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Wednesday, 14 November 2012 00:00

Diversity within unity — a book for the ages

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bookFrom the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, and in the tradition of such spiritual classics as Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men, comes Carolyn Toben’s Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry at a time that is not only propitious, but providential.

Maybe once every hundred years someone emerges from the shuddering mass of humanity who speaks to us with a kind of clarity and wisdom that is universally profound. Father Thomas Berry is such a figure. He was born and raised in a lush and verdant part of the country where nature and beauty trumped progress and development. In this place and in a special meadow near his boyhood home near Greensboro, the seeds of a universal vision for the earth and humanity were cultivated and nurtured — seeds which grew eventually to become a vision that is biblical in its insights, wisdom and compassion.

We know from our literary canons and our mythologies of the meeting of great minds. But what about the meeting of great souls? Western spirituality and philosophy have not documented many, if any, of these kinds of conversations. But here, in the North Carolina hill country, a meeting took place and an in-depth conversation was born — lasting more than a decade — that has produced a document that may be as profoundly and dynamically consciousness-raising as it is rare.

In the tradition of the call-and-response of the old Southern African-American spirituals, we find in these pages a call-and-response between a man and a woman who have given over their lives to “the greater good.” This conversation and this book couldn’t have come at a more critical time in the human-earth drama, when the lack of our ability to see things wholistically has brought human civilization to the brink of its own demise. In times like these, new metaphors, new ideas, new commitments need to be made in order to bridge the necessary transition to a more harmonious and sustainable future.

But this is not a book filled with gloom and doom. In fact, it is the opposite. This conversation between Thomas Berry and Carolyn Toben is a bridge, a crossing I believe, that many people have been looking for in the world and within themselves. With her questions and personal responses born of a lifetime of teaching and of spiritual seeking and practice, Toben not only provides one of the great sages of our century a divine platform from which to speak to humanity at this most precious and precipitous of historic moments, but then adds her own distilled and intimate reflections to further ferment, sweeten and make palatable Thomas Berry’s “wine.”

So richly simple are Berry’s responses to Carolyn’s calling out for much-needed wisdom, that any young person can intuitively grasp and understand them. In fact, Berry reaches out here, specifically, to children and young adults, and he addresses the years ahead that they will be facing and what their mission will be. Hence the genius of this book, which is a manual for interdependence, transformation and communion. In reading these pages one finds one’s self singing “the hymn of praise that is existence,” as Berry called it.

I knew Berry for the last 20 years of his life and met Toben about the same time that I met him. The two of them walked parallel paths which kept synchronistically crossing my own. At those intersections we shared “an intimate communion of thought,” as Berry would have said. And it was just this kind of communion that led Toben to humbly write “Let the universe in all its marvelous differentiation teach me to celebrate differences in all the relationships of my life.”

This focus on diversity within unity and this kind of sacred context are exactly at the heart of Berry’s message for the ages, leading us, as he himself did over the course of his own lifetime, to continually seek and to increasingly see. His ideas (which are expanded in his books, The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and The Universe Story), here distilled, are now accessible and available to us all. This is “required reading” for our time. I firmly believe that those who read this book will come away forever changed.

(Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning book of non-fiction Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods. He lives in the Tuckasegee community of Jackson County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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