'A Training Camp for Mystics': Sophia Center Brings Together Thought and Discussion from Art, Quantum Physics, Theology, Ecology and Healing

Article excerpt

Here is the sacred," physicist Brian Swimme said softly as 150 pairs of eyes gazed at the projected image of the Rosette Nebula, a 4 million-year-old cluster of sparkling young stars that blend together to form a beautiful fuchsia-colored rose in full bloom.

There is a scientific explanation for the sight. A layer of dust and hot gas blanket the nebula's collective mass of stars. Ultraviolet light shining through the dust causes the vivid explosion of color. Mystics and poets might see this cosmic flower as a preview of what would eventually evolve into the millions of rose bushes gracing gardens everywhere across our planet today.

Swimme's audience had gathered at the Sophia Center's annual summer institute on the Holy Names University campus in Oakland from July 19 to 22. It was one of those occasions for which the center is best known--where presenters and participants alike hold hands in a circle sharing their stories.

Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist and coauthor with Fr. Thomas Berry of The Universe Story, took his audience on a walk through the cosmic neighborhood that night with an astronomy slide presentation showing the Rosette and Orion Nebulae and the Virgo Cluster of stars.

"These are the dynamics that gave birth to us," Swimme explained.

Outer space is humanity's ground of being, he said, the setting where subatomic waves and particles and combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen began to bring forth bacteria, rocks, water, dinosaurs, butterflies, roses, mountains, fleas, frogs, hummingbirds and humans some 13.7 billion years ago. The still unfolding process began with one tiny hydrogen spark that flared forth from an infinitely mysterious, deep cosmic darkness.

As the lights in the university auditorium came up, Swimme observed, "It's hard to believe that 13.7 billion years of creation has come down to people spending all their time at the mall."

Laughter rippled through the room, but it was that kind of wry, sad mirth that knows just how accurately he had cut to the heart of the planet's global-warming crisis. The audience knew that when humans are no longer in awe of creation, they will use creation's offerings as mere commodities for economic gain. When we don't realize that we originated from particles of stardust, which are connected to every other particle of stardust, we are capable of the ruthless destruction of rain forests, the damming up of rivers, a worship of warfare and a blatant disregard for the poor.


Some attendees were experienced writers, lecturers and teachers honed in ecological theology, physics and similar disciplines. Others were just embarking on their own journeys. Catholic and non-Catholic alike, they were responding to Sophia director James Conlon's question, "what do you want to do with the rest of your life?"

They had come to Sophia to ponder the theme: "Joy in Danger." How can there be joy when there is such danger of the planet being overrun by greed, irresponsible governments and the lure of rampant consumerism? How can what Fr. Diurmuid O'Murchu, a speaker at the summer session, calls "meaningful mysticism" be brought into the equation as a means of restoration?

For the past 11 years, Sophia Center has posed such questions. The school is a continuation of the former Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, relocated to the Holy Names Campus in Oakland from Chicago during the middle 1980s. In 1996, when its founder Matthew Fox left the university to open a new school in downtown Oakland, acting director Conlon continued the program at Holy Names, focusing on the works of Berry, Swimme, O'Murchu, Carol Flinders and Rosemary Radford Ruether, to name just a few on the large roster of adjunct faculty.

Conlon has brought together thought and discussion emanating from art, music, quantum physics, social psychology, mathematics, theology, ecofeminism, ecology, dance, healing and economics. …