Dear Pope Francis,
I spent a good part of this past summer re-reading “The Great Work” by Thomas Berry. Berry was a Catholic priest who argued that we humans must stop thinking of ourselves as the top of the heap when it comes to all the other beings with whom we share our one precious planet. In Berry’s mind, only by truly seeing ourselves in the context of the long, long history of the Universe and how we co-exist with the rest of creation can we humans begin to bring ourselves into right relationship with the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants.
It’s bringing about that shift into right relationship that Thomas Berry believed was the true mission of those of us alive right now, in this particular moment in the history of our planet. He called this the Great Work, and devoted an entire book to the topic. In one passage I keep re-reading, Berry says that each of us was “chosen by some power beyond ourselves” for the task of the Great Work. Says Berry, “We are, as it were, thrown into existence with a challenge and a role that is beyond any personal choice. The nobility of our lives, however, depends on the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role.”
I suppose this could be read as Berry saying each of us was born with an assigned task and we must, mechanistically, carry it out absent any free will. Having read more of his writing, however, I don’t think that’s what he means. What I get from this passage is that, at this time in our history where there is so much evidence of the ecological imbalance we humans have caused on this planet, we have a chance to wake up and move things in a new direction.
I think Berry is saying that each of us brought into this world with us unique gifts that, at this particular moment in time, are crucial to putting all of humanity in a better relationship with the rest of creation. Maybe someone has an aptitude for science and can study the shifting climate and predict what that means. Perhaps others are good communicators and can translate complex science into language everyone understands. Artists make us see our daily reality in new ways, inspiring action. Farmers, cooks, caregivers, parents, healers, fixers — they keep everything from breaking down. Spiritual guides remind us to square our lives with something greater than ourselves in how we live out each moment.
It’s hard to see a way out of the pain of this world sometimes. What can one person do? Well, that one person can’t do everything — but his or her gifts are perfectly suited to doing some things very well. This is where each of us can help. By pulling together, each in our own unique way, we can effect great change.
This is what I think Thomas Berry meant. He’s asking each of us to consider one question: What is my Great Work? Figure that out, and you have your assignment. Answer that question, and you can help save the world.