Friday, 22 March 2019

Religious Experience in the Cosmos JENNY RAPER

On Tuesday the 19th of March, Jenny Raper led the Spiritual Reading Group in an exploration of religion as an essential part of human experience, guided by the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Haught, and others. Here is Jenny’s introductory paper from that session.

Last year I spoke about two of the intriguing questions of our age. Are we 'hard wired' for religion? (William James) Are we, as a species, 'homo religioso'? (Karen Armstrong)

Following their lines of thought, I believe we are both 'hard wired' and 'homo religioso' – not just from my many years of reading theology (Christian and other) but also from my own soul or self-consciousness.

Last year, with great help from Philip, I discovered that amongst scholars and historians of religions, there seemed to be no doubt.  Many non-religious scholars also share the idea that humans have always held spiritual beliefs and developed religious rituals.

I have created five sections for this presentation: The Dawn of Human Consciousness, The Age of Writing, The Axial Age, Post- Darwin – truth or heresy?, and The Epic of the Universe.

The Dawn of Human Consciousness – the recognition of self, beauty and creativity

The development of human consciousness is hazy and shrouded by the past, but Professor Darren Curnoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New South Wales, believes homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago. But, around 70-50,000 years ago we have examples of jewellery and cave art and this is viewed as evidence of consciousness.  This is also around the time they left Africa, moving to South Siberia, Western China, East Asia and Australia. Because these archaic peoples developed oral traditions, jewellery and cave paintings and vestiges of burials, he posits the scientific idea that humans have a gene (maybe from the Neanderthals), the microcephalin gene, which with other mutations may account for our consciousness. 

In their world, early homo sapiens lived a life in awe of the presences surrounding them. They lived entirely in the natural world – surrounded by the sky and the landscape.  They were entirely dependent on the elements of water, fire, wind and earth. They created a world of sky gods and spiritual beings who dwelt in the sky and in the natural features of the land.  These potent spirits possessed incredible powers and yet lived and behaved as humans did.  The natural features, such as rivers and mountains were sacred and often associated with gods; animals, trees and plants, rocks and caves were all sacred and often places of ritual.  Their rituals were designed to propitiate the gods, give thanks to the gods and ask for blessings, such as food and safety.  In other words, they were conscious of their world and their own fragile lives in a vast universe.
We do know that as they branched out into the world, the developing cultures all developed their own systems of belief, symbols and practices. These three elements remain with us to this day in various forms. A few have developed into large religious systems with hierarchical leadership arrangements.

The Age of Writing – an act of human consciousness

In the period 50,000-30,000 BCE humans developed language and kept records and expressed concepts as well as mere images. Written forms of language arrived around 3,500-3000 BCE in Sumer (a little later in Egypt and independently in China): these were marks etched into clay tablets and, in China, marks cut into the oracle bones.  Remnants of these tablets tell us that organised religion around temples existed.  Believed to be the most ancient, the temple in modern southern Turkey at Gobekdi is dated at c.10,000 years ago. Scientists believe it is the heart of a burial system and death cult, from the thousands of human bones excavated.  No writing appears, but many sculptures of 'menacing' animals and especially vultures, which are still used to carry away the bones of human corpses to the heavens.  This temple is evidence of a very self-conscious people, but we know very little about how they perceived the nature of the universe around them.

The Axial Age (c 900-400 BCE)

This period is extraordinary.  It was described by Karl Jaspers as “The Axial Age”,  “a period of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change.” In other words, a surge of consciousness unlike any other until our own time.  Great systems of spiritual beliefs came into being during this time, Daoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Judaism and philosophical realism in Greece. To be human would never again be the same. Daoism and Hinduism appear to be the two streams that wrote about the universe, the cosmos in a way that was new.  There was a new understanding of the vastness of the Cosmos beyond and there arose a new understanding of the place of humans in that context and how we should behave along with this new consciousness – with rightness and kindness. Carl Jung wrote in 1951 that  “the ancient Chinese mind contemplates the cosmos in a way compatible with that of the modern physicist ... that it is a decidedly psychosocial structure.” 

For example, Hinduism changed greatly over the Axial period from a religion of sacrifice to a way of living consciously; searching for an end to suffering by detaching from the material world. Their scriptures emerged over this period. Quote: “In the Upanishads, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists and the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. Brahman is also considered to be the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth which does not change. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists in the universe.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The Greeks – according to Karen Armstrong - in the 6th century developed a desire for a personal religious experience – a new consciousness at work.  Cults arose like the Eleusian mysteries which gave initiates guided experiences to achieve new insights of themselves.  In the 5th century there was a movement to study “science” for its own sake. Their main interest was in the elements – for example, man could not live without water, therefore he must have emerged from the water. One philosopher, Anaximander (610-546BCE) went beyond the elements. He argued that the basic stuff of the universe was wholly 'indefinite' (apeiron)– this was divine, beyond the gods. It was the immeasurable and inexhaustible source of all life and had no relevance to the lives of humans.  This was an attempt to rationalise their new concepts, not spiritual insight. Yet, at the same times their ancient Gods and Goddess did not disappear.

John Haught writes of this period, it “is special for its idealizing of a unifying principal of meaning, goodness, beauty and truth, sometimes called God.”

Post-Darwin – Truth or heresy? A crash into a new truth – evolutionary consciousness.

Moving into our own age, I have consulted the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic Christian born in France in 1881, not so long after the publication of Darwin's book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859.   

He became a successful scientist in palaeontology and geology, continuing on with his Jesuit studies. Teaching in Egypt, he was affected by the vastness and silence of the desert, experiencing a 'pantheistic fusion with the cosmos'.

He maintained his course and during his theological training, 'he found his own synthesis between … scientific studies and the doctrines of his faith' … 'a dynamic pattern and rhythm running through the whole universe  - a universe fully alive and unfinished'; he saw a 'cosmos in a process of evolutionary creation, or convergent cosmogenesis unfolding in space time'. Ursula King writes that he saw “Spirit and matter were no longer two separate realities but two states ...of the one Cosmic stuff ….the dualism of matter and spirit of body and soul dissolved before him.”

King writes that his vision never wavered. The world, the whole world is God's body in its fullest extension.  He proclaimed this as the “Cosmic Christ” - “God's incarnate Being in the world of matter.” He continued to preach about this God – as the 'mystery of your flesh' – not merely pure spirit.  In his last essay, just before his died in 1955, he wrote that humanity was reaching a new psychological stage (advanced consciousness?) It was becoming adult and crossing new thresholds. Science needed the stimulation of religion and, and the understanding of revelation could develop more fully if it took into account “the new contributions that scientific research is gradually making to human consciousness.” His work was not published until after his death.

“The Epic of the Universe” The New Cosmic Story – inside our awakening universe

In the later part of the 20th century, scientists found methods to break the atom.  This was considered to be a huge leap for human knowledge and after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan people realised science had reached a new level, one where human life could be extinguished in a few moments with the push of a button far away.

Two decades later scientists were able to build rockets and space ships and 'fire' men into space and some onto the moon.  For the first time humans could see photographs of our Earth – a most beautiful 'blue watery planet', as described by one astronaut.  A new consciousness was born – the earth existed in space, limitless and vast.  The age-old question arose from a new perspective– who are we?  How do we exist in this cosmos of millions of planets in millions of systems of galaxies?

So to American theologian John Haught, who was born in 1942, a decade before Teilhard de Chardin died.  He has a chair of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington USA. He published his book ‘The New Cosmic Story’ in 2017.

He writes: “Startlingly absent … is a sense of how religion fits into the cosmic story.”  Religious experience is part of the whole inside story of the universe.  So, how will the religious experience fit into this new understanding of the cosmos? For thousands of years religious sentiments have come down from one human generation to the next packaged in symbolic forms whose meaning is mostly inaccessible to science. The new science is largely unintelligible to non-scientists. He writes that although science claims to be objective, humans are subjective along with the cosmos which has been emerging over the billions of years prior to our existence.  Therefore, science “must take into account the interior dimensions of living, thinking and worshiping subjects and not just outward, ….events.”

He writes that many scientists take for granted that their learning is all there is. In their opinion, subjectivity is a 'filmy human concoction that evaporates altogether when under scientific examination'.  Haught thinks that the story of the universe is not only about atoms, molecules, cells and groups, it is also about the inner drama  -  spirit and subjectivity. Our archaic forebears gave us the symbols, analogies, metaphors, rituals, myths and theologies pointing to the indestructible and transcendent dimension from whence we came and toward which we are destined and where we find meaning and moral guidance for our lives.

He refers to our Hindu forebears writing in the Upanishads: “We read that suffering may be conquered if we can overcome the illusion of existing separately form Brahman”, that is, Infinite Being, Consciousness and Bliss.  He says  “in this respect religion has its origin in a sense of grateful surprise at the mystery of being” – we all, atheists and believers alike experience the “shock that anything exists at all” We humans have devised countless ways to avoid acknowledging the mystery of it all, today perhaps more than ever.

He writes that “current cosmology allows us to interpret religious expectation as a relatively new state in the universe's ongoing adventure.”  The universe is still coming into being ….so the placing religion in the centre allows for the various forms of religious experience to counter the cosmic pessimism of the “materialist thinkers”.  In a universe that is still becoming, we have the chance to seek unity of religious experience, by expectancy and aspirations towards 'rightness'.  We can fully embrace modern scientific discoveries while leaving ample room for the coming of novelty, surprise, more-being, deeper meaning and human freedom into the cosmic narrative.

He believes that two strands have always existed in the Cosmos – spirit and material – and that all of existence is made of these two entwined in the Cosmic Christ, an ancient concept that God, in Christ, is both spirit and matter. We no longer need to pray for deliverance, looking back at past experience, but rather pray with anticipation in a cosmic perspective, in hope for fulfilment of the universe.  Unlike the old concept of a fixed or frozen universe, we inhabit a universe that is still unfolding. We might watch and pray that the beauty, depth and breadth will be realised.  How will we 'unfold' our religious beliefs systems and develop our subjective spirituality to live in the Cosmos?  We can no longer live in the belief that this Earth and our sky gods are all there is – yet we exist here on this 'blue, watery planet'.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and many theologians believe we, as Christians, can expand our consciousness to rediscover the Cosmic Christ – 'The Word of God' described by St John's Gospel and by Teilhard de Chardin as “God's incarnate Being in the world of Matter.”

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: The Ministry and Vision of the Carmelite Library

Photograph by Susan Southall

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
The Ministry and Vision of the Carmelite Library
Presentation at the Carmelite Staff Day on Thursday the 21st of March

Philip Harvey


When the Province Library was at Donvale, in the last century, it served as both a seminary library, a house library, and a library of spirituality. Its primary vision was to serve the members of the Order, but even then the collection itself was specialist, a place of interest to researchers and other readers in the spiritual life. In other words, the foundation for the collection here in the Carmelite Hall was already well established. This was not just a lot of textbooks and catechisms. When today we look at the historical depth of the collection we can easily discern the high standards and the vision that generations of Carmelites put into their Library. This is one of the givens that the Library staff inherit.

We see the concentrated interest in particular subjects, reflective of Carmelite life and witness. The so-called Carmelitana is the most obvious, i.e. the literature of the Carmelites, both by and about them. This part of the collection requires perennial attention as there is no end to what Carmelites are able to write and what others are able to say about them. It is a paramount duty to supply anything of value in this subject area, as we have anyway the main responsibility to our users, to the Order, and to the nation. Hagiography, or lives of the saints, is another specialist subject area that we endeavour to build up, within the constraints of the budget. Prayer in its different forms is to be represented in depth. The contemplative life in general, in fact, is our concern, the essential spiritual practice of the Carmelites.

Mariology, the study and theology of Mary likewise, is a major matter of collection development. When I worked at the Jesuit library in Parkville there was once a cull of their Mary section. Aghast that they would do such a thing, I expressed my concern that these books might still have potential readers. Don’t worry, I was assured by my Jesuit colleague, the Carmelites take care of Mariology. That this was common knowledge in Melbourne Catholic library circles was news to me, but today I find myself upholding that special duty.

These are all specialist subjects within spirituality, but I think the main thing to appreciate is that the discernment of the Carmelites then to focus on building up a specialist theology library in spirituality, broadly speaking, continues to be the central vision of our work. It’s for this reason that the Library today reaches many more people than it could have hoped to reach while at Donvale. It has become a byword in Melbourne for what is possible, given the right attention, staffing, and promotion.


The main brief, to build up a Library of spirituality and mysticism, is the vision of the Carmelites, articulated at the time that they decided to leave others to keep seminary libraries. Why keep one more seminary library when there are several others within a short distance? The focus on spirituality and mysticism was identified in discernment as a charism of the Order, with its Library in a place to meet the needs of everyone, including those of the Carmelite Family.

The shift to Middle Park brought many creative changes which continue to inform our vision and new directions. These include the fact that it became, overnight, a public library. This makes the Library unique amongst theological libraries in Melbourne and is an important factor in its ministry and, need I add, its revenue.

The long-wished-for foundation of a spirituality centre in Middle Park resulted in the Library serving very directly a broader constituency. The Carmelite Centre program has evolved each year since its inception into a living lively force, its programs expanding at a sensible rate, and its outreach impossible to estimate. Visitors to the Library have gone so far as to describe the Library as a sacred space and we should affirm that experience. It has become a meeting place for those of religion or no religion. All are welcome. Our policy is hospitality first. This means that the Library and the Centre it supports are a common meeting place, a zone where spiritual life can be opened up, discussed, and shared. This is vital where those inside church can talk with those who have left the church and need somewhere to reconnect. It is a place where possibilities of new life are created without judgement. This vision of inclusiveness and outreach is one that informs Library buying and activity.

Another historical event that influences daily life in the Carmelite Library, and its vision, was the setting up in Melbourne of Australia’s first university of specialisation, the University of Divinity. We serve a large and diverse body of students and staff across many theology colleges. Sensitivity to their needs in our areas of expertise is a constant need, starting of course with our own Carmelite students at Yarra Theological Union and the Australian Catholic University. We could say that this vision is locked in. Our job is to be responsive to the needs of all these people, at least one or two of whom join the Library officially each week. Being part of the University means access to the best online services. My own role on the Library Committee means advising and working on an expanding vision for that institution as well.


To look at each of these in turn, our public face means reaching out to a very wide potential user base. I would like to see more use of the Library by the local community, raised awareness within the church, and even more diversity of activities and events within the Library.

The Library will become even more of a cultural centre in this part of Melbourne.  Exhibitions have become a fact of life, made easy by the design layout of the Carmelite Hall space: it lends itself to art shows, book events, and other displays and exhibitions. It is quite possible to utilise the Library as a performance space.

As we see even today with the Seraphim Icon Group, the Library can serve as a creative workshop, within sensible limits. The Group meets on the third Thursday of each month, as well as on other days in the Cecilia Room of the Carmelite Monastery in Kew. Our Symposium in May will see an expanded use of the space as an art workshop over three days.

So, as well as our priority daily work of keeping going a special collection of high standard with a diversity of users, the Library hosts reading groups, lectures, exhibitions and anything else that feeds into our objectives of feeding the spiritual life.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-ninth : There’s mold, and then there’s mould

One of life’s minor pleasures is opening old leatherbound covers to a view of rich swirled marbling. Madder lakes of contiguous beauty are raindropped with navy blues or rose pinks, then rippled with golden lacing fine as spider web. Sometimes the marbling can be mistaken for a river bed. Sometimes the marbling can be mistaken for mould. Fuzzy brown globules or acrid green oozes have to be touched for reassurance. They are, yes indeed, the rare quality inks an Empire could extract from deepest darkest London suppliers. Such a relief.

The all-seeing eyes of the librarian perceive disaster. It has a disorder, a colour, a disintegration, a velvet growth. Despite having the air-conditioning on 24/7, there is an outbreak. The history books may suddenly be history. Spores are the issue. The risk is ever-present. They could spread with minimal assistance. The fumigator smothers the disaster with a noxious bomb. The bathroom fan speaks warm words to saturated pages. The paper towel stays entirely absorbed in its single task. There’s fold upon fold, and there’s mould. There’s cold, and then there’s mould. There’s tolds and untolds, and then there’s mould. However, all is not lost and the cost is low. It is not hugely expensive and peace of mind is more important. The all-seeing librarian turns the pages outward toward the sun. At least there is something to show for it. Restoration is a prospect. 

Melvill Dewey broke the mould. He believed he was doing everyone a service. Or rather, he remade the mold, according to the laws of American plain speech. Only his committee quite understood. It’s hard to argue with a quorum. Mould spreads and contracts. Say what you will, it proliferates and prolongs regardless of you or anyone. Words likewise take hold in the conditions. Books give them new life, taking on appearances that weren’t there yesterday. They exist inside and outside the book, at the same time. They settle in and will not be moved, resident organisms for a protracted period. Dewey would defy mildew. His classifications bring temporary order to the mass of monographs. The elements are kept at bay in bay after bay, regimented where water must not go. But Dewey himself thrived on idealism. 

It can get in anywhere, a faulty skylight, a tipped tile. Deluge comes under the door in a sudden storm. A mineral water bottle dropped in a return chute has the weekend to wreak havoc. It accumulates quietly on cold nights down to tables of contents. It is immoveable after the sprinklers finish, soaking though where it cannot run off, adding new designs to the watermarks. It drinks up pages that will puff, expand, crinkle, and moulder. The books meet their maker, the lucid element that trips tree life forward toward the clouds. That registers each leaf the branches hand out. That nestles and nets the fibres of pulp into the mould and deckle geared for endless A5, more perfect quarto, fabulous folios. That evaporates now into cyclic existence high above the reading mind, the riffling page, and into wordless atmosphere in form of said clouds.

Some libraries will not install sprinklers. If a fire breaks out, books destroyed by flames can be claimed on insurance. Books saved by water then bulge and become unusable. Their survival means that claims will not succeed. Susan Orleans describes the water effects of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986. “They had to move quickly and freeze the books because mold spores begin to bloom within forty-eight hours after being activated by water. If the books got moldy, they would be unsalvageable. That meant the staff would have to pack, move, and store seven hundred thousand damaged books somewhere cold before mold erupted.” The staff froze the books in the huge freezers of fish packing and food storage facilities in the Los Angeles area. Mold, as Orleans calls it, did not erupt.

When we are smaller than a full-stop we wander through the fungal forest sprouting out of the hardcover. Pseudo-roots plunged into films of water appear little different to the canopies that afford small protection for a microdot from sun or, more troubling, water. The greenfield lie of the land transforms gold leaf letters and inkjet graphics into ruins of title and author, sunken beneath the stands of mould agglomerating and spiralling in mirkwood circlets and crescents. Innocently each type of mould rests with its funky Latin term atop acres of unreadable dead organic matter. Step over the edge of this encyclopaedia or novel or textbook, hard to tell which, and we are weaving about oases of foxing as far as microdots can see, to all corners of flyleaf flatland. Even this close up, explanations for foxing don’t come easily. They may be alive but growth is indiscernible, a brown stain before blue heaven. We brush past page after page of these mystery circlets, their water source since vanished while the colour they keep to themselves will not fade.

Jane Greenfield advises that “thoughtful housing and handling can wipe out human error and careful surveillance is the best antidote to mutilation.” Her well-chosen words are inserted into discussion about insects, mould, and flooding. Scripture moves us to consider that we not store up our treasures where rust and moth destroy, mould too being a rust that may infiltrate and corrode. Still, we live with the possibility that the contents of books will bring light and life. They are a possession the value of which money cannot buy. It does us well to learn the difference. What kind of treasure is a book if it cannot be used? Light must enter for the contents to be seen, as meanwhile Greenfield instructs, “If possible, store books away from all possible sources of water.” Though how we can ever wipe out human error is a question that hangs in the air, after we put down her book. Such questions are the cause for any number of new books, even those on the care of fine books.


ANZTLA-Forum, e-list of the Australian and New Zealand Theological Library Association, exchange of emails between Andrée Pursey, Annette McGrath, Hazel Nsair, and Jenny Clarke on Thursday the 31st January, 2019

Greenfield, Jane. The care of fine books. Lyons & Burford, 1988, pp. 69-71

Orlean, Susan. The library book. Atlantic Books, 2019, pp. 35-36