Sisters of Earth: An emerging consciousness

Men navigate in search of plastic containers to pick out of the polluted waters of the Tiete River in Santana do Parnaiba, Brazil, March 8, 2013 (CNS photo/Paulo Whitaker, Reuters)

As fall approaches, I have been reflecting on my experience this summer at the Sisters of Earth 20th anniversary gathering held at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Over 60 of us met to explore “the new emerging humanity.” We came prepared to share our stories of new language, new images and new experiences that give hints of an emerging consciousness arising within us. One joyful emergence came the first night when it was clear that over a third of the participants were attending for the first time. This seed of newness energized all of us, particularly the “pioneers,” as some of us are called. Another shift was that over half of the group was comprised of associates and friends of women religious congregations. A promising trend, both of these demographics added to the energy of the weekend.

I’ve been attending the Sisters of Earth since 1998, although it was founded in 1994 by several Catholic sisters from Canada and the United States to provide a network for women working in various areas of Earth ministry. It continues to provide a place for wisdom sharing and probing of new insights and resources. I was reminded again how the Sisters of Earth continue to hunger to respond authentically to the spiritual and ecological plight of humanity and the entire Earth community.

Rooted in the foundational cosmology and evolutionary consciousness expressed by leaders such as Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, Maria Montessori and Miriam MacGillis, Sisters of Earth do their ecological ministries from the context of the emergent Universe; that is, from the contours of the scientific evolutionary story and steeped in sacred meaning-making for humanity. We understand that all dimensions of the Universe are sacred. We believe as Meister Eckhart wrote in the 14th century, that “every creature is a face of God.”  

The stories of the weekend reinforced a deepening awareness that the violence causing the profound ecological devastation and increased human suffering is rooted in a spiritual crisis as well as economic choices. As humanity, we do not know our own value, role and right relationships with one another, human and other beings alike. The need for the emergence of a new humanity, a “reinventing of the human species,” as Thomas Berry wrote, is imminently upon us. This reinvention is rooted in a massive shift in consciousness – and religious and scientific stories. The evolutionary story continues to unfold and we look to see where the next phase of human evolution will lead us as a species.

This summer’s theme exploring “A New Emerging Humanity” focused on stories from Sisters of Earth that responded to the question, “What is emerging anew for you in your work and life?” 

The examples indicated that a shift in consciousness is indeed beginning to happen. For example, Elise Garcia, OP, and I shared our experience of attending the first World's Ethics Tribunal on the Rights of Mother Earth held in Quito, Ecuador in January. This was an awesome opportunity where primarily indigenous witnesses testified to the violations of nature’s right to exist and flourish. Extending legal rights to include all humans and Mother Earth is one example of a major shift in consciousness – and the direction of future legal systems.

The most amazing insight I received the entire weekend however came from a conversation with Jennifer Morgan, author of the Universe Story Trilogy, written for children and the child within each of us. I asked her why she had taken the time recently to earn a certificate in Ignatian spiritual direction. Without missing a beat, she replied, “So I can help further the interiority of the Universe.” I felt chill bumps rise on my arm as I resonated with her response. This is the type of spirituality and connection to the sacred emergence within the Universe that will help us make the leap into a new human consciousness and sense of belonging. I remain awed by the fact that Jennifer is so attuned to the qualities and patterns of the Universe that she can support individuals and groups in discovering those same patterns within themselves. She stirred a deep desire within me to be a conscious manifestation of the interiority of the Universe as well. I long to find ways to experience these patterns within the mystical traditions of my own Catholic faith and spirituality.

My work the past 15 years has been within educational and legal institutions augmenting changes in worldviews that open us to understanding our interconnectedness. I ask my law students, for example, how can we create models, in timely ways that will transform our legal and economic systems to protect the integrity of the natural world and humanity? I am realizing more and more that unless we do this transformational work from a deep spiritual awareness that recognizes our core identity as lovers of life and diversity, we remain locked in mechanistic systems that foster violence and favor property and privileged individuals.  

This was brought home to me through the story of U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who upon returning home choose to become healers rather than warriors. Their courageous story is told in the film "Battlefields to Farmfields” which Bernadette Bostwick premiered for us. It is an award winning documentary produced by Ground Operations. It features veterans who intentionally train to be organic urban gardeners as a part of their healing process and re-entry into the community. It is a remarkable story of the renewal and resurgence of the human spirit – and the desire to nurture life by growing food rather than destroying people and lands. 

During the conference we acknowledged that another area of growth for Sisters of Earth is to build greater solidarity with more indigenous and women of color who know firsthand the price of standing up to protect their lands, their people and their cultures. We need to activate ways to support their agendas and leadership and committed ourselves to systematically work at this goal.

A final area of consciousness that I see emerging is an awareness that we need to protect the common good of not only humanity but also safeguard the health and welfare of all species, ecosystems and geo-atmospheric processes. As we know, the escalating negative global impacts of climate change affect more and more vulnerable communities globally. We need to have evolved the psychic, spiritual and conscious resiliency to respond and not only take care of ourselves. Can we discover, I wonder, before the laws of physics weigh in against us, what it means to belong to a single, Earth community and how to protect its viability and flourishing?  

I left the Sisters of Earth gathering wondering how our responses might be different if we as communities open ourselves to the Sacred, to Spirit, to the interiority of the Universe revealing itself in and through the natural world and each other. Can we live this emergent consciousness, described by Teilhard de Chardin, as Christic Consciousness, as a human community and not just individually? This is a critical question, not just for Sisters of Earth, but for all of us. 

[Patricia Siemen, OP, JD, is a Dominican Sister from Adrian, Mich., and a civil attorney who works to protect the long-term ecological and spiritual health of humans and all members of the Earth community. She is director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence at Barry University School of Law, Orlando, Fla.]