Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is a Carmelite nun in Baltimore, where she’s been a Catholic sister since 1972. Previously, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun working in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. She was also a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference and was active in the civil rights movement during the height of the race riots in 1968. She’s been a spiritual director since 1982.
Sister Barbara told the Washington Post, “There comes a point when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands. Through prayer, I feel I can touch the world.”
In this interview I ask Sister Barbara about mysticism’s role in activism, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, the insurrection of January 6th, and more. She defines a mystic as “someone that observes mysteries or experiences but their intuition is held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Because, Black Lives Matter. I mean, none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now, and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patience endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I am your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster pastor, and student, and I am here to learn with you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is an 88-year-old Carmelite Nun in Baltimore where she has been a sister since 1972. Prior to her arrival, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. According to the New York Times as a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference in 1968, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the height of the race riots. She has been a spiritual director since 1982. In a Washington Post Article sister Barbara Jean is quoted as saying, “there comes a time when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands through prayer I feel I can touch the world.”
So when we talked on the phone about a month ago you had told me, “everything that happens in the world happens in here.” When you were referencing the cloistered life. Can you tell me more about how cloistered life exposes all of what happens outside?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, first of all, we are all human beings. That is the number one, that’s the commonality. We are all human beings and whatever happens outside of the monastery, people get angry, people get upset, people want to fight, people don’t like what so-and-so said, my sister did this and if I get them I am going to do the same thing. Happens the same thing in that monastery, we are 16 here; two of our sisters, well three were away––one passed in October from COVID, but we are still 16, and we have two young women who are coming to live with us to see if this is what they really want, in their twenties, they are going to have the same thing. I get angry sometimes, but it’s a matter of not putting that anger out on another person. But the same thing that happens outside of the monastery happens within the monastery because we are all human beings and we are human beings in here and actions speak louder than words.
Cassidy Hall: And I love your writing, your writing is just wonderful and so important. And in piece that you wrote titled “Black and gifted our ministry the spiritual direction,” you write, “if there is one gift which stands out more than other in the journey of Black folks, it is the gift of patient endurance.” So my question with that is how have you seen that patient endurance exist for you and contemplative life and how have you seen it in our world today?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : In religious life today, some communities still have, unfortunately, some communities still do not have African-American sisters, and if they do they accept them. But they are still Hedgy about that. I think it’s going to continue because, maybe it will I should say, and maybe it won’t. I know for myself, I am the only one here, the African-American here, but I was brought up in a home where my mother had, it was two colors and she was like white when she died. Brown and white, well I had spots on my legs. I said thank God they are on my legs and not on my face. While growing up with her being in a home, orphanage, she was a nurse anesthetist and I saw all these things, you don’t say much but you can observe, you see what people see people, white people, look we get on the bus before we had cars and there were three of us, I was the oldest, and she made sure that we had seats together. She would stand up and I would watch look around. And the people would be looking at her, looking at us, looking at her, looking at us. Talk about patient endurance, I think it’s the actions that happen. And it still goes on today. It still goes on today and see even worse today. I think because Black Lives Matter, I mean none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patient endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer: God, I can’t be out there to walk, I can’t be there to express what I would like to say even to help. But I ask you to use the pain that I’m feeling. Patient and endurance is individual, it’s communal, and the people that are going through this, they are out there, but they are doing this every day, whatever happens to them. I am the same way but I am inside and I am going through it with them. They were on the front lines and I feel the pain. I said this as soon as it was over, the first day that this happened at the Capital, if that had been African-Americans, they would have been shot dead. They would––nothing asked, they would have been gone. There weren’t––I mean, there were individuals, yes––but as a group, there wasn’t. And I think that’s the biggest gift that was given to us because of the patient endurance that’s there. That was there, but that’s what it is for me.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. It reminds me, some of the writings I have read of Howard Thurman and the writings about him and his writings about his contemplative practice and how people have pointed to his contemplative practice, kind of being this undergirding to the Civil Rights Movement and this kind of support that’s not just solidarity, but like you are saying it is “IT.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : This is it. It is. I mean we are enduring what they are going through out there, but we are enduring it in here, and it’s just as painful as could be. And the tears were just coming to my eyes. I mean, we were all sitting in a group, so I was by the window and I had my water or whatever there, and I just could not believe it. I said out loud, “if this had been African-Americans, we would have been shot dead,” they wouldn’t have even asked. The tears just –– it was unbelievable. And I still feel inside what people are going through. It is very hard––patient endurance goes on every minute of every day with someone that we don’t even know, we don’t even know, and it’s even with children, it’s even with children. Because my mom said, this is how we were brought up, we are to respect everybody, everybody, regardless of how they act. You can always tell that to whoever is in charge––but you can’t––And my two brothers, one brother was close to me, the other one was two years younger than me. And I am the only one left in my family now because he died last January. But she would say, “what you do makes a difference, how you do it makes a difference, and remember that. I may not be here with you all the time. But if something happens to you, you have to respect yourself and no you can’t mouth it or hit somebody,” or whatever because everything makes a difference.
Cassidy Hal: about spiritual direction and talking about contemplative life, and you mentioning that you are the only African-American sister at your monastery, just the importance of representation and the importance of, I mean, I mentioned Howard Thurman, but very few people even know of Thurman’s work as a Black mystic, as a Black contemplative. And I wonder if you could just speak into the importance of that––representation.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I was docket here three times, Cassidy, for leadership in the community, and I didn’t get it. And that, well I mean, I didn’t think I was going to get anyway, but the last time there were two of us––between myself and another person, and the sister that died in October. And this was in, I am not sure whether it was the late eighties, beginning of the nineties, I am not sure. But anyway, we had the meeting and then the name surfaced and they brought it down to the two of us. And that evening she came into my office, knocked on my door, she said, “Barbara Jean, I’m taking my name off the list, I cannot do this.” The Bishop was supposed to come the next morning at 10. And I said, “are you sure?” She said, “I am sure,” she went to bed, this was like nine o’clock. I said, fine, I went to bed and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is this? What does this mean? So I went to bed went to sleep, got up the next morning, and I was in the office in my office here, the Bishop was supposed to come at 10. So they usually come about 10 of 10, whatever. And [knock, knock, knock], she walks in again. She says, “I know I told you last night, that I was taking my name off the list.” She said, “but I was told to leave my name on and whatever I needed, they would help me.” I had never, ever said that to anyone, yet, but it’s in my archive. It’s written in my book. I was so shocked. She didn’t say who, but I can surmise. I mean and sure enough, she got elected after that. I took my name off of everything, never again. For me that was blatant but that’s what happens.
Cassidy Hall [10:07]: It reminds me of the thing that we began this conversation with that everything that happens in the world happened there.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Exactly, exactly, and if I were to say that now, I don’t know that they would even own it. I don’t know if they would, or they wouldn’t but it’s finished––as said, at that point, this is going down in my––I’m writing it down exactly the way it happened, and God rest her soul, she’s gone, she died in October, but they will have my archives.
Cassidy Hall: And your story is a testament to that patient endurance we were just talking about. You also write about, I think this kind of goes along with this, you also write about questioning our institutions for authentic living. And I think, you know, you kind of just described that by telling that story. I guess my question is as a contemplative, what does it look like to question institutions? Because a lot of people have the misunderstanding that being contemplative is being passive.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I don’t think so. It’s not being passive, no way, it’s not being passive at all. What we do, how we act, that’s very active. Even in here, you don’t have to go around doing whatever, no; it could be just going to prayer where you are quiet, where you can sit, where you can bring someone else’s problem to the Lord and talk. So it’s, it’s not passive at all. I don’t think so.
Cassidy Hall: Well, even, you know, the story you just told about writing down your story is an act of resistance.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Where you wouldn’t think, you know that’s my way of saying who I am, and being true to me.
Cassidy Hall: And that’s truth-telling, I mean you writing down your story is truth-telling
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Whether anyone believes it or not. And that’s what my mom used to say, “be true to who you are.” And that has resonated. I see this, I hear this all the time. It’s hard because you don’t know, just to even see her, she would always call, “how are you doing? You need anything?” you know, that kind of stuff, you know, have you heard from your brothers and this and that and you know, she was good.
Cassidy Hall: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about contemplation’s role in mysticism and or what mysticism means to you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester: Mysticism is a particular gift of God, that God gives to people. And the combination of mysticism with contemplative life, with contemplative prayer, is that people are sometimes going into prayer and they can come out with a prescription or a solution that they know is from God––and this is good, and we should do it this way, whatever. That it’ll take maybe two or three of us who rely on God, and we just don’t see or feel that, or even add that, to be able to jot it down. It comes more, it’s a little bit more work for us, as opposed to a mystic that can see and really be in touch with on a deep level of prayer. And that’s a grace that’s given to few people, but that’s how the two work together.
Cassidy Hall: Do you think it’s possible to see or experience mysticism in everyday life, everyday people so to speak?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Yes. Well, people or some people know they can pick them out. They get a feeling, you wonder why, how did they know? And that’s just a grace. Mystic is someone that observes mysteries or experiences, but their intuition is, it’s held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it, and with an intuition that’s beyond, almost, the possibility of trying to figure something out that you can’t, and that’s what it is. Harriet Tubman, she was a mystic. She knew, I mean, with her going from the South to the North, to the South, I mean, who would do that with nothing that she had really, you know. She was the ideal woman. She was a mystic. Everything was down to earth for her, but she had that, I don’t know what you call it, where God was, she didn’t do this only by herself–she relied on a higher power than herself, and it always worked for me.
Cassidy Hall: That again goes to the point we were discussing earlier about how a lot of people think things like contemplation is passive. Similarly, I think people think mysticism is this naval gazing, absence going inside oneself when really, I mean a case in point Harriet Tubman.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : [15:04]: Exactly. Who else did I put down? Thea Bowman. I have known her since the 60s, when we started the National Black Sisters conference. The first day we went down, we had the first conference, and then we had a break like in the afternoon for maybe a half-hour or so. I wanted to walk, take a walk outside because it was nice. So I walked down this hill, I mean the open wide, green on either side, but down the whole road. And then I hear this singing, what the heck is that? I haven’t heard or seen anybody who was that. And so I stopped where I heard it, and I am looking around and I did not see anything. Finally, I see someone sitting on the ground, it was there on the ground, sitting down under the tree singing. That’s how we met in 1964. And I sat down with her, “I’m Sister Thea, who are you?” “I’m Sister Barbara.” And we became friends like I don’t know what, after that.
Cassidy Hall: What a perfect way to meet.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester Yes, but she was, talk about mystic? She and her work, her preaching, it was unbelievable. And the song she came out with–– she was another one, African-American––the only one in her community. So many people don’t even know some of the stories, she said when they would leave the convent to go the sisters to work, whatever, there maybe four or five, four in the car, I guess, but she was always in the back, she didn’t drive, but if they stopped at a red light and there were people waiting for the bus there, she’d always have to bend down in the car so that they wouldn’t see her––that they would only see the white sisters there. So we all have, every one of us has something about, she loved her community. I love my community too, but we are not perfect, but we still live. And I believe everybody is God-oriented. I don’t want to be a mystic, I don’t see, I don’t get answers like they do, you know, I just live my life day to day and give it the best I can. That’s all God wants.
Cassidy Hall: Another thing you wrote in “Black and Gifted,” you talked about liberation as a “willingness to walk through the deserts of one’s own internal fears to liberate and free the spirit for holistic integrated living.” And I am particularly struck by the willingness to walk through the deserts for liberation to move towards liberation. Again, that patient endurance that those desert experiences require.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Right, it’s a willingness to walk in through the desert of our fear, internal fear, to walk through our fear, to be free and to free the spirit for holistic integrated living. In direction, sometimes, when they ask what to do, I don’t know, I do not have an answer, really: lay it at the feet of God, and the term metanoia, anybody that’s Catholic has grown up with a totally different idea of metanoia than it’s looked at today. That’s what it’s calling us to: There is life, even in the midst of what we perceive or what we see as non-life.
Cassidy Hall: Amid that patient endurance. What are the glimpses of liberation or the glimpses of holistic integrated living? What gives you hope?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : The fact that even within the race that I am in, we can treat our brother and sister as human beings and this purports and helps us to see others as human beings, also. The fact that we can accept to a point what we have and what we’ve been given and work diligently at that to make ourselves better and to lift someone who is younger than we to be in a place where they can spread their wings and, and do something better and more than we did, this is what I see. And this is what I hope for all the children that I have taught. It’s amazing that they still remember me. My name was Robert, then, a couple of them have come for my Jubilees and they tell stories about what I used to do, what I would tell them and all that. But they are nurses, some of them have gone up in their own companies, people that you didn’t even think of what they would do because they were so small, but it’s piercing it onto another generation or even generations below that. I really believe I am a firm, firm beeliver that what we do, what we say, how we act has an effect on people, whether you know them or not. And when you are the only one in all whiteness, everybody looks at you, never mind them not saying anything, you know what is going on in their mind: What is she doing here? I wonder what she is up to. Some of them may come and talk even, but this is what I believe that actions speak louder than words. And that’s what people see.
Cassidy Hall: One of the things we kind of addressed earlier, but I wonder if you might have anything else to say to the question of, do you think there is anything contemplation can teach protests and movements? Do you think there’s anything that contemplative of life can learn from protest and movements?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : There is always change going on in the world. We don’t even know about it. As a human being who is part of this world, the same thing happens to us individually. I am contemplative, yes, but there are other movements of religion in the world besides myself. They don’t pray the way I do, but they do pray. I don’t pray the way they do. They don’t pray the way I do, but they still pray to a person that they, a God that they believe in. And I believe that God made all of us and God has given each of us gifts and graces to use. So I think people can become mystics, which means they go deeper into God. However it fits them––however, they feel called or drawn. They can touch the God that they believe in and God can touch their hearts. And this is prayer and it doesn’t have a name. It’s God, they are in touch with their God. And I am in touch with my God, but its God. This is really something because we don’t talk about this all the time. I went last night; I was up to 10:30 going through that. I said, “oh my God, I hope I remember what to say.” I didn’t know what was going to be, but you know sometimes even like we will have a dialogue homily at our communion service and we have communion service every day. So you read the scripture for the day and something might pop into my head as I am reading it, whatever the reflections and all of that. And I say, but when it gets down to it, I know what I want is, but the words don’t come out anymore like they used to.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that aging makes us even more contemplative?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, if we look at it like that, yes. You say because there is a lot of loss in aging, but the other side of that is aging is a gift. Everybody doesn’t get to age, that’s what I’ve come to myself.
Cassidy Hall: And you had mentioned that you are, are you writing kind of like a memoir type thing about your life or?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I do a lot of poetry off and on. I wouldn’t say every single day, I barely write, but things that are important, yes, I do. So I’m making sure that one person that if anything ever happens to me, they know I have archives. Yes, it’s important.
Cassidy Hall: Well, Sister Barbara Jean, it has been amazing to speak with you. Listen to your stories and your patient endurance. And listen to just everything that you have been through. Everything that you do and continue to do is just amazing.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, God bless you and your work that you are doing. This is something, really, kudos, really. I hope your life goes the way you want it. God bless. Bye-bye.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes, join me over at patreon.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song, “Trapezoid Instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which has generously allowed us to use it. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting e- sankofa.com. The podcast is created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with Enfleshed; an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.