watch Journey of the Universe on YouTube.  Visit the associated websites: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org and

  www.theanthropocene.org. .  You will experience the universe and our small planet in new ways. These are first steps that may lead to increased understanding and commitment.

 

 

Journeys

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Concurrently with reading Life Abundant, I am reading another book responding to a film called Journey of the Universe.  Here's an introduction to it.  It is part of a necessary step to re-frame the human journey as part of a new story.  More on this to come.

Concurrently with reading Life Abundant, I am reading another book responding to a film called Journey of the Universe.  Here's an introduction to it.  It is part of a necessary step to re-frame the human journey as part of a new story.  More on this to come.