A Journey to the River’s Edge or Learning How to Swim

In April, 2005 I had the opportunity to give the keynote for the official opening of the River’s Edge, the center sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cleveland, Ohio, where many of the Engaging Impasse Circles took place.

The mission of the Center is very compatible with the vision of the Circles. My task for the evening was to help everyone associated with the Center to “get” the mission; to help explore how the Center can become who it says it is.

I believe this reflection provides a way of looking in an imaginative way at the underlying structures, assumptions or values that have shaped our political, economic, cultural, and religious systems.

Although my writing reflects the thinking of many scholars I particularly want to acknowledge Thomas Berry’s The Great Work, from which I drew insights regarding the early paradigm shifts.

A Journey to the River’s Edge—Learning How to Swim

Look around. Things look pretty familiar. We see trees, bushes, brush, and rocks. But now let’s start looking more closely. There amidst a beautiful group of stones is an artifact — an ancient remnant of a much earlier time. It is a maternal image—a woman pregnant with new life. We can date it to the Paleolithic Period and the Neolithic Period in the Near East. It recalls for us the time when the female was seen as the creator and nurturer of all life. There was a great connection between the power of women and the power of the universe or creation. There were many of these kinds of figurines used for prayer and ritual as God was seen as a woman. We know this was the time when the first permanent villages were established. Plants and animals were domesticated in these settled communities. It was a peaceful and creative time.

It is thrilling to know that we still have access to this ancient memory when women and men and nature were in a different relationship with each other than how we experience ourselves today.

For as we continue our trip we see that this pile of stones hidden on the side soon becomes displaced by many more rocks of different colors and shapes. We start to notice that they are quite abundant

These rocks too have their origin in ancient times — from around 3,000 BCE. This is the period when tribes of warriors and hunters began to invade these domesticated villages and took control of property and resources. Males were the dominant force in these tribes. Soon the figures of pregnant women were replaced by symbols of male power. Since males did not have the power to create life they had to find other ways to maintain control. Men took on godlike qualities and claimed themselves as superior to women.

Over time women became the property of men and were seen as subservient. Throughout the ages this male dominance developed in very systematic ways. Legal structures, religious belief systems, economic policies, cultural values became ways to insure that the male experience became normative and patriarchy embedded itself in the worldview that would continue to develop and prevail even to this day.

As we continue our walk we see that these rocks are everywhere. Patriarchy continued to influence our worldview in many ways. Male leaders began to use violence as a way of maintaining control and domination. This domination extended to nature as well, as patriarchy sees the human species as far superior to all others species. This domination was extended not only to women and nature but to peoples other than Western European males.

Recall your history lessons when you learned about colonial expansion. Do you recall how we talked about Native peoples who lived on the land that “we” discovered? Often we called them savages, pagans, and in many cases we made them slaves. Slavery could be justified by claiming that Africans or the indigenous peoples of Latin America were not fully human.

Stop and think for a moment how patriarchy permeates your life. Do you remember when you were growing up believing that men were smarter than women? More capable, more suited for the work of politics and economics? Were there certain clubs in the city that were for men only? How many great works did you read that were written by women? Do you remember when the legal system did not give the same rights to women as to men in our courts?

Here I ask the women to think about when they were young and making decisions about their future. What were the options? Marrying or entering the convent. What about careers? Usually it was teacher, nurse, secretary, or caregiver. College for many women was not an option. What did they say….why bother she’ll only get married anyway! There were certain expectations and appropriate areas where women were allowed. We grew up under a paradigm which had its roots in patriarchy.

Now the men, think about your growing up. What kind of pressure was put upon you to be strong, to defend yourself using force if necessary; and to win in whatever competition you found yourself? Did you not grow up believing that you were to be the head of the household? That you had power and needed to exercise it? You were the breadwinner. We grew up under a paradigm which had its roots in patriarchy.

Even our religious imagination was shaped by these assumptions. Although we moved from men being God to believing in a God outside of ourselves, the image of that God was still male and human. Continuing today the official church rejects language that would make God neither male nor female and holds to the belief that only men can represent God in official rituals of the Church.

As we look at the rocks of patriarchy we know that they have begun to be worn away but their presence is still felt. Sometimes it is so subtle and other times it is so blatant. It exists in most cultures in its basic form of male domination of the female. It is in all of us, women and men, for it is part of the paradigm that continues to prevail and to shape the land upon which we live.

Looking again, we notice that these rocks begin to diversify and get entwined with vines as we scan the breadth of the land. Through the ages, patriarchy gets shaped by biblical Christianity, Greek humanism and Roman imperialism and vice versa. These converging forces would eventually come together in a coherent cultural expression that gave rise to medieval Europe. With the conquests of all potential enemies, the Western world established itself as the dominant force. Its values, assumptions, beliefs would shape the prevailing worldview for the centuries to come.

And we, on this land, would learn little of the cultures of the East, the other great religions, or the history of those we conquered.

Walking on we begin to see that the vines are spreading and thick bushes are appearing. This new growth took place some 300 years ago. It is the time of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution. Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Rene Descartes were some of the key thinkers of this time. They developed a body of thought that would give rise to another major paradigm shift. Their thinking would provide the underlying assumptions for Modernity which would replace the prevailing paradigm of medieval times.

The advent of empirical research science replaced the deductive reasoning that was part of Aristotelian science and philosophy which had shaped Western Christian thought. Theology and philosophy had been considered the Queen of the Sciences up to this time. Now the spirit world, the world of the soul, was considered unreal. It could not be proven empirically.

Religion was looked upon as subjective and relegated to a private realm. No longer were religion, theology, philosophy, partners in the conversations concerning what life is about—the why of our lives. Religion became a private affair split off from one’s work, one’s career, one’s service to the civic community. Science and its belief in progress now provided meaning for our lives.

And what was the world that was discovered through empirical research? Francis Bacon proposed that through experimentation we would be able to control nature. Isaac Newton came to understand the laws of gravitation in relation to the movement of the heavenly bodies. In addition, Newtonian physics viewed matter as isolated fragments. The image of a clockwork was used to explain how if something goes wrong with one element it can be fixed in isolation from all the other elements. This is referred to as a mechanistic view of the world. Newton posited that things happen in a very linear fashion by cause and effect. He and his followers developed the scientific method asserting that only what can be observed is real.

The other strong and complementary influence of this period was the philosophy of Descartes. His famous quote is “I think, therefore I am.” Reason was elevated to the pinnacle of human capabilities. Our brain became much more important than our bodies. It was our ability to reason, to be rational that was valued, not our emotional, compassionate side. This philosophy developed in a way that emphasized an either or way of thinking. Dualistic thinking became a hallmark of this emerging paradigm. This way of thinking developed within the patriarchal world view and had a significant influence on it.

These scientific discoveries provided the basis for the great technological advances many of which we enjoy. However, the emerging worldview or paradigm that would give rise to Modernity also took over the moral guidance of society as religion became relegated to the subjective, unreal realm.

These advances privileged the Western world and within those countries, the white, Western European male and his families. Capitalism found a home in this worldview. Humans were seen as competitive beings and they needed to rely on the invisible hand of the market place where the law of supply and demand would allow everyone to buy what they needed at a reasonable price. Consumerism became the engine of our economic system. The industrial revolution was given a boost by the assembly line where workers were treated as isolated interchangeable parts a nod to Newtonian physics.

This scientific worldview or Modernity has shaped the land upon which we stand.

Those of us who are Catholics might have experienced some schizophrenia in growing up. For we lived in two worlds. The Catholic Church rejected Modernity. It was critical that an alternative school system be built to help defend the teachings of the Church which were rooted in the worldview of medieval times against the prevailing paradigm of Modernity.

But we lived in the United States where the scientific revolution and its worldview prevailed. We encountered it everywhere. This was especially true in our work, in our advanced studies, and in our democratic political system. And so too often, we relegated religion to Sunday and split it off from the rest of our lives. Morality became focused on individual behavior and one’s personal code of ethics rather than structural injustices within our economic and political systems which affected the common good.

How many of us can remember being taught how long one could kiss before it became a mortal sin? But, how many of us can remember being taught at what point possessing nuclear weapons becomes a mortal sin? We didn’t make the connections between our religious life and the other parts of our lives.

But we couldn’t escape this worldview from how we grew up. The dualistic thinking and reliance on reason took its toll. Think for a moment about growing up. Men—do you remember when you cried as a little boy or as a man? What happened? Didn’t someone say stop-boys don’t cry? Or women-do you remember someone saying, oh, you are so emotional? Or science and math aren’t for you!

What we were experiencing was this paradigm of duality and patriarchy. On one side of the equation was everything ascribed to males. This included reason, spirit, power, authority, control, etc. On the other side was everything ascribed to the female. This included emotions, matter, body, irrationality, etc. However it was not an equation. Rather it was the male qualities over and above the female ones. The male aspects were superior to the female ones.

So as we stare at the land beneath our feet we realize that lots of stuff doesn’t disappear. It is like digging a garden. You think you have unearthed all the stones and vines but they come back. The ancient stones, the rocks, the vines and bushes are all part of our landscape. We stand on all of it and have been influenced by it all.

Continuing our walk we can feel that there has been a shift in the terrain. There is new growth and some room for trees to grow tall and strong.

This growth occurred within the 20th century as various social movements began to challenge some of the underlying assumptions of the prevailing worldviews. The women’s movement began to explore the implications of denying the gifts and insights of half of the human race. Patriarchy was exposed in both societal and ecclesial arenas. The civil rights movement awakened us to racism and how that too has been structured into the prevailing paradigm. Respect for the dignity of the human person became a basic right that demanded equality regardless of race, gender, or class.

The environmental movement began to show how viewing matter as isolated parts and the belief in human progress at any cost have depleted our natural resource base; have poisoned our atmosphere and are threatening the life of our planet. The peace movement challenged the long standing belief that violence works. Control and dominance through violent means causes more violence and untold suffering. We came to understand that the weapons of mass destruction which we have developed are immoral and their use unconscionable.

The holistic health movement taught us the importance of integrating our body and our minds. The oldest forms of healing through touch were returning as Reiki, healing touch, polarity work and massage become more available. The connections between what we are experiencing and how we are feeling were becoming an alternative and complementary approach to the mainstream germ specific approach to disease and health care.

And within the Catholic Church, Vatican II occurred. Pope John XXIII opened the windows and aired out the closed up medieval worldview within. The Council invited the Spirit to help us see in new ways so as to engage the critical issues of our time with the wisdom of the Gospels.

Looking over to our left we notice that there is a small stream running near us. It seems as if it is getting larger. We can feel the moisture in the air. We hear the sound of water running. We are coming close to the River’s Edge.

We know that we have only been able to arrive at this point because of the land we have traversed. We have enjoyed the walk within that old paradigm. Living in the most wealthy and powerful country we have benefited the most from it.

But as we continue walking all of a sudden there are big holes in the land; the earth seems to be collapsing under our feet. We see the effects of this scientific worldview that has become so dominant in our world. Poverty increases as the concentration of wealth intensifies. Globalization dominated by Western market capitalism is not generating sufficient employment with adequate pay to alleviate poverty. The growing consumer mentality is telling us that our worth is dependent on what we own-what we possess. It is also making humans and all other forms of life commodities which radically diminish the dignity of everyone and everything.

The domination of men over women in most countries perpetuates the use of women and children as objects for male pleasure and exploitation. Viewing ourselves as isolated from each other perpetuates racism, sexism, and homophobia. Progress at any cost has depleted natural resources and is threatening the health of our planet. The common good seems to have been forgotten. Violence permeates our lives — from drive by shootings to video games to wars waged by us to protect our lifestyle.

And the human spirit has been assaulted. Our capacity for imagination; of knowing through intuition, through prayer has been ignored. The wisdom, values and gifts of women, people of color and indigenous peoples have been dismissed causing a great imbalance within the human species.

As we stand amidst the collapsing earth we notice that the stream we saw earlier has been getting stronger and is now rushing into the river. As we examine it we find sediments from the insights of the various social movements we encountered on our way. They are flowing very easily into the river.

Now we peer over the edge to look into the water.

The river is flowing with the insights of quantum physics which began at the turn of the last century with Albert Einstein. Quantum physics is teaching us that all matter is interconnected and not isolated from each other. It teaches us that we live in “web of life” where we see the effects of one upon the other. It reveals that existing entities have two levels of being—the actual and what they might become. And so rather than analyzing in either/or ways it has developed both/and or complementary concepts to describe such a phenomenon. Change occurs in nonlinear fashion not just by cause and effect. The observer is intimately involved with that which is observed not isolated and objective in his/her assessment. No longer can we talk about pure objective science as superior to subjective faith as all knowing contains the observer’s bias.

There is something else flowing in the river. It is the cosmology that has been enhanced by the discoveries of Edwin Hubble and subsequent use of the Hubble telescope. The Universe is not the way Newton understood it. The Universe is not a machine but more like an organism. The Universe is alive, expanding, involved in a dynamic process of change. Stars and the Universe itself are born, live, and die. The origin of the Universe some 13.7 billion years ago occurred in a Flaring Forth from an unimaginably dense singularity of energy. The basic elements for life on this earth were birthed in that fiery explosion. We have all come from the same star dust. We see a Universe that is interconnected and in process. No longer do we look at our world in atomistic ways but rather we see how integrated life is on the planet. As a human species we are part of a web of life and can no longer claim dominance over nature or each other. These realizations underlie the urgent concern regarding the human exploitation of our common home and the need to address the increasing ecological devastation of our planet.

These discoveries involving the smallest reality—quanta—to the immensity of the expanding Universe cannot be explained totally by science. For some scientists the invitation is there for religion to again engage in the conversation. Insights born of one’s spirituality, faith, prayer, intuition and contemplation are again honored as authentic ways of knowing.

As post-Darwinian biologists are discovering, species survive by cooperation and not competition. New insights are emerging questioning the theory of the survival of the fittest. Diversity is a hallmark of creation. Difference is neither fearful nor threatening. We are learning that new species evolve at the point of greatest chaos.

The Universe offers us important lessons for how to be with one another. One of its hallmarks is communion. This refers to the inner process of self-becoming which is geared to the coming together of all things in mutual inter-dependence. It is in the context of communion, and not through competitive, robust individualism, that all life-forms discover their true identity and attain the realization of their full potential. The challenge is to begin to imagine political systems and international economic systems based on that assumption and reality.

The water seems to hold within it a new emerging paradigm or worldview. With the rejection of dualistic thinking—mind over body; reason over emotion; male over female–and a growing acceptance of a both/and way of thinking and viewing reality—mind and body; reason and emotion; male and female–the door is open to a greater appreciation of the gifts of women and persons of color. There is a growing understanding that we all need feminine energy to correct the imbalance of male energy that dominates our world today. No longer is the mind superior to the body; nor is reason the only way of knowing. Mind, body, spirit are all equally important in our quest for wholeness. Mutuality not domination is the hallmark of right relationships.

This river is fresh and flowing strong. It is providing the underpinnings of another worldview.

But here we are at the edge and not sure of how to enter the river or how to swim.

But we don’t come to the edge totally unprepared. This emerging worldview is a worldview that reflects in part the teachings of a young Jewish man in the first century of the Common Era. Jesus’ vision spoke to the dignity and equality of all persons. For Jesus there was no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. We were all children of God. The hallmark of the early Christian community was sharing all things in common. Jesus showed that by his example when he shared whatever food he had and in doing so created an abundance for all those gathered. Jesus employed metaphors and symbols that showed his reverence for nature. Jesus invited everyone regardless of religious or political status to share at his banquet feast. This challenged the strict purity laws that existed during his time which dictated who was pure and could be associated with and who was impure and was to be shunned.

Jesus taught the importance of a loving God for whom right relationship is essential. Recall the story of the Prodigal Son. The father had every right according to these purity laws to disown his youngest son for what he had done. But when his son returned the father could only experience love for him. Jesus employed that story to show how it is not rules and regulations that please God but rather a willingness to be in right relationship with self, each other and our loving God.

Jesus’ vision had hardly a chance to prevail as it was interpreted through the paradigm of patriarchy and then the medieval worldview which privileged Christianity and the Catholic church making the proclamation of such a radical new vision too great a risk.

Today there seems to be emerging another chance to reflect Jesus’ vision in this emerging world view, within this emerging consciousness.

But how to do it? We are all newcomers to it. We are on the edge, the earth is crumbling under our feet. We need to jump. But we don’t know how to swim.

I offer you that the River’s Edge is here to help teach us how to swim.

The mission of the River’s Edge is to foster the integration of personal wellness, spirituality, ecological and global responsibility and an awakening consciousness in order to bring about personal and societal change.

In doing that we will learn how to swim the river of the new paradigm and be able to embark on the next stage of our journey.

What might it look like-this learning how to swim?

Well, think about when you learned to swim in other bodies of water. I can remember when I learned to swim as an adult. For me kicking my legs seemed the easiest. Then I tried my arms. When I tried my arms I couldn’t get the legs. Then I tried breathing. I got the breathing down but then I couldn’t get my arms to coordinate. Then when I got my breathing and my arms my feet seemed to sink under me. I practiced and practiced. One aspect at a time; then a combination. Finally, without my even knowing how, I released myself into the water and swam!

That is how it will be at the River’s Edge. It starts by alluring you in to the area where you are most comfortable or curious. For some that will be a yoga class; for others spiritual direction or retreat; for some direct work with women in transition; others the political or economic social justice issues that offer us action; for others it will be the exploration of globalization and ecological responsibility; for others the new cosmology and emerging consciousness.

So you will start to learn how to move one body part—as in swimming. However, because the Center is committed to integration you will be invited to see other aspects of the event you chose. Say for instance you come to a yoga class. Some information about emerging consciousness or the new cosmology might be available for your perusal. Tables may have displays about an issue of justice that is current and in need of action. Soon you will find out that you now know how to move your arms or breathe.

The marvelous speakers who will be coming to the Center will have their specific focus but their presentation will be complemented in the areas that they don’t address. If the topic is mindfulness then there may be massage available or justice activities. If the topic is peace and non-violence there may be rituals that speak to the realizations that we have all come from the same star dust. Some of you may want to create a cohort and participate in the various events and activities the Center offers and discuss how this all makes sense. As the Center matures the staff will become more conversant about the interconnections. How to put it all together. How to integrate it with our faith tradition. How to make sense of all these shifts. The hope is that any way you enter invites you to an integration of all the key elements embodied in the mission of the center.

For the Sisters of St. Joseph this is the new manifestation of their original charism of reconciliation and unity. They believe and now we all know that in the beginning we were all one coming from the same star dust and that our journey forward is so that All May Be One. When the first sisters settled here on the river, schools became the best way to address the crying needs for knowledge and religion. Today the crying needs are to save the planet and to transform our consciousness so as to bring about the necessary changes. Their response to these needs is this center. It is a convening place, a safe space, a place of convergence, and a place of conscious community.

It is a place to learn how to swim the river. I find hope in that the river we are entering is the river of life that has been offered since the beginning of time. It is the flow of our best selves; the species as it is meant to be. The river of life invites us to let go and become the ongoing revelation of a God who loves us and wants us All To Be One.
Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM

@ 2005-2019 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue