The Great Story Beads Project – A Tool for Teaching and Devotions

The Great Story Beads Project – A Tool for Teaching and Devotions

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A Symbolic Representation of the 13 Billion Year Epic
of Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, Told as a Sacred Story
That Embraces All Other Sacred Stories (Including Our Own Personal Journeys)

 “The eye that searches the Milky Way Galaxy is itself an eye shaped by the Milky Way.  The mind that searches for contact with the Milky Way is the very mind of the Milky Way Galaxy in search of its inner depths.”
– Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, 1992.

Ten years after Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry published their now classic book, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, meaningful ways to truly experience this great epic as one’s own are available for the learning.  There is, for example, the Cosmic Walk, a group ritual created by Sister Miriam MacGillis.  This year an entirely new way to learn and celebrate the Great Story of cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity came to our attention.  Variously called “Earth Prayer Beads” (Sister Gail Worcelo), “Cosmic Rosary” (Paula Hendrick) or “Great Story Beads” (our own preference), this way of fostering a depth relationship with Reality takes the form of a long loop of beads, with each bead selected to symbolize a particular event in the 13 billion year story of everything and everyone.

A timeline is the foundation of all.  Various timelines are now in circulation, as different people are moved by different aspects of the grand journey.  Because the Great Story is now the core of our lives (we are shedding possessions and launching an itinerant ministry: Connie, the science writer, teaching the science; Michael, the former pastor, preaching the meaning), we decided to take the better part of a week to create the mother of all timelines.  Sifting through our reference texts, writing and rewriting, we came up with an annotated list of what we regard as the major moments of transformation in the Great Story.  The result: a timeline with nearly 300 events celebrated and explained.

Of course, we then took the next step of selecting and stringing our own beads.  Fortunately, we found two specialty bead shops nearby.  Michael chose to commemorate 220 events; Connie chose 160.  Selecting beads was immensely satisfying.  (We also bought a spool of thin, flexible, and strong steel string used by professional beaders.)

Once home with our treasures, we rolled long pieces of tape (folded back on itself) and affixed these onto large papers as a way to sort beads to match with events in the timeline, mixing, changing, and trading as we went along. Then one more trip to the bead shop to purchase beads keyed to moments we were still missing, and to buy background (small spacing) beads of different colors to mark off the eons and geological periods of life.

The day we actually strung the beads was truly a wondrous day.  We kept remarking to one another, “I can1t believe how much fun I’m having and how satisfying this is!”  When we completed this energizing process (which felt somewhat sacramental), we could hardly put our beads down.  They now go virtually everywhere with us.  Often they are the last thing we handle at night and the first in the morning.  Connie can get away with wearing hers as a double-loop necklace (the beads she selected were rather dainty, and the whole loop is only 4.5 feet long.  Michael carries his in a pocket or a pouch, as his beads are bulkier and the whole loop is more than 10 feet long!  But he is happy to pull them out in an instant and begin teaching the Great Story to young and old alike.

When someone asks what we do, we often use our beads to answer.  “I tell a Great Story; one that embraces them all.  Pick a bead, any bead, and I’ll tell you what event it celebrates!” (Michael sometimes adds, “and how it reveals God’s glory and our own true nature!”)  We also enjoy making a game of the interaction by holding out a segment of beads while inviting the viewer to guess which bead stands for a particular event.  Michael’s 11-year-old daughter, Miriam, was mesmerized while Michael held her, telling the stories of the major beads.  After just this initial storytelling, she was able to remember and tell others what many of the beads symbolized.

Some beads are literal representations of events: a spiral for the birth of galaxies, a miniature turtle for the birth of the North American continent (Turtle Island), a shell for the origin of shells in the Cambrian explosion, a miniature conifer tree for the origin of conifers in the Jurassic, a thin cylindrical green bead for the spread of modern grasses in the Miocene, a clear bead dappled with yellow dots for the origin of pollen, a tiny butterfly and flower pair for the co-evolution of flowers and insects in the Cretaceous, a golden acorn for the co-evolution of nut trees and squirrels in the Oligocene, a blue sphere for Earth looking at itself in the mirror for the first time thanks to the Apollo Space Mission in the late 1960s.

Other beads are suggestive in color: red for the increase in predation in the Cretaceous, blue-green for the invention of photosynthesis by blue-green cyanobacteria, orange and brown striped for the birth of the Grand Canyon, orange and black spotted for the origin of cheetahs in North America, carved bone for the arrival of mastodons in North America, ocean blue with a tan band through the center for the formation of the Isthmus of Panama three million years ago, black beads for extinctions.

For some beads, it is size, texture, or glitter that is suggestive of the event: huge, rough beads for Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs, a multi-colored sparkly bead for the creation of elements inside exploding supernova stars, luscious “pearls” or crystals or “diamonds” or golden spheres for those teachers and mentors most important to us individually (Jesus for Michael, Julian Huxley for Connie, Thomas Berry for us both.)

As the Great Story reveals so clearly, knowledge of the cosmos is, in a very real sense, self knowledge.  We are not separate beings IN the Universe, who live ON Earth.  We are a mode of being OF the Universe, an expression OF Earth.  We didn’t come into this world, we grew out from it.  What better way to take in this awareness than by selecting and stringing one’s own loop of Great Story beads…as a spiritual practice, or just for fun?

No one, of course, can tell anyone else what the Great Story is at this level of detail.  Rather, each person (even young children) will be moved to choose particular events and beads that personalize the story for them.  In this way we each get to truly experience this grand epic as our own Story – the story that embraces and includes all the stories that are meaningful in our lives, including our religious, philosophical, scientific, geographic, and cultural stories.  Crucial, too, is commemorating the major events in our own personal lives in the same string of beads.  In this way we experience our family and personal stories as the latest episodes in thirteen billion years of divine, cosmic creativity.  Our own births, that of our children, immigration of ancestors, and other major events (joyful or difficult) that shaped who we are can all be signified in beads.

We have only begun to discuss this idea with religious education and secular school teachers, but all have been immediately excited by the prospect of turning this into student projects – for helping children learn and experience history, science, and religion.  Might Great Story beads become the way that the next generation takes the epic of evolution to heart and finds it deeply meaningful and inspiring?  What if creating personalized Great Story beads becomes as freely chosen by children as playing with toy dinosaurs?  Might this idea move far beyond the schools, far beyond the reach of us elders?  For example, we can envision some kids choosing to string a bead for each and every dinosaur name that they know!

We imagine many religious leaders welcoming Great Story beads (Michael likes to call them “glory beads”) as a fun and playful way of teaching the history of everyone and everything as a sacred story, highlighting the especially meaningful events in their own tradition.  Parents might work with toddlers to string their first simple beads and then recreate longer loops of beads with more story elements each year on the child1s birthday, saying “And now you are thirteen billion and six years old!”  Great Story beads might also be created for significant rites of passage in life – notably, the passage into adulthood: teenagers would create their own strands of beads for those moments in the cosmic, Earth, life, human, and their own stories that are most meaningful to them, that would guide their journey into adulthood.

The sources we used for creating our timelines are varied, but we relied heavily on:

– “The Universe Story” by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1992).  This is the classic text for those of us involved in the Great Story movement.  Tom and Brian include a detailed timeline that runs from the Fireball (Big Bang) through the human saga.  Some of the dates for the natural history events have changed since they wrote their book, of course, as science moves on.

– “Life” by Richard Fortey (1997).  The subtitle of this highly acclaimed book is “A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth.”  It is beautifully written by a senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History.  Intended for luscious reading, not as a reference text, the chapters have no subheadings within, so you cannot easily peruse.

– “The Evolutionary Biology of Plants” by Karl Niklas (1997).  This is a technical book, well written and with excellent illustrations.  Here we learn, for example, that plant speciation and extinctions followed a timeline distinct from the “mass extinctions” that set the pace for animal evolution.

– “Aquagenesis” by Richard Ellis (2001).  Subtitled “The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea,” it is very well written by a marine biologist and artist at the American Museum of Natural History, and easy to use as a reference guide.  Because Ellis is primarily an illustrator and writer of popular science, you can trust him to present all credible sides of scientific controversies.  For example, his portrayal of the range of interpretations of the ediacaran creatures that lived just before the Cambrian “explosion” of animal evolution is superb.

– “The Eternal Frontier” by Tim Flannery (2001).  This is an ecological, evolutionary story (a wondrous story, not just a series of facts) of the North American continent during the last 65 million years – the entire Cenozoic Era.  Plants, animals, geological features, landscapes: all are in here.  As with Fortey’s “Life”, it is not intended as a reference tool but for full-out reading.  Connie is in awe of this book, and has enlisted its author, an Australian paleontologist, to assist her in developing a slide show presentation on the North American story.

You will see that the timeline carefully documents the major mass extinctions, along with the pulses of localized “extinctions of the massive” that mark the entry of humans into frontier lands all over the planet. Connie learned a lot about these modern extinctions in the course of working on her 2001 book, “The Ghosts of Evolution.”

Following is an annotated version of the timeline Michael used to create his Great Story Beads (minus the events in his own personal story).  It is annotated because, where helpful, we explain the science and the significance underlying particular events.  We have not yet attempted to work into this timeline values and virtues that may be contemplated and taught in association with particular events.  Rather, we look forward to receiving from others (and for years to come) amended versions of this timeline that flesh out the value/virtue associations.  For those drawn in this direction, a careful viewing of any one of Brian Swimme’s videotape series (“Canticle to the Cosmos,” “Hidden Heart of the Cosmos,” “Earth’s Imagination”), with this timeline project in mind, would surely yield an abundance of value teachings keyed to particular moments of transformation. For example, in “Hidden Heart of the Cosmos” Brian offers generosity as a value that can be appreciated in contemplating the Sun1s conversion of billions of tons of itself into radiant energy every second.

In this timeline, we use CAPITAL LETTERS to highlight the short titles for events that one might choose to celebrate with a bead.  Great Story aficionados will probably want to use many or most of these and perhaps add other events that we overlooked, while parents and teachers will want to greatly simplify this timeline, inviting their child or students to choose perhaps only 25, or 50, or 100 transformational moments in the Great Story for their beads.  You will notice that we tend to group events by geological time period, rather than listing specific dates, as science changes fast enough that it is safest to simply know whether something happened in, say, the Devonian period rather than the Carboniferous.  We also sometimes ignore first appearances of life forms, and simply wait to put a bead where the group suddenly takes off in diversity, size, etc.  But that is a matter of taste.

Beginning in the Cenozoic, 65 million years ago, the list highlights events in the story as it plays out on the continent of North America.  We envision very different Cenozoic timelines being created by enthusiasts who live on other continents.  The human phase (Holocene epoch) notes major developments in religion and in scientific and philosophical thought that contributed toward our present understanding of Reality and of ourselves as part of an unfolding cosmos of nested creativity.  In other words, we chose to tell the story of our species coming to know and celebrate the Great Story – what Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme refer to as “the modern revelation.”

Michael has about 25 beads on his loop that are not listed here.  These represent significant events in his personal life story.  This deeply personalized component of the timeline is crucial for children and adults alike.  Each of us is an expression of the Great Story, whether we are thirteen billion and 85 years old, or thirteen billion and 4!


I. Great Radiance phase (Use small transparent beads for spacers.)

– THE GREAT MYSTERY wholly beyond human language and understanding.  That ULTIMATE REALITY which brings all things into existence, sustains all things, is revealed in all things, and draws all things unto Itself.

–  ALL OF HUMANITY’S VARIOUS NAMES, IMAGES, AND METAPHORS FOR ULTIMATE REALITY: GOD / GODDESS / GREAT SPIRIT / CREATOR / LORD / THE ALMIGHTY / YAHWEH / ALLAH / THE IMPLICATE ORDER / UNMOVED MOVER / ORIGINATING POWER / SOURCE / GROUND OF BEING / BUDDHA NATURE / BRAHMAN / INDRA1S NET / HIGHER POWER / THE TAO / THE UNIVERSE / KOSMOS / THE ONE / THE GREAT SELF / ETC. Each metaphor for ULTIMACY becomes its own lens through which Reality is experienced.  Thus, while each image or name can be understood as pointing to an essential aspect of Reality as a whole, it would not be accurate to say that these are simply different names for the same thing.  Just as each and every life form reveals something unique about the nature of ULTIMATE CREATIVITY, so too does each name or metaphor for THE WHOLENESS OF REALITY distinguish something unique and important about its nature.

– 13 bya THE GREAT RADIANCE / BIG BANG / PRIMORDIAL FLARING FORTH.  This includes the phases of Cosmic Fluctuation (10-43 seconds after BB), Inflation (10-37 seconds after BB), and Expansion (10-32 seconds after BB).

– EMERGENCE OF THE FOUR FUNDAMENTAL FORCES (From 10-32 to 10-10 seconds after BB): Gravity, Electromagnetism, Strong Nuclear Force, and Weak Nuclear Force.

– PARTICLE AND ANTIPARTICLE ANNIHILATION (1 second after BB):  By this time, the temperature had fallen to about 10 billion degrees Celsius, and the density of the universe was about 100,000 times that of the Earth.  One teaspoon of the universe would have weighed about 1.5 tons.

– DEUTERIUM AND HELIUM NUCLEI PRODUCTION (1 minute after BB): protons and neutrons emerge and form the nuclei of simplest chemical elements: heavy hydrogen (deutrium), helium, and traces of lithium.

– RECOMBINATION / FIRST ATOMS (300,000 years after BB):  Electrons combine with hydrogen and helium nuclei, producing the first neutral atoms.

II. Galactic phase (Use small gold beads for spacers.)

– 12 bya PROTOGALACTIC CLOUDS of hydrogen form.

– 12 bya PROTOSTARS emerge (and some massive stars light up).

– 11 bya GALAXIES emerge.

– 11 bya STARS light up the galaxies.

–  11 bya-present GALAXIES INTERACT: some collide and are engulfed; others pass through one another, usually with tremendous gravitational impact to both.

– 10 bya-present SUPERNOVAS: COMPLEX ELEMENTS (atoms heavier than helium; i.e., carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium, iron, gold, etc.) are forged in the fiery bellies of massive stars (at least 8 times more massive than our sun), which enrich the galaxies when the stars explode as supernovas.

– 5 bya A SHOCK WAVE from a nearby supernova or gravitational density wave energizes the enriched gas cloud that will become our swirling solar system.

– 5 bya the SUN ignites.

III. Hadean Eon of early Earth (Use small red beads for spacers.)

– 4.6 bya EARTH and other planets form by aggregating space debris in their orbital paths.

– 4.5 bya the MOON is carved out of Earth by a huge impact; its orbit around Earth gradually becomes more distant through time.

– 4.1 bya the Great Bombardment ends; RAIN falls upon a cooling Earth for first time.

– OCEANS form.

Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd are recognized leaders, regularly invited speakers, and valued networkers in the Great Story movement. Connie’s 1997 book, Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science, surveys the movement’s birth and shows how the evolutionary sciences can support a greening of religious faith and spirituality. She is a founding member and organizer of the Epic of Evolution Society, and was volunteer editor of its newsletter for the first three years. She is also a board member of the American Teilhard Association. Michael is a well-known and beloved Great Story teller. His 1991 book, Earthspirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity, was the first major work to popularize the epic of evolution for Christians, and to look appreciatively at the core tenets of Christianity from the perspective of the new cosmology. Michael also wrote Thank God for Evolution!  For more information and details on scheduling, see the “Our Traveling Ministry” page on our website, and for programs see “Programs and Presentations.” Go to