Witnessing the Sacred Depth of Nature

A watercolor by Mary Conrow Coelho. See more at NewUniverseStory.com.

by Mary Conrow Coelho.

There are remarkable discoveries now offered to Quaker Earthcare Witness that can greatly strengthen its work and witness.

One evening in the early 1990s, a small group gathered to listen to a talk in a video series describing the changes in worldview brought by discoveries in science during the last century. To my complete surprise and shock, the physicist Brian Swimme said that a “full teaching of physics and geology requires teaching the interior, nonvisualizable depth that pervades all of matter.” What could he be talking about?

Swimme said that this nonvisible energetic interiority is 99.99% of the atom! I was deeply moved. Can it be? Did this mean that my body, the trees, the earth, and the elephants—all made of atoms—are comprised of this nonvisible reality? We learned that evening that when all the particles and waves are removed from the space around us, the nonvisible energetic reality—a dimension of our world hidden to daily consciousness—is still present.

Remarkable scientific discoveries in the world of physics can offer Friends a transformed worldview and a fundamentally changed understanding of the nature of matter. Many of us learned as students of science that the natural world is without sacred depth and presence. When scientists first recognized and investigated the interior dimension of the atom, they found nothing, so it was identified as a vacuum. Now we know, to our great astonishment, that the apparent emptiness of the atom is actually comprised of a highly energetic, nonvisible reality that cannot be measured directly. Rather the energy is determined based on the energy of the particles emitted from it. Swimme calls the nonvisible reality the “All-Nourishing Abyss.” I call it the “seamless plenum.”

We have long known that our daily consciousness is not aware of all the dimensions of our identity. There is centuries-long witness by mystics and contemplatives as well as by artists, musicians, and poets of transformative experiences bringing an awakening to dimensions of the human person and the natural world. In The Heart of Matter, Teilhard de Chardin, a mystic and one of the first people to develop a spirituality in the context of evolution, wrote of “the Diaphany of the Divine at the heart of a glowing universe—as I have experienced it through contact with the earth—the Divine radiating from the depth of blazing Matter.” Quakers have long witnessed experiences of the Light within. The Celtic/Christian tradition, as J. Philip Newell carefully describes, offers a compelling example of the integration of the sacred nature of the natural world with the Christian witness. He writes in his new book Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, that the “energies of the divine are viewed as both encompassing and interpenetrating the human and the natural world.”

When the discovery of the “All-Nourishing Abyss” is held within the 13.8-billion-year story of our origins, we are led to recognize a fundamentally changed view of the natural world, the Earth, and our very being. While the Earth is remarkably diverse, there is a shared fundamental commonality given the nature of the interiority of the atom and of matter. Scientist David Bohm told us of a new “non-fragmentary worldview.” Given the energetic interiority of matter, we know every bush is burning. We can abandon the dangerous and erroneous objectification of the natural world. We know with increased confidence that the sacred presence is integral to our being, body and soul. Thomas Berry wrote in Dream of the Earth that science has given us a new revelatory experience. It has given us a new intimacy with the Earth.

To adequately address the climate crisis, we must not only do the essential work of remedying the damage to the natural world, preventing further degradation, but we must also address the spiritual crisis in the West. Western science’s earlier objectification of matter has been one of the underlying reasons for nearly unbridled destruction. It has diminished our felt, soulful connection with the earth, bringing a costly narrowing of our consciousness.

The witness of QEW will be greatly strengthened as we enter into and teach the wisdom within our transformed worldview. We must urgently speak Friends’ truth within these changes as they carry the hope that there can be fundamental change in consciousness as we know ourselves as sacred beings within a sacred Earth. We can speak to the spiritual longings of people that—together with the natural world—find a remarkable spiritual identity as a sacred whole.

Mary Conrow Coelho is the author of the new book The Depth of Our Belonging: Mysticism, Physics and Healing and is a member of Cambridge (MA) Friends Meeting.

Image painted by the author. She writes, “This magnificent 400-year-old red oak...was in the backyard of the house where Thomas Berry studied and wrote for a number of years. He taught us to move from a human-centered to an earth-centered norm of reality and value, so that, in these transitional times, we may discover our authentic role in the great work required of us as a result of our new understanding of the depth of human belonging to the earth and universe.