Opening Unto Mystery | A Conversation with Dr. Elyse Ambrose

TRANSCRIPT:

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery, not as something that I go and do or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life. 

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’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

Dr. Elyse Ambrose, PhD (they/them) is a blackqueer ethicist, creative and educator whose research, art and community practice lie at the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. Ambrose’s forthcoming book A Living Archive: Embodying a Blackqueer Ethics (T&T Clark, Enquiries in Embodiment, Sexuality, and Social Ethics series), centers blackqueerness and constructing communal based sexual ethics. Ambrose currently serves as visiting assistant professor of ethical leadership and society at Meadville Lombard Theological School as a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. You can find out more about them at elyseambrose.com. 

Well Elyse, thank you so much for joining me today. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: It is my pleasure to be with you. 

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love beginning the conversation is asking how you define the words contemplation, and mysticism. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. Yeah, I appreciate the framing of the questions in terms of seeking definitions, because I think that it’s interesting to be in conversation with people, and then at some point in the conversation, discover that you’re working with different definitions of everything. And maybe that’s partly why, from time to time, we’re not able to see eye to eye about particular things. But you gave me an opportunity to really think about how I see these words, and I thank you for that invitation. 

So I start to think of mysticism as an openness to mystery. And I see that not as something that I go and do, or that one goes and does and sort of sets the scene for that sort of openness per se, but I see it more like as an orientation to life, knowing that we’re going to be encountering mystery, what is the orientation that I have to mystery? And how am I willing to be changed by what I encounter in the mystery? I think those are the questions of mysticism. And that’s where they leave me. And then when I think of contemplation or contemplative processes, I think I experience a pause because so much of how I encounter contemplation is not solely in my mind. And sort of, I think usually when I hear the word contemplation or contemplative, it has to do with reflection, and it’s pretty much framed as a rational process. But I think of contemplation in terms of like, listening with one’s whole self. And so that’s attunement through the body, attunement through previous experiences, and being able to integrate all of that within the realm of mysticism. So it’s being willing to go where the listening leads. I guess, the way that I frame both of these is kind of scary, but it’s also illuminating and exciting. And I think there’s a quote that goes, there’s treasure in the pathless woods.* And it makes me just think about yeah, like when you’re in that unknown depth, there’s a great deal of treasure to be found in those places if we are brave enough to go there. 

*(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

Cassidy Hall: Yeah… I mean, first of all defining mysticism with questions seems incredibly appropriate to me. And then similarly with contemplation, you talked about the sense of integration and going where the listening leads. So like also like this openness, both as this openness. How would you say you see mysticism and contemplation lived out in the world today? I know that’s kind of hard because I mean, I think, you know, based on your definitions the mystical can be in the seemingly mundane, everyday moments as well as the seemingly profound. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, I appreciate you pointing to the everyday-ness of mysticism and really, the profundity of the mundane. Womanist Ethicist, Emilie Townes, talks about the everyday-ness, and thinks of it as a resource of thinking ethics. So yeah, I think that everyday-ness ought to be a part of our conceptualizations of the ultimate because it makes me think of an earlier time in my faith journeying where — and I think a lot of people experience this, but I feel like I was always looking for that profound moment, that time when a prophet will come and speak a word, or when some sort of vision would take place or some enrapturing moments or something like that. And I was constantly seeking that, to know that the divine was present. And I think my faith really took a turning point, when I leaned into the everyday-ness of the divine and that it’s not just those super meta moments, but that it is in necessarily must be in the every day, and that I ought to take it as just true. Whether I feel it or not, whether there’s this amazing thing happening, whether there’s the heavens have parted for me or not, just this willingness to believe what it is that I say I believe and to just live into that as true and allow anything to speak to me, in terms of how I — and that’s what I’m signaling towards in the openness. Like being able to look at a pattern in snow and receive some message from nature or to listen to a conversation between people, maybe eavesdrop on a conversation, and learn something about myself in the process. And just to be open to the many ways that I would say not only God or the divine, but that all that is speaking to me and reaching out to me, and I’m reaching out to it. And it’s a very beautiful, organic and reciprocal relationship that we can be in, if I’m aware of it. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, one thing I love that you’re touching into that, that I’m going to try to figure out how to ask is this pairing of bringing our most full authentic self to the openness or the listening or the wonder or the questions even. I think my question is, do you think we can really have those moments maybe of whether we want to call them mysticism, or transcendence or authenticity, or even a sense of self liberation if we aren’t bringing our full, authentic self, because you also talked about, you know, when you allowed your faith to be what your faith is? So I’m wondering about that authenticity of self, the importance of that. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah. I’m really inspired by this quote of, and maybe it’s a paraphrase, but I feel like I’ve picked it up in engaged Buddhism sort of circles, but this idea that healed people, heal communities. Healed people, heal communities. And I feel like I was speaking with someone recently about how we have lots of thoughts around like, what social healing might look like in terms of like reconciliation or repentance, even forgiveness and all of these things about what these processes might look like or calling out or calling in etc. it occurs to me that if we, and I learned this in these communities of Buddhism, like if I’m not willing to sit on the mat and face myself, my shadows, when we’re talking about authentic self, we’re not just talking about that good. Yes I am beloved, I am a kind and compassionate person. Yes, yes. And also there are shadows. And that’s authentic to me. And I think the sooner I can be truthful with myself about that part of me, I can see it in other people and not be jarred and not be totally self-righteous, and be like, Oh, I can’t believe they’re that way, it’s sort of like can we look in the mirror and not turn away from what we see. And if we’re able to do that, and be authentic in that, and say this is where I am, then we can do for other people too, and be able to create a community where that sort of imperfection or that proneness to mistaken-ness, or that proneness to even hurting people, not harming but hurting people, can be a part of what makes our communities and our settings what they are. They are messy places, they are places where transformation is taking place. So if there’s transformation in me, transformation in you, we’re bound to clash every now and then, and even be transformed by what we mirror in one another. And I think that that’s a really beautiful invitation that we can offer one another, and we can see it in our everyday lives. Again, if we are open to the mystery of what happens when we see ourselves and when we see another person. And that’s hard. Because I think our structures do not lend themselves to truth. And I hope that, you know, we don’t get too caught up on the word truth or what is truth? But I do know a little bit about truth, in that I know the truth of myself, I know the truth that is revealed to me in this particular time and space, and I am invited to live into that truth. But I feel like our maybe obsession with appearances of appearing righteous, of appearing to have the right answers, of appearing to be justice-oriented and liberation-seeking, is really a hindrance to our actually becoming those people. 

I think about with my students sometimes it’s not hard to come across the right answer in this time in our world. We have Google, we have blogs, so many ways that we can come across the right answer of how to engage a person who inhabits difference, or a person who’s experiencing marginalization. We have the right answers of how to do that. But I often wonder sometimes, if when you’re giving me the right answer has the truth of that taken residence in you. And something takes residence in you typically, through a not easy path, is I guess the simplest way I can put it. So I think living into — I might say the wrong thing, I might appear to be racist, I may appear to be transphobic, being okay with that and then when that person calls you out, or calls you in, or when you reflect on your yourself in that moment and say, wow, that was racist of me or that was transphobic of me or that was classist of me, what have you. Then that’s when the transformation is able to take place. Because I don’t know maybe there’s something to confession and repentance and then going another way, like being able to face the thing and be transformed by face truth and be transformed by it. But we’re afraid of truth and therefore short circuit, the process of being transformed in the interest of preserving our comfort. 

Cassidy Hall: That was wonderful. And I’m led to thinking too about how, you know, in our world of like quick-fixes and easy-outs, how much of this transformation requires staying, requires being like you’re, you know, you’re talking about this discomfort, like sticking in that discomfort, being uncomfortable and not just being corrected and then moving on, but being corrected and staying, and being corrected and really deepening those connections no matter how uncomfortable. And I love the clarification between hurt and harm. Can you unpack that a little more? Because, you know, I think it’s so important to name that when there’s harm of course it makes sense to maybe to go; when there’s hurts maybe we need to stick with it and move through it together?

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I don’t want to put it full blanket on that, but I think that that sounds like a great way of creating that distinction. But if I could add to the brilliance there, I have really been taken by this metaphor that I learned, it feels like years ago, of what happens when there is tension. At the encounter with tension, there’s sort of two ways to go and pardon the binary, but let’s go with it for just for the sake of this conversation. It’s we can go in the direction of creative tension or destructive tension. In the course of a conversation, in the course of sitting with one another, I think we gain a sense of, is this going creative or is this going destructive, particularly for the person harmed or the person who’s experiencing some sort of pain, I should say. For the person who’s experiencing pain is this leading in the direction of creative or is this leading in the direction of destructive, right now. Maybe in time, that idea can change. But in the moment, if it’s leading in creative, I think we can say that perhaps there is a hurt that’s taking place and we can think creatively about how to address it, how to redress it. And then if we’re going in the direction of destructive, then perhaps there’s a harm and a need to create a boundary that can help in the process of healing for that particular person, or of that relationship, or maybe not, I don’t know, but I want to lean maybe to thinking about like creativity versus destruction in the encounter with tension. And that takes attentiveness, attunement, maybe a mediator, you know, maybe there’s something about intention there too. I know that intention and impact, intention in the face of impact doesn’t have as much weight but I think there’s something about a person who’s willfully raucous, rambunctious and unwilling to see the ways that they may be creating unjust situations for other people; that feels harmful too. I’d be willing to see what people think about those sorts of distinctions. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I think, you know, the distinction between the things that are creative and the things that are destructive, the power of creativity, also kind of puts us in that sense of wonder and questions. And also, you know, the communal aspect of that, it makes us co-creators, it makes us more bound to each other in the ways that we’re like innovating and imagining and thinking beyond, it’s kind of an invitation. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I think that’s a powerful way to think about it. Because creativity carries with it circling back. Like, we don’t know what’s going to happen in this creative encounter in terms of mystery. And so, what does it take, I wonder, to bring oneself to a creative moment? And to be willing to engage that process with someone or someone’s and to choose to go creative, rather than destructive? I think that seems like a really big question and it’s actually making me feel a bit a bit full and emotional, maybe because it’s hard, and not just hard, like, you know, first we have to do this and we have to do this and we have to do that, like hard in terms of like number of steps, but more like hard because trauma is real and hurt, harm, pain, and suffering are all real and they inform how we are willing or unwilling to come to one another and be vulnerable. And so much of creativity is vulnerability, and it’s like there is no way to be like maybe we can cut out this part and still get to the amazing, creative outcome that might be awaiting us. There is no cutting the vulnerability, there is no cutting the tension, just erasing that part of the process. And so it really pushes me to think how important it is to be in community and for lack of a better term invest oneself in community making, and to make that investment with the knowledge that I’m going to encounter humans that are going to rub against me in some ways that I’m not going to like. And am I willing to, to listen to my own humanity that yearns for connection? And to take the thorn with the rose as it relates to connection and what that means to be in community with others? Yeah, maybe thinking about what does it take to invest oneself in that process? That must be — it’s a doozy. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, the way the creative-destructive tension lives in all our relationships, and all of our interactions, it’s just really, really profound. And in a way to be creative without discounting, things like the trauma, the triggering, the real disruption in one’s life, that that can really disable us and put us in fight or freeze or etc. 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Mm hmm. And I think I love the insight that you’re providing, because it makes us think of creativity as sort of a spectrum. So maybe we’re not ready to go full-fledged from day one. But we can move at the speed of trust, as I’ve heard in community, and be able to invest in the creativity, and that’s a process and to approach creativity in a way of like, I love the idea that every encounter is an opportunity to choose, creativity or destruction. And then when we in turn, in terms of creativity, if we want to orient ourselves in that way to the world, where on the spectrum do we want to enter? And how can that sort of openness and intention, and willingness to be building as well as tearing down if necessary, and rebuilding; how much we’re able to do each of those things, given where we are and where the other person is, meeting them at a place where they are and being able to do that building together. And again, that takes community, that takes trust. And when I say community, I don’t mean just proximity as in like, oh, we’re in community because we go to the same place or we’re in community because we live in the same neighborhood, but like community that has accountability, community that has shared values around responsibility, and growth, and mistakes, and returning to the table again, and again. That sort of community I think can lead us in some creative, beautiful, ugly places that are ultimately for our good

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Especially when I’m willing to sit through the ugly, yeah, and stay the same. So going back to this, you know, you named mysticism as an openness to mystery, as an orientation to life and added all these questions about how am I willing to be changed and you named contemplation as a listening with one’s full self, attunement to our bodies, which was so important, so powerful to remember the embodiment of contemplation and that integration. Do you find either of those things in your own life in your work as a blackqueer ethicist, educator and creative? 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Definitely, I feel like I have to have that orientation, those orientations in all of those in all of those parts of myself. I’ll take, you know, education, for an example. Students are coming to the learning moment with so many experiences prior to entering my classroom, our classroom. And I’m coming with a lot of experiences prior to entering our classroom together. And I’ve learned from my mentors, I guess, again to this point of like, right answers versus transformation. I think that for some people, it’s really easy to be a good student. And I heard this actually, at a religious Educators Conference recently easy to be a good student, that is somebody who can process information in a way that’s much like what I said, or process information in a way that’s clear and cohesive, rather Western and get an A for it. That’s a good student, quote-unquote, good student, but the person who’s going to be transformed in the space, I mean, that’s not measurable. And it may not show up as evidence for years. So as a teacher, as an educator, as someone who’s trying to invite students to see education as a practice of their own freedom, as a way of getting free and inviting others to be free. Like, as I’m inviting them to that I cannot be consumed with outcomes, and wanting to see what I want to see in a student to say that okay, this, the student has done well in this course. I have to be open to the process that they are in and create a culture in the classroom that says we are open to one another’s processes. And yes, we will disagree, from time to time. Yes, we will encounter a reading and want to throw it across the room, what have you, that’s fine, let’s do that. And let’s be open to what can happen in the process. And sort of my openness means that if a student says something I don’t agree with, very frankly, if a student says something I don’t agree with, maybe my reaction isn’t to jump on them. And… cause them to retract from the entire learning experience. I have to have an openness to their journey, as well as to what I can be learning in the moment. As the as the educator in the space––thinking about the word educate, like to pull forth, what is being pulled forth for me in this moment and how can I add it to the space and invite them to add what they’re feeling into the space in a way that can help us all to think differently about something. That’s my goal. Let’s think differently about something and in our thinking differently about it, and really sitting with it and allowing it to take residence, and that’s when sort of transformation can take place. And again, that’s long term. That’s a long investment. But, you know, we do our best, as I say, in my syllabus, we do our best and grace will abound.

And then in terms of my blackqueerness, the two that I hold together, I make that all one word, black queer, because both of those identities, which are also a politics, a way of relating to the world, speak to me of liminality, of making a way out of no way, of returning to the table to rebuild as frequently as I need to, of recognizing my interconnectedness and the community that makes me, and I am because we are. All of that is integrated in the blackqueerness. And it allows me to be open to the mystery of me. And that manifests in my art the Photo-Sonic work, it manifests in how when I collaborate with an artistic subject to bring forth some sort of art piece, it’s about when my mystery meets your mystery, what can we create that might speak something to a public in a way that is generative? Yeah, I feel like if I can’t be and become this being who is invested in expansion, then I guess I’m just going fold in on myself and implode and I really don’t prefer that for myself in this lifetime. I feel like, at least for myself, and I wouldn’t put this on anyone else but the invitation that I feel myself receiving in this lifetime, in this time and space is just expansion and abundance and more and not in that greedy sort of way, but in the way of like, there’s so much more to encounter. There’s so much more to know about what’s without and what’s within and won’t you journey with your ancestors and spirit and your community to discover that? 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, when my mystery meets your mystery, I love that phrase. And you know that a lot of this conversation is revolved around this notion of creativity. And you name the intersections of your work as race, sexuality, gender, and spirituality. You know, I’m realizing maybe the common language of all those things, comes down to creativity, comes down to when my mystery meets your mystery. And also accessible language, because of the ways maybe, you know, the intersections of your work aren’t always the intersections for every person. Yet, as we find and meet each other, when our mysteries meet each other it requires creativity and agility, to have those hard conversation, have that staying power. And I think where I’m going with this is, how would you relate your understanding of creativity and your work creatively, would you say that, that in and of itself is spiritual? 

Dr Elyse Ambrose: Yeah, it is that necessarily. And maybe I want to — when I’m thinking of the word spiritual, I want to say that I’m thinking of animation, not like a cartoon, but like that which animates. And so that’s automatically a material project as well and concerns all that is. Spirituality and creativity, I mean, they’re kind of like, we’ll call them bosom buddies, in a lot of ways. Because they interdepend, you know, creativity animates and moves like the Spirit, it blows wherever it wishes. And then and then spirituality must, or Spirit necessarily creates and is creative in its orientation to the world. And so it’s like, I really can’t think of one without the other. And I think that thinking of them together, helps to bring out the artist in me, and perhaps helps us all to see the ways that we are able to be creative people, that there is a propensity that many people have, particularly people who are like Type A to say like, I’m not creative, and it’s like a creative doesn’t only look like what you see among the pilfered items in a museum, or the sort of Western Art History that tells us what creative looks like. I feel like when I’m when I’m creating a meal, or when I’m thinking about how can I be more attentive to partners, or how can I in this very moment, I see this student struggling, how can I engage. I feel like that’s a creative process but it also takes that interconnected-ness that Spirit affords us because it’s and through me, and in and through you. And we’re able to inter connect in that way that we can respond to one another, respond to one another in a way that gets us somewhere. 

Cassidy Hall: Amen. Amen. I want to thank you so much. The things we touched on today were just really, really powerful and important. And I’m just so grateful for your time and your work in the world. So thank you.

Dr Elyse Ambrose: I thank you so much for the invitation and the opportunity to be creating with you. Yeah, thank you.

[OUTRO] 

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 dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has 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 Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Published by Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall (MA, MDiv, MTS) is an author, filmmaker, podcaster, and holds a Masters of Divinity, Masters of Theological Studies, and Masters in Counseling. Born and raised in Iowa, she now works at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Indianapolis where she is pursuing ordination in the UCC. Throughout her time at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, she worked as a Teaching Assistant while studying for her MDiv and MTS degrees (December, 2021). During her time at seminary, she also served as the Secretary of the International Thomas Merton Society and continues to serve on the board of Enfleshed. Cassidy co-authored Notes on Silence (2018) and has had her work featured in devotionals including most recently: Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink; Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C, from Clear Faith Publishing (2021). Her essays have been published in the Christian Century, The National Catholic Reporter, Convivium Journal, The Thomas Merton Seasonal, The Thomas Merton Annual, and she has also been a contributor for The Huffington Post and Patheos. Before pursuing her MDiv and MTS in Indianapolis, Cassidy lived in Los Angeles where she worked on the production team of the documentary feature film, In Pursuit of Silence. The film’s success on the festival circuit and beyond led to its worldwide theatrical release. Her directorial debut short-film, Day of a Stranger, paints an intimate portrait of Thomas Merton’s hermitage years and received the Audience Choice Award from Illuminate Film Festival.   She is the co-host of the Encountering Silence podcast, which explores the ambiguity of silence in our modern-day lives. And more recently, she created a podcast hosted by the Christian Century titled Contemplating Now, which examines the intersection of contemplation and social justice.

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