Earth Prophet: Fr. Cletus Wessels, OP

by Rich Heffern

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Over the past century through the use of powerful telescopes and other technology that allowed us to probe the inside of atoms, we humans have overcome the limits of our five senses. We can see hundreds of millions of light years into deep space and delve into the innermost secrets of matter.

This has given us a new sense of the world around us and a new story about how we got here. We know now that the universe in which we live is some 14 billion years old and that within atoms there are forces that, when harnessed and unleashed, can destroy us.

We know that the universe originated in a colossal flaring forth known as the “Big Bang” and that the planet Earth, our home, over a 5 billion year period, evolve plants, animals and us.

Fr. Thomas Berry proclaimed: “Although as yet unrealized, this scientific account of the universe is the greatest religious, moral and spiritual event that has taken place in recent centuries. It is the supreme humanistic and spiritual as well as the supreme scientific event.”

What does this new information mean for us, for our church, and for our sense of who Jesus is, for example? The late Dominican Fr. Cletus Wessels examined these key questions in his most recent books from Orbis Books – The Holy Web: Church and the New Universe Story and Jesus in the New Universe Story. Wessels, a theologian, was president emeritus of Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and was engaged in preaching retreats and parish renewals in his later years. He died in 2009.

In The Holy Web, Wessels proposed a complete rethinking of what church means in light of this new information about where we are and how we got here.

A key concept in his thinking is this one concerning church spirituality: “We do not make creation holy,” he wrote, “but it is creation that makes us holy.” He introduces this idea with an episode from his own ministry experience. A new baptismal font had been installed in his church, big enough for complete immersion. An elderly woman, looking at the water flowing into and out of the font, asked Fr. Wessels, “Is this water blessed?” Wessels replied that, yes, it was blessed by God. “You mean, all of it?” she asked.

The new universe story brings home to us in a convincing way that the 4entire cosmos is a sacred entity, and thus so is the planet Earth, our home. God chose to create through a 14 billion year evolutionary process that is still at work. God has been present in this process from the very beginning and is still present in it. We are part of the emergence of life on planet Earth, an emergence that began billions of years ago.

What then is the relationship between us humans and our place of origin, the Earth? Are we to be just stewards, or sons and daughters of the Earth? What about our church?

“The church as a gathering of humans called to serve the whole of creation is a Church of the Earth, because humans are completely earthbound creatures,” Wessels wrote. He re-imagines the church in terms of scientific concepts, such as the holon and physicist David Bohm’s notion of the implicate order.

Bohm’s theory emphasizes that the universe is undivided wholeness that is in constant, flowing movement. Bohm’s theory of implicate order is a scientist’s attempt to discover and make explicit the hidden wholeness within all reality.

The holon is a concept from science writer and thinker Ken Wilber. Whatever exists in the universe is both a whole and a part. Every whole is also a part, and every part is also a whole. Reality is composed of holons, proposed Wilber.

Fr. Wessels asserted that the Church of the Earth is a holon, and, as such, part of the holy web. The church, he wrote, “can be one brimming with life, filled with love, motivated by compassion, serving the poor and outcasts, only if it can become a community with servant leaders, with open and honest dialogue, an atmosphere of mutual trust, the ability to celebrate life in vibrant rituals, and a willingness to let the future unfold in the power of the Spirit of God.”

What about Jesus? How are we to think about Jesus in relation to this new universe story? Do we need a redeemer? If God’s life has been present and unfolding within the universe from the very beginning, and indeed within every human being, how can Jesus be in any way unique?

Wessels distinguished between exclusive uniqueness and inclusive uniqueness, proposing that Jesus embodies the latter.

“The uniqueness of Jesus is found first in the resurrection. Jesus of Nazareth, a powerful peasant preacher and healer, challenged the Jewish holiness code and the leaders of the Jewish people in the midst of the social crisis of Roman commercialization. Because of his call for change and transformation, he was finally crucified outside the city of Jerusalem. His crucifixion and resurrection became the catalyst out of which emerged a new level of consciousness and a deeper sense of faith. In an emerging universe, the resurrection of Jesus is symbolic of a qualitatively new moment in history and a deeper level of human consciousness flowing from the chaos of the crucifixion.”

Wessels asserted that resurrection is part of the inner dynamics of the universe, so that “in the midst of the current chaos, the violence, the terrorist attacks, and the bioterrorism of our global situation, resurrection will win out. Over and over again in the history of the universe this new life has arisen out of death and destruction.”

An overarching theme in Wessels’ books is this: There’s an opportunity now for the new story of the universe and the chaos currently experienced in the world both personally and globally to open us up to a quantum leap into a new depth of consciousness and a new experience of life.

Wessels returned often to the implications for liturgy and ritual. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the presence of God became central to the ritual experience of the early Christians. As the paschal meal was transformed from the last supper into the ritual celebration of the death and rising of Jesus, it became a reminder of the powerful presence of God unfolding within Jesus. In a similar way, as people absorb the new creation story they celebrate this story in meaningful ritual and symbols.

“These rituals embody our closeness to the Earth, our unity with the Earth, and our dependence on the Earth. We are absorbed into the whole web of relationships with and in all of creation. These rituals call us to confess our new and deeper sense of identity, not as humans ruling over creation, but as members of the community of species sharing in the bounty of the Earth.”

Wessels admitted that reaching a consensus within the church on the meaning of such events as Jesus’s resurrection will be difficult. He never denied the underlying reality of the Biblical story of Jesus. Using the new creation story, though, he drew forth the deepest spiritual significance of Jesus’s life and teachings.

Wessels covered a lot of territory in his ambitious books. His passion for communicating the spiritual implications of the new universe story was truly a fire burning from within him.

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