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 as Director of Communications for the Heartland and IKC Conferences in the United Church of Christ – overseeing First Communication for hundreds of churches in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and Indiana. She is ordained pending call in the United Church of Christ and continues to re-imagine alongside the modern world what it means to be the church. 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.
“Callouses form easily,” I was recently told in a meeting, “endurance takes time.” And I add to these words perhaps endurance’s movement into healing and growth takes both time and tenderness.
I’ve been learning that working at a Level One Trauma Hospital for the summer creates its own heap of secondary trauma and invitations into the agony of humanity and oneself.
At the beginning of the summer learning goals were discussed and my foremost goal was to not become numb to human suffering while also developing an endurance for care, empathy, and human accompaniment. I asked, “how can I build endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering?”
Shortly after developing these goals, I encountered a number of unexpected deaths and grieving families during on-call shifts. One, a brand new baby who was well before birth and simply never began breathing. The other, a father, husband, and grandfather on Father’s Day. More recently, I was asked to tend to the bedside of a “terminal wean,” where ventilatory support is withdrawn from the patient as they begin to travel through the threshold of life into death. Another time, a notification on my pager to come to the bedside for “end of life.” In this instance, as I stood in a room with a family whose dear one was dying, I put my hand on the dying–holding them in the gratitude of what they brought to this earth by their presence. I put my other hand on the back of the grieving, as they wailed in disbelief, pain, and anguish. I shared and prayed no magic words, offered no comforting thoughts, and was only present to the moment. The waves of grief dominated these lives and rooms, as they do under these circumstances, and together we allowed the waves to roll through the space like a tsunami while striving to keep each other safe.
The inexplicability of death never ceases to haunt my imagination. The ways death offers no real response to the question of why stops us all in our tracks. Believing all of life is entwined, I realize how little I stop to ask why a tree dies in the middle of a burning forest or why I perpetually participate in the ocean’s walk towards death. Why isn’t the hope of new growth in the garden as astonishing as a brand new human life or the sight of a patient on the other side of a heart transplant? How can I celebrate and grieve in the fullness of life’s connectivity? And still somehow these moments of accompaniment in alongside the dying and their loved ones are simultaneously holy and horrifying.
If I’ve learned anything about grief and human accompaniment this summer it’s simply that there are absolutely no proper words or language to offer to the grieving. I’ve gone into the summer knowing that there are plenty of wrong things to say and quite simply nothing right to say. In this way, the presence of personhood and accompaniment is an offering beyond words. The statue of immovable presence and peace amid unfathomable loss is at best a sentiment. A presence which can affirm the anger, frustration, sadness, pain, worry, grief, loneliness, agony… A presence to witness human suffering and acknowledge the terror of all that is unknown and unknowable.
On the more difficult days I often ask myself, how does one mark the death and grief of total strangers with whom they’ve accompanied in some of the most impossible and insufferable moments of life? Are these moments tattooed on my soul like a mark of memory, are they (the dead and their families) now threaded together within the expanding quilt of my existence, or are they lost in the ether of full and busy days with little to no time for sacred pauses? Maybe instead, grief becomes a part of me ––of us, like a new limb, an added layer of emotion, or the daily piece of jewelry we put on before we begin our day.
Many of us can agree that not only is healthcare in America a broken system, but so too are its hospitals. The lighting, the noise, the anxiety, the loneliness, even its spiritual care programs which often offer little spiritual care for their own – this is a difficult place to heal and grieve. And when it comes to working in these spaces: detachment often means survival, disconnect allows for life beyond the walls of work, and disengagement is frequently a way to stay sane.
So as I reflect more deeply on my impossible goal of building “endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering” I instead ask “how can I offer time, tenderness, and presence amid the mystery and terror of death?” The tsunami of grief comes when it comes, stirring up unfathomable emotion and unknowable pain. I can only be present to yours, mine, ours, show up, and offer some small sense of solidarity in the midst of all that is unknowable.
And, so, all of the answers to my questions land here: There are no answers. There’s no way to perfectly witness or accompany human suffering. There is no ideal way to witness grief. It can only be honored, tenderly seen, lovingly acknowledged, and any forms of healing and growth are both a process and an art. An art tethered to uniqueness by the way that each human interaction is unique.
As I walk out of the hospital on the more difficult days, I pause for a moment of acknowledgment in the hospital chapel. I speak names in my heart and shake my head with the tension of emotions. I offer the unknowable to the unknown, the mysterious to the mystery, the hopelessness to the possibility of hope.
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
[Intro Music] I never want anybody to feel like if you can’t be in the street protesting then you’re not a quote-unquote true activist. No! Activism first starts in the heart.
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.
CASSIDY HALL: Alright, well, first of all, thank you so much for joining me today and for your willingness to have this conversation.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Thank you so much, Cassidy for having me today.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the things that’s really helpful to orient us to this conversation is, what does the word contemplation mean to you? And also, what does the word mysticism mean to you? And both maybe how you see those lived out in the world today?
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: The way I thought about contemplation and mysticism, even in my own life is the act of contemplating. The very process of giving sustained, intentional attention to something and not just doing what we often do is where we might think about something for a minute or two, and then we’re moving on to the next thing, or we might look at a piece of art for a minute or two and then we’ve gone on to the next exhibit. But rather to contemplate is to, to look at longingly, to think about intentionally, and to synthesize those thinkings and insights with other experiences in your life. And so we don’t do contemplation in a vacuum, if you will, but rather, when we really give our full self, our full attention to say something, to someone, and to really lean all the way into that process of reflection, then we can take out of it some very key learnings about ourselves, as well as others, some insights for how we connect those things with other areas to our lives. And that is what leads me to thinking about mysticism, where we take all of that and connect it to our thoughts and understandings about God and God’s activity in our lives and in the world. And so for me, the kind of first steps are contemplation and the thinking deeply and longingly and intentionally and reflective piece, and then the mysticism for me comes into when we connect that with: how do we see God at work here? How do we understand God to be speaking in the midst of these circumstances? How do I feel and know God’s spirit is within me? So that’s how I understand and try to live into both contemplative and mystical ways of being.
CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I wrote down right away when you said “look at longingly and think about intentionally,” very, very powerful. And so along with that, as you discuss contemplation and mysticism. How do you see those things––or do you see those things playing a role in social action and social justice in the world today?
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: I do. You know, when you think of mysticism, one of the first people that comes to my mind, as well as many others is that of Dr. Howard Thurman. And when we think about his writings, and we think about his work throughout his career and vocation, he very much integrated his reflections, his writing into the work of social action and social activism and speaking up and speaking out, as to how we need to connect these things. So, absolutely. And so whether you’re talking about Dr. Howard Thurman or you’re talking about one of the young teenage activists that we see on the street, who is there because she or he knows that number one, injustice have occurred; two, they’ve thought about, they’ve contemplated how should they respond and three, the very act of responding in a way that gives voice to who they understand themselves to be, what they feel called to do, how they want to show up in the world is an expression, I think, of those very early steps of contemplation. So yes, absolutely. So often, we like to think about the act of contemplation as solely being kind of the quiet still action, but that’s the first step in the contemplative process. Because at the end of the day, what you’re contemplating ought to cause you to live differently and intentionally.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen to that. Yeah. And Dr. Gunning Francis, in your book, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, you write about the role of faith in the experience of Ferguson after the murder of Mike Brown in 2014. First, this is going to be maybe a two-part question. Because first, I’d love for you to kind of tell that story of your experience of that and participation in that. And then perhaps also how you might define the role of faith in activism, and how you’ve perhaps seen that change since Ferguson.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: You know, when I think back to that very, very tragic time, on August 9th of 2014, it was just an ordinary regular, hot August, Saturday afternoon. People were out and about, folks are getting ready for the new school year to begin and we had this tragedy of this unarmed teenager being shot and killed in the middle of a residential street in Ferguson, Missouri. And as we all know, after that, young people took to the street and said, no, we’re not just going to look away, we will not pretend that this is just another tragic incident that we can’t do anything about. But rather, we’re going to stay and demand justice, and demand that this stop happening. And what we saw was some clergy starting to join those efforts. And I was one of them along with many others. And to be able to see people who identify as clergy people, whether they’re serving in churches or other kinds of ministry contexts, but to go into the streets and to be there as an expression of their faith. Not saying, okay, why don’t you come and — let’s come into my church and talk about this, or just merely pray about it, but rather, clergy found themselves praying with their feet, leaving the pulpits, going into the streets, standing with young people, being a voice for justice and for change in really, really remarkable ways. And so to be able to record some of these stories of both the faith leaders, as well as some of the young activists really just shed light on a lot of things that people didn’t know were happening. So for example, a lot of times people would say, well, we saw the tanks and the tear gas, but we didn’t know that so many faith leaders and clergy, people were out there, were bailing people out of jail, were providing food and supplies, were providing safe sanctuary. And so to be able to tell those stories in a book, like Ferguson and Faith, really gave other congregations some imagination for what they can do too. For so many they thought that those kinds of things only happened back during the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, but rather, to see those very same things happening today in the St. Louis area and now fast forward to the year 2021, we’ve seen this happening all over the country. I’m very heartened to see faith leaders and faith communities, waking up to the really important tangible ways that they too can and should engage in the movement for racial justice. And as we know, not everybody can be in the streets. There are some people who have said to me, Dr. Francis, I would love to go out there, but I just can’t do it. And I say, that’s all right. What can you do? How would you like to give expression to your faith? And so you have people that provide food in safe sanctuary spaces or are being advocates to their legislators and making phone calls and sending emails and galvanizing other groups that they’re a part of. Listen friends, all of that is being a part of the movement for racial justice. I never want anybody to feel like if you can’t be in the street protesting then you’re not a quote-unquote true activist. No! Activism first starts in the heart. And when you determine in your heart, that what you are seeing in our world should not be, you cannot let it stand, then out of your heart can come the kinds of actions and activities and words that will help move the movement forward.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. It was one of the things you just spoke to about clergy being present in activism as an expression of faith and the ways that we pray with our feet. And especially this activism starts in the heart, and I’m drawn to thinking about the biblical text that shows us the presence of activism from time immemorial. The desert fathers and mothers essentially going away from empire in order to actually express themselves. And where do you think Christianity began separating activism from our faith? I think in America, that’s probably easy to point to things like white supremacy culture, and those types of things and the way that’s corrupted and co-opted faith in America, to think that activism is not a deep, deep part of faith and an innate part of faith. I wonder if you might speak to anything, as to where you see that separation beginning to happen.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: One could argue that the separation began with the way in which biblical interpretation has been done to privilege and prioritize white male patriarchy and reinforce that system. So I mean, I think quite honestly, that perhaps is where it began. And it’s not until we’ve seen over the past century or so to have more scholars who have been insistent on saying, no, that is not what the text says, that is not what the biblical evidence supports, or the other archaeological evidence supports. And so we are de-centering, this notion of white male patriarchy as sort of the crux of the Bible, and rather opening the stories, a more truthful narrative, and embedding that in contextual realities, I think, has made a significant difference. And so you couple that with the various movements, again, over the past century or so, that have shone light on the discrepancies, the disparities, the systems that reinforce the system of white supremacy and the pushback against that. Inevitably, the Bible has come under much needed closer scrutiny as well. And as a result of that, our theological understandings as well. So I take it all the way back there and sort of pull it forward. And I just see those same struggles continuing to happen, and they’re going to have to keep happening because, look at what we see happening today with the assault on critical race theory, which is a very truthful fact base telling of our history in this country. But when you look at the onslaught of this actual legislation being passed today to prevent teachers from teaching actual facts about the United States history of enslavement of Jim Crow, redlining, and lynching, the list goes on and on and on, the truth about what happened during the Reconstruction Era. And so all of this pushback is not separated from the biblical understandings that have been promulgated for so long, that reinforce and re-inscribe this system and pattern of white supremacy, and how we have to continue and it just speaks to the fact of how we have to continue to be adamant in correcting that record.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Do you think it would be safe to say that our pursuit as clergy people in tethering and ensuring our faith is tethered to activism, especially racial justice, social justice activism, is actually a return to the truth and the roots of our faith?
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: I think that it is, because we can see throughout the biblical narrative, anybody would be hard-pressed to not see Jesus as a revolutionary. When you look at the very practical actions that Jesus took throughout his life, they were actions of what? Bringing in people that were in on the margins, engaging women in respectful ways and ways that were designed to lift up and not further subjugate them, to say, welcome to little children, let them come to me, to running the money scammers out of the temple, to really being able to look at the system and provide a critical lens to the system of the empire that was subjugating to many people and say, we need to set a new order. And that’s what he set out to do. So absolutely, it is a return to the core and the crux of our faith.
CASSIDY HALL: Could you share a little bit more about your forthcoming book, Faith after Ferguson: Resilient Leadership in Pursuit of Racial Justice? And maybe you could share a little bit about the origin story of why you’re writing another book, and maybe what was missing the first time around, and maybe how you’re sharing what has changed since then.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Sure. So a few years ago, the good folks at Chalice Press, which is the publishers for Ferguson and Faith reached out to me and said, Leah, would you be interested in writing a follow-up to Ferguson and Faith? And I said, sure. So I set out to go back to St. Louis and Ferguson, listen to the stories of people who had been engaged in the movement since the Ferguson uprise to find out what happened. What’s changed since then? How has the movement made an impact on the city of Ferguson and the region around St. Louis, and within St. Louis? And so in listening to these stories of some of the things that have changed, laments of things that hadn’t changed, we saw that unfortunately, these killings were still happening around the country. And so even though I gathered these stories about what happened since Ferguson in Ferguson, I couldn’t turn away from what was continuing to happen in cities all around us. And so this past year, more specifically, when we look at what has happened since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and how that arrested the attention of people worldwide, when we had to watch that harrowing video, where George Floyd was killed right before our eyes. And that too became too much to bear for too many people. And we saw the protests and the outrage all around the globe. And so to bring the story of Ferguson forward all the way to today, through the George Floyd protests, through the Breonna Taylor protests, all the way to the US Capitol invasion, where we saw before our eyes, US citizens standing at the foot of the Capitol, the US Capitol, taunting, pushing police, police barricades, making their way all the way up the steps of the US Capitol, busting out the windows of the US Capitol, beating police officers with flagpoles, bursting into the Capitol while the US Congress was in session, making their way all the way to the floor of the house into our representative’s offices, stealing laptops, all this happened literally right before our eyes. But none of that was enough to prompt the US Capitol Police to fear for their lives and start firing on everybody. However, when Philando Castile is driving down the street and tells the officer yes, I am a licensed to carry gun owner, there’s a gun in the glove compartment of wherever it was, but he wasn’t committing a crime. He and his girlfriend and child were driving wherever they were going. He ends up dead. Tamir Rice, 12-year-old on a playground with a toy gun within seconds ends up dead. Breonna Taylor asleep in her home, they’re serving a warrant for somebody, she ends up dead. I mean, and the list goes on and on, how within seconds, seconds of police coming into contact with somebody that they deem suspicious and that person too often being Black, they wind up dead. But yet, we saw before our eyes, police literally being threatened, literally being beaten the US Congress, Congress people’s lives were endangered, and the response was stand back and stand by, pretty much. So, ladies and gentlemen, we are at a point where under no circumstances are we able to continue to tolerate this myth that there is not a stark and significant and lasting divide between the way white people are treated by police officers and Black people are treated. The US Capitol completely blew that myth out of the water, that there’s equal treatment under the law, has blown it out forever and ever, amen. So bringing all this forward into Faith after Ferguson, basically, the premise is not just to say, okay, well, here’s what happened with all of these events. Anybody who’s been paying attention kind of knows what’s happened. But what Faith after Ferguson is challenging us to do is to say, okay, one, this is who we are. Every time I hear a politician say, well, this isn’t who we are, we’re better than this. The data doesn’t support that. This is who we are. The capital invasion is who we are. George Floyd lying on a Minneapolis street pleading for his life, is who we are. And Faith after Ferguson is calling us to stand in our truth. To stand in that truth and to say that if we want to forge a better way forward, for our children, our grandchildren, all of those coming after us, we have to stop and pivot. Otherwise, we’re going to keep living this out, playing this out time and time again. And if we don’t hurry, like there’s an urgency to all of this, Cassidy. This is not something we can continue to say, well, let’s just kick back and wait. Let’s see what happens. We have to we can’t rush, we have to take our time. No, we cannot wait! Dr King said that, what back in 1960? No, we can’t wait. And here we are in 2021, still yelling, screaming the mantra, we cannot wait! The time is now. Urgency is upon us. And if we do not take action, if we do not take the kind of action that is going to put us on a trajectory of true equality for all, where all people are truly valued as full human beings created in God’s image and given the space to be able to live in that truth, we’re going to keep having this kind of tyranny, if you will. This tyrannical way of living and being in this country, and it should not be permitted to stand any longer.
CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate you mentioning the importance of urgency. And then you mentioned King and the fierce urgency of now. And he also speaks to the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. And if that is not a drug that most of America is taking, I don’t know what their drug choices because, wow…
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Well, it’s easy to take that or to accept that we have to gradually do this, when you’re not the one being impacted directly by the effects of the actions. The only people saying, well, let’s take our time, are people for whom they’re not feeling the daily effects of injustice. Those are the only people that the people for whom the system was designed to work, are the only one saying, let’s take our time while trying to squelch the voices at the polls, at the ballot boxes in the streets of those who are saying no, this isn’t working for all of us, we must change. Why do you think there is such intentional and speedy efforts? Why are they taking their time in changing voting rights to something that’s good for all? They’ve sped through actions to restrict voting rights, they’ve sent through actions to restrict the teaching of an actual and factual history of this country, they’ve sped through all these other kinds of things. But when we talk about taking speedy acts of justice, that’s when it becomes well: we need to take our time.
CASSIDY HALL: Once in a class, you came and spoke with… Actually it was my cohort, I believe. And you came into my cohort and you were sharing your vocational story. And you started talking about Ferguson, and you mentioned, Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson until they became Ferguson. And it’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the ways that it points to the fact that we’re always in the midst of that collective progress through struggle if we choose to participate. And it seems to me all too often people wait until they know what’s happening before they begin participating. But this has been happening our whole lives. And yet people all too often wait to show up. And I wonder if, I mean, this goes to the urgency point, but I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: As you said, Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson. People used to say that to me, when I was touring with the book. They would say, oh, Dr Francis, you don’t understand. Our town is not like Ferguson. And that’s when I would respond and say Ferguson didn’t know they were Ferguson until they became Ferguson. And my hope is by now that more and more people are seeing that we can’t continue to either wait until something, quote-unquote, happens in our town in our community, because as you’ve said, things have already been happening. This has already been going on for so long and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. If it were not for these cell phone cameras, we would still be thinking about this the way we did in 1975. So beginning to think that oh, things aren’t as bad as they are anymore, though. Yes, they are. So cell phones have brought that to light for us and put that in our face in a way that can no longer be denied. That helps us to understand that yes, there are times when police officers do not tell the truth about what happened in an incident. We’ve seen that documented time and time again. We no longer can just pretend that we haven’t seen what we’ve seen. And to encourage people to ask yourself, if you are somebody who is saying, well, let’s just wait ,or we don’t have those problems in my community, to really take it upon yourself to one, explore why do you feel that we need to wait? Is it because you are not feeling the brunt of the negative impact of these kinds of things, one. And two, start talking to others in your community, if you feel like, oh, those things don’t happen here. Go talk to some clergy people or other clergy people, if you’re a clergy person. Talk to some local teachers and find out what’s happening in the schools, talk to some social workers and find out what’s happening in the community. But let’s broaden our circle of inquiry to do a little bit more investigative work to uncover what are the kinds of issues that you and your voice are needed to be an advocate for, right where you are in your community.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and as you mentioned about activism beginning in the heart, recognizing especially for white people and my own experience, understanding the heart issue of not seeing the urgency of other people’s lives and other human beings that are my neighbors, my friends, my community. So I think that that’s such a big heart issue.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: My whole life I have wondered why one scripture, in particular, is not held up and heralded the way some other scriptures are used to justify discrimination in all kinds of forms. And that one scripture that I never hear on repeat is, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why is that? If we were to truly just take that into our hearts and minds and be able to empathize, use that as a basis for cultivating empathy, to be able to look around us and say, gosh, even though my child is never stopped for walking down the street because they’re a black or brown person, I can imagine how I would feel if that did happen to my child, or if my sister was treated this way. So even though something might not be happening to you, how do you take that one scripture into your heart, into yourself, use it as a basis for cultivating empathy? Even though my native language might be English, how might I feel, if I were a person who had another native language and in this country of being treated in a very negative and harmful way. And the list just goes on and on. Even though, the even though’s, that might not be me, or happening to me or somebody that I love. Let’s use that scripture to cultivate empathy within ourselves, within our hearts, to ask ourselves, what would I want somebody to do if I was being treated that way? And why don’t you get busy doing that?
CASSIDY HALL: Amen! Yeah. You spoke a little bit about this earlier and in the context of being Dean of Faculty, and a faith leader in the community of Indianapolis and being Dean of Faculty at Christian Theological Seminary. How does social justice activism look in scholarship and the world of academia, in terms of redefining that? Institutions are historically so corrupt and oppressive.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: I am so thankful to be a scholar in this particular era because we see scholars of all sorts, of all colors, of all ways of being in the world, pushing those boundaries all the way out. And so to be able to learn and grow and expand one’s mind, from the writings and the works of scholars into today’s academy around the world, and this is global. This isn’t just about US scholars, these are global ways of writing and being that are really pushing back against white patriarchal, heteronormativity, classist norms that are really causing us to say, no, we’re not going to continue to think, write and talk about these issues in the same way anymore. We’re not doing it. So what a joy! And I think that students today are able to benefit from it. That’s why the books are pushing back so hard again, saying no, we can’t teach anything truthful about race and racism. We can’t say the words white supremacy, we can’t criticize empire. Of course, they are, who is saying that? Opponents of empire. So the resistance movement is happening in the academy. And let’s get on board with that. Let’s support that. Let’s have that trickle down into K through 12 because we don’t need to have our students unlearn these things, once they’re going into college, but rather learning the truth as very, very young people.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. You also touched on this a little bit earlier. But I wonder if you might speak to how you’ve maybe specifically seen contemplation and activism as a part of collective protest and movements and how maybe there’s a specific story about a person, you mentioned young people and seeing mysticism in young people in the streets. And I wonder if there’s maybe a specific story or a specific person where you’ve really seen this mystic come alive through their work in the streets.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: One particular action of contemplation that I think illustrates the way that a group can engage in an act of contemplation, is through the die-ins. And what a die-in is, is when a person or group will lay on the ground, in sort of commemoration of the person who has been killed. So for example, after the horrific killing of George Floyd, we had a march here in Indianapolis where there were estimated a little more than 1000 people that we rallied at the Indiana State House and then marched to the City County Building. And once we got to the City County Building, we held what was called a die-in, where we invited all of the march participants to just lie on the ground where they were. So you had people in the streets, you had people on the sidewalks, on the grass, wherever they could find a spot to just lie down on the ground. And we asked them to lie there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which at that time is what we thought was the time that George Floyd was lying on that Minneapolis Street. And as people were lying on the ground, we had someone read the name of a person that had been killed by a police officer, un-armed people killed by a police officer. And after each name was read, our drummer would hit the bass drum. And so during that, 8 minutes and 46 seconds, people reported lying on the ground, and just being able to think and reflect and imagine not only what it would be like or must have been like for George Floyd lying on the ground during that time, but to think about all these other names of people that they’re hearing called, who also ended up on the ground long before they ever should have. And to be able to reflect on their own roles in this movement for justice. So the die-in, the time of intentional thinking and reflecting and contemplating exactly what this impact is of police violence on real, living, breathing everyday people was a really stark and meaningful moment for those who participated. And many people reported back to us that very thing. And so out of that can grow actions of mysticism over saying, hey, this is not what God wants. This is not what we believe God calls us to do. How do I join where God is already active in this world? A funny story from Ferguson and Faith with that was when I was interviewing some of the young people in St. Louis back in 2014 and 2015, and a young woman named Alexis who was very active in the streets. And she said, during the protests, there was one time that I went to church with my grandmother just to kind of make her happy. And I think many people know what that’s like. And so she said, she was not protesting that day and went to Bible study with her grandmother. And as soon as she gets in there, the pastor starts talking about those young people, they need to come off those streets, and they need to come into the church. And she said, she spoke up and said, well, I thought your punch line was go out and do. And I’ll laugh about that for the rest of my life, the go thee therefore into the world, she called that the punch line. And so if the punch line of our faith is to go out, why are you chastising people for being out there and for standing up as expressions of their faith? And so here she was because so often, people think, oh, those young people out there, they don’t know anything about God, they don’t know anything about faith and that’s not true. Just because they don’t worship and understand and engage actions of faith the way you do, that does not mean they don’t worship and engage their sense of spirituality in a way that is not very meaningful. So we’re seeing that all over. We’re seeing people that are saying, I don’t feel welcome in your church because of who I choose to love or because of how I choose to show up in the world. And since I don’t feel welcome in your church, and you make me feel like an outcast, we’re seeing people start various communities of spiritual growth on their own. Where they’re having times of gather, they’re having times of prayer, they’re having times of using resources and readings that are meaningful to them, that can include scripture, that can also go beyond scripture. So it’s not that there are not people that are not yearning and longing, and living into contemplative ways of faithfulness, they’re just not always doing it in these traditional ways of being church that they have found very hurtful.
CASSIDY HALL: Beautifully, beautifully put. As we come to the end of our time, one question I want to be sure to ask you is, you mentioned Howard Thurman in the beginning, and you’ve mentioned some young activists. And I wonder if those might answer this question or maybe someone else but, who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you?
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: Every time I look in the eyes of young people, of not so young people, out there, on the streets standing up speaking up, I see mystics. I do, I do. And even if they’re not using God language, if you will, I see their hearts coming and shining through their eyes. I hear it in their voices, I hear it in their cries, I hear it in their laughter, I hear it, I see it in their tears. And so that is what is giving me hope. How is it that you don’t become discouraged? How is it that you stave off becoming despondent in the midst of so much adversity? And my encouragement to people is just to lift up your head and look around. Yes, the opposition is fierce. Yes, the opposition can cause you to become discouraged. I know what that feels like. But if I just keep looking longingly, I see signs of hope, and growth and love all around. No, it may not always have the loudest voice. No, it may not always have the most prominent place, and definitely will not have that on television, and other kinds of outlets like that, that we’re seeing, but we can’t let that chatter distract us from the realities that are happening all around us. And there really is a movement afoot of men and women and Black people and white people and Asian people, Latino people and Native people and young people and children and elderly people, all around that are actively engaging. And so I just say just lift your head, look around, look in the eyes. But don’t forget to look at your own heart. Have a heart to heart with yourself and say, you know what self, now is the time, now is the moment. I’m ready to take that next step. And just go and do it.
CASSIDY HALL: Dr Gunning Francis, thank you so much for joining me and for taking the time to connect with me today.
DR LEAH GUNNING FRANCIS: It is always my pleasure to talk with you Cassidy. Thank you so much for the remarkable work you’re doing and the way that you’re doing it. I know it’s making the difference. Many blessings to you.
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.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown has retired as Distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. Now, in addition to her academic work, she has pursued a life in ministry, becoming a spiritual director and leading workshops and prayer groups promoting contemplative spiritual practices and the life and work of Howard Thurman. More than 25 years ago, she underwent a heart transplant, which led to her strong advocacy for organ and tissue donation and the contemplative practices of stillness and living in the present moment. “I consider each day to be a walk of faith and hope,” she says.
Dr. Coleman Brown has contributed essays to Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell their Stories and Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America. She completed theSpiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in 2008. Her book When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom tells the story of her heart transplant.
In this episode, she and I talk about our need of being more expansive with definitions of contemplation and mysticism. “Mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens,” she says. “I hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism only happens to special people.”
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown: Are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the Oneness?
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. Lerita Coleman Brown is a distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She studied Psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz and received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University. Some of her publications include Praying Without Ceasing, Basking in the Loving Presence of God, and she’s also published in the edited book, Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell Their Stories. In 2008, she completed the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalom Institute for Spiritual Formation. She’s a Howard Thurman devotee and serves as a spiritual companion, director, writer, retreat leader and speaker. Her first full-length book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom, was released in January of 2019, which tells the story of her heart transplant and the dialogue within.
CASSIDY HALL: Well Lerita, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s so great to see you.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, thank you. I always love talking to you Cassidy and I’m just delighted that you invited me to be a part of your podcast.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways we like to begin is to begin kind of orienting ourselves around you and your experience. So how do you define “contemplation”? And how do you define “mysticism”?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I’ve studied contemplation in so many different contexts. But certainly, within training for becoming a spiritual director, I find that my sense of it now is that contemplation is really about trying to find ways to live in the presence of God. And oftentimes, I define it in terms of: what is a contemplative. What kind of person is that? And usually, it is a person who is wanting to be aware of the presence of God all the time, but also knows that there are certain kinds of practices that they can engage in that will lead them to perhaps having that awareness more frequently. So taking time for silence, taking time for solitude, getting away from time to time, and then being outside, for me, at least, is sort of the three S’s. The stillness that you find often when you are anywhere in nature, it just seems to be like a vibrating energy kind of thing. And it reminds me quite a bit of a being in the presence of God. But I think that it’s really doing things, talking about things that intentionally, in some ways, lead us to that place where we are feeling or being aware of the presence of God.
Mysticism to me is something totally different. And I think people have mystical experiences all the time. But somehow or other, we tend to think about mysticism as something sort of mysterious and oftentimes there are people who, in some ways have negative views. They think of voodoo or something that is part of the occult, or bringing up spirits, etc. And I certainly, just in learning the word early on, had that sort of scary feeling, even though I was brought up in Catholic school and going to Catholic and not hearing anything about mysticism or mystics in the time in which I was a Roman Catholic. But mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens. And I think in my study of Howard Thurman, he’s helped me to sort of clarify it and have a little bit more concise sense of it, but it’s having a direct experience with God. So you could be praying, you could be singing, you could be outside, but all of a sudden, you have this experience of I call it oneness of unity. And so people have talked about it in different ways. Abraham Maslow in Psychology talks about peak experiences. I think he’s talking about a mystical experience. Jerry May, Gerald May, he calls it a unitive experience. And even Howard Thurman called it a religious experience. He was sort of saying, look, I think it’s just a religious experience. If you all want to call it a mystical experience, fine, but it’s really having sort of this breakthrough of whatever it is that keeps us from being at one with God all the time. It just happens. And I’ve had those experiences since as a young child, I didn’t know what it was. I remember once telling somebody that I felt the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once, and they were like, girl you’re crazy. But that’s what it felt like to me as a child. I think we need to be a little bit more expansive about our definitions of what that is. I think in the past, it’s been kind of restricted to people having visions and stigmata or the soul, touching the God, all of that. I would just want to sort of cut through that and say, my definition of mysticism is very different.
CASSIDY HALL: That is beautiful. Yeah. And it strikes me that even my wrong perceptions of this idea that being a contemplative might make us more prone to having the mystical experience is still limiting, that’s limiting of mysticism and of what the mystical experience can be and who gets it. Because that’s not, that’s not up to us. And it shows up when it shows up.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes. And somehow or other, as we sort of trace the evolution of mysticism, it seems as if what people used to be talking about as mysticism is now really spirituality. Like there’s this just kind of natural progression, and that in some cases, people might call it a transcendent experience. And then it’s not something that is restricted to a small group of people living in a cloistered community, and it has happened as a result of that they are praying or that they were singled out, but that children had mystical experiences. And certainly, Howard Thurman was also one of those children. I think it’s more common than it is uncommon that these transcendent experiences happen and we don’t quite know how to explain it, except for that it was really nice, and we wish we could go back, but we can’t make it happen again.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and also along with your definition of contemplation as solitude, silence and stillness, mysticism and a mystical encounter can happen in the middle of chaos. It can happen in the middle of a crowd, it can happen, like you’re saying, for a child at school.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Right. Or maybe they’re out somewhere at the ocean, or I mean, it could be anywhere, and you’re not trying to make it happen, you can’t make it happen. It’s just one of those things that happens to you. I would count two visions, that I know people have had dreams. I have a couple of friends who have dreams. And it’s like the divine has broken through and said, look, I want to tell you something, and it comes out in the dream. So I would hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism happens only to special people, or only special people are mystics, etc. And that it’s some special club that only a few people get invited to. But I think once you understand what it is and you are not afraid, and that you allow those mystical experiences to happen when they do, it’s such a lovely guide in some ways. It’s like, oh well, thank you for the visit.
CASSIDY HALL: So many things in there I want to unpack but I’ll try to stay on track. So Thurman speaks a lot to things like the sound of the genuine within and also speaks to the inward sanctuary. First of all, what do you think he means by these kinds of things, tending to the inward sanctuary or listening for the sound of the genuine within? And how can we take this advice to tend to those things in the context of today’s social justice movements which take so much attention, time and energy?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, in some ways, I think Thurman would probably say, you need to tend to your inward sanctuary before you get out there. You need to do some, I might call it house cleaning, so that you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Particularly in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, partly what he’s doing is saying to the disinherited, ‘it’s so important for you to protect your inward sanctuary because people are always going to be extending these or communicating these attributions about you that are just not true.’ And I think what happened with Thurman is that ––and I’ve had this experience myself, which is that you hit someplace within you and you realize, oh, this is who I am. And when people come at you with something else, you’re just like, looking at them, like, are you talking to me? Come into some knowledge, coming into some understanding of who you are inside. Who you are as God created you? Do you really believe your Holy Child of God? All of that. But you do have to protect them because they are going to be people that are going to come at you with attacks. I would add, that we also must begin to listen for what our call is in God’s plan to restore the beloved creation. And I emphasize creation, you know a lot of times people say community, but I emphasize creation. Both because Thurman believed it was all including the animals and the plants and the environment and the air, all of that was part of God’s beloved creation. You know, there’s this beautiful psychological stuff going on here, which is like who’s in control of you. So I think that has to get cleared up so that you can hear what is your role. Sometimes I think people associate social action with protests in the streets. But as we know, with every movement, every transformation, there are people in many roles. In the civil rights movement, there are people cooking, there were people taking care of children, there are people writing articles, there were lawyers behind the scenes to bail people out and to file legal motions. Howard Thurman was really great on what I call inner authority. He knew what he was supposed to be doing. He was not supposed to be Martin Luther King, Jr. He was supposed to be Howard Thurman. And so I often describe him as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. That was his role. I think it’s really important to do this, like I said, examining. Examining your inward sanctuary, your inward center, and to begin to be able to distinguish what it is that is truly you, what is genuine. And what it is, it’s somebody else’s issue that they are projecting onto you. Or they’re trying to cajole you into doing something that they want you to do.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, you know, my own experience of navigating the genuine within, navigating the inward sanctuary, and the ways this kind of connects to our conversation about mysticism, in that, in my experience, the genuine is often tethered to also that understanding of oneness. So it’s almost like a mystical experience when I actually am revealed of who I am and what I am.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, I think anytime that you say “yes,” to God, you know what I mean? That you actually are happy, that experience of oneness. It’s like, oh! And I think the difficulty for most people is, we live in such an individualistic culture, which is part of the mystical experience is to lose yourself, but your independent, autonomous self. But at the same time, I think that that sense of unity, that sense of connection is very familiar to our spirits. Even though we may be fighting it at some point. But I think it’s really difficult for people to just surrender and say, okay, I’m going to stop trying to figure it out. I’m going to stop trying to plan and I’m just going to try to move through my life, guided by the Spirit. That’s just like, real hard for a lot of people. I think for me, as I told many people that when I had a heart transplant about 26 years ago, more than 26 years ago, I got thrown into the deep end of the trust-surrender pool. And so in many ways, the pandemic, I don’t think was as traumatic for me. And so I could stay grounded, because I had done this. I had been in quarantine, I had awakened many days where I had no idea what was going to happen that day. Was I going to to be in the hospital, was I going to be at home, was I going to have to get some special medication, was I in rejection, was I not. So it was like familiar territory to me. But I had been through it. So I knew that there was another side, by continuing to use the guidance that I learned when I had to go through that trauma helped me to then be one of those people who could stay grounded for other people, that just weren’t used to so much turbulence.
CASSIDY HALL: In a lecture on mysticism and social action, which you informed me was originally titled mysticism and social change, Thurman spoke a lot about the autonomy of the self, which is interesting in the context of this navigating, being in an individualistic society, alongside these things we’re discussing. And in that he writes, or he said, “the call to social action must never be an end in itself, but rather, a means by which the individual sufferer can get access to his own altar.” So my question is, what do you think he meant by that?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: When he talks about the autonomy of the self, I think what he’s talking about is not being a conformist in the sense of going along with everybody else, just because everybody else is doing it. So you may be with a group of people who kind of talk about taking social action, but you might also be hesitant, if you think that people are going to think about you in a certain way. They might reject you, they might not be friends with you anymore, if you step out of sort of the party line, whether that be what your church’s theology is, or you know, take a stand on a particular political or social issue. So I think in part, what he’s saying is that you can’t really get to — he’s got this idea that there is an altar within all of us, sort of where God resides. And it’s really hard to get to that place if you don’t have the courage, if you don’t have the strength to do what you’re called to do. And so many people sometimes hesitate, because again, it might upset the total applecart of their life. Where they stand, their reputation, their economic situation, all those kinds of things. And so it’s really tough to be able to step out of that and say, “look, this is wrong.” So I mean, it’s like, where are those people who, particularly during Thurman’s time, were willing to step up and say, segregation in churches is wrong? This whole system is wrong. Because there was a lot of punishment for anybody who stepped out of that. But he’s saying you’re not going to get to that union with God unless you’re willing to answer the call. And in that way, you’re being an autonomous self. You’re sort of stepping out of the groupthink, if you will, deciding that you’re going to walk a different path. At least that’s been my sense of what he’s trying to say in those remarks. Because he says the call to social action must never be an end in itself. It’s always about: are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost you in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the oneness.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that’s a big call, the Spirit. That is the call of the Spirit. I love that you kind of informally named Thurman as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to Thurman’s relationship to that movement and how you see that role unfolding for him.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: So Thurman had a number of, I call them holy coincidences or sacred synchronicity, divine intervention, whatever things you want to call it, in his life. Because I think he did accept that call and he kept going with the spirit wherever it was taking him, sometimes reluctantly. And so, in 19, probably around 34-ish , he was asked to lead a pilgrimage to India. Initially, he was not particularly interested in going, because he certainly did not want to be evangelizing for Christianity. He was very ambivalent about traditional Christianity, because it’s like, sort of why am I promoting a religion that won’t even allow me to sit next to another Christian in a church? And why hasn’t this religion addressed some of these basic social issues? I mean, we could get into a whole discussion about when Christianity got co-opted for the state or whatever, but that’s beside the point, we’re just dealing with the reality of it. And initially, they didn’t want to invite his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, who was just an amazing woman in and of herself. And he was being invited by a group that was pretty much similar to the YMCA in the United States. But the sort of, you know, in India, and this guy Ralla Ram really wanted him to come, he wanted some darker skin people to come and sort of represent Christianity. Because at the time the people in that area of the world were not interested in converting to the colonizers religion. So he thought, well, maybe if they see some people that look kind of like us, they might change their minds. It ended up that he finally, and I should say, prior to, many years earlier, Thurman actually participated in the YMCA when he was in high school because they had a lot of programs for the uplifting of young colored boys or men, kind of thing. And there was some ambivalence by many people that were participating in that because they wanted to have segregated branches for YMCA. So we sort of run into these issues everywhere, but nonetheless, so in the Fall of 1935, he and Sue Bailey Thurman, Edward and Phenola Carroll boarded the ship to South Asia, Burma, Simon, all of these different countries and they actually spent six months giving talks about a variety of issues, not necessarily focused on Christianity. But sort of American Negroes and education, and Sue Bailey Thurman gave lectures on Negro women, because these are the terms that they were using at that time. They also, he also had a chance to meet Tagore, the Indian poet. He spent a little time with him, but they really wanted to meet Gandhi. And so they had some difficulties. I think, initially, Gandhi was sick, and then they were sick, and about maybe a week or two before they were to leave to come back the United States, Thurman was on his way to the post office to send a telegram and he saw this guy with a Gandhi cap on, and they kind of looked at each other and then turned around. He had come to bring a telegram from Gandhi. Nonetheless, they got a chance to meet and they met for three hours and had a long conversation. There’s a lovely book called Visions of a New World, Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India. And so what we now understand, which I never knew for many years is that it was really Thurman who brought the ideas of non-violence and civil disobedience from Gandhi to the United States. And Gandhi even said, after that three hour meeting, that he thought it was probably going to be through the American Negro that this message of non-violence and civil disobedience would be brought to the world. Thurman came back with this idea. And I think he incorporated some of that in Jesus and the Disinherited, which actually became the blueprint for the civil rights movement in some ways. That is the inspiration. So there were so many people that were later leaders in that, that basically read that book and got excited. So Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them, James Lawson was one of them, Jesse Jackson was one of them. There were lots of people who were inspired by that. But Thurman did cross paths by the way with King in a variety of different ways.
First, another providential occurrence: Sue Bailey Thurman and Martin Luther King’s mother, Alberta King, her name was not King before, Williams, were roommates at Spelman Seminary in high school, it was a high school at the time. And so they had known each other for a very long time. And then in the newest book Against the Hounds of Hell, written by Peter Eisenstaedt, who’s a Thurman scholar and historian, he said that after the Thurmans came back from India, they had dinner with the Kings. Martin Luther King probably was about seven years old at the time, and probably overheard much of this conversation. But it really wasn’t until he read Jesus and the Disinherited that I think he really got inspired like, well, we can use this as a way to understand what our role is. And then, of course, King and Thurman crossed paths at Boston University for about a year, as King was finishing up his dissertation work. They met a little bit over sports. Again, I’m sure at the urging of Alberta King and you know, let’s get these people together. King also spent a lot of time listening to Thurman’s sermons in the Morse chapel to take notes. And then one final thing is that King was stabbed by a mentally ill woman in 1958. And Thurman writes that he had this visitation or this vision that he needed to go there. And so he actually went to the hospital and talked to King and basically said to him, this movement that you’ve started, I think it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. And I would suggest that you take some time off or some silence and solitude so that you can discern what your role is going to be in this movement.
There are many people who write in various ways about coming to Thurman as kind of like the spiritual advisor. So Vincent Harding writes about it, Vernon Jordan, as well as Jesse Jackson, Otis T. MossII, P. Marshall, and her work also says that she used to consult Thurman for spiritual guidance. So there were a number of people, Marian Wright Edelman was influenced by him. And all the amazing people that went through Boston University. Barbara Jordan was a person who used to go to his sermons. So he would basically be the person holding the spiritual space for these people as they came in and out and asking the questions that a good spiritual director would ask like, well, so you know, how are you feeling about this? And what do you feel guided to do next? Asking sort of the deeper questions. I mean, it’s not wasn’t just about, let’s get angry and go out in the street. But really helping people to understand that this might be in fact a godly matter, that there’s some spiritual reason for their being a part this movement.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love that. It was the women and their family that ultimately got them together. In his biography With Head and Heart, Thurman talks about his vision for the church, which I really always loved this quote. But he notes that it was his “conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists. To me, it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church.” And it strikes me that he lived his life like that, he lived his life as a resource for activists and a place for people to find fresh courage.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes, yes. And I think that’s so important, a place for finding fresh courage. Because in my experience, particularly as a spiritual director – companion, but also as a friend, people are weary. They are worn out and worn down. And I think in part if you don’t have that spiritual undergirding, if you don’t have a sanctuary, if you don’t have a place where you can just bask in the renewal of being in God’s divine presence, then you are going to fall apart. I mean, you’re going to burn out. And I’ve been trying to help young, particularly African American contemplatives, as well as activists to understand that it’s more than, you’ve seen an injustice and you’ve got to go do something about it. It’s got to be deeper. Because if it isn’t deeper, you are going to burn out quickly. And that is going in for those moments of contemplation or contemplative prayer, centering prayer, whatever you want to call it, where your spirit is renewed. And then that’s when you get the courage to be able to stand up and say, or do, whatever it is that needs to be done without fear. You know, that’s where you get the strength to be able to have the stamina to stay as long as you need to stay or stay up as long as you need to stay up. But it’s got to have something other than just passion and fire. Because as we know, that just burns quickly. But it’s got to be deeply rooted into something else.
CASSIDY HALL: So I like to end by asking one last question, and that is, who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you or to you?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I wish I had more time to think about this. I think about all the people that I’ve read along the way. And I must admit that it really wasn’t until I stepped into the life and work of Howard Thurman that I felt like somebody was speaking to me. I mean, I read about a lot of people and they were talking, but in terms of having somebody speak to me, like, I know you, I know what you’re going through, here’s my take on it. He was probably the first person. But I think I think about Harriet Tubman. I mean, here’s the mystic involved in social action, and it doesn’t really matter how it happened. Some people say, well, you know, she had a brain injury. Okay. Well, you know, people talk about so many mystics its probably having some form of psychopathology. So let’s talk about courage. I mean, where do you get the courage and the guidance, you know, so that you don’t get captured and killed? Just incredible. So I’m very inspired by her and what she did and how it happened. But if I bring myself to modern day, I think about Barbara Holmes, I think she’s just an amazing person. And I’ve listened to a few of her presentations, and it’s like, she’s in the deep waters. I always think about mystics as moving into deep waters. They’re moving in the deep waters. And so was Richard Rohr. He was someone that I read early on and had a chance to meet once here in Atlanta. But just, I believe, following that call. I have some people that we probably wouldn’t define as mystics. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have him in that category because after I saw Hamilton, I thought, who could do this? I mean, this is just beyond. It’s like when you’re in the presence of genius or creativity at that level, it was like a divine experience to just watch the production. I think about Toni Morrison and some of the words and things that she came up with, August Wilson as a playwright, he was another one. Those people that clearly they are connecting with the divine in some way, are people that — There’s a woman many years ago wrote a book called Ordinary Mystics – Marsha Sinetar. And now I just want to cross out them the ordinary. I mean, because they are mystics, they just don’t happen to emerge from religious communities. And I’m hoping that, as I said before, we can move beyond that kind of definition of a mystic, not only demystify the word, but make it one that is not associated with something negative. As I said earlier, everybody has different roles. And so let’s not confuse activism or social action as one thing. Art can be activism, plays can be activism and poetry. Look at Amanda Gorman. What the activism is about is provoking people, is waking them up to paying attention to what’s going on around them.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and I love that you named so many artists too. And that idea of deep waters, deep waters and I remember being with you at the Wild Goose Festival at Wisdom Camp, and you said to me, “spirit gets what spirit wants, so we might as well listen.” And that was actually a time in my life when I needed to listen. I needed to rest. Yeah, so I see that mysticism alive in your life and I’m so grateful for you and your work and appreciate you taking the time to be with me.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Of course it’s always a joy to be with you, Cassidy. Great conversations and I think our love for this work is part of our calling.
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.
“Understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.”
In 2016, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was elected the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, making her the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop. She holds a B.A. in architecture with a minor in urban studies from Smith College, an M.A. in historic preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP). Before coming to Indianapolis, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, Central New York, and Chicago. Her expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [00:04]: I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
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.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, of the episcopal diocese of Indianapolis is from New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture with a minor in Urban Studies from Smith College, an M.A. in Historic Preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in 1997. Before being elected bishop in 2016, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, and Chicago. She is the first Black woman to be elected a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Jennifer’s expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction. Well, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:25]: I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to it.
Cassidy Hall [01:27]: So one of the things I like to begin with is just kind of defining the terms that we’re going into for yourself and for our audience. How might you define words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” and along with that, maybe how do you see them in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:42]: I tend to think about those as two distinct things, contemplation and mysticism. And as we were preparing for our time today, I thought, oh, why is that? And I think it’s because the practice of contemplation as a spiritual discipline has been a part of my formation as a layperson. I mean, I was baptized as an adult and then went off to seminary not long after that. So learned pretty quickly on as I delved into the daily spiritual practices of our traditional Episcopal church, a lot of which is things like the daily office morning prayer, evening prayer, compline, but also wanting to explore other practices that were less vocal or verbal and was introduced in seminary to the contemplative tradition. So taking time for silence, for a kind of meditation practice that focuses on a word or a mantra or an object, has been a part of my discipline on-and-off for 30 years or so. When I think about the mystic tradition and mysticism, and I’m thinking you know I should know from the dictionary, like what are the differences? But to me, that’s more about how we experience and the movement of the spirit in moments or experiences that seem, at least I think of is more supernatural. You can’t explain them, you can’t conjure them up. You know, I can choose to enter a contemplative moment, but the experience of the mystic Christ or having an experience of mysticism is something that’s beyond my ability or desire to plan it; it kind of just happens. And I will admit to having had experiences that I would classify as mystical in my lifetime, they’re memorable, but I couldn’t say that I could have recreated them if I wanted to, it just happened.
Cassidy Hall [03:21]: The distinction of contemplative life or contemplative practices as like a rhythm and a ritual, something that we create and that we engage with, but yet the mystical is boundless, it’s not tethered to rhythm or ritual and I love that. Would you be willing to share one of your mystical experiences?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [03:42]: Sure, I would say, you know, it’s interesting because I’ve not had a compare and contrast kind of conversation about mystical experiences, really. So I am wondering with a new hunger about what that’s like for the people. But there’s an experience I had that falls on the mysticism spectrum. I remember I was in a church as a teenager, doing a sleepover with the youth group for a period of time in the years when I was a seeker, I attended an AME Zion church. The African Methodist Episcopal church, Zion Church that was across the street from me and all my friends went. So I remember though, being at this church and everyone was downstairs doing whatever activity they were making cookies or something. And I went up into the sanctuary that was darkened and just, there’s no sanctuary lamp, it wasn’t that kind of space, it was just the worship space. And I remember just getting in a pew, off the pew, sort of on the floor and feeling like the embrace of what I would say, like God’s embrace. I could feel it palpably like my body being hugged an embrace that was letting me know that things were okay. And it was a, you know, a fraught time, I’ve always had a robust prayer life before I never attended church I was taught to pray at home. And so have this long, like I’ve never known a time when I didn’t talk to God, so this was just a part of that conversation, but I think I’d gone up to the sanctuary for quiet and prayer and felt God’s presence in a physical way.
Cassidy Hall [05:13]: That’s beautiful, thank you for sharing that. And in the Episcopal tradition, you were elected and then consecrated as the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis in 2017, making you also the first Black woman to be elected Diocesan Bishop. And in an interview with Sally Hicks just recently in February of 2021, you said, “I just think racial justice is the work that has to be done 24 hours a day all the time, every place.” So along with that, I mean, that’s a pretty clear statement, there’s not really much to unpack there, that’s pretty clear. And in talking about things like the rhythm we create with contemplative life, and then this meeting place of mysticism with God, I wonder what your vision for the church and racial justice work is? And do you see it as connected to the practices that we engage with or do you see it as disconnected and maybe this more mystical thing that happens when we begin doing the work?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [06:08]: Well, let me describe it this way, you know, I feel like I’ve been on a journey in many ways of understanding the depth of need to be attending to dismantling racism and all the other isms. I mean, I just, have always been passionate about it, but in these current moments just feel like we all need to lean into it. It’s like, there’s no escaping it. Whereas I used to think, well, you know, we can take a break and there are lots of things that are critical. Except that as the more I’ve dived into the work of actively trying to be intentionally anti-racist as an institution of the church, it makes me understand that whether we’re talking about climate change, whether we’re talking about how we follow Christ in our tradition, which is about understanding that all are beloved. So at the very basic nature of who we say we are as Christians, where the Episcopal Church, the mission is to reconcile all people to God in one another in Christ and to be about recognizing the full dignity of every human being, then there’s no way for me to be a Christian and not to be attending to this work of dismantling racism all the time. And because it’s so pernicious and so everywhere, at least in this country, I mean, it’s different than other places, but this is the country I know. I feel like there are always opportunities and understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue, but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.
Cassidy Hall [07:34]: Yeah, I appreciate you talking about it as a theological imperative and, you know, anything from our God images and our icons, you know, and the way they depict whiteness predominantly, you know, our stained glass in our old church buildings, those kinds of things. And I guess my question for you along with that would be how important is the work of recognizing the past missteps in our particular settings? How important is that to the fullness of the anti-racist work we need to do?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [08:05]: Well, you know, if you’re thinking about what does it mean to be a beloved community where we’re reflecting everyone? And all of the richness that all of the cultures that we might be in any particular place have to bear, means that we have to make space. And so I’m all for trying to figure out how do we actually just share all of that richness on a rotating basis, knowing that instead of assuming that there’s only one way, only primacy of one culture––set of images, and everything else has to be fit in amongst the edges––to think about how do we actually honor all of them? This means some things need to be off-center so that, you know, you hear the word de-centering whiteness a lot, right, and I’m thinking well I guess that’s the term. Because there is a way in which we just, without with reflection automatically center whiteness in this country, what does it mean to actually, to be sharing that space? And as a leader in the church, I’m grateful for congregations and leaders who are asking the questions: “why are all the stained glass windows only white people?” Now I will say I was Rector of a church in Syracuse, which was very, very integrated racially, Black, white, almost 50/50, and the first Native American to be ordained Deacon in the Episcopal tradition was ordained in that building. And there had been a storm that had happened in 1998 that took out a set of windows and so, as I was coming in as Rector in 2004, they were installing newly designed windows in the place of where this glass used to be. And I will say it’s a different thing to worship in the space where you have Native American images and faces in the stained glass, as well as the white Jesus that was over the altar, right? Like you can’t help, but pray and think differently because we were formed so much by those visuals. We have congregations here in the Diocese of Indianapolis who was saying, “why is the only Black image on the wall the Bishop’s picture?” Like maybe we need to do something about that and ask the question because there were other images we can choose. And of course, Jesus was not white. Just to have that conversation about how we center some images and ideas about things more than others means that we can get to some real change that reinforces the work we’re doing outside the church, you know? So we’ve been having this disjointed experience of like, we’re all about dismantling racism on the streets of the cities we live on, but then we come back in the churches, you know, pre-pandemic come in the buildings and it’s like white, white, white, white, white. We are waking up all of us and going, yeah, that doesn’t make sense anymore. It was okay for a while, but how about we enrich the imagery here?
Cassidy Hall [10:29]: There are a couple of things you said in that that was really striking to me. And one was, I’m thinking of, you know, the writings on the Black Christ: Kelly Brown Douglas, Albert Cleage, Jr., Deotis Roberts, and of course, James Cone. The way that, that was a way to center Blackness; yeah, in a way that was honoring and elevating, I don’t know where I’m going with that, but…
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [10:51]: Yeah, no, just, I mean, I’m just thinking in my personal story, not having grown up, going to church much. I had two years in this AME Zion Church and then joined the Episcopal Church, sitting in the pews when I was in college, and then was baptized the year after I graduated college. I’m grateful that my understanding of what it means to be a Christian was in the context where we were talking about the images of how Black people are portrayed in the news. Like, you know, there was an anti-racism committee that was really active in my church in the late eighties. And then Kelly Brown Douglas was being published and she was in New York City and a church. And now she’s a dear friend and mentor, she’s now at Episcopal Divinity School at Union. But my understanding of what Christianity is based on hearing her preach as amongst the first people I ever heard preach in person. I don’t know-how; so when you know, it’s very much intertwined that experience of understanding this particular way of seeing liberation theology; the Black liberation theology movement. It’s really been formative for me, not that my experience needs to be everyone’s experience. But it would be my hope that we are now being formed in this more expansive way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus. One, that’s not new, it’s been around for a very long time, but the voices are now coming to the fore in a way that is really important for this time.
Cassidy Hall [12:07]: Yeah; yeah, and I appreciate you sharing about your church experience. Also while I was preparing to interview you, I noticed you have a degree in architecture along with a minor in urban studies and a master’s in historic preservation. So putting on maybe your architect hat and your historic preservation, hat of buildings and structures in the context of social justice, and I know this is a big question, how do we navigate when it’s time to quote-unquote, burn it all down or to dig through the rebel, navigate the history, learn it, own it and rebuild with what’s left.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [13:10]: I wanted to study architecture because I loved beautiful buildings and having lived in places that were not always beautiful, you know, housing projects are not beautiful places, but they’re typically surrounded by beautiful places. And as a child, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 28. So I walked everywhere, I took the subways everywhere and explored New York City. And that formed me because one of the things that I would say is that as a child, I knew that the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, so you can hear my Brooklyn accent, because I can’t say those words without betraying my accent! But the BQE runs alongside people’s apartments, such as you could see them cooking dinner in their kitchens, they just cut through neighborhoods. The way they were building the highway systems didn’t really care about who was living there, right? So urban renewal came and did a lot of damage, but I knew that as a six-year-old because I could see it and wondered why that was okay as a child. So, you know, here we are, generations have passed since then just 40 years, 50 years outside of that urban renewal. And people know that that was wrong and we have opportunities to repair it because a lot of those highways are past their lifespan, right? They need to be somehow dealt with and what are the opportunities we have? And so I’m saying all that to say is that we can’t pretend to not know the damage that some of those projects have had. The damage that redlining has meant for people’s access to the quote-unquote American dream and wherever we are and understanding that reality, gives us an opportunity to choose differently. And this particular point in history means we actually can do a lot of change to rectify some of the damages of the past. And if we cannot be wallowing in the, do I feel guilt or shame about it like feel the feelings and let’s get to work to make the world better. I don’t know if that gets there, but I just think, you know, there’s history, there’s baggage, it’s always been thus, but if we’re alive today, we have an opportunity to kind of figure out how to band together to make things different. And that being said the last year of our history has shown us that we struggled with caring enough about how to make lives better for other people. So there’s the opportunity and there’s also I think the need for us as a country, particularly to learn that it’s really about everybody and not just what is going to get me through the day and my family alone, like we really have to care about other people.
Cassidy Hall [15:37]: Yeah and to your point, we have such a tendency to talk things to death or feel things to death before we actually begin just doing the things and showing up. And I think that’s a huge part of the work; what does it look like to show up and just start cleaning up the rubble and then deciding what to do together.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [15:56]: Right, you know, there’s one example, I’ve been in touch still with the folks in Syracuse where the church I served had been integrated because the Black congregation that they had birthed in was reunited with was needing to leave its building because the highway was going to come right through. While they built a highway across the street, but they demolished the building anyway and now it’s just like an empty corner. And like this horrible sort of scar on the environment and on people’s hearts, because that didn’t need to happen. But the folks didn’t have agency or power to make it different, right. So now that highway needs to come down and people are like, well, but the thing is having the highway cut through this neighborhood and makes it easier for people to get to the suburbs and they don’t have to go through the city. And there they’ve been fighting about this since 2006, and it’s still up for conversation, I check in on it every few weeks. And I’m going, why is it so hard to actually say to the people who are living with the effects of this highway, in the midst of their neighborhoods, to say, we’re going to ask you to do this thing for these people. And not worry about what happens to the suburban commute, because actually there are other ways to get to the suburbs faster, so let’s just do this, but it’s just complicated, doing hard projects like that, where you’re trying to actually take into account people’s concerns. But overwhelmingly it’s those who’ve got resources in power who get privileged over those who don’t. And if we can begin to put ourselves in different places of empathy, for the sake of healthy change, be willing to give up some things, you know. Eric Law, a priest who does a lot of the work around the Kaleidoscope Institute that he created anti-racism, he wrote in one of his early books that we believe, you know, that Jesus hung on the cross and we’ve constructed a world, this is paraphrasing, in which there are some people who are hanging on the cross like for eternity, you know even Jesus came off the cross eventually. How about we like, take some people off the cross for a minute and do something for the sake of those who don’t ever get a break.
Cassidy Hall [17:56]: Yeah, do you see a way in which contemplation––that practice, feeds our action in terms of our activist work in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [18:05]: Yeah, I mean, so those two through the tradition and certainly my experience has been that when I give myself a time to be restored and to have my brain synapses just rest so that they can be rebuilt, be wired, like that’s when new creativity comes and energy comes for the long haul. And I’m really clear about all of this, that the work of building the beloved community of dismantling the systems that oppress people is a long-term work. And I hope for a little progress in my lifetime, I don’t expect that it will be done in my lifetime, because it’s a huge human project, right. And, we do with divine help and inspiration. And, so we’ve got to pace ourselves in the work, meaning, you know, I run, so I like the running metaphors. I love it in a track race, when you have a pacer; the pacer is setting the pace, so that the runners who are competing can actually hit their splits towards whatever record they’re trying to break. And at some point, you know, the pacer can run faster than the racers to keep ahead of them, but then the pacer drops off because they can’t keep that up forever, so they might drop off and maybe another pacer comes in. So, you know, this is a long, long lifetime work and if we don’t step off the track to rest, to renew, to take our nutrition, to pray, to see what the Spirit’s going to open up to us if we are able to quiet our minds and our hearts for a bit. Then, you know, in doing that, we get renewed to be able to get back into it. But, you know, I chased rest, my Jesus chased rest, it’s hard, it’s because our inclination is to feel productive by doing all the time. And even when you stop, there’s always another thing, but human bodies are not constructed to do that, to go without stopping and resting and being renewed. And renewal and growth happen in the time of rest, this was a scientific fact. So why fight it?
Cassidy Hall [20:08]: And maybe even we’ll find ourselves in a mystical encounter with God feeling a sense of a hug.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:13]: Yeah.
Cassidy Hall [20:14]: So something else I read, which I found really interesting was a defining experience you had, when you found yourself near the World Trade Center, the morning of September 11th, 2001, would you mind sharing that?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:27]: Sure, I think about it all the time. It was such a moment for our whole country and just we’re living with the ramifications of that day in so many ways right now. But I had gone to the church where I was baptized, Trinity Church Wall Street to be a part of a consultation with the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams was convening folks who do spiritual work and leadership across the church and I was privileged to be invited and we were supposed to assemble for 8:45 that Tuesday morning. I remember arriving early and going to the bathroom and the bathroom of the parish house, which is no longer there, they’ve demolished it and built a new building in the last couple of years. But this was an old cranky building from the 1920s and I remember going this bathroom is still noisy, these pipes are as loud and, you know, and, but I was listening to actually was the first plane hitting the building, the South tower. Because we could feel the building shake and I thought it was just the old building. And then when we went out to the parish one of the classroom buildings where we were going to have our session, we thought there was a confetti festival of some kind because all this paper was flying. And then we began to hear the news and so, you know, here, I was with all of these people, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, but the majority of whom I’ve known since I became a Christian. And as the morning wore on just found ourselves kind of huddled in a staircase. And so the piece that is always with me is staying in this staircase of this parish house building and not knowing if we were going to get out. And hearing reports that we thought might be of bombings happening across the country. We thought the space needle in Seattle had been hit, we didn’t know. But how old was I, this was 2001, so like 35 and thinking that you know, I hadn’t done all the things I didn’t want to do, but if I had to die that day, then I was at peace with it because I was at the place where I’d kind of had a second life, you know, being baptized and having this new life in Christ. And I thought, well, I’m going to die anywhere, and then I will die with the man who baptized me, who was up the stairs, a few steps. And then, you know, that didn’t happen, we escaped as the North tower was falling. And I was living in New Jersey at the time, but I had lived in; I grew up in Staten Island, and could walk blindfolded the way from the Staten Island ferry terminal to Trinity Wall Street because I was there every day for meetings, choir, rehearsals, church. And I grabbed a hand of a woman I met that day and ran blind all the way to the ferry terminal, I don’t know how many blocks, it’s a 10-minute walk, and got ourselves in the last boat to Staten Island, went back to the old department I lived in before grad school and rang bells until someone I knew could answer and kind of waited it out until my mom came home and was able to be reunited with me, so that was the day. And there are very few days now that, I mean, I don’t think about it every single day, but there was a time when it was just all I could think about because of the losses and the grief and the survivor’s guilt and all of that. But it’s one of the few times where I felt fearless about death. Death in me is not; like, I want to be here as long as I can, God willing, right. But that’s the moment where I thought, well, this is what faith is about, right, like if this is it, okay, God. And I pray that when it is my time to die, that I have that sense of ease about it.
Cassidy Hall [23:50]: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. There’s something that’s clarifying, it seems about moments in life when our backs are up against the wall and there’s just no option. And we have to give ourselves to the mystery that is if you’re willing to share, have you ever experienced that feeling outside of that day?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [24:11]: I have not. And it’s, you know, it’s just interesting to me, when that happened, I was ordained maybe five years. I was ordained in 97, so not ordained very long, not even long enough to have actually been with someone as they died at that point. And so a couple of years after that, being able; you know, we had people who died on that day, but I wasn’t with them at the point of death. But having that experience taught me something about how to be with people as they die, which, you know, I’ve counted as a gift.
Cassidy Hall [24:41]: So a little bit of a shift here back into yeah, social justice activism. I wonder if you could speak to maybe how important it is to work on these issues? Not just in our heads, but in our hearts and bodies and maybe how yeah, like the prophetic imagination or prophetic preaching is a way to kind of guide us there and the importance of that.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [25:19]: Yeah, I think it’s all, I mean, it’s; we’re not going ever to think ourselves–– if we could think ourselves out of this situation, I think we probably could have managed that already.But it’s about changing hearts, which means changing daily decisions. And so, there are people who are much smarter about this than I am and the kind of field about anti-racism work is shifting and growing. And it’s almost, you know, it’s becoming a discipline in some ways, right, because of the scholarship that people are bringing to it and so I’m learning all the time. So the one thing I would say is that there’s always more to learn and you can’t just read your way out of it.I think it really boils down to some simple things like place and relationship. So when this pandemic; one of the things I’ve been really attentional about while we are not traveling in the ways we’ve been used to, is that instead of driving through the neighborhoods, then I would just drive through to get from point A to point B. I drive to those places and walk the neighborhoods because I want to walk every day. And so for the first few months of the pandemic and I still do this, I have mostly had the same routes that allow me to walk out my front door and walk. But now I’m choosing different directions, I’m going to neighborhoods where people say, “Oh, that’s a problem neighborhood.” And I’m like, “well, have you walked around the neighborhood? Do you know that neighborhood?” Or do you see it as a problem because of your distance from it, from a comfortable place, and only know what you read in the news? I think there’s a lot of heart work that can be done by putting ourselves in those places where we feel like the other exists or wherever you might be afraid to go. It could begin by just flocking and being comfortable in different spaces. Which grows a piece of our capacity to encounter and be willing to be transformed by difference, maybe letting go of presuppositions, because we now have new facts literally on the ground. And then it’s about whom are we in relationship with? And I know that there are those who disagree, but I know I’ve been profoundly changed by having friends of different cultural and racial backgrounds. And, you know, I’m an African-American, Native American person who is in the minority in this country historically by numbers. So I have to; actually, I don’t have to have friends of different races, I’m choosing to do that because I find that enriches my life, and my particular experience of childhood has assumed that kind of diversity. And if you didn’t grow up with that kind of diversity, I don’t think it’s too late ever to find ourselves in different spaces where we can grow our friendship circles. And so I always ask people, tell me about the people who regularly get invited to your dinner table, remember not in the pandemic, right? Or folks will say, well, you know, I go to this club, I’m like, well, why don’t you go to this other club? Think about the places where you choose to put yourself. I play tennis here, but why don’t you play tennis in the park where everyone is mixing it up? Those are the kinds of a heart choices, I mean, there are technical choices, there are logistical choices, but we go out of our way to have experiences that are meaningful to us in all kinds of ways, except for the ones where we have to encounter different people of different races and classes, but we can do that. We just have to decide today, I’m going to do that.
Cassidy Hall [28:23]: And what you’re saying too, I mean that’s kind of practice too. I see my morning walk as a contemplative practice. And it happens to be, you know, in my neighborhood park where I see my neighbors and, you know, we all wave and kind of holler good morning at each other. But that idea of yeah, that the practices of our spirituality can more deeply engage us with all of humanity.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [28:57]: Yeah, I really think that’s a part of the journey, you know, I just think there’s probably more scriptural warrant for it. We haven’t thought about it that way, but there are stories of Jesus on the borderlines; the borderlands. You know, the Good Samaritan story that we love so much happened on the borderlands. And yet we don’t often willingly take ourselves there to hear, but other stories are playing out that way on those places. And you know, life is hard and it’s busy and it’s hard to be challenged by things; because life is already hard enough and yet, you know, racial oppression is harder. Like, why don’t we just take it; we could actually make life a little easier if we’re doing some of this heart work. And in the aggregate, then I think we begin to think about who we vote for differently. Our policies look different and we get to decide what impacts on our civic life are influenced by the kinds of things we think about and encounter in the world. But it won’t happen if we’re doing the same old, same old, get the same old stuff from the beginning, and no one’s happy. Well except for, one-percenters, probably. There there’s a segment of people for which this is working right, but the rest of us, the majority of us, this is not working.
Cassidy Hall [30:03]: So I want to flip a question backward a little bit as we come to the end of our time together. And you’ve kind of answered this, but I wonder if we could kind of reframe it. So let’s take a movement like Black Lives Matter and ask what can Black Lives Matter teach us about God and spirituality or contemplation?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [30:53]: Voices that have been intentionally silenced will not be silent forever. And I think the thing about Black Lives Matter is that it’s this new iteration of the voices of those who have been oppressed, silenced, forgotten, and left out that are not going to be kept down for long. And the tradition over and over again tells us that there will be prophets who will speak on behalf of those who are the oppressed. Because as it happens, God actually has a preferential option for God’s oppressed people, right? And so I believe that there’s a continuum in that movement, that’s saying in this particular moment, this is how we need to express I think from a spirituality point of view Black lives not to be oppressed destroyed, left out, and that there are lots of other voices that also need to be raised up. And it’s not a zero-sum game if there was some reading in that movement at the moment, but I’ve watched Black Lives Matter become a chant to become a really controversial thing.
And I’m like; I don’t understand what’s so controversial about letting Black people not die at the hands of the police. Or lifting up the values of the extended family instead of just, I’m going to go it alone with my nuclear family, which is, I hear that a lot. You know the anti-family and I’m going, let’s just think about what we are saying when we talk about family and how there are other ways to do it that are actually more scriptural and biblical than the way we tend to do it in this country. So anyway, it’s a complicated thing, I do think those who are leading in BLM are doing us all the good service in many ways. From having us look at how we dispense our resources in service of our communities, from policing all the way to mental health issues and everything in between to asking the question, why do we even need this movement? You know, I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
Cassidy Hall [32:52]: Yeah, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining today and for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your stories. I really appreciate it.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [33:01]: Well, it’s been a delight to think through some of these important questions. So thank you so much, Cassidy, it’s been a real joy.
Cassidy Hall [33:11]: 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.
In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).
Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”
While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.
He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”
On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”
A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”
Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away.In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).
Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”
The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960
The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Content warning: In this episode, we briefly mention suicide in the context of dealing with rage and racial injustice.
In this episode, we explore the ways mysticism cannot be embodied, the importance of cultural sanctuary as a place of safety, and the value of rage: “That is not the purpose of any spiritual practice, to wipe away what you have,but to take what you have,” said Sensei Zenju. “And rage is what we have.”
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [00:03]: Because that’s what happens contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat, I say “no, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest.”
Cassidy Hall [00:22]: 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.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel Osho is an ordained Zen Priest and the Dharma heir of Buddha and the Suzuki Roshi lineage through the San Francisco Zen Center. Zenju’s practice is influenced by Native American and African indigenous traditions.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [01:48]: Thank you, thank you for having me and inviting me.
Cassidy Hall [01:51]: It’s really good to be with you. I got to speak with you on the Encountering Silence podcast. For this conversation, I’m wondering if you could tell us how you define “contemplation,” and how you define “mysticism” also?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [02:05]: First of all, the word “contemplation” is rarely used in Zen Buddhist tradition, maybe in other Buddhist traditions, but I don’t know. But in Zen, it’s not really used. So when I used it in my book I was really kind of jumping out the box in some way, not on purpose. It just felt like that’s what I was doing. So contemplation, if you were to contemplate in the Zen tradition, then you’re not really doing––you’re not doing meditation, and you’re not doing Zazen, which we call meditation. To contemplate means you’re thinking, a pondering, wondering, so we don’t use it, because in our practice, we’re not pondering, and we’re not thinking upon something like when people say I’m going to go meditate on it, we don’t go meditate on it, although some people might but that’s not the point.
Zazen is a ritual up opening through the silence, and to see where you’re going to land, you don’t never know when you’re going to land. There’s no guided meditation either. So a lot of people have asked me to do guided meditations constantly they asked me that. And I understand that they don’t understand Zen, they know nothing about Zen when they ask me to do a guided meditation. Because a guided meditation is not allowing that open field, you know, that open way of allowing silence to speak through you in the stillness to activate the activated and to bring something different to you that you don’t know that you have never thought about. So I think it’s a ritual in that sense. So, contemplation to me, when I use it is I’m kind of combining Zazen, my meditation Zen practice, with once what comes through, then I contemplate on it.
I may contemplate on it, but then I’m not I’m outside of the practice in that way, when I do that. Because I love to contemplate I used to be a daydreamer as a child. I love thinking on things. I do feel that I contemplate as a Zen priest but it’s not the practice itself that contemplation arises out of the Zazen, out of the stillness and meditation and silence then I may contemplate.
So “mysticism” is to me Zazen, you know, because Zazen is very mystical in the sense that you don’t know what is going to happen. There’s the unknown, there’s a discovery, and that’s the hard part about it because you know, everyone’s like, why I’m sitting here, you know, tell me what to do. You don’t fill in the space, you just allow whatever is going to come up for you to come up. And what you’re doing, which many mystics and all mystics I’m sure did and do, is taking that time to just be, period. Just be, and then see what you sense into, you know, what’s happening and what’s around you. So just developing that kind of silence and stillness helps to navigate the world navigate life, you’re actually honing and cultivating a way of walking in the jungle of life. And so this to me, Zazen is most close to me to what may be a medicine man or woman in indigenous cultures––many, many, many, way before Buddha––because meditation is way before Buddha, did in order to hear and see and be able to create the medicine that’s needed for the people for themselves, and so Zazen is like that. And that’s the mysticism for me. It’s definitely steeped in what I already am practicing and probably was practicing before I even, you know, became ordained, or before I even walked into the gateway of Zen. I think I was already doing such.
Cassidy Hall [05:46]: Yeah, in that way do you see a connection between contemplation as you’ve described it as thinking on the things, right or…
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [05:56]: Pondering, yeah.
Cassidy Hall [05:57]: Yeah, pondering. Do you see that as connected to ways that can form our role in social justice in the world? I’m thinking of something from your book, The Way of Tenderness you write about interconnected intimacy and you write that, “Interconnected intimacy that is messy, uncomfortable, and difficult but worthy and liberating to attend to.” And I think, you know, in my experience, when I do a sit, I never quite know what to name it. I just, you know, go there, right in the silence and stillness. And it always seems to be kind of a grounded, rooted meeting place for everyone else. And it reminds me of this interconnected intimacy, but I love also what you’re saying about, but if you go there to meet it, that’s not the way to meet it, so.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:40]: Right so you’re asking whether activism, social activism, or social justice work, is there contemplation in it?
Cassidy Hall [06:48]: Does a contemplative practice help or undergird movements or activism and vice-versa?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:56]: When you said in my mind went way out, like, “no!” because I feel that we have not been able to integrate contemplation or meditation with social justice. So we’re either doing one or the other. Okay, so they’re still quite separate, even if, in our minds, we think, ‘Oh, I’m an activist, I’m going to go out and do this and then I’ll go sit, well, that is what that is.’ You’re going out to, you know, activate, and you’re going to sit, they’re separate walks. It’s a good question because I’m very nervous about it in the sense of a person who’s been an activist and still considers myself that but I wouldn’t probably go out and do some of the things many activists do today for many reasons, not because I don’t think what they’re doing is profound, or needed.
But I feel that people do not have a good ground and foundation and understanding of contemplation in order to be able to bring it to the movement, it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean you act differently, like okay, when we get there, we’re going to meditate and that shows that we got it. No, this is not true. What is true for me, and not just true for me, in my experience, and having been a very strong activist and organizing in my life, and then going completely into spirituality and coming out with both of them integrated, has been a profound experience for me. Because I am able to articulate the social issues and the way we are as human beings because of the contemplation that is influencing and our foundation to my activist work. Or if I were to speak, even in politics, that even if I speak politically, which I do, I’m speaking from that place. I’m not just speaking politics, and then I go rest because that’s what happens.
Contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat I say, “No, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest because you need that energy to do this work.” This inner work is not, this is not the place you come. I have seen people come to retreats, and they think they’re going to get relaxed and then they get all upset, especially in Zen. Where you have to work, work, work, work, work, boom, you know, go to sleep and they’re like well, “This is worse than what I was doing when I was in the world. I’m working more than ever before.” It’s a different kind of work. You learn it that later but it’s a different kind of work. But if you are not prepared to sit because people think you don’t have to prepare to do it’s too easy.
You just sit down, but you have to be prepared, your body has to be prepared to do it. If your body can’t do it, then the sitting practice is not for you. It really isn’t. There are other things maybe you could drum, paint, or something you know that has meditation within it you know, but to do to actually come to the ceremony ill-equipped is only going to make you suffer more. I did. I was suffering more because I didn’t understand I was coming in ceremony and meditation or you know anything. So practicing to be a contemplative, you’re practicing in that way you’re learning to have an embodiment, to be embodied, and to be boundless, okay, at the same time. But you can’t learn that with your mind, and you can’t talk yourself into it, although we do. Do I look like I’m, you know, balanced or whatever, empty? You know.
So we try to talk ourselves into those places, and you can’t, you must go through the practice through the path in order to bring that to your political or activist movement, or actions. I would like to see more people speak on the integration of it, especially those who are going to teach both contemplation meditation and activism, if you’re going to teach all of that, then you must see it as an integration. So what I find in here is people either talk completely on the justice side or completely on still on the religious side, despite ethnicity, race, sex, anything, it doesn’t matter. I just hear it being still split. I might do it myself at times, but inside I don’t feel that you know, and there are some other people that I’m sure you know, have that ability, but I think it’s very few. It’s very… It’s a rare thing because it takes so much time for you to embody that sense of being, like here and not right here and not here being part of everything in the world. That’s pretty tough. We’re not ready to be part of everything and everyone we talk about… sounds so beautiful, so romantic. But as soon as someone climbs the Capitol wall, we’re like, “Ah, you know, we’re not with them.” I’m going to separate myself from that, and we can’t, unfortunately, or fortunately. We cannot separate ourselves from that, because we’re human beings.
Cassidy Hall [11:57]: I appreciate you distinguishing contemplation, contemplative practices, meditation from rest. Because when we do begin to think about integrating contemplative life for contemplative practice and activism, those integrated without rest is bound for failure, right? I mean…
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [12:14]: Well, we get exhausted, you know, and depressed and hopeless and helpless, all these kinds of things will come up, and then you’re like, well, this is not going to change and then your rage is intensified, because, oh, we’re really not changing white supremacy it’s getting worse. And there’s a reason for that, too. We won’t go into that. But you know, right now, but there is a reason for that, and one of the reasons is simply is we keep invoking it. And so once we invoke it, and continue to invoke it, it will be it. It will be in the world. And we do have to look at it. I’m not saying we need to be silent on it. Because there’s white supremacy can the contemplation and meditation, allow you to talk about it in a different way so that we can land in a different place on the path.
Landing on anti-blackness, or landing on white supremacy is just one place on the path. And we know that we’ve been knowing that can we shift that a bit to say, that’s what I was trying to do with The Way of Tenderness to shift that language to talking about superiority and inferiority and how it gets systematized. That’s good, but it doesn’t invoke just the whiteness, it also invokes class, you know, rich and poor, it invokes all that is superior and dominant in a more integrative way than just this one thing because if we just work on this one thing, we forget that there is all the other things. So then we have to go, Well, I’m not going to do race, I’m going to do class. And then everybody says, “Well they’re together” when we know this.
And I think contemplation for me, and meditation has taught me how to do this, you know. How to view the truth or view the nature of life, which means to view the nature of humanity, because that’s all I know. I don’t know how to be alive in any other way. And the interrelationship of that, and I push my students that way, too. So they really can’t talk about whiteness, we’re all black our Sangha. We don’t talk, I don’t want to, because it just keeps invoking, and centering whiteness. And so when they get upset, then what is that and what can we talk about so that when we come back to that place on the path or go, oh, okay, I’m going to do something different right here, and I’m going to do something, whatever I’m going to do is going to not only not center whiteness, it’s going to center wellness and transformation and movement for me, and for my people, my community, and my family.
Cassidy Hall [14:35]: Yeah. In your book, The Deepest Peace you beautifully write about rage and making room for rage, you write, “I don’t quiet the rage for peace. Peace is not superior. Peace is persistent. Rage is persistent as well. I meditate while trembling with rage. Rage is here because love is needed.” Wondering if you could speak to the importance of not ignoring rage and how it can be this valued aspect of, yeah, peace, love, justice-centric emotion.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [15:07]: Yeah, rage is that for me is accumulated anger over many, many decades, right. And I think generation I really think it’s just passed on it’s imprinted on the bone. You know, what you do is that when you come in, I don’t know. I didn’t come in interested, I didn’t come to contemplation interested in removing all emotions. I remember a teacher pointing out a student once he said, “I like that student.” And I said, “Mm her?” and I was wondering what it was and he said the way she is the way she moves and I saw her as kind of lost her personality in the practice like I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her and a chair. There was just nothing there––wake up, what are you doing? And that is not the purpose of the practice or any, I think any spiritual practice is to wipe away what you have but to take what you have.
And rage is what we have. And I take rage, and I have sat with it as sacred fire. I used to just let it go, flame, poof, and burn people up and everything. And then I started, like I said, this can’t continue, you know, otherwise, I’m not going to be in relationship and engaged in the world. And so when it would start, the next step for me was to take the rage and just hold it as sacred. In that, I don’t share it, you know, unnecessarily but I do use it. I think most of my writing comes from rage, even The Deepest Peace, can you imagine? That’s when contemplation is working. And you can deliver the message in which you want to deliver without burning people or burning places or burning ideas or just losing your own mind, you know.
Cassidy Hall [16:52]: And burning yourself down, right?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [16:53]: Burning yourself. Yeah. So it’s just like killing, I mean, rage can kill you. And literally, it is and has taken years off my life. I got a diagnosis that says, you know, I’m more like an 80-year-old, and I’m not nowhere near 80. That’s rage, that’s racism. That’s this life. And that’s why so many people have hypertension, African Americans have hypertension because, and that’s a killer. You know, we’re walking around like ticking bombs, you know. And so it was important for me to stretch that out my life out as much as I can, still is, given there’s this rage, so when I took it in as sacred, it allowed me to use that fire. To use that fire for my own healing and transformation because even when I did throw it out there, it was just like a mess.
When you know, when you burn something down, it’s a mess. And so then you have to work on the mess. And that’s too much work or you need to go tell somebody, look, this needs to go this way. And if you do it this way, it’ll make it better for us. Now that can be said and told, but I find that exhausting too because then the person or people, institution, they’ll do it and it’s still embedded in all that you’re trying to break down, break away. All the oppression is still there, even in that work. So if rage is going to be there, if oppression is going to be there, then I say use it, use it, don’t fight it. Don’t fight with it, fight with it, fight it, but use it to come to the wisdom that these wisdom practices are offering.
So a lot of people come they’re not looking for the wisdom. They… ‘I already have wisdom. I don’t need the wisdom of contemplation and meditation. I’m coming with wisdom.’ You know, like, let me tell you that’s wrong what you’re doing. That’s the wisdom I have. That’s not wisdom. We think we have wisdom. And I always ask people, “what wisdom are you relying on when you feel you’re being compassionate or loving and kind? What wisdom are you relying on, your grandmother’s? Some teacher? Some book? What insight yourself? What experience have you had of any of that? And how did you get there?” Other than that, then, you know, most of us need to be just pretty much silent. Even myself, I feel that, I do. You know, just keep your mouth closed because we’re all in progress and we don’t know, we’re always discovering ourselves and discovering life.
That’s why homage is paid to the ancestors who have gone through it, you know. And in most traditions, people who say ‘oh no, my sister or my brother is an ancestor the day they die’ –– well, no, not in most spiritual paths. That person who has just died is learning how to be wherever that is. If there is anything, they’re not capable yet. And so some African tribes, they don’t even listen to elders, they listen to ancestors only. Elders is like, eh, because they’re still in the learning process, the living process.
Cassidy Hall [19:49]: So I recently attended a conference titled Holy Rage, Holy Hope. And it was the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference and I was one of a handful of white people that attended. And in learning how to most deeply respect and revere the prophetic spaces, the prophetic nature of Black spaces, I’m reminded of your words in, The Way of Tenderness when you talk about, you write, “Creating and entering sanctuaries allows us as people of color to address the circumstances that are specific to who we have been born as, on our own terms, without interference. The desire of those who are not people of color to enter the spaces where people of color face these issues betrays a disregard for the uniqueness of the work that must be done within these cultural sanctuaries. It indicates an unjust sense of entitlement on their part.” And I wonder if you just could maybe speak to the importance of those sanctuaries?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [20:40]: Yes. Maybe, should have written more in that area of that part of the book, because I’ve gotten that question many times. A spiritual path requires when you enter to strip down to be exposed to be seen, and all these kinds of things. It requires a place in which you can do that and feel free. It’s kind of like if you go to the doctor’s, there are some doctors you would not undress with, some you will, you know, you can feel whether or not this is going to be safe for you to do this, while you’re taking care of the things that are bothering you. You’re suffering, you know, do I want this doctor to touch that, where… this? Well, that’s the same thing. So I feel that we need places to do that, just to do the stripped-down, and then be able to walk the path we’re in.
We’re understanding more about internalized oppression and walking that path so that when we’re in situations of racism, we’re also understanding the internalize oppression part of it not just blanket racism, or white supremacy or anti-blackness or any of these things–– it’s all there not just that piece that’s out. There’s the in and the out. What I’ve seen in some cultural sanctuaries, when I say cultural a lot of people think I mean Black or people of color, but anything, it’s of the culture. So I’ve heard of lawyer Sangha’s, women Sangha’s, all kinds of Sangha’s, right, or gatherings based on various aspects of culture –– artists. I feel that there’s always this truncation, you know, like, Oh, we need a special place, because we’re so in BIPOC, Black, Indigenous People of Color, need a special place because we’re so weak and vulnerable. And that’s not really true. It may be true, but that’s not everything. You know, or we’re wounded and I think that that’s a misperception of cultural. And so, one Sangha member did a Dharma talk at a Sangha. And the guy says, “I think we need to start a cultural sanctuary,” because he had read the book, right? That same part you’re reading, you know, he was a white male. He says I think, you know, from his heart, I knew it was coming from his heart, “We need to start a cultural sanctuary.” And I said, “Why you have one, you’re in it. It’s your Sangha. Right here, this Zen Center is the Cultural Center, the culture is Zen and it’s what it is, and you work within that culture.” Because not every person of color wants that either, too, that’s an assumption, you know. I feel that that’s the truncation and the lumping.
But I feel that we do need spaces, I needed it when I went into Zen, I was fortunate enough to enter a people of color group. I didn’t know what it was, what people of color was, at the time, I didn’t know what people were talking about because that language came from academia world, and I wasn’t in academia, in that sense of the word. You know, like I had already done, I had my Ph.D. So I was like, what’s this people of color? You know, I went to one Zen Center in Berkeley, and they said, “Well, they have a people of color group over at San Francisco Zen Center,” and I go, “Okay,” and then we would come to Berkeley Zen Center, me and my partner, we come to Berkeley Zen Center, and they said, “Oh, well, you know, there’s a people color group.” So I said, “What is this thing about the people of color group?” And so finally, we just left Berkeley Zen Center and went to the people color group. And it was great. It was perfect. It was what I needed.
But it was interesting what they thought I needed. And when I thought I needed it, and that I understood something about what they were saying. So I think that is important. What I find too, is that and what can happen, I would say is that cultural groups, when they get together can be embedded in their own culture. And I remember when I was in the people of color group, I asked the teacher, I said, “Are we not reifying our wounds here,” because that’s all I’m hearing is the wounding stories. I really wasn’t interested in hearing the wounding stories, I wanted to transform and get well, you know. I wanted to do the practice. And so it was okay to tell those stories. That’s the stripping down and but I wondered, you know, were we reifying something because Zen especially, is the ceremony and there’s rituals. So if you’re in there reifying what makes you suffer in the ceremony in a ritual you will continue to suffer, you will just continue this it will just be invoked, invoked, invoke just suffering. And so I just feel for people to be careful around that. What is the purpose of the cultural sanctuary in relationship to the path, the spiritual path? And I have to always constantly tell students, “this is not a social club.” You know, can we just like, just hang out, I mean, I went somewhere and then came back and they had gone to a concert together, I said, “That’s not the purpose,” because something’s going to happen out there, you’re going to bring it to the Sangha. And it will have nothing to do with doing practicing Zen. Now in other traditions, maybe that works, I don’t know.
But I feel that if we’re in there just to come together just to talk about the wounding, talk just about whiteness, you know when my students get on that I get, stop, you know, we’re not doing that. So, you know, I want to hear about Blackness. You know, one student said, “Well, I think this is when the kind of neo-KKK,” I don’t know, “were walking down the street with the torches,” the tiki torches and everything walking into parks that time, and one of the students says, “I want to go down and sit in the park and meditate.” And I said, “I won’t be with you.” “Why?” I said, “I’m not going but you can do that. But we’re not going as a Sangha either. We’re not going to have our little banner saying, Still breathing is out here. No. But you can go there if you want. And he’s like, “Why?” I said, “Because when that Black boy died, Tamir Rice, you didn’t say, let’s go anywhere. Why didn’t we get our banner and go there?”
So I’m just trying to… just so that people can see where the attention is. And we all know where the attention goes, that’s what happens. That’s what life is. I think we have to have attention. I’m not saying, you know, turn our back. But I think we have to have a broader picture. I don’t care if all Zen Centers were diverse, or all white people, suddenly were not racist. What is that going to do for me? What do we think that’s going to do for us? I don’t know what we’re thinking. That’s like, if my partner could do it this way, we have a good life. And you know what that kind of partnership is, pretty bad right? Suffering. So it has to be more rounded. And I think contemplation and meditation can bring that other aspect, if we’re interested in it, which I call a spiritual justice. And I talk about that in the book, too, to create a spiritual justice. I’m not the first to talk about it. I mean, Martin Luther King, Jr. that was his whole sermon in one big sermon, really, you can just say, this was one big sermon, spiritual justice, you know. The spirituality part is if we can consider each other interrelated as humans, and as of God, then we would have justice, you know, so that’s why I do believe in justice work. Because in that day and that view justice work in trying to change somebody’s minds and attitudes is hard work. And I’ve tried it, I’ve done it, I’ve done diversity work. And I told somebody, I can’t do it. And they say, “You can’t, we’re making $10,000 a month, come on, make the money.” I said, “I can’t, I’d be spending all that money in therapy,” because they’re going to… that’s like a wall. That’s like walking into the brick wall going ‘bunk.’ And they said, “Well, you don’t have to do it with any results.” And I said, “Oh, well, okay, that’s interesting.” Then why should I use my entire life? Why should I sacrifice myself for absolutely nothing, for the money? That’s not enough.
Cassidy Hall [27:56]: The way you’re talking about this feels like when I imagine you know, the conflicts of our world, our country today, it’s almost like this really strong binary energy. And you’re talking about the work that’s much bigger, much more below?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [28:12]: Yeah, because it’s on the ground, it’s at the ground at the base, where Thich Nhat Hanh called transformation at the base, and I’m teaching that right now with my students and what that means, you know. And how that affects what we manifest are what comes into being because what comes into being comes from the base comes from our perceptions come from, you know, our mental formations, and all these kinds of things we learn in our practice. It comes from that so we can know the list, but if you don’t understand how perception or mental formation or being embodied affects what you do in the world, helps you understand what’s happening in the world, there’s going to be something missing.
And I don’t say you have to do Buddhism, either, or meditation because they…or contemplate, I think those are for particular kinds of people who have that nature. Most people do not, they have another kind of temperament and you have to find what works for you. What would be that place in which you would awaken to everything, despite the horror in the world, despite or because of the horror in the world? What would you be doing? What would you do? What do you do? You know, I have people that come, “oh, you know, stuff, I can’t meditate. Every time I sit down, I just suffering, I’m just suffering.” And I was at a meditation center when I was teaching and I said, “Well, I think you need to stop meditating.” I said, “You can just like, go on home right now and rest. This is not for you, not now.”
And I don’t know why folks think it’s for everyone because it’s not. It’s only for those who are interested in going into this kind of deep nothingness this deep unknowing, this way of discovering those who want to walk out on the metal and not really know what’s going to happen out there. But the practice is teaching you so you keep running into it–the racism, then, now it’s time to use this and to be with it, not to still be back when I was first discovered that my skin was not welcome, the color of my skin was not welcome. If I lived there, I think I’d have been dead by now, I would have committed suicide, I would have. It is just too deep and too heavy, to not feel you belong on the planet. Or that you can never have a full life because of the color of your skin, or because you don’t have any money or all these things they say you have to have in order to have life.
So if you don’t discover life, then you’re going to think you need all those things to have life and you’re going to just suffer. We’re just going to suffer anyway, without all of that. And then we suffer the suffering, which I did. I did… All the things I speak on are my experiences, not necessarily something I just read, but the experience of being in practice and the experience of being in life coming together, because I wanted to see, why bother?
Cassidy Hall [30:58]: In your work, you also write a lot about the connectivity with nature and the earth. And I love what you wrote about this death of an oak tree, in your book, The Way of Tenderness you wrote, ‘The sudden death of oak trees, where I live in Oakland is like a clear cry naturally emerging from nature, just as cries emerged from groups of people when they are ignored or mistreated.” And I love that being able to see the fullness of life in nature.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [31:26]: Yeah, that piece is interesting to hear that again, because these things repeat. And so I don’t know the repeating till I hear it sometimes come back to me. We are the earth. And we know that, we are of the earth, we are the earth. And anything that’s happening in the earth is happening to us, all living beings. So like when that tree fell, I just… it was me falling off that cliff too, and how old that was and how unstable and unpredictable life is. And I’m writing right now I wasn’t going to write another book. But it looks like it might be one I was hoping it was just going to be an essay, but it keeps going. And I’m doing basically an account of our kind of daily life, our daily embodiment of earth. The daily and how to bring again, integrating so it’s not earth, and how beautiful it is, is earth in us, us as earth. There’s this mystical place of life, that is us as earth, you know. And when you contemplate and meditate, that gets… become so clear. If you’re not meditating and contemplating your partnership, or your job or your whatever, you’re not reifying the things that are hurting you, you’re just allowing yourself to be open to receive, which is what Buddha did, which is what Jesus did any, Sojourner Truth, you know. Harriet Tubman, name any of these people, and that’s what they were doing. That’s what they had to do in order to enhance their sense of the world, and their understanding and the nature of life. So that they could do the work that they were doing––fear or not, with fear and without fear with both.
So, I feel that looking at the earth and embodying the earth is important to understanding who we are, you know, you can understand transformation by just being in nature, right? You understand it completely. And so you can take that understanding because the reason why I understand it is because it’s you. When you look at the tree dying, you know that as you. A tree falling off a cliff, if you don’t feel that I don’t know, something needs to stimulate you to feel that interconnection, of all that’s around you.
Cassidy Hall [33:46]: Yeah. Yeah. Sensei Zenju, one question I want to end on, I’m actually going to change based on our conversation. And that question is who is, someone and I’m going to say someone or something that embodies mysticism for you?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [34:01]: First it’s very hard to embody mysticism. I don’t really think it can be embodied. I think it comes through some people at particular times, for those who are open and ready for that, like Buddha was. He was just a person that had a mystical experience. Now did he embody them, maybe later but I don’t think so in the beginning. So when I think of people who I feel live in that realm, I think of diviners. You know, people who do divinations, those who have been trained to be seers, that’s another word. I see seers, I see myself in there too, as seers so when I think what comes to mind are the people I know who are seers, who work with the earth, they work with the unknown, they work with the dark on to bring forth any kind of medicines be that messages or whatever they worked in that realm. And some are still in some indigenous parts of the world living and some are not.
I actually met a whole… I didn’t know they were diviners till 20 years later, a whole group of diviners from Africa. And I think about them all the time, and they were Dahomeyan, and how they were and how I felt to be a part of them and I didn’t know them, the whole community, I don’t even know them, I didn’t even know their names because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the mystics’ name, or where the mystic live, or who the mystic’s mother was. Those are all irrelevant to a mystic because it’s not of the body. It comes through it, the conduit so many conduits have come.
Ramana Maharshi I feel is a mystic and his presence spoke. I think that that’s a mystic. That’s very powerful to me, that one’s presence speaks. I know my teacher transmitted to me, but I couldn’t tell till years later. Because I remember I chose her because she was so joyful in ceremony and ritual, I said, “she really loves Zen and I’m really having a hard time here. So I’ll just choose her,” and I did Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who has passed. And then after all the years, 20 years, I could hear myself sounding like her talking to my students about, oh, you know, so excited about this ceremony and that ceremony and this ritual and that ritual. And I just get so excited when it’s time for us to [unknown] and retreat. And they’re like, “What is wrong with her,” you know, like, “These things are not fun. That’s not fun.” That’s how I knew that that got transmitted without her telling me. I was walking with that, the joy of that and how I was able to stay in a place that where people didn’t look like me, mostly, were… have a different culture. It was a cultural sanctuary, in which I was not from. What saved me was that mysticism is not embodied.
Cassidy Hall [36:52]: Well, thank you, Sensei, for this beautiful conversation and for taking the time to be with me today. I really, really appreciate it.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [36:58]: All right, thank you.
Cassidy Hall [37:03]: 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.
In this episode, author Sophfronia Scott and I discuss the power of truth-telling, encounters with mysticism, and the ways in which contemplation can lead to mystical encounter. Of mysticism she says, “There is something all around us that sustains us and the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil.”
[00:00:03] Sophfronia Scott: It’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that. You mentioned Walter Scott and that happened in 2015, 5 years later, we have George Floyd, and suddenly it’s like something––people are acting like something woke up––it’s like wait, wasn’t this––what happened with Ferguson? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then?
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 social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall.
Sophfronia Scott grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, hometown she shares with author Toni Morrison. She holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she began her career as an award winning magazine journalist for both Time and People. When her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published in 2004 Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards. Her other books include the novel is Unforgivable Love, an essay collection titled Love’s Long Line, and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son. Her most recent book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton, was published just this year in March of 2021. And in that book, on a chapter about resisting racism, she writes, If we don’t become the truth tellers than a different kind of erosion can happen, in which resentment breeds a resentment that would threaten the wholeness of my heart and soul. If nothing else, I must be whole and respond to racism in a way that is true to the depths of my being. So Sophfronia, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining me.
[00:01:57] Sophfronia Scott: I am happy to be here. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
[00:02:01] Cassidy Hall: So I want to begin by asking you, what does the word “contemplative” mean to you and how do you see it lived out in our world today?
[00:02:09] Sophfronia Scott: Now that that second part, how do I see it lived out? You know, that’s a difficult one. Because to me, contemplation is an inner journey. It involves solitude and it involves a reflection on what God has given that particular individual and how you’re taking that in and walking through the world with that grace. So how do you see that? You know, how would I observe that? How would I know, the world in general, I can see it in certain people. But the world in general, it’s like we’re coming out of a year of being–of forced contemplation, right, at this point, the pandemic, right? So, it’s like that was a period where people suddenly did have to take stock and really look at the way they were living their lives. So I would have to say that maybe it wasn’t present in the world before in the way that it could be now.
[00:02:58] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, just we navigate that differently based on the language that we use to maybe define it, but either way, we’ve all kind of become contemplatives. So being that we all kind of went to that meeting place together over the last year. I know in my experience, right, it created a kind of the sense of deeper connectivity or deeper solidarity and connection to each other, right? Also seeing the things played out on the news, between disparities of the issues related to covid and racial injustice–George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. So do you see or sense that our togetherness in that contemplation created a connection with social action or social justice?
[00:03:37] Sophfronia Scott: You used the word together, Cassidy. Actually, I think all of that happened because we had assumed early on that we were doing that together, right? It looked like we had gone into this pandemic, and there was a spirit of togetherness. But it became apparent right away that we were not together in this, right, that people did not, we’re not experiencing this pandemic in the same way. Then what happened with George Floyd put a very specific face on the whole thing, right? And and then the people who realized that, Okay, we are not together on this, then we need to do something about it, that’s when the action came about. You know, Cassidy, it’s a very subtle type of thinking, we often don’t know we’re doing it. Last night I was in a group of people, a large group, it was a zoom group, and there was like a survey. One of the questions had been “Have you ever tested positive for Covid 19?” Almost 90% of the group said “no,” and someone responded, “Well, isn’t that you know–That’s great, we were safe, we took good care of ourselves.” But then someone else said “No, that just means we were privileged.” We don’t notice. We don’t realize. We just think Okay, we did it. But, no, there was a reason why this may have been easier for you to be this way than for somebody else. So not together, we were not together.
[00:04:50] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I appreciate that reflection and that togetherness is definitely not not a word that works there. And I think maybe it’s more about the ways it was revealing and opened up the truth to us more clearly. And this kind of reminds me of a story from your book, although it relates to a story from 1963, it’s again, this opening this peeling back the curtains of the truth of what’s happening. In your book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton –– Hold on before we go to this story, I just want to ask why talk to a dead white guy?
[00:05:26] Sophfronia Scott: [Laughs] I think it connects to the other word. You and I we’re going to talk about, which is “mysticism.” I think that if you contemplate on a certain level, it rises to connection, it rises to an experience of something. So this person, my experience in reading and engaging with the work of Thomas Merton was just a part of me so much that I was able to experience them on a different level. It was not my choice, right? It’s not like I get to choose who I’m going to connect with. You know, I heard his words first, right? He could have been a black person, I had no idea. I only heard the words and the words are what drew me to him.
[00:06:11] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. So going back to this 1963 story, you share a story about Thomas Merton responding to a young black priest named Father August Thompson. And Father Thompson, like other black priests and parishioners, could only receive communion after white people. He was prohibited from saying mass and Catholics refused to call him, “father.” I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how Merton responded to Father August’s letter and more importantly, how this led to your own personal reflection of taking care of your heart first.
[00:06:41] Sophfronia Scott: Merton told him to consider, and father August was specifically also complaining about his Bishop at the time, and Merton told him, ‘Okay, you have to understand where he is coming from.’ It begins there. It begins with how you think about this person, seeing that person’s humanity. That was striking to me, seeing how this man probably doesn’t know how to think any other way than his white racist way, right? And that you have to start from that point, and when you do that, you are protecting your own heart, you are protecting your own soul because you are not going to that place of antagonism. You’re not going to that place of hatred, right? This is really what he was trying to teach him was really the source of Nonviolence, because non violence is not just about not fighting with the police, it is about being nonviolent within within your thoughts within your heart and to come at it from a holistic perspective with the feeling that we are all humans in this. It is not me against you, it’s we are all in this together. This is truly the unity you’re talking about: We are in this together. And how can we come to accept our humanity, our shared humanity? How can you bring him away from that thought? And he brings in the word faith which I thought was absolutely interesting. Okay, because faith means that there can be conversion, that means there is hope, that means this person’s way of thinking can be changed. But you have to be in a place of your own faith and non-violence to help bring that about. And
[00:08:08] Cassidy Hall: I think that relates to another part in your book where you write “if we don’t become the truth-tellers than a different kind of erosion happens in which resentment breeds.” And I think along with that, I’m wondering, What do you think it means to be–– How do we hold the tension, rather, of being truth-tellers and contemplatives? What does that look like to embody truth telling alongside a contemplative life.
[00:08:30] Sophfronia Scott: When you’re a contemplative, you come to see things a certain way and you can either share that or it stays within you. And when I say, resentment, I think about you know there are so many relationships, marriages, friendships that go bad because there was something wrong going on there that wasn’t spoken about: you didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to get in a fight, and you don’t say anything and everything looks great. But there is resentment because that thing has not been addressed that that changes you, right? That’s again where your non-violence is going to be hurt. You have to be in the space of being able to say your truth. But how do you do it? How do you do it so that it is from a place of love and innocence, like the child who said, “Well, the emperor has no clothes on,” right? He was stating it, there is a fact he wasn’t saying it to to shame the emperor or anything, he was just stating this fact. So how do you come at this, to be able to say in a way that people can hear, “You are devaluing my humanity. You’re devaluing my humanity, and that is what this is about. I am not angry with you, but you must see that there’s something wrong here and in order for us to heal––for you to heal because it’s not right that you feel this way too, this is hurting you, too. How are we going to work together to bring this about?”
[00:09:49] Cassidy Hall: It reminds me of. I think it’s June Jordan that talks about telling the truth is being a political act. And I love that a political act can even take place. in these just relational one-on-one times when we tell the truth to each other.
[00:10:01] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly. And it allows you, and it’s not necessarily a truth that has to bring you down and feel like you’re being blamed. It could be a truth that shines a light that allows you to see yourself in a different way and become something better, to bring you to the fullness of who you really are.
[00:10:18] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. You’re having my mind to go to so many different, beautiful places, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how contemplative life and contemplation, when we go to really kind of meet ourselves in that inward place is another form of truth-telling and truth meeting, maybe, of ourselves and our inner being.
[00:10:38] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah. I remember once. I was in a conversation about therapy, about why people go to therapy and on a certain level, being in therapy helps people bring to the surface things that they already know we’re there. But they’re not addressing, it’s been stuffed down or it’s been avoided or it’s been not addressed. And that is something, we all know what is within us. We know something of where we come from and what we’re thinking. So if we’re willing to pay attention and to say, “Wow, yeah, I did that,” or “this is something odd about the way I think,” you know. Not only can it not be addressed, but but it gives us an opportunity to say “Okay, I’m okay anyway,” right? By the grace of God, I’m this egotistical or whatever you wanna call it self centered person. But by the grace of God, I am here, and I recognize this, and I’m gonna try today to be a better person. It may not work out today. But I’m gonna try to be different. I’m going to try to think differently, right. So that’s what contemplation gives us. How can I reach for that dream that God has of me, for me, in any given challenging moment?
[00:11:49] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. One thing I loved in your chapter on race and racism and having a conversation with Merton about that. You mentioned many names in your book, including Walter Scott, who was murdered by the police in 2015. And you write, “What really leaves our souls scorched and grieving is the casual behavior of the police officer who fires the weapon. It’s as though this event were not extraordinary for him.” And I wonder, as we talk about these things like non-violence and our relational meeting place and our true togetherness, what might you say it looks like––what does it mean to be a contemplative activist, and especially as it relates to police violence.
[00:12:28] Sophfronia Scott: I think it means finding some way to address that nonchalance, right? Um, it was the same thing with George Floyd, right? That’s one of the things people talked about, like how calm that guy was, that officer was. Again, there’s something wrong there. There’s something wrong with that person’s humanity, right? And is it going to get solved by adding hate on top of that? No, it’s not. So how is it going to be addressed? How do we come to bring this person to see that this is a life? This is a life, right? There’s something wrong there. There’s something hugely wrong. And contemplation is to me, the constant considering of how how do we come to bring an understandingto that person –– it’s not like I can fix him, right? Can’t fix people. But there must be a way to help bring about understanding. And I may not come to an answer of that. But just being to understand that and to come from that point of of awareness, and if enough people are coming from that point, we’re walking on down the road that may eventually get us there. Police officers are acting out of fear, right, so they are in highly dangerous situations. But maybe there’s something about them that they need to be contemplative themselves, right? How can they better address or assess, I should say, assess a situation, right? Because that is the thing, right? They overdo it. What is going on here? Does this and I know they say, Oh, but it’s a split second moment. No, that guy was kneeling on that guy’s neck almost nine minutes. He did not have to do that. There were people pleading with him not to do that. Something inside you has to say, “Okay, I need to do something different here.” So what was it in that awareness that that that didn’t happen? And it’s not like diversity training is necessarily going to get you there. But to be in an ongoing conversation. Yeah, the training happens, and then you go your way and you forget about it. How can you be in constant conversation with police officers to help them think about what they’re seeing in any given instance? And can we help them see it in a different way, to come from a point of humanity and not just thinking “threat”? They protect and serve. That’s on a lot of police cars: “protect and serve.” So how do you How do you help them come to that mindset first? I have no answers, Cassidy, but this is where I think contemplation plays a role.
[00:14:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and it also reminds me of the connecting about earlier regarding truth-telling. And I think one thing I’m learning as a white person is about how there’s a lot of conversations that need to be had between white people and to navigate these things and even the recognition right that the police is relationship to systems, systems of oppression and the systems that was built upon and systems of racism. And yeah, I mean, there’s just so many, so many layers, and I’m really struck by kind of going back to that thought of truth telling. What can we do? We can tell the truth and peel back, clench fists and be present to what we know is true and speak to that
[00:15:36] Sophfronia Scott: Because otherwise, and this is my concern about the current social justice movement, is that it’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that, right? You mentioned Walter Scott, and that happened in 2015, right? And so five years later, we have George Floyd. And suddenly it’s like something people are acting like something woke up like – wait, what happened with Ferguson? What? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then? I’m sorry, Dylann Roof walked into a church and killed a whole room of black people, so why didn’t that wake us up? Right. So this is this is where I have to protect my heart and and see it as an ongoing journey and that this is this is like a wave that’s going to disappear, the problem is still going to be here. So I could get really resentful about that and cynical and say, “here we go again.” Or else I can be the truth-teller and say exactly what I just said and say, “Look, this is this is not a new thing.” So if we keep discovering this, obviously there’s something wrong with the way we think we’re solving this. So how do we need to look at this differently, right?
[00:16:38] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, we could list names back to Emmett Till and even still, that wasn’t the beginning. That wasn’t the beginning at all.
[00:16:47] Sophfronia Scott: We have to come at this from each person’s experience and their own humanity, right? I just told you about how I want to teach my son how to behave when a police car stops him. But you also have to know that my son my son’s experience of police is very different. He does not fear the police. And we’ve had discussions. We looked at the George Floyd video. We talk about this all the time and he said to me, Um and this is just a few months ago, he said, “But Mama, you have to remember that my experience with the police is different.” I hope I don’t cry here. And I don’t know if you know this Cassidy, but I you know, we live in Sandy Hook. My son was in third grade. He was He was in the Sandy Hook school during those shootings. A dear friend of ours, his godbrother died. He has lived with police outside his school for years. They shake his hand, he knows the police intimately, we have police who lived down the street. So to him, the police are there to protect the police are his friends, right? and I’m not going to take that away from him. I’m not going to say yeah, but But police can do this. No, because that has not been his experience. And I said to him even when he said that, that that brought to a realization to me. And I said to him, You know, Tain, that could be your experience could be the source of your non-violence that if you are in an experience like with your friends and and there’s some sort of encounter with the police, you may be the truth-teller that helps deescalate a situation because you don’t come from a point of fear where the police are concerned, right? So how do I help him use that as a as a power? And this is also like a kind of thing where contemplation comes in action. He has to be aware of that, right, to know that that is in him and he already for him to bring it up to me, he’s obviously already aware of it. So it’s up to me to say “Okay, here’s That’s a superpower. Here’s how to use that superpower Tain,” right?
[00:18:45] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. So you also write about white friends being stunned by the continued racism in America. And you speak of this as a “betrayal in which there continues to be a lack of fruitful conversation,” commenting that “many white folks begin to sound like the trope, ‘I have black friends'” and it’s here in the book when you turn to Merton’s readings of James Baldwin. I was aware of Merton reading The Fire Next Time, and he did write a letter to James, didn’t he? And I want to share a little bit more about what Merton said about Baldwin.
[00:19:18] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, so I’m going to read from you. This is what he wrote in his journal. He said,
“He [Baldwin] seems to know exactly what he is talking about, and his statements are terribly urgent. One of the things that makes most sense—an application of the ideas behind non-violence, but I think it is absolutely true: that the sit-in movement is not just to get the negroes a few hamburgers, it is for the sake of the white people, and for the country. He is one of the few genuinely concerned Americans, one whose concern I can really believe. The liberation of the Negroes is necessary for the liberation of the whites and for their recovery of a minimum of self-respect, and reality. Above all he makes very shrewd and pointed statements about the futility and helplessness of white liberals who sympathize but never do anything. Well, a few have got beat up on freedom rides, this is true. But really the whole picture is pitiful. A scene of helplessness, inertia, stupidity, erosion.”
So I think it’s interesting how he brings up that we all have something at stake here, right? This isn’t just being allowed to sit in a restaurant, right? This is about how all of us address our our own humanity, right? And if we can’t get this right, you know, Where are we? Where are we, as a people? And he was noticing that that James Baldwin, you know, is expressing this concern. And it’s even amazing, you know, knowing how fiery James Baldwin could be, that as Merton points out, he is still coming from a place of non-violence. He is being a truth-teller, right? And he’s also coming from a point of compassion.
[00:21:07] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, Yeah. I wonder if we could shift a little bit to the mystical conversation. You know, hearing some of these stories. It’s almost like you stumbled upon Merton. You said you didn’t choose him and then uncovered some of these really powerful relationships and and thoughts that he had on on various issues. And I wonder if you consider meeting Merton in that way and coming across his writings and whatnot, you consider that in and of itself a mystical experience?
[00:21:35] Sophfronia Scott: I think coming across his writings, I said earlier, I think contemplation leads to the mystical. So he has been part of my contemplation. When I went to his monastery in Kentucky, I felt I had a mystical experience there, and it was totally unexpected. And and it wasn’t until I was standing at his grave weeping that I realized that there was a closeness that I felt that I was missing him and experiencing him all at once during my time there. So I feel that–and it’s the same thing with any connection that that if we steep ourselves in it enough, we can we can touch the divine right. Isn’t that what we want? We want to have some sacramental experience of God in our lives, right? And and maybe it’s easier to do that through, you know, people who have been flesh and blood, right? Wasn’t the point of Christ, right to give us a way to reach for such connection. To understand how to do that, I don’t want to get in trouble, [laughs] I don’t know if what I’m saying is theologically sound. But I can only share what what I experience, and there is something all around us that sustains us. And the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil. That’s what I think of the mystical. And I think that’s what the Mystics were able to do. That they were so steeped in their study and reflection and in their prayer that they were able to able to feel the sense of God and to feel God at work in their lives. So the mystics aren’t necessarily like special people. I think it’s something that’s available to all of us, but do we take the time to come away from the noise to, to hear, to hear anyone. I think that the people have left us are still around, but they also leave, they leave clues, and when you connect with something that they’ve left behind. This may sound like a really silly tangent, but I recently kind of rediscovered the music of the Bee Gees, and I’ve just been absolutely fascinated by their music by some of the things that Robin Gibb himself has said and written. And at first I thought, you know, I’m hearing this with different ears for some reason, and I’m thinking about that song, To Love Somebody, right? You know: “There’s a light, A certain kind of light, That never shone on me. I want my life to be lived with you, Lived with you…” And there’s something about the sound of that song. And then I did hear an interview where I think there’s someone from Rolling Stone who said, “this music does have a spiritual aspect” and it touched people in ways that they didn’t realize, and I realized, Okay, that’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing that now at a different level than when I was, what, 12 and first heard that music. And so it’s it’s making me go back and look at their thinking to look at their experiences and to see that these were deeply spiritual guides, but not in the way that you expect. Robin Gibb was in a deadly train accident when he was 19, and he said, as that train is rolling over and over that that crash killed 50 people. In an interview later, he said, “I thought about God,” and he’s like, I’m not a church going person but in that moment I thought about God. It brought him to a place – that feeling brought him to a place that when that train stopped rolling, he was able to then function. He got his girlfriend. out of that train, he got a bunch of people out of that train that day and I recognized it. I recognized what he was talking about. That sense of being in a traumatic situation and recognizing feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I’m going to be okay, and since I’m okay, then I can function. I need to see how I can help people out of this thing. Cassidy, sometimes I think about that, and I’m like, ‘man, why is Robin Gibb dead?’ Because I want to talk to him about that, here I’ve discovered these words of someone who’s experienced God in a certain way, and it’s like, Oh, my gosh, but he’s not here anymore, right?
[00:25:37] Cassidy Hall: Next book, Next book. [laughs]
[00:25:38] Sophfronia Scott: [laughs] my gosh, no. But you see, I mean, there are connections out there, right? We have to just understand what’s going on within ourselves so that we can reach out and find it elsewhere out there with other people.
[00:25:52] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, you said you talked earlier about contemplation leading to mysticism or mystical encounter. And then I love hearing this story about the Bee Geesand you almost recognizing the truth teller in the song and creating like a mystical encounter between his output connecting with your almost your work and your output, right? Like there’s this beautiful encounter that takes place when we’re able to recognize the mystical in each other, recognize, you know, the Imago dei and each other.
[00:26:20] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly what is that song from Saturday Night Fever, “When I see your eyes in the morning light,” How Deep Is Your Love. The word “savior” isn’t that song, “You come to me in the deepest, darkest time You’re my savior, when I call,” you don’t just use that word lightly. They use that word with an understanding. So, yeah, to recognize that we are all speaking a certain language. Merton talks about that about finding a spiritual companions that we don’t have. You don’t make friends just, yes, you have friends. But then there were friends who truly understand the journey you’re on and who have that same type of connection. And it’s fantastic when you can find them and they’re alive. But for some reason, I keep coming across these ones who are dead.
[00:27:03] Cassidy Hall: And I also love that it was a piece of music. I’m really struck by this. I love this piece of music because I’m really interested right now, in yeah, sounds and vibrational things that kind of take us elsewhere, that enliven our body and help us to go to like an embodied space, I wonder if you experienced that––you talk about your time at the monastery, if you experienced any kind of like a vibrational encounter. I know you mentioned the silence of the monastery.
[00:27:28] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, you and I talking about music and I was, you know, in the church and praying, but it was the silence that struck me when I went for a hike and standing by a lake a deep, deep silence. I was just absolutely mesmerized by it. It felt like I could step inside it and put it on like, wrap it around me. And I just felt like Okay, this is this is the silence that Merton heard. Like I could see why he wanted to be out here all the time. It just It feels like, you know, the voice of God is out of here, right? That God speaks in silence. I was just absolutely enthralled with it.
[00:28:06] Cassidy Hall: That’s another thing about about those mystical encounters, mystical experiences. We also go to this wordless place, this place where you know you want to tell your friends or you want to explain it to somebody, and it’s just like nobody had that, but you, nobody gets that, but you. It’s such a beautiful gift when were given gifts that are wordless because we go to that mind-boggling place that almost makes us become a child again.
[00:28:29] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, but I’m a writer so that it can be crazy to not have the words right. And really, that’s what this book is about. You know, people expressed interest in how I talk about Merton. And so really, this book is about me trying to explain that it’s like, Okay, well, here’s how I engage with this person and not on the theological or not on an academic level. But personally, this is what it means to have words move me to the point of letting it affect and influence my life. I can learn, I can change, and I can find a deeper way into connection with my Alpha and my Omega through someone who did it himself.
[00:29:07] Cassidy Hall: So, going back to the conversation we were having earlier about social justice issues, we talked a little bit about how contemplation can maybe inform protests and movements. Do you think mysticism also plays a role or can play a role in informing or undergirding movements of social justice?
[00:29:27] Sophfronia Scott: Maybe, especially if you get to a place of how do I think like that person, right? What would Martin Luther King Jr. have done how How would Gandhi approach this right? People who thought very deeply about Nonviolence. Even looking back at how how they did things. So, for example, the people who protested with Martin Luther King Jr had had to prepare, right? They were taught to prepare for their protests. They had to read, they had to study scripture. They really had to grasp the non-violence within themselves and to know that they were not going to respond in hatred and violence, no matter what happened at that protest site. So if we go back to that place now to really think about okay, what was it like for them? What can we take and and learn from someone like John Lewis, right. How do I channel John Lewis as I’m standing here across from this police line, right. It may be easier to do than we realized if we think about it exactly in that way, I’m wondering if we slip in and out of personalities. You know, My friend Jenny once said she she would go shopping and sometimes she would bring back something for me and she said, “You know, I think I was being you when I bought this.” This isn’t these earrings are more you than they are me. But I was I was in a you know, there’s in your frame of mind, right?
[00:30:53] Cassidy Hall: I love these themes of contemplative space being a place of truth telling and invigorating us to tell the truth. And mysticism being kind of this place of, you know, namaste, seeing the God and you and recognizing the God and you and the God and myself. And I love the way you yeah, call to us to you consider those who have died and consider what they might do in given situations and what they have done in given situations. I think one of the things I’m trying to ask is related to: You know, sometimes we can’t get to that place of mysticism of recognizing that God and each other when both people aren’t telling the truth. Right? Like I can’t fully honor you unless you’re bringing your true self to me in this place, right in our togetherness. And I think that can really complicate things
[00:31:51] Sophfronia Scott: if you have to inauthentic people like what is actually isn’t that what we’re seeing get played out in politics right now, right, that we’re coming to the table inauthentically, right, expressing that they know not to be true. And you kind of have a stalemate there because they are invested in these untruths, that that is bewildering. So something has to shift there, something has to shift, and maybe it’s something in at the core of us, right? My son once said when I was doing a diversity training for my job, right, and it was via Zoom. And so he, you know, was waiting for me in my office, and he was listening to some of it and he said to me, “Mama, that’s that stuff they’re telling you, that sounds like stuff people should have learned at home when they were kids.” I said, yeah Tain, you know, but they didn’t and and so sometimes it’s like recognizing something as basic like, wow, what we’re learning here is common sense. Well, why is this not, you know, automatic, right? I don’t know. Cassidy.
[00:33:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think I do think it’s possible, and correct me if you disagree, I think it’s possible to be, you know, maybe we don’t know the full truth of ourselves, but if we’re still willing to come with honesty and vulnerability, I think we can still meet each other in that place of mystical encounter.
[00:33:19] Sophfronia Scott: I agree. Is it Rumi, the mystic poet, that says, out there’s an open field, I’ll meet you there. Because we “have to know” simply, for example, me sitting here telling you I don’t know, right? So I could be in a place of thinking, ‘I can’t I can’t say to Cassidy. I don’t know because I’m being interviewed. I’m supposed to know something. I wrote a book.’ No, it’s starting from that place that I don’t know and being open to the fact that we are not complete and we are we are ever-changing. But to me, that’s also hope that’s a possibility. If we can come to the table with what’s missing, only then can we find the possibility of completion.
[00:34:02] Cassidy Hall: Beautifully stated. Is there someone or some people that embody mysticism to you or for you?
[00:34:09] Sophfronia Scott: I mentioned Robert Vivian. You know Robert Vivian, he was actually the one who read the passage of Merton that that brought me to Merton in the first place. Robert Vivian is a talented writer, and he’s in the English department at Alma College, which is where I now run the MFA program, I’m the director of the MFA. But Robert Vivian writes these prose poems called Dervish Essays, and they’re very full of of the ecstatic. And he is someone who is constantly, I can’t, I’m not sure if I can describe it. You can tell that he has taking in like a sponge, absorbing constantly every single moment what is going on around. But when you read his work and his latest book is called, All I Feel Is Rivers, it just came out. You you get the sense that this is a person who through that contemplation has touched on something mystical, that he is communicating with a higher power and recognizing there will be a moment, and there’s a line where he hasn’t said something like that, that he will put everything that is that is him, he will put it all down and stand there naked before that power. And in that place of vulnerability, I I just feel like you can’t write something like that unless you know what it is to encounter that great love and your great source.
[00:35:31] Cassidy Hall: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time today, and you know, as soon as we get off here, I’m about to go listen to the BeeGees.
[00:35:41] Sophfronia Scott: Yay! Thank you for having me.
[00:35:45] 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 Emmolei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei 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.
“Your questions are of the devil,” I was told at an evangelical youth conference in high school. My insides responded confused, “huh? What the hell just happened?!” But, instead of speaking up, I went along with the adult in the room and regretfully shut my mouth.
Over twenty years later, I find myself in seminary, pursuing ordination, and more full of questions than I’ve ever held. Only now, I remember to show them off like treasures, reminding others and myself that questions innately connect us to the divine by the very fact that they belong to mystery. Now, I claim my curiosities and doubts as boldly as my sexuality–with pride. I remember to bask in the questions––because they mean growth, change, my continual becoming, and perhaps most importantly––unknowing.
But, loving the questions in all their infinitely unanswerable ways seems impossible most days. It’s an easier task when I have something to hang on to. When I have a tangible or tactile sliver of evidence or hope. But when there’s nothing? Living alone in the midst of a pandemic when I find myself craving a sense of safety and knowing, I often wonder is it too much to ask to just be able to know or trust something, or someone?
In his seminal work, Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes with aspiring poet, 19 year-old Franz Xaver Kappus. Within their many exchanges Rilke wrote to Franz on July 16, 1903:
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.”
Walker, on the other hand, expands even more on these notions:
I must love the questions
as Rilke said
like locked rooms
full of treasure
to which my blind
and groping key
does not yet fit.
and await the answers
mailed with dubious intent
and written in a very foreign
and in the hourly making
no thought of Time
to force, to squeeze
I grow into.
Unlike Rilke, Walker moves me into my body ––she offers me a tangible means of what it means to love and live the questions, she expands upon the metaphors of unknown language, unsealed letters, and an inaccessible door –– she enlivens and awakens my questions.
Why does it matter? For me, questions are the fruit of a life fully engaged. My doubt reminds me to take on my questions, to search the books, ask the neighbor, to grow, learn, and expand. Doubt belongs to faith in the same way that mystery belongs to God.
My teenage questions were not of the devil and neither are my 37-year-old doubts.
When I arrived back home after that trip with my youth group I remember the shock and surprise my young teenage self felt. Being that I was the only “nonbeliever” (evangelical lingo) on that trip I was a kind of project for people to huddle around and convert. And amid all of that misinformation and emotional manipulation, amid all of the lies and false certitudes, the divine accompanied me in all my questions, doubts, and uncertainty. The divine was — and is, my questions and doubts.
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.
In her book Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than-and can also be absent from-any relationship with the Church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality, is connected to our very being.” In this second episode of Contemplating Now, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey shares about contemplation’s role in activism and asks, “What does protest mean for a scholar?”
The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is the author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at The Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.
Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice and LGBTQ rights making note of her belief that “humanity is interconnected. This means, I have a responsibility to the world to agitate for justice; I also have a responsibility not to lose my love for the human soul and human dignity in the midst of that work.”
In her book, she writes, “Queer womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world. That happens in relationships.” and “At the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of queer womanist theological reflection. We must examine not just racism but sexisms, not just homophobia but transphobia, not just poverty but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries but the hegemony of the status quo.”
Dr. Lightsey [00:05]: As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do–I mean the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another. We’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic.
Cassidy Hall [00:23]: 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. Today in the podcast, the Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey. She’s the author of Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice advocate, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.
Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice, and LGBTQ + rights, in her book Our Lives Matter, she writes “Queer Womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world––that happens in relationships.” And she also writes, “at the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of Queer Womanist theological reflection, we must examine not just racism, but sexism, not just homophobia, but transphobia, not just poverty, but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries, but the hegemony of the status quo.”
Well, Dr. Lightsey, thank you so much for joining, and for taking the time to be with me today.
Dr. Lightsey [02:06]: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.
Cassidy Hall [02:09]: Your book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology was completed during Ferguson in 2014, published in 2015. And with that, you took the time to add an epilogue to the work, which voiced your outrage and despair. And also, as a veteran, you wrote that you felt a “sense of deployment” as a scholar and an activist. And in this epilogue, you specifically asked, “what does it mean to be a theologian who’s placed for doing theology is within in alignment, and or perhaps even as a participant within the activist movement?” And I’m wondering today, and you know 2021, could you speak into that question?
Dr. Lightsey [02:48]: Sure. I was particularly concerned when I was writing, and as I was doing the work, I mean, the reason that I was in Ferguson, and later in Baltimore, I was in Ferguson for more than just a brief period of time. My relationship with Ferguson spanned across years, after Ferguson. So I established deep relationships and, you know, commitments that lasted beyond. And that was good, and it should be so. My question was a question about the way that scholars have generally done their work. I saw scholarship as being work that’s done almost as a spectator, if you will of the events and the issues of our time, that we somehow are disattached-or believe to be unattached from those issues.
And I saw it in the book, and in my work, to make it clear that I was not trying to be an unattached presence in the commitment to liberation and justice. And that my scholarship, that I was committing my scholarship–as I was committing my body to being in the midst of the protest. Now, here we are in 2021, there’s an insurrection that has taken place at the Capitol. What does that now mean? You know, what does protest now mean for a scholar? I think in many ways, it means, even more: the necessity for the scholar to understand the goals and the motivation of the protest prior to committing even on paper, a connection to that movement and affinity that even saying that one resonated with the movement, you really have to understand it.
And it’s really important that we do that now more than ever before. You don’t want to be… You don’t want to naively engage a protest whose goals, whose motivations, whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the government, you see. Black Lives Matter, the aim of Black Lives Matter was justice and the end of excessive police force, ultimately, the killing of Black bodies, which we’ve seen on repeat over and over and over and over again. That in contrast to the insurrectionists, who saw, and who articulating, I mean, a primary goal of taking over the United States government, to control the government. They’ve not said what they’re going to do. They didn’t say what they’re going to do once they control it. What is the plan once you get in, once you have the, you know, the Capitol, have a legislator? What are you going to do for the people, people like me? You know, and during that time was really a lot of criticism against Black Lives Matter saying, you know, what do you all…what’s your goal? What are you shooting for? I don’t know how many times the goals of Black Lives Matter, and before that– Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, had to be articulated for the public. So that’s where I am on that issue.
Cassidy Hall [06:15]: Thank you for that. You know, it strikes me that you were writing a book when Ferguson happens. The death of Mike Brown, more specifically happened, the murder of Mike Brown. It strikes me that you were kind of in this maybe, maybe contemplative space, you were writing, you were processing, you were doing these kinds of things. Yet, the urgency, right, the urgency occurs. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to maybe the need for contemplation to know that, that we’re aligned with something does that allow us to more urgently respond to things?
Dr. Lightsey [06:47]: I don’t know that I have an answer to that…I can…And I hesitate to speak with a broad brush, I can only speak to my sensibilities and my sensibilities have been shaped by any number of things. One by growing up in a community that very much understood its place in the scheme of things, And that just not being the material world, but understanding that there was a spiritual world at work and that we were in the middle. We were but human beings in the middle of many things happening that we could see and not see. And that there were some things happening that were outside our control.
I grew up understanding that not everything is going to be in my control as a human being. Okay. That understanding that there are matters in this world that are outside human control, have suited me well, both as a person of faith and as a scholar, it has given me the luxury to rest easy with the questions of life, with things not being resolved totally, with also understanding that my work is a continuation, and may not always be a period at the end of a sentence, but maybe some ellipses, or commas, or, you know, continuations.
You know, I am a contemplative person also, because I’ve experienced a community of Pentecostal believers who also very much so reminded me of the spirit world. Now, sometimes that experience was really raggedy and lacked sound theology. And over the years, I’ve had to kind of reshape myself without totally tossing away the very fine things that Pentecostalism, excuse me, offered me, and gave me. But it certainly gave me an appreciation for the contemplative, for sitting oneself down and just resting, you know, connecting with another dimension of life.
Cassidy Hall [09:12]: I think for activists in particular, it’s important to acknowledge rest, even sleep is a form of contemplation, right? It is a regeneration, a meeting place, a sacred pause.
Dr. Lightsey [09:25]: I think it’s good. I hesitate to speak for all activists in terms of a kind of spirituality or religiosity. Because I speak through the lens of a Christian, and there are activists who are not Christian, there are activists who are agnostic, atheist, and are doing very fine work, and I respect and appreciate them for that. So I wouldn’t go so far as to articulate it in that way, although I know very much so that a good number of Black activists because such a large percentage of Black people in America are ascribe to spirituality at the very most, and Christianity, I say now at the very least. I would have switched that up maybe a decade or two ago but we do believe and understand ourselves to be spiritual beings. That a sense of or an appreciation for contemplative space, for one’s health and well-being, is certainly necessary. We talk about it all the time, and that is taking care of yourself in order to take care of others. And I’m with a group of activists who are committed to resistance but also committed to our well-being, it has really been good for me.
Cassidy Hall [10:48]: There reminds me of in your book, you write oppression on one level intersects with oppression on other levels, there is no safe quadrant of society if we allow unchecked and unprovoked hostilities to occur against any single community of people.
Dr. Lightsey [11:02]: Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, are equally discriminatory. And we do a disservice to humanity, when we try to parse them out, and level them up or subscribe, a percentage or, you know, a certain magnitude to one over and against the other. They’re all horrible. They’re all equally destructive to the human being, to our society, and to our communities. And I think as we’re paying attention to one, we are also making invisible, the other, you know, until that other demands its attention, you know, you ascribe attention to sexism, then what about racism, you know, so it’s a journey. It’s not a juggling act, but it’s a journey towards giving, giving attention to the fullness of who we are as human beings, while at the same time trying to resist, I think, in some ways, human nature to make subordinate certain other human beings on the basis of categorizing: that women are less than men, that Black people are less than white identified person, so on and so forth, that heterosexual persons are, you know, better than the LGBTQ community. As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do, I mean, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another, we’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic. The race to a vaccine has been dependent upon human beings across a spectrum of diverse identity, and we’ve needed those persons.
Cassidy Hall [13:13]: Yeah, that’s another thing I really appreciated about your book and actually wrote about for a class is, recognizing the dynamic and the expanse of the Imago Dei, the image of God, as we see these intersectionalities, right? As we see each other, God expands, and more specifically identify as a queer woman, and in your book you write, “as queers, we declare that God cannot be limited, God is not finite.” And I think along with that queerness has something to offer to activism, to movements in the way that it expands the appearance of God. And again, of course, we’re talking in Christian terms in particular right now, but I wonder if you could speak into that a little bit.
Dr. Lightsey [13:53]: For me, the beauty of queerness is that it encourages people to deal with the ambiguity of life and the complexity of the human being. That’s the beauty of identifying as Queer, I identify as Queer Lesbian, for any number of reasons, which we don’t have time to go into today. But the beauty of queerness is that it asks us to accept ourselves as complex as we really are. And I’m still working with accepting some human beings in their complexity. Some things I don’t like about them, some things I read about and I say, oh if I knew about that, I wouldn’t. Oh. I wouldn’t. But then that part of me that understands human beings as complex says, okay, well, will you just throw this away? Will you throw this brilliance away because of this, you know? Is humanity totally irredeemable? I don’t think so. I think there’s something redeemable about humanity. Even though I have a low anthropology on most days. I think there is something that is redeemable about humanity. I mean, I deal with myself, you know, I’m my worst critic. So I think there is something redeemable. And queerness allows us space, not only for the complexity and the differences, but also for the imperfection. And we don’t…I don’t think we talk enough about that in queer space. Queerness allows us the capacity to embrace imperfection, more than anything else that I have really worked on in my academic career.
Cassidy Hall [15:47: Thank you for that.
Dr. Lightsey 15:48 You’re welcome. Thank you for the conversation.
Cassidy Hall [15:52]: Yes, likewise.
Dr. Lightsey [15:53]: I bid you well on your scholarship and your writing. I see all your beautiful books!
Cassidy Hall [15:59]: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.
Dr. Lightsey [16:02]: Take care.
Cassidy Hall [16:03]: You too.
Dr. Lightsey [16:04]: Bye. Bye.
Cassidy Hall [16:05]: Bye.
Outro: Cassidy Hall [16:08]: 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 she has generously allowed us to use. 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.
And for those still here, one last reading from Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. On page 63 she writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than and can also be absent from any relationship with the church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality is connected to our very being.”