Sacred Attention | A Conversation with Cole Arthur Riley

Transcript:

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.

[OUTRO] 

Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

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The Unnamed Mystics | A Conversation with Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw

TRANSCRIPT:

Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw: …here I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements. For me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern context is most of our mystics go unnamed? 

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. Kimberly D. Russaw is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature where she serves as the chair of the African American Biblical Hermeneutics Program Unit. She’s also an editorial board member of the Journal of Biblical Literature. Dr. Russaw’s many publications include Revisiting Rahab: Another Look at the Woman of Jericho, Daughters of the Hebrew Bible, and a work in the expanded edition of Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. She received her PhD in Hebrew Bible in Ancient Israel from Vanderbilt University. And she’s an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

CASSIDY HALL: Well Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I am pleased as punch to share virtual space with you. It’s been a minute.

CASSIDY HALL: It has, it has. So one of the ways I love to begin the conversation, so that we’re kind of on the same page is asking you how you define words like contemplation, and mysticism, and maybe also what they mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So this is pretty interesting because I often do not think about contemplation and mysticism, pun intended. But in anticipation of my Cassidy time, I said, well, as I think about or the way I like to frame or image contemplation and mysticism, because I do think they’re different. I think they probably rub up against each other, but I do think they’re different. To me, contemplation is a much more deliberate activity, a person decides to engage in this work. They both can have an aspect of spirituality to them, the contemplation is much more about the intentional thought and reflection. And to me, mysticism is much more involuntary. The moments of mysticism, if you will, you don’t plan for them, you don’t decide or make it part of your regular routine, it just happens to you. So perhaps, one way to think about it is a person is in the subject position when it comes to contemplation, but in the object position when it comes to mysticism. To me, mysticism carries with it much more of a sense of engagement or connection to the divine. But in a way that seems first of all, very special to you. Everybody does not have mystical experience but everybody could decide to be contemplative. Also, there seems to be this element of privacy or singularity when it comes to mysticism or mystic acts; at least when I think about them in the Hebrew Bible, they most often seem to occur when nobody else is around. So I think about not just Moses experience with the burning bush, but I also think about his experience on Mount Sinai. He’s the only one there to have this encounter and there’s something different about him when the encounter is over. For the most part, the mystic that seems to happen one-on-one. I do say for the most part, because I think that what we see over in one of the Samuels, where they Saul is with the prophets, he has this frenzied engagement, and he’s with a group of prophets. So it’s more it’s not a singular or a one off or solo experience, but it is a group. Those are my thoughts. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I wonder because when we look at the Hebrew Bible those words aren’t used. So I wonder, the way we talk about things like contemplation and mysticism today makes them seem inaccessible, even by the way that we frame them with those words. Does that make sense? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I agree with you. I think there may be something to this notion of language that in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps what we are seeing termed as visions are mystic experiences. So then when we see young Samuel and Eli, and Samuel, he is supposed to be asleep, and he hears his name called and he goes to Eli and Eli says, I’m not calling your name. That, to me is a mystic experience, but the text will refer to it as a vision. We see it all the time in the prophets. Everybody’s walking around either having a vision, or talking about a vision, that may really have been a mystic experience. Even Abraham, you don’t wait to the prophets to got them over in Genesis.

CASSIDY HALL: And I was lucky enough to take Hebrew Bible class from you and it was truly the first time I experience and was open to the Hebrew Bible and graspable way. I honestly avoided it, until your class. So it seems to me that a major part of your work and what womanist work does is it contextualizes and rebirths connecting us to our everyday lives, which is what I experienced in that class. And you wrote in Wisdom in the Garden, that “Womanist ways of reading the biblical texts are subversive, and that by and large they disrupt tightly held images of God and God’s relationship to humanity.” So my question off this is, this is really sacred work, when did you realize that this was a part of your vocation and your call? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Cassidy, I think I’m still realizing. I can tell you for sure that when I understood I had a call to ministry, and then when I understood that call was something different from traditional pulpit ministry, it never dawned on me, oh, you’re going to be doing some subversive work, and this is going to be how you going to contribute to the larger world–not really, never thought of it that way. I now understand that at the core of what I think I’m doing is I am providing people with the tools and the permission to see others differently. We start by seeing others in the text or seeing the text differently. And my hope in especially overlooked characters or over-read characters––I know what’s happening in Rahab, I’ve read that story, I’ve heard that story, I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it. That when we do that, then my hope is that, then we turn and we can see and engage others in real life that we may have read or that we may have missed or misread all along. And in that respect, that energy should create some different sort of change in the world and to the extent that it does, and yeah, that’s part of my calling. 

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Yeah. The tools and the permission that really resonates with me. And when I took from you later, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation class, I again, was just given the tools and permission and also able to see biblical scholarship as a form of activism; kind of this disruption, and this offering of the tools and permission to myself and to others as a faith leader, to again, yes, see that in real time and see the work of biblical scholarship as a form of activism. Do you experience your work as a form of activism?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I don’t think about it as that but I absolutely have colleagues who I would classify as scholar activists. Absolutely. I’m not going to call names, they know who they are. I also have a scholar buddies, who are activist-adjacent, that they know that the work that they do is in service to those who are actively engaged in activism. I’m thinking about one who takes seriously the life-giving work of yoga, and movement and breathing. And they have decided that they’re going to dedicate some of their time to helping those who classify themselves as activists, who are actively engaged in these movements, and are burdened some if you will, that they decided that they’re going to offer their knowledge that was some of their time to sit with people and guiding them through the movement and the breathing as a way to help them go out and be better and stronger in their work of activist. Now, how do I see my work as activist? To the extent that it encourages somebody to go do that work, I’m an activist. When you read my Veils and Lap Cloths: The Great Cover Up of Bynum and the Bible in Black Churches, and you start to question well wait, how have we thought about maybe how have we been complicit in the oppression of women in the church by doing engaging in certain practices? And then you decide, I’m not going to do that anymore. And when I get the chance, I’m going to tell the people in leadership, yes, why I’m not doing it and I think we shouldn’t do it either. Then I’ve aided in the work of activism by way of myself. 

CASSIDY HALL: That truth telling, tools and permission. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: And I think what makes it challenging or subversive, or risky, in some instances, is because I deal with a text that so many consider to be safe. And so many come, like you said for yourself to the work of studying or engaging this text with some real commitment one way or the other. And so part of what we do is challenge those commitments, or offer you a different way to think about the thing you’re so committed to.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Which makes me so curious as to why did you decide for the Hebrew Bible to be your area of expertise? What was the revelation for you? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I like the story. It’s just that simple. I can’t say I had a mystic moment. I can’t say in a moment of contemplation, I realized, all worked out in my head, hey, this is where you can really make it happen. No, I was a seminarian and I was taking all of my classes, and I knew that within the disciplines of Religious Studies, or religious education, the other stuff really appealed to me. So Bible seem to make sense for me. And I came to seminary by way of corporate. So in many respects, I think that what I am doing now is very similar to what I did as a brand manager. Part of what I did as a brand manager was take all of this disparate information, whether it’s consumer trends, whether it’s consumer feedback, it’s what the people down in distribution are telling me, it’s what my finance guy is telling me, it’s what my sales person is telling me, and the people over in legal are telling me, and I weave a story that compels my audience to take some sort of action. In the same way I take this disparate information because the Bronze Age first century, Mediterranean culture is disparate information for people living in the 20th century… And I try to weave a story that compels my audience to add in the classroom, my greatest not written in the syllabus objective is that the students will walk away wanting to know more. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and this love of story for you, was that inspired by anyone in particular? Or was that just something that maybe was Spirit driven? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah, it probably is some combination, because I always want to leave room for the Holy Ghost. So I don’t want to foreclose on any spiritual move that may be at play. But I think that I come from a family and from a people of storytellers. My paternal grandmother used to write poems, I met her and she was like a million years old. So here’s this little old lady, who clearly did not go to school, she would write–when we were little, she lived with us six months out of the year, and with my cousins in Alabama the other six months out of the year. We come home from school, and she will spend much of her day writing a poem and she would write on the brown paper bag. She was a quilter–this actually is my Big Mama’s quilt that I had framed. She was a quilter but she would stand up at church, she would recite her poems, her cousins and stuff would come to visit and they would still tell stories and giggle, and laugh and have a good time. So I think now that I’m sitting on the Cassidy couch, part of my love of stories comes from my early years of watching story, the life-giving story, the communal, and story be positive. Yeah. 

CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I love that you had that framed too, it’s gorgeous. In your most recent book, Revisiting Rahab, you write about Rahab as a complex character, who upends patriarchal ecosystems and disrupts. Do you think there’s a mystical nature or a kind of transcendence, perhaps?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I cannot say for sure. And here’s why I can’t say with any assurity or I can’t speak to that responsibly. And that is because the biblical writers do not provide us with any of her internal dialogue. I think that I could make that claim if there was something in the text that said, and she thought to herself, I’m going to negotiate with these fellows because I had a vision that the Israelites were coming. We don’t have anything like that. To me, Rahab is much more in the moment, in her actions, than a mystic would be. 

CASSIDY HALL: And in your experience of your writing, and your scholarly work and research, what does that look like for you? Does that require a sense of contemplation or pausing or making a sacred space in order to reflect and think? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think part of my part of my process, first of all, journaling is a spiritual discipline for me. But it also, as it relates to my scholarship, sometimes I will use journaling to get me back in it, if you will. So in that way, it’s deliberate. I’m not just doing laundry and all of a sudden something comes upon me and I have an experience. No, I sit, I realize you’re not even close to what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Hold on, let me re-center. And one way I do that is by journaling. So that’s the way contemplation shows up for me. And it’s not that I end up writing a wonderful book, or wonderful article or essay in that contemplative moment, but that contemplative moment clears me, or frees me up, or clears a pathway, so that I can see clearly what I should be doing in my writing. 

CASSIDY HALL: You named some earlier, but are there any other Hebrew Bible characters that you might suggest are mystics or contemplatives?

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So we talked about the prophets, we talked about Abraham, absolutely people like Jacob, Israel, whatever stage of his life, we want to reference him. Either when it’s the engagement with the ladder going up to the vision, going up to heaven, or what happened. Nathan and King David story, absolutely, I think we’ve got visions going on here. So I would classify him as a mystic. Isaiah, Ezekiel, half of what they are doing––they’re saying I saw it in a vision, this came to me in a vision. Daniel and Joseph, we got to think about those two. Even in the Minor Prophets, I think we see it with Obadiah––probably my favorite minor prophet, because it’s the shortest book we’ve got going on out there. I don’t think we see much contemplative work in the Hebrew Bible, because the work of the Hebrew Bible turns on action. And the writers would not have said, oh yeah, Job sits around, and every morning Job gets up and thinks… The closest you might get is Job providing sacrifice on behalf of his children every day in the first part of the Book of Job. That’s a slippery slope. But I think that the deliberate nature of the contemplative act is antithetical to what the biblical writers were probably trying to do. There might be a way for us to say that what we see in the book of Psalms, what we see in the poetic stuff, may be a product of contemplation. But we don’t see a character contemplating. I think that music may play an important role in mysticism. This whole idea of when, and I think if you speak to musicians, and ethnomusicologists and people who teach this stuff, and research this stuff––they can talk about there’s this moment in the musical experience that could be otherworldly, transcendent, and can have this sense that you are no longer just here. It’s more than just when they say I was in the pocket––No, no. But I think when you talk to some of those people, because I think about like a Yo-Yo-Ma, I think about absolutely some of the early classical composers, when they were in it they were outside of themselves. And so I think about the work that musicians do in the biblical text, as well as in our modern context and say, there’s probably an element of mysticism there, so to that point, that may have been part of Young David and his heart that had a mystical property associated. 

CASSIDY HALL: Look at you still teaching me. What are you teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? And another question I want to ask is, are you teaching again African American Biblical Hermeneutics Womanist Biblical Interpretation, because that class was the most transformative class.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Amen. There was some mystical moments or transcendent moments even in that class now that I think about it. At the heels of a conversation we had with a particular scholar, that triggered a lot of things for people that put them in a mystical place. That was fun. I am teaching a foundational Bible course there, they divide up Hebrew Bible between Genesis to Esther, I’ll teach that in the fall. And then my colleague will teach the rest of the cannon in the spring. I’m teaching two semesters of Hebrew and then I’m teaching Women in the Pentateuch. So we’ll do like a feminist spin on Genesis through Deuteronomy. And then here’s my shameless plug for the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Women’s Leadership, I will be teaching the intensive course on Womanist Biblical Interpretation for them in January. 

CASSIDY HALL: You know, one of the other things that the last class that really made the Hebrew Bible come alive for me again, and African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, the elevation that we really focused on of intersectionality, and intersectionality’s presence in the Hebrew Bible. Do you feel like the intersectionality of the Hebrew Bible is in part what allows us to connect to modern day story? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So I think a couple of things. I think that one of the reasons why the Bible, whether you understand it to be sacred text or not, is so popular, is because people are able to either find something of themselves in the text, or find something of the self or the community they want to be. And so to that extent there’s some intersectionality going on. So the world in front of the text, the reader is intersectional whether they want to admit it, or are aware of it or not. And so that when they’re looking for themselves, whether they can name it or not, they’re looking for some things that are intersectional. Most often, I think that people read very flat, but with a twist. So I’m always amazed that people read with the hero, when you know good and well, you’re part of a community that is not the hero. So everybody wants to be David, everybody, but nobody wants to be Goliath. Nobody wants to be a Philistine. Or everybody wants to be an Israelite and nobody wants to pay attention to the Canaanite. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be Rahab, but only because she ends up the hero of this. Nobody wants to be a bumbling spy, everybody reads with Rahab and wants to be this one woman in the whole city who saves her family and gets a cape because she’s a hero. And so to that extent, I think people read very flat, but really what’s going on behind there is some combination of gender going on, some combination of difference or other, some sort of community identification going on. Which when you broaden it and think about it that way, now you can bring in other groups of people who identify as something other than the normative gaze. If we say that the normative gaze is a male, cisgendered, male, hetero normative, probably elite–nobody aspires to be among the poor, everybody aspires to be among the rich, anything other than that would be considered other. There are so many people living in the year 2022, who fall into the other, more people fall into the other category than fall into the normative gaze. So I think when we give people permission, or even point them in the direction to say, have you considered this by way of Biblical studies. We also need to be honest and say that there’s elements of this step that are not life giving–I’m dealing with Judges 19–where is there something good about that? These are the stories we read over but I think it does us well, to sit with those in the same way we sit with the Deborah’s of the world, or Solomon’s of the world. We need to sit with the unnamed.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, this theme of permission and tools, it’s just so life giving.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Permission, tools and responsibility. Give people are tool and they’ll go out there and make a mess. But we also need to create some understanding of is that really responsible–Can you really get there? I like how Dr. Renita J. Weems used to say when she was at Vanderbilt: Is that what God said or is that what they say God said? I’m teaching a Bible study for a consortium of churches in Chicago now, and we’re reading Rahab. And so I was asked, we opened zoom and so one of the lady is like “yeah, she heard God speak, she heard God speak and that’s why she did so and so.” I said “ma’am, where? We all have our Bibles open, can you point us to that particular verse?” My point here is, so often we’ve read over, we’ve embellished upon, we’ve made the stories work for us, when often times, that’s not really what’s on the page. And that’s without doing any language translation, we’re just dealing with English.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that aspect of responsibility. And I think, to your point earlier about addressing the stories of the marginalized and the non-marginalized, addressing both aspects. 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: We like to get excited about King David but nobody wants to take responsibility for — Hey! that’s the dude who basically stole Uriah’s wife. But no, we got to talk about that too. 

CASSIDY HALL: We might cancel or write it off today…

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Absolutely.

CASSIDY HALL: One more question is, are there any contemplatives or mystics, maybe in modern day or in our midst that you would name? Whether they’re scholars or activists, or the grocery store clerk? 

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think I have to go down the road of history. My list is not exhaustive. And here, I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements in our history. So for me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. And I definitely think, let’s start with the big one. Let’s get Howard Thurman off the table. Everybody, we admit, there’s no kind of debate, he absolutely is on the list. The other person I will put on the list would be Harriet Tubman. I think about the work of Reverend James Lawson, who was the guy who taught the college students civil disobedience during the civil rights movement in Nashville. So I’m thinking about Lawson. And there may have been some moments where some of those young people whose names we’ll never know, got themselves into such or had to get themselves into such and other worldly space in order to sit in that space. That may have been part of what Lawson was up to when he was teaching. I think about the names we know in the civil rights movement. But more importantly, the ones we don’t know. All the pastors whose churches were used as staging grounds, and the prayer meetings, that they would have, all of the people, here we go, who would spontaneously lift up a hymn or a song that became part of the fuel that drove the activity. Whether it was the actual march or just the commitment to do the work behind the scenes that showed up in what we understand as the Civil Rights Movement. I think about that, the women behind the BlackLivesMatter movement. So here’s the thing. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern times, is most of our mystics go unnamed? Because in some ways, I think about Howard Thurman, had he not had a stage like Boston? He was a professor, so he was teaching all over the place. Had he not had the stage of the professor would we have even known what he was up to? What about all the people who don’t have a stage who absolutely engage in mystical work? I wonder about artists. And here I’m thinking about the stories we hear about when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X and he tells the story about how he had the sense that Malcolm’s presence was there. So I wonder if a Spike Lee and Denzel may have a little bit of mystical to them and Ava DuVernay, all these people who have to invoke something in order to get the product out? 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah, there’s so many mystics that go unnamed and yet the live on because they’re work was focused on common good or mutual well-being or betterment of life. Yeah, to another extent, I like to think that the Spirit maybe takes over in those situations and helps to guide that prophetic call,

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Or even think about when you get together with extended family, and you hear the stories of the great, great, great, great uncle/aunt or whatever that you never knew. Some elder tells the part of the story that makes you go, you say your aunt Isabelle had dreams?  And she would wake up and she would write them on sheets of paper, and then she would put those sheets of paper in your shoe for when you went to school. Wait a minute. Wait a minute, maybe? Oh.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Well, Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I think that your work is important. I think that I would encourage you to keep at it. And to find ways to little by little, this is not going to be — I doubt Oprah is going to come calling. But somebody is going to sit around and go, now I get it. And it’s that one spark that can change your life that could change the world.

CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. And I know and I experienced you giving that spark to so many, so I’m really grateful our paths have crossed. Thank you.

DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Thank you friend.

[OUTRO] 

Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Opening Unto Mystery | A Conversation with Dr. Elyse Ambrose

TRANSCRIPT:

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

Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[OUTRO] 

Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Recent Publications: Blessings & Reflections

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.

Amen.

To view my other published materials, including interviews and sermons, go here.

Speaking Down Barriers | A Conversation with Poet Davelyn Hill

Transcript:

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. 

We, us, black, white, brown, human, 

Gathered like oaks, pines in the forest, 

Women, men, non-binary, transgender, gender expansive,

Are, is, state of being 

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, 

Be beautiful.

 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.

OUTRO:

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.Support the Podcast

Breathing Mysticism | A Conversation with Dr. Angela N. Parker

Transcript:

Dr Angela Parker: I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests, that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something.

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. Angela N Parker is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek at McAfee School of Theology. She received her Master’s of Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School, and her PhD in Bible Culture and Hermeneutics from Chicago Theological Seminary. In her research, Dr Parker merges Womanist thought and post-colonial theory while reading biblical texts. Her books include If God still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, which is available now. And her forthcoming book is titled, Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark

Well, Dr Parker, thank you so much for joining today.

Dr Angela Parker: Thank you so much for having me Cassidy.

Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I like to begin is by kind of framing your definitions for a conversation of what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today?

Dr Angela Parker: It’s interesting. When I think about mysticism, I’d probably equate mysticism more so with my own idea of spirituality, and the aspect of what it means for me to be a person who allows Spirit Mother to invade and permeate everything that I do. And so when I think about Spirit Mother, I think about ruach in Hebrew as an idea of feminine spirit, and an idea of part of God’s presence that allows me to be contemplative, while also opening up ideas of even activism in the midst of my own spirituality in my own moments of contemplation. I think that for me, there’s almost a porousness between thinking through mysticism, contemplation, and spirituality. Even though for me, I probably use the language of spirituality more so than mysticism or contemplation. But they seem very similar in my brain and how they operate in my own life. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I love that, evade and permeate everything I do.

Dr Angela Parker: Yes.

Cassidy Hall: And in that way, a lot of times when we talk about mysticism or contemplation, it’s this whole like, dissolving of oneself into God or losing oneself into God. But in the way that you speak about it, it’s an enlivening of what already is present in us. And in that way, do you see that contemplation and/or mysticism plays a role in social action and activism and the ways that we wake up to what’s happening around us?

Dr Angela Parker: I definitely believe that is so. I believe that each and every one of us because we are humanity. We are human and we are beings that have been specifically formulated to do something. And I think that all of us are tasked to find out what it is that we are here on this earth to do. And I think that part of contemplation and then God’s spirit conversing with us allows the opening up of what our social activism may be. And so again, I don’t see it separately, I see spirituality and contemplation as ways of understanding who we are as humans in relationship to the divine. I don’t think it’s necessarily the divine coming upon us and saying, this is what you were supposed to do. But the divine actually revealing to us what is already within us.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah, that’s great.

Dr Angela Parker: I think that takes time though, as I’m pondering it. I think that the idea of being human is the ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey. And I probably would say that it’s only after years of just beginning to understand who I am as a person and what my relationship to God and to divinity is, that I begin to understand what my own operations and what my own missions are, so to speak.

Cassidy Hall: You said, correct me if I’m wrong, the idea of being human is an ever-growing enlightenment of your own journey

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. 

Cassidy Hall: I just love that the ways that that just — it’s a continual opening up and uncovering, like you’re saying. This uncovering of what’s there. And I wonder if you could share along with that, a little bit of your own story and your journey in being a biblical scholar, and how that’s led also to, you know, I see your work as an incredible form also of activism and the ways that it’s uncovering the truth of biblical scholarship. And I wonder if you could share a little bit about that.

Dr Angela Parker: I often say that my journey is a journey that takes a long time or took a long time. One joke that I usually make in the class context is that college did not take the first time or the second time, or the third time or the fourth time. It was usually the fifth or sixth time where college actually took for me. And after starting Community College, and being in community college for two years, while also serving in ministry and then realizing that being in a pastor position was not necessarily my gifting, but my gifting was in teaching and explaining text. And then after Community College, going into a four year program at Shaw University, while also still ministering and serving in a church context, and still teaching and preaching, and opening up my understanding of critical thinking in the midst of teaching and preaching in a church context. I think those two things along with raising children, being a single parent, and then going back to school, in the midst of that while also being ordained in preaching and teaching, that conglomeration of events essentially propelled me to then want to get a master’s degree in New Testament studies. And after that, while doing the master’s degree, and having conversations with professors who would often say something like, well, there aren’t that many black folks who do Biblical Studies or Biblical Studies is hard for your folks. And hearing those comments that actually solidified in me the desire to actually go into biblical scholarship. Because it seemed as though many of my professors, not in my undergrad but in my Divinity School just felt as though biblical scholarship was too hard for some people. So usually, you should go into theology, because with theology, you can kind of say everything, so to speak. And I always wanted to prove them wrong. Because I’d always been preaching and teaching based on the biblical texts. So why wouldn’t I continue to do that, and continue to study it, because Bible had always been a love in my life. So it just seemed appropriate to allow Bible to continue to be a love of my life, even as I critically engaged it. So that was part of the journey to biblical scholarship, while also remembering those folks who said I could not do it. And oftentimes it came from upper echelons of white masculinity, who told me I couldn’t do it.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And even the act of saying, I’m doing this as a form of activism and resistance to what you were being told. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I always have to say that, even though that was my experience, and when I talk to other people in Bible, especially black women in Bible, that tends to be a lot of their experience as well. We all seem to have similar experiences but we still persevere. And we still do this work, knowing that there are allies who come alongside of us and help us do this activist work in biblical scholarship, that I always have to make sure I state that it’s not all white male scholars who think a certain way, but there are those who are very good allies for these conversations as well. And will interrogate their own identities in the midst of doing biblical scholarship.

Cassidy Hall: In your forthcoming book, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I, Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority, you explore the fact that Christians are taught more about the way of whiteness than the way of Jesus. And I wonder if you can share a little bit about your own journey, as a Womanist, post-colonial biblical scholar, and also more about the book. 

Dr Angela Parker: Yes. I think about this book as part memoir, part of biblical scholarship. And so throughout the book, you’ll find anecdotes just about my life or about being in seminary and what that experience was like. And also a deep desire to interrogate our text in ways that others may not have thought before. One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed writing was the piece on the Gospel of Mark and the women at the end of Jesus’s death; with Mark, you don’t have a resurrection story, but they’re going to the tomb in order to anoint the body. And just that idea of thinking about what women see when they see the crucifixion, and what women feel as they were experiencing the crucifixion from afar, and what it means to be in a highly testosterone-charged environment that has a large military presence. I think that pondering what women feel and experience in the midst of highly charged militaristic presence and even thinking about what it means for women to live in Afghanistan right now, and to see highly charged masculine presence in a space that now becomes unsafe, and to have a conversation with scholars of the Gospel of Mark, who read these women in the text, but consider them unfaithful or consider them less than good disciples––without pondering what it may have bodily felt to be in such an environment where you could easily be accosted, and still thinking that I have to go to a tomb in order to pay some type of respect to a fallen leader. I don’t think we give the women in the text enough credit. And so part of breathing again, for me is actually engaging what those women felt in their bodies in the midst of going to worship a fallen leader. And instead of immediately taking on the idea of what contemporary male scholarship says about these women, what does it look like to think about them slightly differently? And even for my work in Galatians in this text, thinking about what it means to ponder all of us just making it home together. Home being the idea of we can all breathe, and not feel as though we’re stifled in the midst of reading our biblical text or we’re breathing and we are not stifled in the roles that we can play in ministry; or we can breathe again and we’re not stifled by what other people say about what we are supposed to be as black and brown people or even as women who want to work in a world for the betterment of society, for justice in society. I ponder a lot about male evangelical leaders who still can’t fathom that women can preach and teach. And I think I often thought that we’ve gotten past that, but it’s interesting moving from the Pacific Northwest to the South, to the American South of Georgia, and seeing those conversations resurge, and not just feeling as though oh my goodness, not only are they taking the life out of me with these conversations or having to prove myself over and over again. But to think about all of that, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, and then thinking about others, who have died as a result of police militarized violence that there was just no way we cannot engage such conversations today where we — We have to imagine we can all make it home, we can all live, we can all prosper, we can all flourish, we can all thrive. There has to be some way for all of us to thrive and to make it home together safely. That’s what I’m trying to do in this work. And allow faith communities to begin to have a different conversation about what it means to hold the biblical text as sacred and authoritative without allowing the people who think that they have the authority of the text to lower the authority or the authoritarianism of the text over them. And I see these power dynamics both within some policing systems and the policing systems of evangelicalism.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I’m struck by this, this beautiful and important refrain of breathing and the ways in which I wonder do you experience study of the biblical text to be an embodied experience in that way?

Dr Angela Parker: Definitely! I think that oftentimes, we’ve been trained. And when I say we’ve been trying to, I’m thinking about my own black Baptist upbringing, and what devotional reading looks like. And so devotional reading is singular and individualistic. But I think the idea of a collective breath is what stands out for me in reading biblical texts with people or even with contemporary situations. That breathing is embodied; breathing the text is embodied and thinking about God’s breath, and how God’s breath interacts with our breath. And I think that’s the contemplative experience. I think that’s the ruach spirit that kind of goes in between God and us. So that reading the text is almost like a wavy experience of breath coming in and out of us. Both our breath intermingling with God’s breath, and God’s breath intermingling with us. Which then goes back to how we begin to understand ourselves as humanity, and what that means for what our own activism is in the world. Because God’s breath is intermingling with us in order to do something. We think about the Genesis narrative that God breathed into Adam and how Adam becomes a living creature. We’re supposed to be living creatures that actually do something. And I think the text allows us to do that as long as it’s the text doesn’t become God. And for a lot of people, I think the text has become God and so you get this bibliolatry. Again, people use the text in order to beat someone over the head with it without this interactive breath that God wants to be involved with us as we read this text and that breath of God just kind of moves us. 

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. I just love the fact that yeah, I mean, the very fact that God’s breath is in us means that we must act, we must show up.

Dr Angela Parker: Well, I think, even as we ponder contemplative actions, and see that’s the thing. I don’t often think about contemplative actions going together. You think about contemplation and sitting by yourself and being very individualistic. But what does contemplative action look like among people where the breath of God is going through groups of people? And I think that’s what we see with protests, with the Black Lives Matter protests that there’s that contemplative action that actually moves groups of people to do something. That there is a breath that goes through collective bodies as well, that it’s not just individualistic contemplation, but it’s contemplation by groups of people in order to bring about some kind of change.

Cassidy Hall: How do you think groups of people or individuals get to that place where they’re able to open up and engage with the group and then, it’s almost like getting to a place of openness where we’re moved by each other’s stories, and we recognize our reliance on the collective breath in order for the individual breath as well?

Dr Angela Parker: This is where the conversation becomes a little bit difficult. And why does the conversation become difficult? Because I can imagine two groups. And I’m really in my brain, juxtaposing the January 6 insurrection against the Capitol with the peaceful protesting of Black Lives Matters in the midst of the summer of 2020. And I do believe that it all goes back, for me, especially being a biblical scholar, goes back to the idea of who Jesus is supposed to be for those of us who espouse Christianity. And for those of us who espouse Christianity that is not white, nationalistic Christianity that we can see groups of people coming together and trying to walk in the way that Jesus walked. Meaning as Jesus is walking on the road in Galilee, going down to Jerusalem, and he sees a blind man on the way and says, stand up, what do you want for me? And the blind man is saying, this is in the Gospel of Mark, I just want to be able to see, and Jesus heals that blind man. And then he goes with Jesus along the way. He’s walking along the way, not towards an insurrection, but towards his own death. I would believe that those of us who tried to walk in the way of Jesus realize that oftentimes we’re walking towards our own death. Because if you’re truly walking in the way of Jesus, you’re trying to walk in such a way that you know people may not like the way that you’re fighting against an imperialistic system. You know that people may not like the way you’re fighting against a racist system. You know that people will not like that you’re fighting against some kind of supremacist system. And so when I read Jesus in the biblical text, I see Jesus gathering groups of people to actually walk against a Roman imperialistic supremacist system. So if we are nuancing, what it means to gather people today, and for people to walk together today, it does not mean that you’re gathering a white supremacist system to fight against a system that is actually the democratic. There was something that was missed in the January 6 insurrection. Because I think what’s missing is the idea that Jesus is fighting against some kind of supremacist system. On January 6, Jesus becomes the supremacist system. So how do we have a conversation, especially in the context of the United States of America, that says that we can recognize these different groups that oftentimes espouse, a Jesus, but a very different Jesus? And then how do we break that box? And how do we move into an almost a better understanding of Jesus? I think that’s part of the conversation on what it means to think about groups of people who breathe together and then come together, because we still see groups of people coming together, but you have to ask, what kind of breath are they coming together with? And I think that’s what I want to do.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yes. Yeah, that makes sense. And beginning with that piece, like what’s the commonality of the breath that’s bringing the group together? Is it this false Jesus, this false authority and the way you talk about to really walk with the breath of Jesus? Can you share more about your other forthcoming book Bodies, Violence and Emotions: A Womanist Study of the Gospel of Mark?

Dr Angela Parker: Yeah. So with that, I’m actually arguing that there is a connection between the hemorrhaging woman of Mark 5 and Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross that there are similar — and again, it goes back to marks of empire on Jesus’s body and potential marks of empire on that hemorrhaging woman’s body. And instead of translating that phrase as a hemorrhage, I translate that as she’s in a flow of blood. And what does it mean to be in a flow of blood? Well, I make the argument that if we think about her as a woman who has seen so much blood shed as a result of imperialistic sufferings, that there’s something to what it means to be a woman who constantly sees blood flowing in the streets. Not just blood flowing from her own body, but blood flowing from those who are related to her. And I make the connection with the idea of her own suffering being classified as mastix. And that’s the Greek term for whips, or scourges or sufferings that also correlate to the idea of Jesus’ suffering, scourging at his crucifixion. And so is there a way to think about that woman, as a woman who essentially sees her own brown children, her own brown brothers, her own brown siblings, her own brown mothers and fathers who have died or had their bloodshed in the midst of a Roman imperialistic takeover in Judea. And so I can make that connection to what it means to be a mother who sees Tamir Rice die in a Cleveland Park; or to be a mother who sees her own child extinguish and that child’s body laying in the hot sun on an August day in Ferguson, Missouri. So there’s some kind of connection between the bodies, the violence and the emotionality of seeing all of this happen. And thinking very hardly thinking, just making a nuanced connection between why that woman’s story is important, and how it connects to Jesus’s story at the crucifixion. Because that’s one story that is not your typical healing story. A typical healing story, has someone cry out, Jesus calls that person to him. He asks them, what do you want me to do? They tell him he does it, everybody goes along their way. This particular healing story is not in that same form. So for those who understand form criticism, it’s not in that same form. She sneaks up behind and has and has to reach out. And so just thinking through that whole story, and what it means for a woman to show agency and touch Jesus’s garment, there’s something to that. And to even think about how Matthew and Luke tweak the story, because you can’t have a Jesus who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on, or you can’t have a woman touch Jesus. So Matthew and Luke kind of tweak it, so that in Luke, I don’t even think she touches Jesus at all. He just turns around and says, like, who’s about to touch me? So I think that there’s something to that particular story in the Gospel of Mark that allows me to actually engage contemporary issues regarding fallen black and brown bodies in these United States of America.

Cassidy Hall: Another piece I’m really struck by as you draw those two parallels is the connection of people not believing. I imagine people not believing that woman’s pain, the truth of her suffering, the truth of what she’s going through. And similarly, Jesus not being believed. And then thinking today about all these stories, and even studies of black women not being believed, the pain they’re going through in hospital settings. I mean, in all kinds of settings and in life, that the pain emotionally physically, quote-unquote, isn’t real.

Dr Angela Parker: There’s that feeling that we, especially for black women, we are supposed to be able to take so much more suffering than other people. And I think I’m often just struck even in the beginning of ministry and the beginning of working in pastoral settings and ministerial settings for me, that, especially black women in the church have often been looked upon to volunteer the most, to cook the most, to clean the most to take care of everyone else the most to the detriment of their own lives and bodies. And one work that opens that up for me is Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, if it wasn’t for the women. That for a long time, we’ve often been told that our suffering is going to be good for other people or for the hereafter. So just continue to suffer and continue to work and don’t make too much noise. Just continue to do and work through your pain, work through your suffering. And that’s not healthy and healing and whole for, for anyone, but even especially for black women. 

Cassidy Hall: When you joined us in my class with Dr Russaw, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, in that class you said allow what you’re fighting for, to shine through, find what you can do, and work with that hurt. We’re all too valuable to burn out.” And so I wonder, with all the hurt and the pain that surrounds us, how have you found your way to engaging so powerfully in your work? And how have you kept yourself from burning out?

Dr Angela Parker: There is actually one Amazon purchase that I still need to make, that’s actually a blanket burrito. So there are two things that I try to do. I try to first do my own self affirmations in the morning, just to at least remind myself that I am valuable, there’s still work for me to do. But even in the midst of my value, I can’t allow my own reserves to deplete to the point where I can’t do what I need to do. So for some people, and this was difficult. Because I think, as women, we’re often told that, or we often perceive from our surroundings, that we are not valuable. That we are to assist other people. And part of recognizing my own value means I have to actually say, out of my mouth, that I am valuable, I am resilient, I can resist and I can say no, in some instances, and actually do say no, and don’t feel guilty about it. I think that as women, we are often saddled with a lot of guilt if we don’t have children when we’re supposed to have children. I mean, it’s amazing to me the conversations that people have with women saying, when are you going to do this? Or when are you going to do that?  Why are you so worried about my timeline? My timeline is my timeline. And what it means to actually take hold of your own life and your own affirmations and just do you and be happy in that. That means that you have to have a change of thinking about who actually can be involved in your life as well. It’s okay to not answer every call, it’s okay to not have a conversation with everyone who asks of you, it’s okay to say no, it’s okay to take a day and rest on your couch in your blanket burrito. And then after you have had that recuperation, and a little bit of revival in your spirit, you get up and do what you can do for the cause, for the work that you feel called to do, for the writing that you have to do. I think for me, especially when I was in seminary, I was reading works that I did not see myself reflected in. So what does it look like to say, okay, I have to write work where people like me can feel reflected in it? So I have to continue to do that. But I have to rest in the middle of that as well because it can be difficult. It can be difficult to constantly see the hurt and harm that’s going on in the world and begin to write about it in such a way that people can actually breathe. And that’s what I want to do, but I want to do it with a little bit of longevity. I want to do it with a little bit of laughter in the midst of it. I want to do it with a little bit of celebration in the midst of it as well, and take time when I need to take time. So I will plan those moments for my life. And I will plan those quiet times, I will plan the absolute silence because I don’t think every moment of our lives has to be filled with so much buzz. We can have some silence, we can have contemplation on the couch and have that little bit of individualistic contemplation as well. Because I think all of it is important. I think the collective contemplation and the individual contemplation is important. But I also have to say that finding people who can help you on your journey and others that you can help with their journey as well is also important.

Cassidy Hall: And I appreciate that you note that. Because there’s still a piece of that collective breath in what you shared. So one more question before we go. Who is someone or some people that maybe embody mysticism for you, or that host that image of mysticism maybe that you were talking about earlier?

Dr. Angela N. Parker: For some reason, I keep thinking about Dr. Valerie Bridgeman. And she is a Dean in Ohio. And she has talked about and posted about on social media walking. And she’ll often say also on social media: “if someone didn’t tell you today, drink some water, drink your water. Have you had enough water today?” And that presence, even though she is not actually physically here in the Atlanta area, but she’s a presence on social media who says, did you drink water? Did you do your steps? That connection, which seems almost as if it’s nothing in a social media space, actually is a lot. I don’t know what it is about that presence and that reminder, it just seems as though she’s one of those scholars who allows me to say, oh, yes, I need to walk. I need to drink water. I need to replenish myself. And I think that’s what mysticism is for me. How do I replenish myself so that I can do what God has called me to do? I can’t say that I’ve read enough mystics, because I’m thinking even a lot of the mistakes that I read in seminary, they did not speak to me. And that makes me slightly sad as I ponder that question. Because I think for me, it’s those present-day people who are in my life who say: “Rest,” or “Have you noticed the trees? Have you noticed the purple in the flowers?” That is mysticism to me as well Color Purple, Alice Walker, saying God gets really mad if you don’t notice the purple. And I think noticing God’s beauty and God’s creation, and those books and the quiet times that remind me of that those are the mystics that helped me. I had a colleague, Dr. Chanequa Walker Barnes who invited me to the Botanical Gardens. And so we were in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and we see the purple, and we just stared at the purple flowers. Those are the contemplative moments that helped me most. So people in my life who actually pushed me to stop and look at the flowers and drink the water, those are the mystics and I think they’re the womanist mystics that I would name.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining today. Yeah, I’m just so grateful for your time and your wisdom and insight, your scholarship.

Dr Angela Parker: I really appreciate it. Thank you.

OUTRO:

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

The Privilege of Contemplation | A Conversation with Dr. Anthea Butler

TRANSCRIPT

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop?

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. Anthea Butler is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and also the chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Her new book is “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.” Her other book includes Women in the Church of God, In Christ, Making a Sanctified World and she’s also a contributor for the forthcoming book, a New Origin Story: The 1619 Project, which is due out in November of 2021. Dr Butler is a historian of African American and American Religion, and her research and writing spans African American religion and history, race, politics, and evangelicalism. Dr Butler is currently contributor for MSNBC Daily, and has also written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and the Guardian. You can see her in the recent PBS series, the Black Church in America, in the forthcoming American experience on Billy Graham on PBS. 

So glad you could join me today.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

CASSIDY HALL: And so one of the ways I like to begin is kind of just asking for your personal working definitions of words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” what they mean to you and maybe how you see them lived out in the world.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think for me, personally, I think a lot of people think about these words as being passive words. But I would say that I have really been influenced by Ignatian tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And I think about that in terms of how the Jesuits move through life. I mean, they don’t spend a lot of time in prayer, they spend a lot of time doing things, they step back when they need to, and there’s the spiritual exercises of course, that help in order to sort of think through about how to be a contemplative in a different kind of way. And so I think that for me, being a contemplative doesn’t mean that you escape society, or you escape the world, but that you find a place to anchor yourself firmly first of all, and then secondarily, take care of those things in the ways in which you need to take care of them. And that might not be the way that people traditionally think that you need to take care of your religious or spiritual needs. 

CASSIDY HALL: And do you think or do you see contemplation or mysticism playing a role in social action today?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Not in the traditional ways, no, I don’t. And I think that a lot of times, if we go through traditional ways of thinking about what contemplation means, you set yourself apart, you think about things, which I think is a very good way to be if you’re going to be an activist. But I also think that an activist means that you have to be active. And if we have this tension between contemplation and activity, then there’s times where you need to be active, and there’s times that you don’t. And I think that probably–I’ll describe it like a Depeche Mode Song, you have to get the balance right, you have to think about how you balance that out. And I think for a lot of people, especially right now, the rapidity and the speed in which things happen in the world. Sometimes you don’t have time to think, sometimes you have to actually act. But if you haven’t done that kind of work before to sort of think through and to sort of ponder where you are, then I think it becomes much more difficult. 

CASSIDY HALL: So kind of in the sense of the practice, the engagement and the practice cultivates the action and a more immediate response to the things which we need to immediately respond to?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, you have to be prepared, because in other words — I mean, I think it’s like, people have an idea, like, I’m going to go — I’m a church historian. So I’m going to use an example. People think that the old monastics like, Simon the Stylite, who set up on top of a pole and contemplated is the way that you should be, or you should be like a Buddha and you should pull yourself away from everything. And I think that those kinds of — I’m not saying that’s wrong, I just think that that doesn’t work for some of us. It doesn’t work for somebody like me who is very reactive to what’s going on, especially for things that I care deeply about. So I think, you work through that in the ways that you need to. And for some people, you might think, oh, maybe you’re just going around and around circles. I’m not. What I’m saying is is that contemplation and a contemplative life means different things to different people. And not everybody is going to be able to go away and be on an island or be in a monastic place, or to have quiet in their house because they got three kids and a husband or wife or spouse and they’ve got to deal with things that you just can’t. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to be contemplative, but you have to figure out ways in which to do it that fit who you are. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I think to your point earlier, it seems like a lot of people can also use being a contemplative or having a contemplative life as an excuse to not fully engage in those things as well.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. And it means that they have the luxury not and I think that’s really important to say, is that, most people in the world, I’m thinking about Afghanistan this week especially, don’t have the luxury to stop and think about what’s happening or how to think through it because they have to be reactive. Their very lives depend on it. And so I think it’s also important to remember that these activities can sometimes be activities of the privileged and not of people who really do need time to think about things because they don’t have time. They can’t, they have to continue to work, they have to continue to run, they have to continue to try to figure out how to make their lives better. 

CASSIDY HALL: In a 2020 piece that you wrote, titled, In a Season of Reckonings Forgiveness is not Forgetting, you wrote “displays of forgiveness do not lead to forgetting but to remembering all the wrongs, all the murders, all the pain, all the suffering, we and our ancestors have experienced in America.” So my question for you from this in that incredible piece, when it comes to racism in America, what other Christian practices might do more harm than good when we’re talking about this idea of maybe contemplation can also be an excuse or a way to not engage, when we fail to engage in the fullness of these things. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How long you got? I mean, I think this is one of those moments where I’m just going to say, I’m sorry, I’m going to offend a lot of people. I think the Christian practice of just leave it to Jesus and everything is going to be alright is basically bullshit. This is a podcast, I can say bullshit. And I think that that’s number one. Number two, the ways in which, especially American Christians, like to think about themselves as in relationship with just Jesus and themselves, is stupid. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Jesus lived in a community, he had to deal with racism. I always use the excuse the example of the Syrophoenician woman to say even Jesus was racist. He didn’t want to give her anything, she had to remind him and tell him. So I mean, if your Lord and Savior can be racist, you can be too. And I think that what my — I wrote a whole book about this, so let’s just put that out there, “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America.” What I think is the problem in America is that so much of American Christianity is individualistic. We sing these nice little worship songs that don’t mean anything, that are focused in on how much we love Jesus, and not how much we love each other. And we can see the ramifications of that right now with the way that people aren’t getting vaccinated, people could care less about people going hungry, people are willing to put forth ideology instead of true Christian charity. I could go on all day long. But I mean, the fact of the matter is, is I found this very wanting and I think that it’s a horrible witness. I just do.

CASSIDY HALL: And speaking of that book, your book “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America,” you examine this incongruence, this deep incongruence in white evangelicalism. Like how white evangelicals often claim morality amid supporting immoral acts and immoral ways of being. Case-in-point the list you just offered. How do you think that this understanding or this understanding of that incongruence can help guide anti-racist movements or work in America? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Well, I think as a starting point. I mean, I wrote the whole book, as somebody asked me: what do you want to have out of this book? I said, I did what I wanted to have this book, which was tell everybody is this you? This is the way you behave? So that’s one but I think the incongruence is going to have to change when realities change. I mean, I think one of the things that is very difficult right now for a lot of evangelicals in this country to see is that, them harping on critical race theory, at the same time while they’re not getting vaccinated and their kids are dying, is pretty bad. And they’re worried about the wrong things. And this is just, it’s a waste of our time. It really is in a world in which time is of the essence, it’s a waste of our time to have to be dealing with these kinds of issues about so called morality. And I think that it’s really important to understand that when I say morality, it’s about not just treating your neighbors right and everything else. I say about there’s great moral issues of our time. Are we going to feed people? Are we going to make sure everybody has a living wage? Are we going to make sure that everybody has voting rights? I mean, there are moral issues and then there are moral issues. And I think that for evangelicals and others in this country, moral issues have only centered around personal moral issues, as opposed to structural moral issues that should be resolved like racism. And so when you ask me this question about how does this make somebody anti-racist, I think the first thing you have to address in anything about racism or anti-racism, is to realize the racist structures. And if we can’t get people to agree that the structure is racist, how do we get to anti-racism in the first place?

CASSIDY HALL: I appreciate what you said about it being a waste of our time and seeing that it’s almost a distraction of a large group of people being so individualistic and harmful to the world at large and not even touching the structures that we’re really after. So how do we hold that sense of urgency and action alongside the fact that evangelicals that are in this space, are really gaining momentum in and of themselves? Or is that just what it seems like in the news?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think you think that they’re gaining momentum, I don’t think that they are. I think that people like to think this because they have a way to amplify their voices in the public square, but I think that the bigger issue right now is not even evangelicals it’s really about the ways in which people believe disinformation. And that’s including evangelicals, whether they believe in QAnon, or they believe other kinds of fantasies about the virus, or anything else. That’s actually our biggest issue right now alongside of racism, because the disinformation and racism go hand-in-hand. If you are inclined to believe all these things, and you’ll be inclined to believe other things. And there are just some truth that we need to grapple with in this country. And I think that at this particular time that we’re in, which is really dangerous for a lot of different reasons, I sort of despair about thinking about people being able to think straight with their heads on their shoulders, to be honest with you. I don’t know that the average Christian in this country, who misses going to church because of the vaccine and decides to go anyway, hopefully they go masked up or maybe they don’t, or maybe they’re like… others who have decided that they don’t care about that and they should just March and be out there with white supremacist and Oregon. Because that just happened not too long ago. Those are the people that I look at and I think I’m not sure we have a lot of hope here. At the same time where all these people are hoping that Jesus is just going to come back, I’m like Jesus might come back but he ain’t coming back for you all. I mean, I say it in the most Texas way possible, he’s not coming back for you. He’s not coming back for you because I mean, basically, you’re not his people. And I think it’s really, it’s something that people need to hear right now and that they don’t hear enough; that maybe you’ve been waiting, you’ve been found wanting. And maybe the result of all this is the chaos that we see right now because we can’t even come together to just wear a mask, to treat other people well. I mean, just to think about somebody else, to do the golden rule. I mean, if you can’t even do the golden rule how do we think that anything else is going to last? I know, we started this off, like you were asking about contemplation, what I contemplate a lot, is the fact that we don’t have people in this country that I think that I could rely on if something really bad happened. Because basically, I don’t think I could rely on their Christian charity, I don’t know that I could rely on their common sense to be quite honest, to do the right thing, because they are so much willing to be involved in thinking things that will harm others, and even harm themselves.

CASSIDY HALL: So where the hell did this Jesus come from? Is this just a product of America?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s a product of a lot of different things and I go through that a lot in my book, but I think these idealized Jesus’ that are always going to be there to support the nation, and always be there to support a white male patriarchy, maybe that sounds like a misnomer to put it like that but I think that’s the best way to say it. And these ideas about what family should be. I think that all of this stuff really has hurt us in certain kinds of ways. And if you put your moral center on these kinds of constructs, that nobody in the Bible had like a really great father, mother, two kids family. I mean, look at Solomon, how many wives? I mean, how much stuff is going on? Look at somebody like Paul who didn’t treat his mother right… There’s all kinds of crazy families in Scripture. And if we claim to say we want to look at scripture to be the model, then look at all of Scripture. Look at how people treated people. I mean, no different than what’s happening today.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I mean, back to what you said earlier about Jesus being racist. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I know that’s hard for people to hear.

CASSIDY HALL: No, but that’s important for people to hear. Like you say, I mean, and that a woman had to explain that to him and teach him.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. But I mean, nobody wants to be taught now. Everybody believes that they know everything because they looked something up, or they believe a certain television station, or a certain personality or a certain president, depending on which one you want to pick. 

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And that way, it seems like contemplation or space away when it’s really trying to gather clarity. Could be really healthy in order to respond properly to the things in which we find ourselves present and awake to, as Therese Taylor-Stinson says. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s times where you just should shut up. Honestly, I mean, shutting up is not a bad thing. I mean, I talk a lot on social media but I don’t think that I need to say everything about everything. I mean, I’m just, like right now I’m at a loss for words about Afghanistan. There’s tons of things that are horrible about it. Do I need to say something about it? Probably not because that’s not part of the world that I’m knowledgeable about. But at the same time, I’m very fearful about it because I know that this means that there’s going to be an uptick in fundamentalist religion. I know that this actually gives a lot of oxygen to people who are thinking about these kinds of regimes, whether that’s Islamic or Christian, that don’t treat women well, that have a very strong patriarchal structure. It’s a time of strong men. And we have to figure out how we’re go come out of this.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about your work as a contributor for the forthcoming book, “A New Origin Story: The 1619 project”?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Sure. This particular chapter in a 1619 book came about in part because I had contacted Nicole Hannah Jones back when the first project came out and said, “I don’t think you can really write the story, or do whatever you’re going to do with the story next, without talking about black religion. You have to talk about, the contributions that African Americans have made in the religious realm.” And so when they started doing the book, they contacted me. And so the chapter, without giving it away, is to talk about the ways in which the black church has always been a challenge, and––how do I want to say it, the fulcrum about democracy in this country. In other words, how has the black church always kept America to account about its foundational documents? In other words, why is it that you say that this is supposed to be for everyone, when in fact you didn’t give that to African Americans, you didn’t do this for Native Americans, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this. And these founding documents, which say all men are created equal, we seem to have to continue as African Americans to remind everyone in this country, that all people are created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that there’s lots of people here in this country who don’t think we should have any rights. And we need to continue to keep fighting for them all the time. And so that’s what this chapter is about in the 1619 project book. And I’m proud of it, it took a long time to write and it was really difficult, because this book has been fact checked so many times, it’s ridiculous. But that’s because of all the fear. And I expect that when it comes out in November that everybody will lose their mind, but you know, it’s okay.

CASSIDY HALL: Dr Butler, what are some things that give you hope amid all things we’ve kind of discussed so far?

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I have to say, if there was a character that I would associate myself with, it would probably be Chicken Little, but even Chicken Little had to be hopeful that at the end of the day, he could go home, and live in some nice little hutch and maybe have a roof over his head have something to eat. I mean, what I’m hopeful for is that those of us who are thinking, who are trying to act and the people who are activists and stuff, are going to continue even with incredible odds. I get hopeful about people who are willing to stand up and speak the truth. I get hopeful about people who are willing to help others. I get hopeful about when I’m in the classroom, and if a student gets it, or they say I just didn’t know this, and I learned something, those are kind of little things that give me hope. I’m not sure that I’m hopeful about climate change, or am I hopeful about wars, or am I hopeful about the Coronavirus, I mean, that to me, are hopeless things. But I think the thing about the virus and I will say this, is that what’s been hopeful is to see how rapidly people have adjusted to thinking about things, whether that’s getting a vaccine, or research that’s happened or how people have tried to come together to help each other. That makes me help hopeful. And for those of us who’ve tried to do the right thing all through this time of virus, where we’ve tried to wear a mask, and we’ve tried to think about other people and tried to be as careful as we possibly could be, that gives me hope. Because it means that not everybody is a selfish son of a bitch. 

CASSIDY HALL: And I mean, you remind me to be looking for and looking at those things more, and putting my energy towards those things and towards increasing those things and expanding the frequency of the hope. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I think we tend to think about the whether it is contemplation or activism, all these things on a big scale. I think we have to think about them as everyday quotidian things that we do, that can engender hope or engender a space of maybe this is going to change, maybe, hopefully, somebody is going to get it today. It might not be a hundred somebodies but maybe it’s one somebody. Maybe we can get one somebody to change their mind about getting a vaccination, maybe we can help somebody in a classroom or in everyday work, and our everyday lives are. Those are the little things that add up. And I think that taking that instead of just thinking about the big things that might overwhelm us all, is a way to take a bite out of this life that’s very different. And that in and of itself, is contemplation about where you are, when you are, and how you are in society.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, well said. Who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you? 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: That’s an interesting question. I think — Sorry, nobody alive. Nobody alive. I was going to be real with you, I’m not the kind of person I really honest, this is part of my Catholic tradition. I don’t think about people who are alive as people who are helping me, I see people who’ve been in certain situations I was thinking about one of my friends, who teaches at Penn, wrote a book about Josephine Bakhita, who is a saint. And again, I think about those kinds of people or St. Ignatius or others who’ve gone through tremendous trials. Or to think about the everyday lives of black people in America. I spent a lot of time when I was doing graduate work reading slave narratives. And I think about those are the people that really speak to me in terms of having to have hope in the midst of really horrible situations, of being enslaved and having your children sold, having to been raped or beaten, all of these things. I think about that and I think about those are the people give me hope, because they managed to take a lot of things that happened that were bad, and turn them into something good. Do I think about people like that today? I mean, I think there’s people who do certain things in their own communities that help. But I don’t look to people who are alive as a sense of this person focuses me about contemplation, or hope or anything. Because again, I’m a historian. I tend to look at it through a historical lens than I do present day lens.

CASSIDY HALL: We kind of went over this a little bit earlier and I’m wondering, in your personal work and experience, have you seen social justice work or activism point to the need or experience of a contemplative life? We’ve kind of discussed that. But…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: You know, yeah, I think I’ll be straight up with the answer, no! You know why? Because you can’t do this while you’re trying to do be an activist. The whole thing about what’s going on in this country, and you think about the kinds of responses that African American people especially have had to make, to whether that’s been Mike Brown, or the myriad — Trayvon Martin, there’s so many people, I could just go through this list. There’s no time to be contemplative, because shit is happening all the time. And this is the point I was trying to get at in the first time but I think it’s really important for me to say it this strongly so people understand what I mean, is that how can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society, and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop? How can you do anything? How can you have time to think? How can you have time to step back and replenish yourself? This is why we have a lot of activists who have committed suicide. We’ve had activists who just said, I’m burnt out, I’m tired. I mean, I think as a black person and a black woman in this country, just the idea that I could take time off to be contemplative is a- blessing, but,  it’s privilege because even to say the word contemplative at this moment, is a word that it says privilege. And that, you know, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about the podcast or anything, but it’s a word that says privilege, it means that you have time. And most people don’t have time. They don’t have time to think about things or to sit back with a scripture or a book and think about stuff in that traditional way that we think about being contemplative, because stuff is happening in their communities all the time that they have to respond to.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love what you said that even to say the word contemplative at this moment is to say privilege, and to reveal that too. I think often about the people who go off for a Silent Retreat paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars, when people are dying, people are hungry, people are…

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, I would love to take people in my community in Philadelphia, someplace where it would just be quiet and in the woods for a weekend because people kept hearing gunshots and stuff. They hear the sound of screeching tires, they hear all kinds of things. Just to even just be silent, not even to think about anything, but just to be silent. Silence is actually something that you get with money. So I mean, I think that’s a different way to think about all this. And maybe I hope, somebody’s listening to this. And you’re like damn, I wasn’t expecting her to say what she said. I think we have to think about the ways in which even being contemplative is privileged, to have silence is a privilege, to exist in this world of cacophony and violence and anger and illness is in silence is, you know, something.

CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, silence is a rich person’s reward — it’s privilege–

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: It really is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it doesn’t mean that, you know, I hope that people can get it. I think, it’s just something that we don’t recognize as a privilege when we in fact, really should recognize it as such.

CASSIDY HALL: And also to your point, and some of the earlier things you’ve said, in striving for it we should be looking to share it and to offer it to others. Because it’s another thing that we’ve taken as this individualistic, this private retreat, this silence individual retreat away from the world or stepping aside without offering that space to others too.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, there we are.

CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate everything you said, I really appreciate what you were saying about the changing one somebody was very, very powerful to me. And the association between contemplation and privilege is a really important reflection point, especially for white contemplatives.

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Because I think that whole construct just means that you have money. It just means that you have the means, you have money, you have time, those are things that most people don’t have. Yeah.

CASSIDY HALL: Well, thank you so much for joining and thanks so much for taking the time to be with me. 

DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah you’re welcome. You’re welcome.

[OUTRO]

CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

Fresh Courage: A Conversation with Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown

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 the Spiritual 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.”

Transcript:

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 [1934], 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. Moss II, 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.

Solitude in a Toolshed

In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).

Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”

While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.

He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”

On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”

A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”

Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away. In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).

Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”

Cassidy Hall and Brother Paul Quenon
The Inside of St. Anne’s Toolshed

Quotes from:

The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960

The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963

“My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

— Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude