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Our Pantheistic Sisters

Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology

By Sarah McFarland Taylor

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 363 pages

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Sarah McFarland Taylor, an Episcopalian and historian of women’s religious history, started her research on the Catholic green sisters in 1994. She spent two summers at Genesis Farm in New Jersey, then visited more than a dozen similar centers, attended four conferences of the Sisters of Earth, conducted over a hundred interviews, and examined their newsletters, poetry, artwork, cookbooks, correspondence, prayers, and rituals. She sent a draft of her book to some leading green sisters for their approval and documented her findings in 60 pages of endnotes.

Throughout the book, Taylor is in total sympathy with the green sisters, whom she regards as “some of the best-educated women in Amer­ica.” She says their network includes sisters from these religious orders: Sisters of St. Joseph, of Loretto, of Charity, of Notre Dame, and of the Humility of Mary, as well as some Franciscan and Dominican Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Medical Mission Sisters. In 1995 there were a dozen earth ministries; in 2006 there were at least 50, which Taylor lists in an appendix.

Green sisters complain that “right-wing Catholic critics” — among them Michael S. Rose of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW– have unjustly charged them with pantheism, but on the basis of this book, the charge seems justified. Pope Pius IX defined the “error” of “pantheism” thus: “No supreme, all wise, and all provident divine Godhead exists, distinct from this world of things,” and “all things are God and they have the same substance of God” (Syllabus of Errors, Denzinger, #1701). As Taylor reveals, this is the green sisters’ core principle, that God and the cosmos are fused.

At the Sisters of Earth conference in 2002, the 150 participants chanted, with regard to the earth, “All is holy, so holy. All is sacred, so sacred. All is one.” Then, at the 2003 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), with 76,000 members in the U.S., 900 sisters chanted, with regard to the earth, “Sacred is the call, awesome indeed the entrustment. Tending the Holy, Tending the Holy.” The LCWR invitation featured an image of the planet with the caption: “Tending the Holy.” In her presidential address, Sr. Mary Ann Zollmann declared, “we women religious are living out of and growing more deeply into an eco­feminism that is a communion of companionship, responsibility, and accountability to the whole web of life.”

Thomas Berry, Spiritual Guide

Thomas Berry, a 90-year-old Passionist priest and disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, is “indispensable” for understanding the green sisters, writes Taylor. He is the “prophet” who played a “pivotal role” in creating this movement. Taylor notes that Fr. Berry, unlike Matthew Fox, has not been disciplined by the Church and can administer the Sacraments. He proposes as the “Great Work” for our age to “midwife humanity into an Ecozoic era,” where our species and the earth will be “mutually beneficial.” Green sisters have taken up this “sacred mission,” which they see as larger than the Church or Christianity itself. The natural world, Fr. Berry teaches, is God’s “primary revelation,” from which every other revelation derives. This was also the teaching of the pantheist philosopher Spinoza. Fr. Berry wants the Bible put “on the shelf for at least twenty years” so people can read “the primary scripture of the world about us.” Following this guide, green sisters work to create a shift of consciousness from human-centeredness to a “biocentric norm.” That is to say, they have exchanged a “primary preoccupation with humans” for “a primary concern” with the “total Earth.” For green sisters, as for Fr. Berry, the world is a community of “subjects” all divinely related to one another.

Fr. Berry considers the biblical “creation story” meaningless because it fails to give humanity a sense of “communion” with “a universe that is alive, sacred, intelligent, and still being created.” (To regard matter as alive and thinking, of course, is the foundation of pantheism.) Since Western science cannot convey the “sacredness of the cosmic evolutionary process” either, Fr. Berry proposes a “New Story” to give us a sense of the “cosmic communion” of “all things.”

Greening Their Vows

Green sisters have reinterpreted their vows in light of Fr. Berry’s “new evolutionary cosmological consciousness.” Sr. Gail Wor­celo, who studied under Fr. Berry and took her final vows in his presence in 1991, declares that when he gave her the ring of final profession, she felt wedded “to a passionate love affair with the Divine as revealed in the universe story.” This is not quite the same as becoming the bride of Christ.

As for the vow of chastity, Sr. Elaine Prevallet says it means a “moral commitment to ease ecosystem stresses caused by a burgeoning human population.” Other green sisters likewise speak of this vow as a “lifetime commitment” not to give birth and as a “gift that sisters have given the earth community throughout the history of religious orders.” Tellingly, at the 1998 Sisters of Earth conference, Stephanie Mills was the keynote speaker: she is notorious for harping on the connection between “unchecked human population growth and ecological crisis” and, though not a sister, for having vowed herself to a “nonpro­creative life.”

Green sisters do not accept a dichotomy between temporal creation and eternal Creator. They see their vows in relation to a divine creation. Sr. Cathy Mueller sees them as “natural choices that enhance Earth,” and Sr. Mary Southard, as choices made in the context of “an evolutionary universe.” Sr. Janet Fraser remarks that “since the earth and the cosmos are the Body of God,” her vows make the natural world “primary”; and Sr. Barbara O’Donnell believes they make “Earth’s story our story.” Thus, their vows do not refer to the Kingdom, which is “not of this world.”

When Taylor asks about the “spiritual dimension” of these vows, Sr. Maureen Wild replies that for them there is no dichotomy between “matter” and “spirit.” (In Pius IX’s definition of “pantheism,” we find this very phrase: that “God is one and the same as the world, and therefore, also, spirit is one and the same with matter.”) With this principle, is it any wonder that some green sisters are “certified in massage therapy and various forms of bodywork” to help “nurture” the bodies and spirits of the sisters? In one of their centers, there is a hot tub with a view of Texas hill country, in which “we all soaked our muscles and restored our bodies” after a day’s work. Taylor comments, “This hot tub, which clearly soothes the flesh instead of mortifying it, is a far cry from sisters’ wearing hairshirts and doing daily penance.”

Praying to the ‘Cosmic Mother’

Green sisters protest that they have not departed from Catholic Tradition, but are “caretakers” of its deepest “essence as it has evolved over time.” Not so. At the Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont, Sr. Gail Worcelo prays to Mary as “Holy Matrix” who reveals the “sacredness in all matter” and holds the universe in her womb, instead of the child Jesus. This is depicted in the image “Mary of the Cosmos,” inspired by Fr. Berry. The sisters pray to Mary as “Matter impregnated with Spirit” — a far cry from Catholic Tradition!

Just how dangerous it is to invoke a false goddess became clear at the 2002 Sisters of Earth conference, where Charlene Spretnak, a radical feminist, gave the keynote talk on “Mary as Premodern and Post­modern Cosmology.” Spretnak was in the middle of her paper when a woman in the audience began to moan and shriek and fight off something invisible. Then she grew quiet and started talking in a voice much “larger” than her size, declaring, “I am Mary. I am pleased. I am very pleased. You all are my daughters. You understand. You are in the presence of Grace.” Taylor was “frightened and unsettled,” sadness filled the room, yet no one suspected that this might be a sign that they were opening a door to the abyss and attracting the demonic.

For where is Jesus Christ in their worship? In the “Liturgy of the Cosmos,” Sr. Worcelo explains, there is a fusion of “the story of Jesus, the story of the earth, and the story of the cosmos” into “one vast intertwined evolutionary epic.” Here Jesus is “embodied in cosmos and thus never separate from it,” and He suffers another “Passion” in the “wasting of the planet.” What an absurdity! Jesus Christ cannot be fused with His creation: He has ascended into Heaven and cannot be “embodied” in the material cosmos so as to be inseparable from it. Such a gross error in a Christian puts one’s salvation at risk.

Greening the Eucharist

Green sisters not only grow food as “priestly practice,” but cook it as a “daily Eucharistic ritual” to affirm the human body as an “extension” of earth’s body. Ordinary food, they claim, is a “blessed sacrament” uniting them to “the more-than-human world” and nourishing them “by the Divine directly.” One sister declares, “We are the earth nourishing itself.”

With few exceptions the sisters are vegetarians. Why? Let Sr. Jeannine Gramick explain: “I no longer believe in the old cosmology I had been taught — the hierarchical pyramid of creation in which human animals, near the top of the pyramid, are assigned more worth than non-human animals and other beings toward the bottom.” After studying with the Trappist monk Colman McCarthy, she became a vegetarian because she stopped seeing “non-humans” as “inferior to humans.” Taylor notes that such “biocentrism,” common among the green sisters, is “identified” with deep ecology. What Taylor does not point out is that deep ecology is a neo-pagan movement. No one can reasonably deny that we should be good stewards of the natural world, but biocentrism and deep ecology are wrong to put human beings on a par with other animals and as inferior to the ecosystem. This view is a pillar of population control and so part of the Culture of Death.

Green sisters eat organic food because they think it still has the divine life-force in it. Sr. Wild explains that the important thing is the “spirit of the food” we eat: “I go for quality of Spirit in my food.” Eating dinner for her is a daily “eucharist” with the “body of the earth and sun.” Similarly, Sr. Miriam MacGillis remarks, “If we truly saw the Divine in a potato,” we would not commit the “sacrilege” of “turning it into Pringles.” Since they consider it already blessed and a “manifestation of the Divine,” green sisters do not bless their food. Hard to believe, but some actually “ask the food to bless them.”

They regard cooking as a source of “resistance and even power.” Since the Church will not let them celebrate Mass, Taylor says, they bring “the essence of that ritual into a daily mindful practice available to all.” Sr. MacGillis explains that Transubstantiation “is a very sacred word referring to Jesus Christ speaking over the bread in which the outer form didn’t change but the bread itself transformed on the inner plane where God was present. This has been going on all along. This is not an act confined to specially designated human beings….” In short, Sr. MacGillis sees the Catholic mystery of the Eucharist as nothing special: the same thing has been happening all along with ordinary food. She once had a mystical experience in which she recognized “eucharist” in a bowl of organic vegetarian chili: “It was gospel and eucharist in a sacrament so simple, so holy, my heart brimmed with gratitude.” Despite all their protests to the contrary, the green sisters are surely departing from Catholic Tradition in their view of the Real Presence.

Taylor observes that the green sisters retain many traditional words of Catholicism — vows, Mary, Transubstantiation, Gospel — but they mean radically different things to these sisters.

Greening the Stations of the Cross

Doubtless the most egregious departure from Catholic Tradition is the Earth Meditation Trail at Genesis Farm, which has been imitated across the land. The Trail is made of “stations” to evoke, in Taylor’s words, “the Catholic paraliturgical activity of walking the ‘stations of the cross.'” It is a “series of prayer stations” that depicts not Christ’s Passion, but “the earth’s Passion.”

The “pilgrim” who walks the Trail first comes upon a “womb opening” called the “Station of Life/Death/Transformation.” The guidebook instructs “her” (apparently only women go there) to pass through it, touch some stones, beat a drum, and repeat three times: “Behold I come. My name is _____. Accept me here. Accept me now.” Further on, she is told to pick up a “prayer stone” that will hold the “spirit” of her “life journey” and to listen to that stone “just as the stone will listen to and absorb the prayers, thoughts, and questions” she will have on the Trail. Then she arrives at the “Council of All Beings,” a circle of stones and trees where she assumes the role of a non-human creature to discuss “what is wrong on earth.” She then walks along the “Path of the Great Elders,” a line of old maple trees, and comes to the “Place of At-One-Ment,” where a stone seat faces a scarred cherry tree that survived being surrounded with barbed wire. Here she is told to reflect on “human sins” against the natural world and ask forgiveness from “this community.”

Taylor remarks that the “At-One-Ment station” evokes the Catholic Sacrament of Confession. Perhaps, but forgiveness here is purely imaginary. There are many more stations until the Trail loops back to the “womb opening,” now approached from the other side, and the guidebook instructs the “pilgrim” to reflect on her “last moments of life in this body.” This body? Is this a reference to reincarnation?

Taylor notes that the Trail is labyrinthine (perhaps a better word would be serpentine) and that both “indoor and outdoor labyrinths” are now “wildly popular among green sisters, Catholic religious sisters and brothers in general, and the Catholic and Protestant laity.” Have they forgotten that the original labyrinth was a deathtrap with the bestial Minotaur at its center? At Genesis Farm, the labyrinth is designed to bring the “pilgrim” into deeper union with the earth as “Divine,” for, as the guidebook says, “When the interconnectedness of all things is felt, then it is clear that the Earth is the source of our survival.” To believe that the earth is the source of “our survival” is indeed a deathtrap.

Taylor thinks the Trail is effective precisely because it uses the Catholic “stations format” and works “from within the system.” When components of a tradition are “deployed,” she says, new rituals quickly become “traditional.” Indeed, in the last decade, Earth Meditation Trails have become popular. Sr. Theresa Jackson, who installed one at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Idaho, explains that “The ‘Passion of the Earth’ is designed to be a spiritual exercise that enables people to see the earth and the cosmos not only as God’s creation, but as the most basic expression of God’s very self.” Note well, the earth and the cosmos, not Jesus Christ, are the most basic expression of God’s very self. If this isn’t pantheism, what is? Yes, God is omnipresent, but He is also transcendent and is never to be identified with matter. Again, this is an error that comes from not distinguishing the temporal from the eternal, and matter from spirit.

Another abuse of the Stations of the Cross is the “Cosmic Walk,” a meditation sequence on what Fr. Berry calls “the universe story.” In Winslow, Maine, green sisters have 25 stations in a pine grove where people can “walk the story of the universe” and come to know that story “in their own bodies.” The Cosmic Walk is also popular in a portable version created by Sr. MacGillis. This involves a long rope placed in a spiral, with 30 index cards representing the stages of evolution. Standing at the place of the first “Flaring Forth,” the “pilgrim” is to reflect that she too is 15 billion years old, and at the end of the Walk, she is to declare, “Today I know the story of myself.” Thus, the “pilgrims” of the Cosmic Walk become “the story participating in its own telling,” and experience their being as “the cosmos ‘made flesh.'” More, they learn that “there is no finite created world, only an ever-expanding universe constantly changing, and of which humanity is inseparably a part.”

Well, for a person to become the “cosmos made flesh” is to sink far below the level of common humanity, far below the great gift of being made in the “image of God.” Besides, for a Christian to become the “cosmos made flesh” is to lose the even loftier status accorded by our Baptism of being made a son or a daughter of God through Jesus Christ. In fact, to become an “inseparable” part of the temporal universe is to give up hope of eternal life. It is to embrace the temporal as if it were the eternal, the penul­timate as if it were the ultimate reality.

In 1993, Taylor notes, Pope John Paul II issued a “condemnation of ‘nature worship’ by feminist Catholic groups in America, highlighting tensions in the relationship of faith to nature.” The Pope warned the U.S. bishops during their July 1993 ad limina visit: “Sometimes forms of nature worship and the celebration of myths and symbols take the place of the worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” But he took no disciplinary action. Taylor believes that a “major punitive action” at this point from the bishops would only “unify” the green sisters. It is doubtful they would ask to be released from their vows, she says; they would more likely ignore the bishops or team up with other nuns to appeal the decision. While they do not openly show “disrespect” toward the “institutional Church,” she adds, they are not “pushovers,” for they are “intensely networked” and thus have a great “resistance to outside interference.” They compare themselves to the rhizome, vegetation that cannot be easily eradicated because it is “diffuse and horizontal rather than central and vertical.”

Green sisters are propagating their errors as fast and as far as they can by books, lectures, retreats, icons, and workshops. One can only wonder: Where are our shepherds?

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