Dear Pope Francis,
There’s a new book you might want to check out. It’s called “Sacred Butterflies: Poems, prayers and practices,” and is by Fr. James Conlon.
Jim serves as Director of the Sophia Center for Culture and Spirituality at Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif. He is also one of the keepers of the vision of Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology.
More than anyone else, I think, Jim embodies the New Cosmology. There are others who have done work on the New Cosmology, writing books and putting forth theories, but Jim lives it. Through his work at Sophia and in his writings, Jim keeps Thomas Berry’s concern and worry for the Earth community alive and present in the world. Jim would never admit to this, of course. He’d much rather fade into the background, doing the hard work, but not taking any credit. This is why Jim is so important to the New Cosmology. It’s all about the work and the vision, never himself. I call him the grinder of the New Cosmology.
Jim also has a true love for people. He sees the good in everyone, and the possibilities that can happen when people join together with a common purpose. That’s the whole point of Sophia; bringing seekers, activists, thinkers, and doers together in a way that is transformative, almost alchemical. As a graduate of the Sophia program, I can attest to the magic that happens in that space. Everyone is changed, and empowered to go forth into their part of the Great Work.
That’s what Jim does. He attracts people, draws them in, and then stands back to see what happens. Ask any Sophia student or graduate why they came to the program. Down to a person, their story will start with “Well, I met Jim…”
Jim’s keen sense of what people need to flourish and grow is evident in “Sacred Butterflies.” We live in a world where people have grown tired, even suspicious, of organized religion. Church attendance is down; “none” is becoming the most common answer when people are asked to name their religion.
And yet. And yet. The human need for practices that foster a connection to the Divine, however defined, has not gone away. As pews have emptied, yoga studios have filled. Everyone, it seems, is working on a meditation practice. People who run, swim, cycle, or lift weights often say they keep at it because of what they feel happens inside. Sure you can write it off as endorphins, or the need to look good in a swimsuit, but, personally, I think this is their spiritual practice.
Jim is writing for these folks. He’s seen first-hand that people need and want new ways of connecting with the Divine. We need new practices. They may take us to the same place, but the way we get there has to evolve.
“Sacred Butterflies” is written in three parts. The first is a series of beautiful poems. Inspired by Thomas Berry’s counsel that, when faced with what seems to be insurmountable problems, sometimes the best thing to do is to write a poem. And, so, Jim has written many poems about geo-justice, eco-spirituality, and the need for humans to find ways of co-existing with the rest of the Earth community.
The second part of “Sacred Butterflies” is a series of prayers. In the section’s introduction, Jim writes:
I believe prayer is largely about conscious self-awareness, about paying attention to the divine that is already present. In fact, prayer is more about
listening and responding than about formulating words. It opens us to epiphany moments in every aspect of our life and throughout all creation.
And Jim’s prayers do just that. They provide a window of awareness, a way of re-visioning our relationships with the Divine, each other, and nature.
Finally, the third section of “Sacred Butterflies” offers a series of spiritual practices. These are ways of connecting with the Divine that don’t take a person out of the daily rhythm of life, but offer, instead, ways of waking up to every moment. This is such a contrast to the “official” practices of organized religion, that see daily life as a distraction that endangers a connection with the Divine. Jim’s suggested spiritual practices are all about connecting with the every day reality of life. He writes about compassion, noticing beauty, and activism as spiritual practices. In this way, Jim’s book fits right in with what people today are seeking: simple ways of engaging with the Divine through every day life.
“Sacred Butterflies” is actually the third book in a trilogy that Jim has written over the past few years. The first book, “Beauty, Wonder and Belonging” takes the ancient practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours and makes it more relevant for today’s world. In “Invisible Excursions,” Jim relates the story of his life against the background of social and religious upheaval and change over the past seven decades. It is one of the best books on the history of the New Cosmology that I’ve read.
So, there you have it, some good books to peruse, and a good companion to get to know in Jim Conlon.
(P.S. The links to Jim’s books go to an Amazon affiliate site and I’ll get a little bit of money if you buy them there.)