TRANSCRIPT - Jim Conlon with Rich Heffern of NCR

 Announcer: Welcome to a new podcast from National Catholic Reporter. Today we have a guest host, NCR writer and editor Rich Heffern.

Rich Heffern: I’m talking today with Jim Conlon director of Sophia Center in Oakland, California. Jim’s newest book just published by Novalis is titled From the Stars to the Street: Engaged Wisdom for a Brokenhearted World.

Jim, what is Engaged Wisdom, can you explain that for us?

Jim Conlon: The way I have experienced this is, more than four decades ago, I used to stand at a rectory door and give a meal or a bed to someone who was on the street or disconnected from society in some way. This was during the Vatican Council -- actually it was just coming to an end -- the Vietnam War was boiling in the United States, the civil rights movement was still alive, the so called therapeutic revolution was just beginning, and the world was really in a sense of turmoil and to some extent so was I.

When I enrolled in university, I began with studying science. Unknowing that science was going to play such a significant role in my future, but I graduated in chemistry and then was ordained.

After several parochial appointments, I became more and more restless that the agenda that I was presenting was not exactly the agenda that the people or the needs the people were expressing. Then I kept on knocking on the bishop’s door and finally got permission to go to Toronto to be in an urban training center program called The Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service that was in Toronto. And my field placement for a year-long program was to be a community organizer in the east-end of Toronto under the supervision of someone who had been in Chicago previously.

When that program came to an end, I made a phone call to Monsignor Jack Egan, who used to be on the NCR board. I flew down and spent several days with him at Notre Dame -- he had just moved there at the invitation of Ted Hesburgh -- and began to sort out what the next steps where.

He wrote to the Bishop of London and as a result of that I went to Chicago and became part of their urban training program under the leadership of people like Jim Morton who later became the Dean of St. John the Divine, New York and Margorieb Tuite, OP, who was one of the great Dominican Sisters who was very much involved in the post-Vatican Church, and many other people.

I became a student of Saul Alinsky in Chicago and also of the urban training program and then moved back to Toronto. During that time, I basically started a program in Toronto called Catholics for Social Change and one of our advisors was Gregory Baum. I worked with people like Mary Jo Leddy who wrote the book Reweaving Religious Life and several other Canadian folks.

The program also operated in Toronto and in The Christian Life Institute across the country. During that time, I also was the assistant director of Toronto School of Theology and tried to bring together all of these placements that I had experienced into the theological education of the students.

In 1983, I was working with the committee on Theological Reflection and Spirituality and one of the conveners was a man named Ron Fellows, an Anglican priest from Toronto, who was bringing together the Institute in Culture in Creation Spirituality that that year was moving from Chicago Mundelein College to Holy Names University.

I attended that workshop and met Matthew Fox. After a long conversation, one afternoon, I was invited to come and spend my sabbatical days out here.

In ‘84, I came to Holy Names, which is now 23 years ago. At that point, I had also worked with Paulo Freire in popular education which included the organizing, had a lot of history of psychotherapeutic experience both as a practitioner and as a subject, and all of a sudden I started to experience creation theology and the new cosmology.  

Thomas Berry was a frequent visitor. Brian Swimme was a faculty member and many other people. David Steindal-Rast, OSB visited. Many people passed through these halls during those years.

Then I tried to say, “How do I make sense out of what has happened to me? I’ve gone through these sort of justice agendas: Personal in terms of the therapy, community-based in terms of organization, conscientization or popular education with Paulo Freire.” I said to myself, “How does this all make sense given now that I’ve been exposed to the new story, the new cosmology, the universe, all of that?”

So in 1990, I wrote a small book I called Geo-Justice: A Preferential Option for the Earth. I began and tried and create a synthesis between what I was learning in programs here, and the vision of Thomas, particularly, and how to integrate that and synthesize it with my past experience. Geo-Justice became a vehicle for that kind of integration.

Then later, I wrote another book where I tried to develop more fully the cosmological implications of my geo-justice book -- that was first story. Then you and I were both involved with Force to Peace so another book.

I remember sitting down with Thomas Berry one afternoon in San Francisco and saying, “Thomas, what do you do with what you know which you’ve been telling us?” He said, “It’s all about literacy, story, and sheer dream experience,” so I wrote a book called Lyrics for Recreation: Language for the Music of the Universe. 

Life continued to unfold. A few years ago, when I was sort of not quite sure where the next direction was, I summarized what I would call a systematic exploration of my work to that point. I called it The Sacred Impulse and I had a chapter on spirituality, a chapter on vocation, a chapter on geo-justice, a chapter on gender, and a chapter on envisioning the future kind of movement that all this called for.

Then I began to say, “How do you put this into a theological spiritual framework? What’s the spiritual practice of what we’re writing about and what we’re teaching here?” So I wrote this book; I called it At the Edge of Our Longing. I imagined what it would be like to take an open-ended sabbatical, and the sabbatical would involve, first of all, going to Gethsemane where Thomas Merton lived.

Then I thought, “The next place I want to go -- and he was still there at that time -- would be to Lima, Peru -- actually to RECIFE, Peru just outside -- where Gustavo Gutierrez was talking about liberation theology. That was a powerful process of liberation theology.

Then I thought, “Then I’m going to spend time with Thomas Berry who at that time was still in Riverdale in North of Manhattan in New York.”.

Then I thought there was one more thing that I hadn’t said, which is how do I integrate? And this is where The Stars to the Streets come together. I said, “What next needs to be said?” And this is how I framed it. I said, “There’s got to be a way that the biblical story, the cosmological story, and the personal story can converge and empower us into the future.”

So the biblical story from Genesis to the wisdom literature to the prophets, to the gospels, to the sense of the kingdom, the apocalypse. Then the human story was my own journey which I outline now in our conversation.

Rich: And each of us can do that.

Conlon: Exactly. It can be a kind of framework -- or whatever you want to call it -- a kind of paradigm for everyone who just invests their own energies and their own chapters in it. For me, it was what I’ve said. It was my personal journey from family to therapy, to organizing, to education, to cosmology.

Then I brought these together. So here’s the biblical story as I’ve mentioned in the start and then the universe story which begins with the galactic period, then the formation of particles, then the formation of earth, then the formation of life, and then the birth of consciousness and culture with the emergence of the humans.

I said to myself this is what engaged cosmology is all about; it’s picking the pre-existing commitments that we have from whatever tradition we’re born in -- in my case the Catholic -- the energy of our own story that comes to us from the part of our family life, and the incidents that each of us have experienced, and then the powers of the universe which brought us forward because in a sense we’re all the extension, we’re the next chapter, we’re the paragraph, and that’s the universe story.

Rich: Then your own personal story sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean all the twisting and turnings if you put it in that context?

Conlon: Hopefully others will find that their lives make sense too. There’s an old saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

When I say that engaged cosmology is looking at the wonder of a night sky and at the same time holding hands in solidarity with those who’re engaged in protest and prophesy, and at the same time drawing on that pre-existing commitment that resides for all of us in whatever tradition or spiritual practices we’re engaged in—when all of that converges a new world is possible.

Rich: That’s what the stars have to do with the street, isn’t that…?

Conlon: That’s right. When Brian Swimme was 10 years old, he was helping his father fix his car in the backyard. Holding a flash light, he looked up at the stars and he dropped the flash light so that’s the stars. For me, the street is where life and where our world comes together – it’s the everyday experience.

What I was trying to symbolize by the title is that our personal lives and our engagement is empowered and that it’s one act. Dropping a flashlight in great and wild amazement is also what empowers us to engage in the struggle and the turmoil of everyday existing.

Thomas Berry has this sense about what beauty is and what drives us forward. He used to write all these little essays because he was trying to take what he was learning and was kind of inside him and externalizing it. That’s what beauty does, that’s what art does, and that’s what the universe does. It draws us out of ourselves and out of that externalized sets of self falls the engagement to heal the brokenness of our world.

Rich: There’s a sentence in the book that I copied out that I really like. You say, “Justice making is a theater for self-discovery, a prayer, an authentic expression of the gospel, and an opportunity to let heaven happen now.”

Conlon: We often talk about heaven as something that we’re working for. Then a lot of our theology has been kind of what I call vestibule theology -- that we’ll be sort of getting ready for the next world by kind of enduring this one, rather than saying that our task is to fit.

Another word for engaged cosmology is the reign of God, or the kingdom, or a world of justice, harmony, and peace. It’s the culminating act of the Christian journey; it is also the culminating act of the cosmological journey.

When I was in Chicago, I was driving around at three o’clock in the morning, the night before our community convention. I was driving with the man who it was my job to convince to be the president of the local organization. I knew two things. I knew he wouldn’t win. We were just trying to get him to do it to make it look like a competition. The other person was a sure win.

Secondly, this man’s wife was running off with one of my organizing partners. It was then that I began to realize you can't heal the world and cause your own brokenness.

So I was trying to bring this, what I would call the psycho-social dimension that we need to both heal our own personal work but we also need to keep an eye on the larger picture so that we’re clear about what the real issues are, not just a projection of our own problems.

Rich: Jim, how does Sophia Center fit into this dynamic you describe here between the personal story and the world and the universe?

Conlon: I love Brian Swimme’s version of the universe as raisin bread. This multi-centered universe which the new cosmology teaches us, I think that we’re one of the raisins but so is every other person.

Like you were saying, the center for action is another raisin in this universe of transforming of energies. I do think that we have a role to play in that. We have a website we call The Ecozoic Council where we invite those like-minded folks to post their websites on our website where they can find each other without any intermediate relationship between us. It’s a sort of bubbling up out of the base.

For example, the people who come to our program feel at home. I just got an email from one of our graduates who does a series of videos. She has invited me to her latest video. She did one in Perth [Australia].

We have other people in New Zealand, in Korea, across Canada, and the United states. Some are working with the homeless in Vancouver. Some are doing spiritual direction in Ottawa. Some are working on a garden in Illinois – community supported agriculture

The way I see a movement is that there’re a lot of impulses being invested into the culture. What I think will happen is that somehow there will be a convergence of these energies. At the moment, there isn’t any real cohesion we intended or kind of infrastructure and it’s a tricky process because nobody wants co-opt their energies. We must have our own initiatives but we want to also cooperate.

Msgr Jack Egan who I mentioned earlier was one of my mentors over the years. He said people need these three things, information, support, and the possibility of common action. I think that’s what we’re all working for. That’s certainly what Sophia Center is about, it’s to give people the information.

Some of the people coming to the summer institute this week will not be students at the Sophia Center but someday they will have some impart.

Others will join us and then they will go home. We call our efforts here participating in what Thomas Berry, Thomas Merton, and many others have called the great work; that each of us has a particular gift, but the great work is aligning our energies to the unfolding dynamics of this particular moment in time.

I believe we’re influencing the dynamic culture. I think there’s more to be done. I think strategically we need to explore different and better ways of doing it. Definitely if somebody would ask somebody like Thomas, “What are you trying to do with your lifestyle, Thomas?” I remember he said, “Build a constituency” and that’s what we’re all about that will have its own impact.”

What I’ve learned about Sophia Center is that we have a vision but we don’t have a program, in the sense that we have any pre-existing expectation for what people will do as a result of their education here. Not like medical school or any other school where there’s a kind of pre-determined outcome. I always say we’re a campus; we’re not a map.

But the marvelous work that happened as a result of people’s own particular calling and gifts is remarkable and in some senses transcends what would happen if they were already predetermined into some particular purpose.

Rich: I’ve noticed over the years you always have some sort of art component.

Conlon: That’s right. You can’t teach spirituality without art.

Rich: That’s interesting to me.

Conlon: That was something that was not inside my experience when I came here because I thought it was a more a more cognitive, more abstract kind of justice that I’d been taught – methods you might say.

What I’ve learned is that art…First of all, we don’t train artists here; we hopefully train people…

Train is not the right word. We draw out the imagination so that people can explore the implications of their own expressions of compassion which is the grain of art.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ was kind of an introvert and the way he dealt with his introversion, even though he wasn’t allowed to publish much of his work in the wider arena, he would send his essays to people – his art in other words. This is what drew him out and this is what animated his engagement in the world.

We have courses here like story-telling, personal mythology, painting and spontaneous expression, and we also teach them the relationship between writing and art. We also have classes in painting as spontaneous expressions. All of these are to animate and evoke their imagination – draw people out into the wonder and turmoil of existence.

That’s what art does. It takes us out of ourselves and into the world. Ultimately, what we’re attempting here is to draw people into acts of compassion for the world. And the practice for that is all of these, what we call creative process classes that enable people to imagine, experience, and express themselves, ultimately, as people to bring justice to the world for engaged cosmology.

Rich: You talk about engaged cosmology and the awe and wonder at the universe kind of opening our eyes and looking around kind of liberates us from consumerism, for example.

Conlon: That’s right. David Steindal-Rast too is a wonderful man of our era. He says, “The spiritual life is a pursuit of the more.” What he’s really talking about is that there’s this insatiable mysticism in all of this.

When I came to the end of From the Stars to the Street, you notice the last pages; I talk about mystery, wonder, beauty, and belonging. Because unless we have the psychic energy, the zest for life, the soul strength that is activated in us through the experience of wonder, beauty, and belonging, which are really ways that we encounter divinity.

Someone said, “Who is God?” God is what is totally outside our perceptive experience but totally present in everything we say, feel, touch, and taste. We are actually planning a conference in February and the conference is this, How do you experience, express, and make sharable the wonder, beauty, and belonging that lies at the heart of the universe?

Another way of saying that in traditional theology is how do you experience God? Because God becomes available to us in the primary experiences of creation. And unless we have that encounter, that experience, then engaged cosmology will not sustain itself.

I’m convinced, in fact I’m doing now a book of hours which will be an old fashioned Catholic breviary that I was reading when I was in the seminary. But I’m taking all of the poetic writings of my seven books and the new stuff that’s not yet published and then creating a book of hours that will begin each day that dawn, which is that mystical moment when we encounter the beginning of light and close at dusk when we have that opaque dimension when night begins to fall.

I’m structuring this book around the dawn and dusk of each day.

Rich: It’s a liturgy of the hours.

Conlon: It’s a liturgy of the hours. But it’s the spiritual lectionary, if you will, of engaged cosmology to foster and feel the psychic energy of others. Just recently a book was published taking Thomas Mertin’s work and organizing it around this.

I was thinking of this before when I saw that book, which I used. I read the dawn and day this morning. I sort off my own spiritual practiced. When I saw that, it confirms the fact that what we need is a way to actually engage people in a spiritual practice because our streets and our homes are full of urban contemplatives – people who live ordinary lives but have a deep hunger for a deeper spiritual life and much of our spiritual practices that we now have are not really nourishing people.

In fact, this Sunday, at our summer institute, we will be celebrating a Eucharistic prayer that I myself wrote, which I’ve never had the nerve to do that, and singing these songs so that we actually find a way to bring together the cosmology and the sense of the sacred in the roots of our own catholic and spiritual tradition.

Rich: You also talk about regaining our access to the recuperative powers of the universe. There’s healing in here too, isn’t there?

Conlon: That’s right. One of the greatest healing therapies is walking in nature; it’s the beauty that heals.

At the mass, the celebrant has this crystal chalice on a terrazzo and throws it on the terrazzo flour and it smashes into all these little particles. And he looks back and he says, “I never thought brokenness could be so beautiful.” Each one of us is one of those little jewels shining out in the universe but we need to have the healing capacity.

I think that beauty heals, wonder heals. Dr Stan Grof was one of my teachers as well and a psychiatrist and a transpersonal thinker. He says our work is to heal the fragmentation within and the alienation without – to knit up the fabric of our soul. I think the beauty, the wonder, and the art.

“If you want to find out who you are do justice.”

Rich: That’s a great quote. I love it.

Conlon: And John O’Donnell who says, “We can’t discover ourselves just through psychological things like I am INSF or I am a six or whatever.” He said, “If we want to discover; create. Creation is the doorway to identity and justice is the doorway to the true self.”

Rich: I was reading an interview once with Raymond Carver. He’s a short story writer. He writes the really incredible stories. The interviewer was talking about insights and said, “I hate insights.” He was talking about just insights so you don’t go anywhere, just insights for the sake of insights, and I thought that was a slap in the face to me, a “wake-up” kind of thing.

I mean “self-knowledge” has to be used for some purpose outside ourselves.

Conlon: To be frank with you, it was only this weekend when I was listening to this tape by a priest who was a scholar. What he was describing was a little essay that nobody has ever read on spirituality and art. I finally got it – why art is so important.

What I mean by that is the beauty, the wonder, and all that; because it takes us from our self, outside our self, and puts us in the context we’re now instruments to heal the world. I think it’s powerful.

Frankly, when I first came out here I couldn’t figure out why that was in the curriculum because it was so outside my experience. But it’s so powerful.

We have a class called painting a spontaneous expression. People go into the class room, they put a piece of paper, they’re given a paint brush and paint and they just paint. It doesn’t have to look like anything. They don’t even have to understand it. All they do is get what’s inside out.

The woman who wrote the book on it calls it “point-zero.” In other words, if we go back to that very deep inner place and move from there everything will flow. I call what I am doing in the larger picture deep cultural therapy. Because in personal therapy you go backwards in life, experience the traumas, and eventually move forward.

I believe that what we’re doing, if you take the universe story and you go from the beginning, to life, to earth, to the galaxy, and then you go back to what I call the God particle (that point from which everything began), that’s where the heart of the universe resides. That’s what I call the membrane of mystery, the epicenter of wonder and duty and belonging.

This conference I was talking about, that’s where we’re going towards. We’re going towards the divine originating energy – what some would call the God particle or the God molecule. And from that, everything else flows. Not only are you empowered to do the great the work that you’ve been engaged in, but you are able to shape and imagine new and better ways to practice.

Rich: You call Sophia center a monastery for the new millennium and the vows are a relationship with self, other relations, and divine.

Conlon: Some monks take certain vows. The vow of the Sophia is the vow or relationship; relationship to self, relationship to other, relationship to the natural world (to creation), and relationship to the divine.

Gail Worcelo, co-founder of Green Mountain Monastery, has a wonderful phrase that I think I quoted it in my book. She says, “We are now entering the great confessional where we see the absolution from sense of separateness.” I think that the monastery of Sophia is that we all here to enter it and we’re all novices. We’re all novices because we’re all preparing for the final vow of relationship, and it just makes sense to me.

We say that we’re a wisdom school that listens with the ear of the heart -- using St. Benedicts phrase -- that celebrates earth which is the communion with all of life, part the unique difference that each of us and brings to the word, and spirit which is that transformative energy that resides within us and that we express to the larger society in transformative energy.

Somebody said, “What is Sophia Center and what do you do there?” And this is what I said, “This is the work of the monastery: to create through the practice of a listening heart an inclusive, which is the inclusive feminine principle; an interval, which is the indigenous process; human presence that is open to the divine, which is the tradition, in our case the Catholic tradition, but we welcome those from all traditions that celebrate the primary revelation of the universe, which is how God self-discloses to us in the bird, in the brook, in the cricket, in the child, in the spouse, in the night sky, designed to create a sustainable and compassionate community of life for every species. That’s what we do here.

Rich: That’s a good mission statement.

Conlon:  Yeah, that’s our mission statement. The word monastery actually comes out of this notion—I call it the seminary for the new millennium. Now some of these words have some sort of negative impact on people because it…But on another level, what is a seminary anyway? It’s a place to grow vocational seeds. That’s what seminary means so I think we’re here to sow the seeds of the vocational destiny of the people who are going to grapple with the beauty, the sublimity, and the turmoil of the 21st century.

Rich: If you say the primary revelation of God is in the natural world and the universe then that gives you a capacious scripture to use in your formation.

Conlon: That’s right. Thomas Aquinas, OP, in the Middle Ages, said that there’re two books (two revelatory sources): One, is the reveled word of God in the Bible and the other is the natural world. The revelatory experiences of the natural world are not given in words but they’re given in perception. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “It’s all about seeing. He says we have to get past the literal theology, words beyond words to perception, and the natural world is what we see and feel and touch and so the perception of creation is a perception of the divine.”

The signature work (Christ’s message) was The Sermon on the Mount. If you take the Sermon on the Mount, you could say that it is the total encapsulation of the gospel message. So what I’ve tried to do is using the format of the beatitudes to translate them into the context of the new cosmology. That’s what we have here.

Beatitudes for the new creation: blessed are the hopeful, they hold a promise of tomorrow. Blessed are the creatures, they embrace the challenge of today. Blessed are the forgiving, they’re free of the burden of the past. Blessed are the people of prolonged engagement, they will create a better world for our children. Blessed are the disappointed; they will rise and anticipate a better day.

Blessed are the self-forgetful, they will engage in a compassionate embrace. Blessed are the flowers bursting forth in the spring. Blessed are the children celebrating spontaneity and new life. Blessed are the contemplatives, they will embrace the universe as one.

Blessed are the liberators, they will set all the captives free. Blessed are the creation-centered people, they will appreciate the beauty of the earth. Blessed are the engaged mystics, they will ignite a fire on the earth and unite the stars in the streets.

Announcer: This concludes Rich Heffern’s interview of James Conlon of The Sophia Center in Oakland, California. You can read more about The Sophia Center and its work in the September 7th issue of National Catholic Reporter.

Heffern is an NCR writer and editor. Our usual podcast host Tom Fox will return next week. This has been an NCR Podcast brought to you by National Catholic Reporter. Thanks for listening.