Celebrating a Communion of Subjects

Paul Waldau

Thomas Berry on many occasions offered surpassing insights in memorable phrases—here I explore his embracive “the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects,”  for it is a wonderful avenue into deeper understanding of and relation to The Passion of Animals.

This phrase became the organizing theme for the 1999 conference “Religion and Animals” at Harvard’s Yenching Institute. Thomas elaborated this theme in the Prologue to A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics, a 2006 volume of the conference presentations co-edited by Harvard Divinity School’s Kimberley Patton and myself. We chose this intriguing theme because it invites all of us to explore our own species’ membership in the larger earth community and the cosmos.

Consider, for example, how this theme helps us notice and take seriously the multi-faceted connections we have to the Earth’s other-than-human communities, as well as to the local places we co-inhabit with local wildlife, companion animals, migrating species, and so many other forms of life.

The Joy of Connection

Throughout his writings and lectures, Thomas revealed again and again an astonishingly deep connection to living beings of the widest imaginable range. What is at stake in such a connection is well represented by these lines from his Prologue to A Communion of Subjects:

"Indeed we cannot be truly ourselves in any adequate manner without all our companion beings throughout the earth. The larger community constitutes our greater self."

The joy of such a connection comes across in this lyrical passage:

"Even with all our technological accomplishments and urban sophistication we consider ourselves blessed, healed in some manner, forgiven and for a moment transported into some other world, when we catch a passing glimpse of an animal in the wild: a deer in some woodland, a fox crossing a field, a butterfly in its dancing flight southward to its wintering region, a hawk soaring in the distant sky, a hummingbird come into our garden, fireflies signaling to each other in the evening."

The many ways that Thomas noticed and took other living beings seriously as fellow citizens of the universe, which are surveyed in “From the Daily and Local to the Communion of Subjects” included in Heather Eaton’s edited collection The Intellectual Journey of Thomas Berry: Imagining the Earth Community, reveal that in a great variety of ways and contexts that the passion of animals is a part of the universe story. Consider as well how this encompasses our connections to the companion animals that so many people today name as members of their family.

Such connections are underscored in books such as The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human (John Bradshaw, 2017) and Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals (Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, 2009). The same theme is often sounded regarding indigenous peoples’ connection to their lives in local places, as is the case with Deborah Bird Rose’s 1992 Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Aboriginal Australian Culture. Because indigenous peoples have known from time immemorial that other forms of life stimulate both our awareness of the universe’s stunningly variable beauties and mysteries, many Native American cultures taught their children, “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

The Recognition of Wonder

Recognition of such wonders appear widely both across time and cultures, and is evident in modern writers from many different disciplines. The science-focused writer Meg Olmert in her 2009 Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond offered constructive insights into our ancient past and thereby our present selves.

Thousands and thousands of years ago, our ancestors dreamed of unions with animals that would make them stronger, braver, faster, and wiser. In their dreams they surrendered their humanity and took on the shape and power of wild beasts. It was these mergers with the animal form and spirit that humans believed to be their ultimate achievement. They knew it was only with the help of animals that they could navigate this life and cross over into the next.

The gifted ecological philosopher David Abram explains how our encounters with other living beings remain constantly dynamic for us. “No matter how long I linger with any being, I cannot exhaust the dynamic enigma of its presence.” (Becoming Animal 2010). Our nonhuman neighbors, then, have a vivacious presence for us, in part because they live by awarenesses and passions that are inaccessible to our inquiring minds but plainly entice us because they appear in the inscrutable guises of mystery and silence. The mere presence of such neighbors poses questions that have much more power than their answer—they prompt us to wonder about these living beings’ lives lived in a place and world we share with them.

One of the most gifted twentieth century writers offers a vision of a place we can only rarely glimpse. Rachel Carson, whose 1950 The Sea Around Us set the record for most consecutive weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, wrote of “a fairy pool … hidden within a cave that one can visit only rarely and briefly when the lowest of the year’s low tides fall below it” in her subsequent bestseller The Edge of the Sea.

"And so I knelt on the wet carpet of sea moss and looked back into the dark cavern that held the pool in a shallow basin. The floor of the cave was only a few inches below the roof, and a mirror had been created in which all that grew on the ceiling was reflected in the still water below. Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Gray patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color.

In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave."

Carson helps us see that “the shore is an ancient world … that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life.” Its gift to us is that “each time that [we] enter it, [we] gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings.”

The Wisdom of Plants

Robin Wall Kimmerer in her 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants writes of how her Potawatomi ancestors imbued her with passion for living beings of all kinds. She writes of not only wisdom about animals, but also of plants as allied with us in life. Her descriptions are as lyrical as they are scientific. She passes along the lesson that because humans have “the power to create and the power to destroy,” we must recognize both because we thrive only when we invest our gifts on the side of creation.

Our Greater Self

David Haskell in his 2017 The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors takes us even further into a passionate connection to the community of life so integral that Thomas named it as “the larger community [that] constitutes our greater self.” Observing that our “re-engagement after cultural fracture and amnesia” can produce for us “a more mature ability to understand what is deeply beautiful in the world,” Haskell suggests that it is “through sustained, embodied relationship within a particular part of the community of life” (that is, in a local place) that we can “step toward belonging in all its dimensions.” When this step into our larger community is taken, we can become “awakened participants within the processes of the network,” and “we can start to hear what is coherent, what is broken, what is beautiful, what is good.”

As individuals, our first task is to recognize that each of us is a citizen in a more-than-human world, and our second task it to be a responsible citizen with this larger community that, as Thomas framed it, “constitutes our greater self.”

Paul Waldau is an educator, instructor, activist, and scholar. He will be teaching "The Human-Animal Divide" at Harvard Summer School 2019. Paul's materials are available at paulwaldau.com.

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