The scholarship featured continues to influence and inform the ways I encounter contemplative life and mystical experience/expression. In the thesis I consider the ways social action/activism and mysticism intersect. A brief excerpt:
“At this point one might question what the mystic and the activist have in common. Is it possible social justice activism could be itself considered a marker of mystical encounter? While one could easily deem the mystic as innately religious (or spiritual) and the activist as innately active, where do these roles intersect, if at all? In response to this question, one might consider the historical ways in which both the mystic and the activist have sought to subvert empire, disrupt the status quo, and pursue the common good. Both the mystic and the activist pursue lives disentangled from institutions, lives which pursue communal well-being, that great marker of mysticism: charity, previously mentioned as a marker of mysticism’s authenticity. An additional voice in this conversation comes from German Theologian Dorothee Sölle whose words on mysticism could be interchanged with the work of the activist when she writes, “Mutual dependence is the fundamental model that mysticism has put in place of domination.”
Cole Arthur Riley: Contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life and the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds. At least that’s how I think about it.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast focused on the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spiritualties 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.
Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest. Black Liturgies is a project of the Center for Dignity and Contemplation, where she serves as the executive curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the recently published book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us .
Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Your new book is absolutely incredible and your work is so important. Thank you so much for being here.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you, and thanks for having me.
Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is just kind of a way to orient our conversation. I’m wondering how you personally define the words contemplation and mysticism, and maybe also how you see them lived out in the world today.
Cole Arthur Riley: I would say contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life in the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds, at least that’s how I think about it. How I see them in the world today, I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to–I think, especially in western contexts to have it show up, particularly mysticism, with any kind of clarity. It’s hard to see in other people. There are certainly these kinds of spaces where it’s safe to talk about one’s kind of exploration of mystical things, and mysticism, but I don’t find myself always in those spaces. I’ve lived a life kind of tangential to the academy, to college settings and worked with academics for many years and talking about their kind of connection to spirituality and what they do in their work or their research. And I found that was all very exciting. But when it came to talking about kind of element of mystery and the unknown, and in terms of engaging that spirituality, it was a little more difficult to do it felt like more is at stake almost.
Cassidy Hall: I love that fidelity to mystery or fidelity to magic. When I hear that, when I think about that, I also think of things like transcendence. And I’m wondering if you see any association with Reverend Dr. Holmes, Barbara Holmes, who talks about this notion of public mysticism. And I wonder if you see that fidelity to magic is also existent in activist movements?
Cole Arthur Riley: Absolutely. I think, that there’s something there. When you think about what activism requires, the kind of belief activism requires, the kind of moral imagination, just general imagination, it requires for you to kind of protest. You’re protesting, which shouldn’t be, but to do that it requires you have some kind of concept of what should be and I think that takes a lot of kind of contemplation and mystical work to, to dream up a different way, almost. But I think that there is a very credible tension, I would say between the life of a contemplative and the life of an activist. I talked about this in the book, briefly, that I had a boss and a mentor who said, right before I began writing This Here Flesh, she said, if there’s anyone that I’ve met who’s both contemplative and activist, they’ve never been able to do both well. If they’re out there, I haven’t met them. And I mean, immediately, I thought, that’s what I want. Challenge accepted. That’s who I want to be in the world. But also, I do think there’s something really credible about that tension that he was articulating. The kind of urgency I think that activism can seem to require and does require, at times can seem in conflict with the contemplative, but I don’t think it needs to be. I love what Barbara Holmes says about the contemplative life. I’m also thinking of this really brief article that Christian Wiman wrote for the Christian Century actually, a while ago, I think it was like a decade ago, he wrote about this tension of the contemplative in him and this kind of desire for action. Anyways, it’s a really beautiful remarks on what I’m describing about that tension.
Cassidy Hall: It’s kind of going back to a previous thing you said, where essentially, this idea that academics have a harder time hosting that ambiguity, hosting that space, you think it’s just this determination to put language to things or, what do you think that is?
Cole Arthur Riley: Well, I can see some of it in myself. I’m not an academic. I’ve worked closely with them and I’m not an academic… I think I was just kind of born a mystic and it was like, worked out in me. So when I was little, my sister and I–I’ve only just recently been reflecting on these weird stories, but my sister and I, we would like literally mix potions out of expired condiments and give each other these signs. Like you’re the sun sign today or you’re the moon sign. And in the book, I talk about this friendship, one of my earliest kind of friendships with this girl, and we would have like ceremonies in the field at recess before, I think we even understood what a ceremony was, we would like call them, this is our ceremony, and like eat chocolate icing and talk to clouds. And so I had something in me that, I think, as I grew up, became more and more legible. And what became more pronounced was like this hyper rationalism. It became serious and dare I say, rational. And when we speak of, I think, the mysterious and the miraculous, I do sometimes find it difficult to believe. I think maybe academics have had some of that childlike wonder and mischief worked out at them as well, drilled out of them. So it requires a resistance in me. This like resistance to the formation that says, clarity and like you were saying, articulation: “Clarity and articulation are the most important things.” I’m very suspicious of that. But I’ve been formed to think that that’s the most important thing. So anyway, I’m constantly trying to travel back and revisit my child self and her wisdom, kind of homecoming, really,
Cassidy Hall: And that fidelity to magic is also kind of like you’re saying this fidelity to play, to pleasure, to joy, to engaging with the natural world as your child self even and, of course, our adult selves. I’m thinking if I were to go make potions in the yard right now, which sounds like a great idea, and talk to the clouds which are pouring down rain right now. But my adult mind would so much say, oh, but rationalize this. You look crazy, or all these things that kind of hinder our fidelity to play or hinder our fidelity to this magic.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yes. It’s so true. It’s difficult. I’m not mixing potions in the basement anymore sadly, but I’m trying to learn how to just be open to mystery. But even mystery in the mundane I think. So I was watching the barn swallows. We have a barn on our property and the barn swallows are returning and just watching them fly earlier this afternoon and watching them kind of swoop and dance and make the wildest shapes in flight and somehow communicate. I start thinking how do birds do that? How do they know? And even just to kind of pause and let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit in that very mundane observation. It’s not quite the magic of the like recess ceremonies but there’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: I love that. Let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit. It’s beautiful. And your work with Black Liturgies is a work of artistry, poetry, therapy, activism. What’s the origin story of creating Black Liturgies?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes. So I started Black Liturgies in the summer of 2020 July, I believe, and what a summer that was. I feel like that’s forever going to be kind of etched into everyone’s consciousness. It was in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. And we had these resurfacing accounts of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. And I’d been in liturgical spaces for a handful of years by that point, and found a lot of rest, I think, rest and beauty and liturgy and I’ve always written and so it’s been a kind of natural way for me to connect with God. But I found myself so hungry, like so desperate for a spiritual space that was capable of holding my Blackness, the grief of the moment and the anger, my rage. I wanted a space that could hold that. And so I started Black Liturgies, kind of hoping to find some like-minded people.
Cassidy Hall: And within that work, do you continue to get in touch with kind of that that space of tension? I think my question is, is contemplation a part of your writing process and how do you maybe hold the tension in those moments when you write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah.. definitely… Black Liturgies is definitely developed and it’s continued to contain that the anger, the grief, but I think it’s expanded into other emotional expressions. I’m really interested in just connecting the body and embodiment and emotional experience… in my writing, I think I absolutely need contemplation and mysticism. I use this language, I made it up of contemplative storytelling in the book. So it was kind of important for me to put language to that, so it feels a little bit distinct. I’m really disinterested in contemplation, purely as a mental experiment. I think more and more people are. I’m interested in embodied contemplation and emotional contemplation, and I’m trying to nurture and preserve stories in the book that are so important to me. And I think they kind of demand a contemplation. If you want to use the language of attention, they demand a kind of sacred attention to ensure that I’m most honest, and a good steward of the stories. So one way that looks, I mean, I wrote my book in about three months. Of that time, around 15 – 17 days were actually spent writing, the other days were spent in listening, and in thought, and embodiment. Being attentive to the stories of my grandma and father, and resting in them as I sat in bed, or I sat in the shade of the oak tree next to my house. And an embodied contemplation as well. I very rarely will relay a movement or motion and a story without practicing them. I don’t describe a person folding a piece of paper without mimicking that in the air with my hands. And so it’s an embodied contemplation as a part of the writing process as well.
Cassidy Hall: That’s such a deep, deep commitment to the work. Like you’re saying, even folding the piece of paper in taking the time to really let the fullness of yourself engage and tell the story.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, seeing writing is just a small, small part of that.
Cassidy Hall: You also in the book, as you’re saying, you write so much about the mind, body, spirit connections, and the importance of embodiment and spirituality. And similarly to me, you write about the importance of undoing the whiteness of God. Do you think these things are connected and that as we move towards undoing the whiteness of God, we might also move towards a deeper embodiment of spirit as a closer enmeshment with the truth and the valuing expanse and have movement towards liberation from those hindrances of those false images?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, beautiful question. Yeah, I do I think the more we undo the whiteness of God, absolutely. I think we experience a kind of deeper and closer connection with the divine, I think, whiteness loves disembodiment. I’ve started to ask this question recently of like, when I’m disembodied, or when I’m kind of find myself really out of sync with my physical self. I’ve been asking my question, if you weren’t in your body today, who was? And the answer to that question has so often been like, white capitalism? The kind of threat of productivity and I think whiteness loves disembodied people because it makes those bodies more easy to colonize, and to take control over ultimately. And I think if you think about whiteness as a force, I mean, how does integrate it? Does have to be to commit the tears that I think whiteness is committed. You have to be a pretty disintegrated person, if you want to talk about what your body is doing. If you want to talk about the hand that holds the whip, and the chains, and then the person with the heart and an emotional experience, I think man has, emotional restriction that absolutely nurtured through the hand of whiteness, this emotional restrictions, detachment from one’s physical self and the acts you’re committing, and one’s emotional, self and empathy. So I think whiteness is absolutely a tool for disintegration–loves it, continues to nurture it. And the more we undo the kind of the force of whiteness in our spiritual imaginations, I think the more the divine, at least for me kind of expands, it opens up, it becomes less about narrowing in on exactly what one thinks about any given topic. And it becomes much more about this kind of play and curiosity and, mystery even and, you know, my thought doesn’t need to be supreme. My experience of God doesn’t need to be supreme in order for it to matter and have value to me. I think that’s kind of the shift you see? I mean, you’ve thought about this as well is that how you’ve experienced it in your own work?
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. The more undoing I experience and the more embodied I am, the more there is to the mystery, to the expanse, to God, God’s Self. I mean, it’s like a deeper pool. But instead of this being a terrifying space where I need to cling and name, it’s a space of freedom and a space of embracing the vastness of God and in myself and in other people, and in nature, and in the squirrel outside my window.
What you said earlier was a form of movement away from that sense of productivity and capitalism and whatnot, even the way you chose to write this book, the way you sat in story, the way you committed to having your body be in touch with story before you put pen to paper it sounds like. Was that like a conscious thing before you started doing that as practice? Or was that something that you kind of just knew you needed to do and it happened?
Cole Arthur Riley: Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. I think I was changed in the process of writing this book. Some of the stories, some of the familial stories I’d heard before. I’d heard fragments of them. But to become a kind of care caretaker of them in a new way, to have the responsibility of translating them to strangers, I think I felt a different kind of responsibility to their stories. And even now, my grandma passed while I was in the final stages of editing the book. And what that does to you in terms of wondering if you’ve done the stories justice. So as you know, as I was listening I’d call them pretty much on a weekly basis and I would have a series of questions for them and have them retell portions of stories or describe certain things. And sometimes I would video chat them or I have lots of videos from before I started writing the book that I would go through, and something about those moments felt so sacred and distinct that I couldn’t just rush to the page. If I would have rushed to the page, I probably would have brought all of me and very little of them ultimately, because I was so in my own experience of their stories, as a daughter, as a granddaughter. And so required some time and space and rest from the like, impulse of productivity, use these stories. How are you going to use these stories? I had to think how are you going to rest in them and honor them? And so that looked a lot like sitting around and staring at a wall or staring at a tree, for me to really be present. Toni Morrison, oh, she has these beautiful words in the sight of memory, where she talks about this practice of imagination for the interior worlds of the people that made her. She was talking specifically about her ancestors who were enslaved. But I think it definitely transcends that. What does it mean to have this really true and honest practice of imagination for my father’s world, for my grandma’s world, that requires time? And I love that she uses the language practice, because it is. And I think that’s really compatible with contemplation and what we’re talking about.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that practice is also a form of healing, and a form of finding your connectivity to the story and your movement into your truest self from those stories? Do you find that as a form of, maybe healing is the wrong word?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, it’s funny that you asked that because Morrison she talks about that practice of imagination. And then she says, they are my entrance. The people you are kind of cultivating this imagination for, they are my entrance into my own interior world. Which I think is really beautiful, and really profound. And I’m 31 and I think I’ll probably understand the depth of that as I age. But there’s something in that, that in encountering my father and my grandma’s stories, and resting in their interior worlds, their lived experiences, I become closer to myself. And there’s something really mysterious in it. Like I have a hard time articulating it if I’m honest, but I feel so close to myself, especially after writing the book, I felt nearer to my own soul than I ever felt. Because I think the honesty in their stories demanded an honesty in me. And so it brought me closer to what I think what I believe and what I’ve lived in my own body.
Cassidy Hall: I just want to name that you also have like this energy of utter groundedness that’s really centered. I experienced that in you, that you are close to yourself.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you.
Cassidy Hall: So I want to ask, and you can choose to answer both or neither of these, of course. I want to ask what was the hardest part of the book to write and what was the easiest part of the book to write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Storytelling really comes pretty easy, easily to me. In writing, I’ve realized very early on that my kind of strength as a writer is in storytelling and kind of play. But listening to the stories were, of course, difficult and costly, and going to the places that most parents and grandparents don’t want to take their children and granddaughters that was hard. But in the writing of it, it felt strangely natural. The contemplative kind of reflections throughout the book. Now those were more difficult for me because I have a really difficult time, pinning down what I want to say with any kind of certainty. So my editors will tell you that my earliest drafts were just like riddled with maybes and perhapses and I don’t know, could be. Because that’s just what contemplation is brought out and ultimately is more uncertainty. I think it’s a editors nightmare to make sense of that on page. What do you think? And my answer is like, well maybe, maybe not. That is really hard to communicate without sounding weak to have a kind of mystery and uncertainty in your contemplation that still feels like it has a depth, I think I learned it’s really difficult, because sometimes uncertainty can sound really shallow. And so it’s really afraid. If I don’t have a clear belief on this, well, it seemed like I haven’t thought deeply about it. And in paradox, I think the deeper you think about things, as most contemporaries will tell you, the more kind of curious and unsure you become. So I realized just how little I have a firm grasp on so the contemplative reflections were really difficult. I think when I’m 50, I’ll probably look back and just laugh at some of the things I’ve said, but at least I know I’ve told the truth, as best as I can tell it for who I am in this moment, but whooo it was difficult.
Cassidy Hall: Maybe some of those contemplative reflections are more expressed in like bodily knowing rather than language. So right, it was maybe just kind of what do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely that as well. This kind of, how do you communicate the embodied knowledge, the intuition, the kind of, I mean, I tell the story of a very significant dream in my grandmother’s life. She was a dreamer. And I’m a person of just a lot of skepticism and doubt, but I believe her. I don’t believe most things people tell me but I believe my grandma. I’ve never wavered in that. But it was really difficult to communicate for example, that dream. It’s a very mysterious dream of an encounter with her ancestors and her father, her father’s father, and uncles and aunts and all these people kind of surrounding her in a dream. Anyways… it’s really hard to communicate what I cognitively think about that experience versus like this embodied intuition I have when my grandma would tell the story. Things like that are really hard to think to translate into pages.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Another thing you talk about in the book is, you kind of push us away from this binary of right and wrong work. And you hone in on expressing the importance of instead focusing on work with integrity and protecting dignity. And in our society, so focused on individualism and productivity. What is your hopes that someone might take away from, from understanding this difference among the other binaries you point us away from?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, I think that society kind of has a vested interest in us making this big deal, this big theater of choosing what work we’ll do and what career we’ll have. I mean, especially if you’re privileged enough to attend college, it’s this very elaborate, vocational discernment. What are you going to do? What work are you going to choose? And that’s how we think about vocation. Man, I’m more and more suspicious of that. And like, oh, okay, when you have that sense of connection, that sense of I was meant to do this, how much easier is it then for a society and like a capitalist driven society to use that and say, like, do, do, do. you know, God’s going to use you? Or, I mean, even if that’s your kind of spiritual formation, how is God going to use you think society and that spiritual formation work in tandem to really get the most out of our bodies that they can possibly get. How exhausting. Now, if you have an idea of vocation, and that discernment is like, how will I do my work, becomes a little more difficult to exploit. If you think it’s about how am I going to do this work with integrity? How am I going to protect dignity and my work? It has a way of disarming I think, the powers that be, the systems that are more concerned with using you because it de-centers a product and it centers like a connection and an honoring. That’s one example as you said. I think I was more and more when I thought about communicating a liberating spirituality in the book. I did want to dismantle these binaries of like, this is the right kind of way and this is the wrong way and more so have us think about the why and the how and the lived experience of a thing as opposed to this definitive choice. Anyways, I think for me at least, the more I experience kind of contemplation as well as the divine God, as a with a fluidity, I think just the more free and like playful and curious I am in my daily life. It feels very liberating to me to not know or to not choose the right way or the wrong way and instead just ask why to convey a human experience. So anyways, people ask me what I want people to take away from this book. And I say in the book, I don’t really want people to come away thinking what I think. I think that would be a real failure on my part. As a contemplative, I would be really proud if people put the book down and were closer to themselves in some way, and closer to their, their own kind of interior world closer to the lives they occupy, and that they feel more free to explore what they think and believe.
Cassidy Hall: That reminds me of a quote from your book, where you write “protect the truest things about you, and it will become easier to hear the truth everyplace else.” Which is incredibly powerful, and goes back to what we’re talking about earlier about the true self and finding the true self. And it seems to me that a lot of true self theology, for lack of better expression, has kind of got that wrong, because it seems to me a lot of true self theology actually hosts some of those binaries and capitalistic and white supremacist values that are guised as your true self is within those. And it seems to me that you’re pointing us to a true self in a in a really new way.
Cole Arthur Riley: You know, I haven’t thought about it the way you’ve put it. But yeah, I hope I’m doing that I think there can be a kind of like, true self theology that becomes about pinpointing. The journey to your true self is about pinpointing these very clear things about yourself. I’m an introvert or I’m this or that, and it becomes this kind of process of narrowing. I’m really interested in expert exploration of my true self is, again, an expanding. So instead of narrowing in on this is, what that means you are these qualities I’m trying to travel into stories that have formed me. I’m trying to, I think encountering my true self, for me means just, you know, even just the practice of going back to six year old Cole and, you know, resting in a memory or these fragments, and not necessarily always needing to make a clear judgment about that, but there’s value in the encounter itself, the nearness itself with that story or that that experience.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Who are some people today that you might name as mystics or contemplatives in our midst?
Cole Arthur Riley: Ocean Vuong certainly comes to mind. A poet and writer who I really admire. Rita Dove, she’s a poet. She has that very famous phrase, if you can’t be free be a mystery. Who else? John O’Donohue, I would say Christian Wiman, who I mentioned earlier. As I’m saying this, what all these people have in common that I that really excites me is that they’re all poets, maybe even primarily poets. And I think that probably reveals a kind of innate trust I have in poets. James Baldwin, I mean, he talks a lot about the artists and the role of the artists. But at one point, he says that only poets, I’m paraphrasing, only poets can be trusted to tell the truth. I’ve just revealed that in myself, you know, there’s something about the heart of a poet, I think, that allows, you know, poetry, it’s not really about communicating a clear idea. It’s these images, it’s these fragments, often it’s the impressions that one is left with after they encounter a poem. And so I think, I have to think about this more, but now I’m getting really energized by the idea of like, what do poets know that we don’t know about contemplation and mysticism. There’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: So Cole another question I want to ask you is, what is your hope for the future of Black Liturgies and for your book?
Cole Arthur Riley: I mean, Black Liturgies I hope it continues to be this kind of harbor. I mean, it’s hard. It’s a public harbor. So you always have to ask yourself how safe is the space if you can’t control who’s was in it? Who comes and who goes so? Yeah, but I hope to kind of find ways to continue to protect people in that space protect black people in that space and kind of have it be, a kind of harbor for black emotion, the black body, black literature, and yeah, kind of spirituality that just feels safe and restful and nuanced, I hope. And I mean… I’m just trying to become more and more honest. You know, in my writing. I mentioned, I’m 31. I think that the art and the literature that I’m most drawn to, it’s the people who have been able to find some connection with this deeply honest self. It even at cost and risk. I think I took some of those risks, and this year, but I hope to do that more and more, as my writing develops, to have more of a more of a closeness to, like an honesty and me.
Cassidy Hall: I’m so grateful for your work and I really look forward to continuing to hear more from you, Thank you for the beautiful things you shared today, even the very beginning when you talked about contemplation as a certain commitment to paying attention and mysticism, as a fidelity to magic. And the way you talked about your writing practice. The way that almost gave me a sense of permission. Anytime I go into a writing space, the world tells us we’re supposed to write the whole time and we’re supposed to sit and write even if it’s garbage that comes out you’re supposed to sit and write, but the permission you gave me today to let my body know more about what I’m doing and what I’m saying was just really encouraging to me. So thank you.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you and thanks for having me. It’s been a really very good and peaceful conversation. So I’m grateful that you have trusted me with your space that you’re creating with your podcast. So thanks again. Yeah,
Cassidy Hall: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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.
This beautiful compilation of blessings from enflshed was a powerful project to be a part of. You can order this incredible book of blessings, “HELD: blessings for the depths” here. (Note: The first run of the book sold out and this is a pre-order for the second run). You can read the blessing I contributed below:
The Reminder Blessing, by Cassidy Hall
This blessing crossed the rivers of certitude, the seas of tension, the storms of life, and dropped at your feet in-between all that is known and unknown.
This blessing is here to swaddle you in care.
This blessing made space for your feelings, heard your worries, saw your emotions, and gently said: “nothing about you is too much.”
This blessing is proud to be with you.
This blessing has been waiting its whole life to be with you.
This blessing woke up next to you saying, “good morning,” to the most marvelous person it has ever met.
This blessing is a lover in disguise.
This blessing is the reminder of your oceanic oneness with the world, the beloved, yourself, your neighbor, and the stranger.
This blessing keeps showing up.
This blessing is hearty and vigorous, tender and sensitive.
This blessing is your permission to let go
and your encouragement to hold on.
This blessing is the reminder of that softened inner stance which offers the least resistance to the gift of you.
This is the blessing you’ve been waiting for, and also never needed.
I was also asked by a friend earlier this year to add a homily or reflection to a forthcoming book from Clear Faith Publishing. True to form, I wrote about the power of doubt for the 3rd Sunday of Easter and somehow found myself published alongside some brilliant voices. You can find “Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C” from Clear Faith Publishing or on Amazon. You can read my piece below:
The Doubt of Jesus, by Cassidy Hall
I’ve been a skeptic about God for as long as I can remember. Around the age of 8, I began having reoccurring dreams about death. Dreams of floating in a sea of nothingness: alone, lost, stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. Even years before these dreams began, I was already asking questions of the divine. But throughout my life, these questions weren’t always welcomed.
In middle school, I became really interested with spirituality and the possibilities it beheld. I had friends in various youth groups and from time to time I’d attend those groups with them. At that age, the events were more about feeling a sense of belonging. The gatherings were often deeply entangled with the emotional manipulation of the minds and hormones of young teens.
Once, while I was at an evangelical conference with the local youth group, I continued my skepticism and questioning, but this time was different. During one evening’s session, I was moved to participate in an altar call and was immediately flooded with questions of what I had just done. As we gathered in our small groups after the session, my youth leader told me, “Your questions are of the devil.” My insides stirred with a surprised, “huh?” But, baffled and confused, I went along with the adult in the room and regretfully shut my mouth.
Over twenty years later, I find myself in seminary and pursuing ordination more full of questions about the divine 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 questions and doubts with pride. I remember to bask in the questions, because they mean growth, change, and movement. But, perhaps most importantly, I remember questions take me to the place of infinite possibility, the place where God resides.
It seems to me faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Faith makes room for doubt’s entrance as doubt demands faith for its existence. One cannot host doubt unless there is some knowledge of that which is being doubted. Therefore to doubt, is to both have and demonstrate faith.
When I look at John 21, I sometimes wonder if Jesus asked Peter three times not because of his three denials but because he actually doubted him. Perhaps the humanness of Jesus needed a sense of affirmation and clarity, like the times I need to hear a truth on repeat from a loved one. And, what if Jesus was also instilling his faith in Peter by revealing his doubt? What if doubt belongs to faith more than knowing or even thinking I know?
In my experience, humans have ruined my doubts and questions. God, on the other hand, has valued, honored, and even respected them. I often find the more I question and am honest about my doubt, the more God shows up –– in the mystery, in the uncertainty, in the unknowing. And, so I wonder, what if Jesus asking questions is a model for our own questioning? What if Jesus was living and loving the questions?
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke to young aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus. “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.”
What if Jesus, in his humanness, was openly living and loving the questions amid his uncertainty of what the church might become? What if Jesus, in all his divinity, was modeling a way to hold uncertainty, unknowing, and the infinite possibilities within the unknowing?
For me, doubts and questions are fruits of a life of faith. Doubt reminds us to engage our questions, to search the books, to ask the neighbor, to grow and learn and engage. Doubt belongs to faith in the same way that mystery belongs to God. And 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” on that trip I was a kind of project for people to huddle around and convert. And amid all of that misinformation
Amid all of the lies and good intentions with false pretenses, God was with and within me.
Honoring my unbelief.
Respecting my doubt.
Reminding me to love and live the questions.
Opening me into the infinite possibility where God is.
Prayer: God of all questions, Teach me to hold the doubt and love the questions. Lead me to the infinite possibilities in them, the very same possibility found in your tomb. Help me to bask in the awe of mystery, give me a sense of safety and comfort there. Grant me the courage to hold uncertainty, the resilience to carry unknowing, and the endurance to bask in all of life’s mysteries. Remind me, O God, that basking in mystery is basking in you.
DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I am a mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me. I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not?
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.
Davelyn Hill is the Executive Director for Speaking Down Barriers. Speaking Down Barriers is an organization whose mission is equity for all. It seeks to build community across all that seeks to divide us by ending oppression and valuing everyone. Davelyn has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Converse College, and is currently working on a Master’s in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry. Davelyn is a poet activist, and alongside providing counseling services, she’s led support groups, presented research and conducted University presentations around racial trauma and oppression. Davelyn Hill, also known as Davelyn Athena, has been published by the Plants and Poetry Journal, and has also been featured by Spark and Echo.
CASSIDY HALL: Well, Davelyn, thank you so much for joining today.
DAVELYN HALL: You are very welcome. I’m glad to be here.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways I like to kind of begin orienting our conversation is by asking you what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you. And how do you see them lived out in the world today?
DAVELYN HALL: That’s a — I mean, you have some questions, but I don’t know, I feel overwhelmed by the idea of mysticism. I’ll start with that one. Just when you hear about the Desert Fathers and some of the people who have known God in ways that make me wonder about how it’s even possible to be close and achieve some sort of like felt oneness is kind of what I think about when I think about mysticism, is being super connected to God, so much so that you feel you have a felt feeling of oneness. I believe that oneness can exist without you feeling it, but I feel like my particular journey as a mystic is to be united, have a like a uniting with the universal Christ. That’s kind of what I see. And so when I think about people, some of the nuns of old and people who have had experiences that they then go back and relate to us, like Luther has, is to have said to have those meetings with God is just as amazing. And because of like, our society is so focused on logic, it feels like oh, well, that’s extra biblical. You know, a lot of people say, that doesn’t matter, your experiences don’t matter, the only thing that matters is the word because it’s written. And you’re like mmhhmm for a lot of folks it wasn’t written when it was happening not for them, they didn’t have access. So, I sometimes wonder if our logically… from kind of having the uniting that many of the mystics talk about. And so I think of contemplation as a way… to see mysticism lived out. So if I live a contemplative life and prayer as the mundane or in the mundane, contemplating blades of grass or thinking deeply about things that just kind of happen in the earth, in the universe, and how that leads us back to the creator in oneness. And so having a contemplative life through like reading, and journaling, and meditation, and community, and serving leads me to having then mystical experiences.So then I can refer to myself as a mystic. Because I don’t know how else you’d get there without contemplation.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love the things you’re saying and you also said, correct me if I’m wrong, but you said I believe oneness can exist without feeling it. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit more into that? Because it seems to me, right, there’s an effort to contemplative life that maybe draws us into mysticism that draws us into the oneness. And sometimes we don’t feel it because we’re doing it.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I get. And that my feelings I can speak to those are, they’re varied. And so I keep working toward the feeling but the oneness already exists. So I come from just believing in my doctrine that I’m already connected to God that I’m already in oneness. And so my journey is having that felt oneness. So become more and more able to kind of tap into oneness in my life. And so that comes and goes. One day can be like, ah bliss, I’m so connected to the God of the universe. Oh! And the next day, I’m like is there a God? I think there is based on like my feelings. And so that’s what I meant by like, I have oneness every day whether I tap into it or not.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, right, right, that makes a lot of sense. And what about this oneness in terms of our unity with our fellow human? So I guess along with that, do you think that there’s an important aspect of being a contemplative and/or mystic that also innately makes us an activist and or someone who points to the collective unity of all of humanity?
DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I’m am mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me, I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not? Because each person kind of gives us another picture of who God is, and so how each time I’m connected to people in community, they reveal another part of God that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And so as they either growing towards their relationship with God and opening oneness, or are suffering because of the injustice in the world, and so I’m connected to that as well, to the suffering of God, the suffering of the Christ. And so if I’m not connected to those people, how do I get to see that lens? I can’t. And then also like, we’re literally the love of God made flesh. And so without us people don’t get to see God and we don’t get to see God. And so I don’t understand how — I really don’t. I’d love to meet some folks to tell me you know, I can live this life on my own and be connected to God and it’s wonderful... Right? Like, that’s what I think anyway.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. So in your work with Speaking Down Barriers, which is about fostering dialogue and trust among people with different backgrounds and experiences, first of all, maybe you could tell us maybe the origin story of Speaking Down Barriers, and then I could ask a follow up question about that.
DAVELYN HALL: Sure. Speaking Down Barriers started in November of 2013. And it started originally, as poetry and conversation. Before the start in 2013, the founder of Speaking Down Barriers name is Marlanda Dekine and they were at a conference and did a poem and Scott Neely who is our current chief strategist heard her do a poem and was like [gasps] that was amazing how it transformed the room. It was like, ooh, then he saw her again, and same thing happened. And so they decided, I want to have poetry and conversation. And so Marlanda, who was a spoken word poet, she’s an amazing poet. She and some other spoken word poets, all black, or for the most part black, got together and started to do this poetry and conversation, and it began to grow. And Marlanda decided to make it Speaking Down Barriers. It was named by our current Admin Support, she was looking for a name like not poetry and conversation. So it moved into, well, we want to speak down barriers, and so that’s how it got its name. And so Speaking Down Barriers had poetry, conversation and food. And so you know, what’s better than that? A communal meal where you can eat together, starts that way, we talk about a topic, whatever it is, open up with a dialogue question and then poetry pushes that dialogue to places it couldn’t go, especially first person narratives. It was for you to argue with your first person narrative poem. They can listen to it and receive it, and so it bypasses some of that stuff that comes up and blocks us when we think logically only. And also it causes us to feel things in our bodies. Whereas a lot of time I know for me, I didn’t even recognize my body was actually a part of life. It was so much lived in my head, and it feels and I was like, wait a minute, feelings actually happen in your body. So what am I actually feeling? And spoken word made me feel that. In 2015 it became speaking down barriers and then started to reach out and do trainings. Our current mission is equity for all, we revamped that in 2020. And beginning to think about what the world looks like when there’s equity for all? Well, first of all, it’s ending oppression, all kinds, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all the gender violence, the ways that immigrants are treated in this country, all of that. All of that kind of oppression needs to go. And then also valuing everyone. So while I might not agree with you, I value your humanity because you are human; when I devalue you, I’ll lose myself. So we’ll have to hold on to that, even if I don’t agree with you. And I can have a conversation with folks I don’t agree with as long as their disagreement doesn’t oppress me, I’m okay. When we start to get oppression, I can no longer be in conversation with you, but I still believe in your dignity as a human.
CASSIDY HALL: I’m over here, just like jotting down all these notes of these beautiful things you’re saying. You can’t be a mystic without being connected to community, and this notion of poetry, being able to transform the room, and what you just said, when I devalue you I lose myself. I mean, these are just such profound things. And I’m seeing the ways that this goes back to the beginning of the conversation where we talked about that experience of oneness, and its existence of oneness with God, with each other, and how to touch that. And I’m wondering if you’ve experienced kind of the moments where we touch that or where you’ve been able to touch that with other people in a room, with poetry as this transforming force that maybe takes us to this liminal space or this transcendent space.
DAVELYN HALL: It’s a good word, yeah, transcendence. Yeah, I’ve been in many rooms where this has happened. Where even things are stuck, until a poet does a poem. And it’s like, all of a sudden the room opens up. Or we’ve also started using art. So we’ve been using virtual spaces, so the art is like in your face, you can do it on zoom, where like the art is like, wow! Okay, so I’m seeing this art, hearing from the artist, and hearing their experience. And all of a sudden, the room opens up again, things you never thought of — It’s a tool of expansion. And so I’m really big on freedom chants, I love a freedom chant. Freedom Chants all the way from enslaved folks using the oral tradition, using language for all kinds of purposes, using it to be incognito, to plot the way forward, to encourage hearts then becoming part of the gospel tradition and become a huge and civil rights. And I feel like now — it’s even now, I was always been existing, but it feels like I’m more aware of it now. And so I’ve been in rooms where freedom chants have done the same thing. It’s like a uniting, like a oneness when we’re all like fighting and singing and hoping for the same, for equity, for justice and for just being able to kind of live and thrive.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. One of the things I noticed is that you define yourself not solely as poet nor solely as an activist, but as a poet activist. And I wonder if you could share what it means to merge these words as a role. Are poets also innately activists, by the nature of the way poets use words to transform or transcend the moment to point to something that could be amid what is?
DAVELYN HALL: I think when you say it like that, that’s it.
CASSIDY HALL: I guess to be fair, right, we can we can all misuse words still.
DAVELYN HALL: Mhmm. Yeah. And I don’t necessarily think — so when I use the word activist, I mean, speaking truth to power. And so in that way, not all poets are activists. Now, in the way that they kind of reveal what is and can a lot of times cause like all of the fluff around something to disappear so that you get to the heart of the matter, then in that way, I believe they could all be activists. To be able to take nature, even the way of like words worth and be like, wow, I see nature anywhere, have a deeper appreciation for nature. Or when I read Mary Oliver stuff, I’m wowed by the beauty of language and the ability of language to connect us in a way. Mary Oliver, and I don’t have anything common, but when she puts the words on the page, we have a lot in common. So in that way, like, causing humanity to maybe appreciate itself, and to see us in each other’s eyes, then I think it definitely works. However, I don’t think we all use poetry to speak truth to power. And that’s what I mean, when I say a poet activist. I want to use my words to make people feel something, like Julie Cameron says that she wanted her words make people feel something and I want the same. And so when you feel something though I want you to do something, and hopefully to be a part of the fixing the problem, be a part of change whatever that looks like.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. In your work do you see this work of poet activist, and mystic as intertwined? Do you see those as similar or one that leads to the other or is there a relationship there I guess I’m wondering?
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, sometimes like when I talk about the felt oneness, you have to pick up your pen and write down a poem because it’s like grand. And then other times, I’m just kind of writing from humanity, from that place of kind of whatever I’m experiencing, sometimes about various like traumas and joys, both. Find the page, but then sometimes there’s that work that you know, this poem was not mine. I’m just scribing it down.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Do you think there’s anything to learn from contemplation and/or mysticism that informs things like activism and/or collective protest or movements that take place today? And then vice versa, right? Can those also feed the contemplation and feed the mystical moments?
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, I do. I do. I think when lots of people, especially you’re out in protesting and taking care of each other, making sure people have water and making sure that people are taking care of themselves, even in the midst of kind of protesting the state, that for me is beautiful community and an opportunity to think about in the moment, but definitely after the moment, like what was that like? How do we share with each other? Did we move anything forward? Having those discussions, I think helps you lead a contemplative life. So I think the feedback loop works both ways. And yeah, those things definitely feed poetry, I think, because poetry is of the stuff of everyday life too. And so being able to kind of really live in moments, with other people and alone, and see God in those moments, I feel like helps the page and helps the poetry, which then goes forth for people to read and enjoy and be moved by. I mean I write poems for myself too, but I want people to read it. And I think most people — well, some people do write just for their journal and just for themselves, but that’s just not the kind of poetry or painting or anything that I do. It’s not just for me.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Speaking of I would love for you to read a poem. I do want to ask one more question before we get to that. You talked a lot about logic at the beginning of the conversation. Do you think our obsession with logic and knowing and wanting to do things right and the talking about the thing but not doing the thing, do you think that makes — it doesn’t make us slow down, but doesn’t it also make things just less close to the oneness and the way it makes a lot of things inaccessible or unreachable or like there’s just too many words in the way?
DAVELYN HALL: I frequently feel that.
CASSIDY HALL: Even my own right now, right?
DAVELYN HALL: No, no, no, I frequently feel that way that there are so many words, so so many, and even in silence, people like are like oh I had silent time today. But really, the silent time was music, with words, and it was reading. And so like even self wasn’t silent, even though you are alone, like solitude does not equal without words. And so, I’ve been thinking about that previously, like what does it mean to actually breathe in a moment, with actual silence. Not the phone, not scrolling, even not writing and journaling about it, but actual silence. So yeah, I think it does make things inaccessible. There are some things that just really need to be felt. We’re talking about — I was talking to a group of people who were talking about language and how even we who don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate, you can communicate heart and care and concern. Wow, I think that that means something. Yeah.
CASSIDY HALL: So at this ordination, where our paths crossed, you wrote and you read a beautiful poem, titled Beloved Community, which moved me and I’m sure everyone else in that room to tears. And I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading that for us today?
DAVELYN HALL: I do not mind at all. Thank you. I really love to hear that it moved folks. It’s really, you know, I want to make people feel and so feeling is not necessarily — I guess there is a direct feeling. I’d like people to feel connected to each other, connected to God, connected to themselves, that poetry would be connection.
Beloved Community, by Davelyn Hill
Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives. Martin Luther King Jr.
The image of God we shine like constellations in the galaxy.
Beloved, be loved, one who is loved, taken care of, needs met, heart filled, accepted, forgiven much for terrible and for inaction, not fighting for the least of these and still being the beloved,
Community, I am because we are,
Sharing the cup, being the body, binding each other’s wounds in places we cannot reach ourselves.
We are the bride,
God calls us woman, exalts woman, asks us to become woman,
To receive all our good from Spirit to enter into a covenant relationship.
We co-create, expand, thrive, all things become shared,
Humanity, flaws, and all
Love made visible through flesh.
Beloved Community loves all, endures all, because we do it together,
Like trees gathered in a forest, like wandering lights in the night sky, who create constellations, binding each other’s wounds, loving the least of these because we are the least of these.
We are the image of God,
At times bruised and broken, beloved, be loved.
We are the Beloved Community,
Ashe and Amen.
CASSIDY HALL: Thank you. Yeah, just as powerful once again. I also found some of your work on a page called plants and poetry.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So I have gone through years of illness, and at times, just really unable to do anything. And during that time, I had a tree outside my window, and I named the tree Dolores. And yes, Dolores, I would stare Dolores, I would talk to Dolores. And Dolores got me through, just thinking about her roots. I read a book on trees while I was ill, and just learning about trees and how they communicate with each other, and they’re super smart. And it’s just God’s little design is amazing. But yeah, like they communicate with each other, they help each other survive attacks, they will give with the other trees need and receive what they need from the other trees. And so just looking at the Delores after having read that I was like, I don’t know, like there’s some kind of vibrational thing happening between us. And we are all connected and we’re connected to all of life. And so I wrote a poem, a short poem about Delores in a Plants and Poetry journal, took it in…
CASSIDY HALL: I mean, I really want you to read that now. And you named her Dolores.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, so it’s really short, but it says it’s called Dolores.
Delores, by Davelyn Hill
The tree outside my windows name is Dolores.
I open my blinds in the morning and she waves at me.
This morning, she was changing clothes.
The beautiful green she normally wears turned into hues of orange, red and yellow.
I was too tired to change clothes.
The wind blew so fiercely, that she shook and trembled.
I would love to see her roots.
I’d wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes.
CASSIDY HALL: That’s great. Thank you.
So Davelyn, thank you so much for joining and just for this incredible conversation. And I’m wondering where people can find you and find your work, and if you’re working on anything currently that we should be on the lookout for?
DAVELYN HALL: Sure, thanks. So Speaking Down Barriers website is http://www.speakdownbarriers.org. And not speaking, but speak down. And on our website page, and we’re also on Facebook, and Instagram at Speak Down Barriers. You can find out all the things. We’re having all of our events virtual at the moment, so we love it when people come from far away and from post by. Just love all the peoples to come and have a conversation. We’re really trying to build a multi-ethnic coalition and the only way we can do that is by having conversations together. Also we can find our poets, we have a spotlight poet every four months. And currently, her name is Sharae “FIRE” Walton, but we’ve all called her “Fire.” Fire is amazing as well. So people can find out about her work and the people who come before her. ShAy Black and a Hayle Oswell, (AKA Celestial Poet) had been our previous spotlight artists. And we want people to come and share their poetry and their life. And they do an awesome job using poetry and art to push us forward. It is good to get to know someone, so after four months, I feel like we know these poets and they know us in some part of the community. Right now I myself am holding abolition really close to my heart. I consider myself an abolitionist. And for me, that means abolition is creating things. So it means creating a world where everybody can thrive and where we have things set up for harm like conflict-mediation and conflict-resolution, conflict-coaching. We also have transformative healing circles and we have places where harm can be mitigated versus the system that we have with over-policing, over-surveillance, and just profiting off of crime, making things that really aren’t criminal-criminal, making things more important than people. And so while that exists, I just can’t get behind that system. So I want to bring it all down, and also build. So it’s a both-and for me.
CASSIDY HALL: Thank you so much for joining me today and for taking the time to chat. I really, really appreciate it and I’m grateful for your work. I’m grateful for your voice. And yeah, the mystical presence that you brought that day when I heard you read poetry was transformative and transcendent, so thank you.
DAVELYN HALL: Well, thank you. Sometimes I wonder, I think what my words are doing. I spend a lot of time with just sending my work out, somebody to take my work, somebody take my work. And so on the other end of that is like in the felt experience of folks. And so it gives me kind of joy, I think, oh, the work is doing something regardless of what it does in other places. When I hear from people, it’s like, okay, my work is doing good doing, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
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.Support the Podcast
“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.
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.
Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more.
Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary, I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.
The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you.
Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.
The Christian Century(progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.
This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall
I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.
Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.
(Below is a piece of mine which originally appeared on the enfleshed website. For more Moments for Common Nourishment from enfleshed, go here.)
Here we are, beloveds. We’re making it through the final month of 2020. The year of chaos and discourse that left us wounded, grieving, lost, amiss. The year when time went too fast and too slow all at once. The year of deeper collective awakening to the injustices around and within us.
But, we made it.
We’re making it.
While on a walk around the park today, I stopped to pause and gaze at a leaf. One leaf. A singular friend hanging on, despite the arrival of winter, despite the pain of 2020, despite it all. This leaf reminded me that mourning, grieving, and letting go is difficult for all of us—the trees, too. But this leaf also reminded me that sometimes our staying and our hanging on is an act of courage, an assertion in remaining, an allegiance to steadiness amid the turmoil.
In 1967-68, an artist and nun named Corita Kent made a list of 10 rules for her art department. The list opened with “Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.” And by our very remaining, I wonder if that’s precisely what we’re doing. Our very staying to see 2020 through and withstand its tumultuous weather is an act of courageous trust.
I celebrate your resilience.
I bow to your persistence.
I honor your strength.
Wherever you are at the end of this year, maybe you need to stay, maybe you need to let go, but I urge you to carry forth the resilience you have proven. I ask that you remember the grief you have waded and the awakenings you have come to know.
We are undoubtedly bound together by all that has transpired this year. Our connectedness has revealed itself in new and astonishing ways. I now know all the more deeply that my actions are bound up in our communal well-being. I now understand all the more clearly that your woundedness is carried in my tears, and mine in yours.
And, this leaf. This singular commonality of holding on in the midst of letting go presents differently in each of us. But at the same time, it also binds us together in that place of hidden unity, mysterious rootedness, ineffable silence.
We not only belong to each other, but in the deepest place, in the crux of the imago dei, we are each other.
79 years ago today, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani Abbey, three days after Pearl Harbor.
52 years ago today, he died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a lecture on “Marxism & Monastic Perspectives.”
At the end of his talk, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.” Some call this prophetic, but I think it was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy (and controversial) talk.
Many of you know I’ve begun to sway away from Merton in some of my scholarship, recognizing we don’t need to admire more white-cis-male leaders. I’ve always been open about critiquing Merton, and will continue to be. To be frank, I think Merton himself would be on board with this (despite him being an enneagram 4 and needing to feel special). I think he would also be seeking out more work and scholarship by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other People of Color.
Why does this matter? For me, it matters because perpetuating voices who already have great attention in our world makes other brilliant voices more difficult to find. For me, it matters because lifting up white-cis-male voices elongates said power and feeds an already patriarchal and white-supremacist world. For me, it matters because white-cis-men have very little grasp on the fullness of the human experience when it comes to marginalization and oppression. I cannot learn from Merton, for instance, what it’s like to be Black in America. Merton cannot convey the pain of being Queer and rejected. He can provide historical perspective or researched ideas, but a white-cis-male cannot speak well into the fullness of an oppressive situation separate from his identity.
For me, it matters because the generalized cis-white-male experience is far from inclusive of all people, is far from understanding all oppressions, is far from understanding all experiences. For me, when I yield to thoughts and theologies that oversimplify oppression, I participate in the dominative systems at hand.
The fullness of liberation lies with the fullness of voices. And so long as I participate in perpetuating the domination of cis-white-male voices in spiritual leadership, I perpetuate slower movement toward the fullness of liberation for all people (shoutout to Womanist methodology).
Merton was controversial in his time, indeed. His words are relevant and helpful, indeed. His correspondence and work focused on and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences, indeed. He himself was an immigrant from France, indeed. He speaks prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in, indeed.But, what am I reading whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives NOW?What voices am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial TODAY?
This is my journey, not yours, not someone else’s. Merton himself spoke to the significance of integrity saying, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. …They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain effort to be some other poet, some other saint.” And, it is my hope that we all find and navigate our own journeys, whether privately or openly. The fullness of myself relies on the fullness of you, that we might all be true to our uniqueness and dive deeper into communal care.
The spiritual life is simultaneously simple and complex, infinitely static and dynamic. May we all find our own sacred center so that we can continue evolving and participating in each other’s liberation, each other’s freedom, and each other’s fullness of self.
“We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.”
(Note: I am well aware of Merton’s works on other faiths and correspondences with: Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rachel Carson, works in the Sufi tradition, James Baldwin, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., studies in Taoism, exploration in indigenous wisdom, Hesychasm, Judaism, Protestant Tradition, … … …)
It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.
Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.
Mysticism is a riot.
In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.
The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.
Mysticism breeds revolution.
Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”
Mysticism is a protest.
Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.
Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves: Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
Mysticism is on the streets.
So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”
Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”
For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”
Mysticism is now.
If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.
Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.