Currently there are 351 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the U.S.*, most of which are direct attacks upon transgender youth. The very existence of these bills (whether they pass or not) impacts mental, spiritual, and physical well-being of LGBTQIA+ folks everywhere. 293 of those bills are currently advancing,** coming closer to becoming laws and moving towards perpetuating an irreparable harm. Last month alone, bills in 14 states were pushed forward by lawmakers targeting drag performers and even drag story hours at libraries. And just this past week, the current state I call home (Indiana) advanced two anti-LGBTQIA+ bills including Indiana’s very own “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB1608) and another (SB480) opposing medical science, standard treatments for trans youth, and human dignity–which just passed yesterday.
Instead of reminding LGBTQIA+ folks of our innate belonging, these bills perpetuate a false notion that belonging must be fought for, that belonging is not a birthright, that belonging isn’t entwined with the Divine’s image already upon us.
As I mull over these issues and bills in my head, I am brought back to the ways LGBTQIA+ existence, LGBTQIA+ embodiment, LGBTQIA+ minds in schools, LGBTQIA+ intelligence in healthcare and therapeutic resources –– continues to establish a firm foundation of innate belonging, persistent existence, and celebrated personhood.
And, as a pastoral leader, theologian, and queer woman, these bills remind me that perhaps it’s time to queer our spaces even more – our places of work, our homes, and our places where we host faith gatherings. Maybe it’s time to queer our liturgy more boldly––to queer biblical stories in order to more clearly recognize our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Perhaps, the last supper was a drag brunch.
Communion Liturgy: Drag Brunch
The Divine among us be within you.
And also within you.
We lift our spirits to the Divine’s shine.
We lift our light to meet the Divine’s brightness.
We fill ourselves with gratitude.
We embody an abundance of gratefulness.
On the night Jesus was unjustly arrested by the systemic structures of oppression and hatred, even as he saw the moment approaching, he chose to gather friends and share a meal.
He wanted celebration to be a part of his memory.
He longed for an abundance of love to carry him into life eternal.
Letting his friends know where and when to join him, he gathered wine and bread at the biggest table he could find.
As they came together, the table elongated,
Until all of the faces he loved were present––
Until all presentations of the Divine’s image in gender/agender, sexuality/asexuality expressions were among them.
In the overflow of love,
In the delight of celebration,
In the wonder of the vastness of humanity,
A drag brunch ensued.
Jesus and his friends gathered to see the kings, queens, and those in drag among them,
Fawning and fanning themselves as they glided around the room,
Dancing, singing, and storytelling in their most bold expressions of self,
Most fantastic reflections of the Divine.
In the joy of gathering,
Exhilaration of life,
Pleasure of extravagance,
And the deep peace of togetherness,
Jesus sat delighted to be among his friends,
Jesus sat pleased with his chosen company.
Then, John, Jesus’ beloved, leapt up from his seat to go behind the curtain and prepare to join the show.
Upon emerging in drag, she leaned over and whispered in the ear of Jesus,
“I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Jesus smiled, as if seeing his most beloved come fully alive for the first time.
The celebration continued until amid the noise and clamor, entwined with the joy and elation of life most alive,
Jesus took the bread in the middle of the table, lifted it and exclaimed,
“May the joy among us now, live amid you in my absence. May you remember to love one another, love yourself, and live in the abundant beauty of exactly who you are.”
Then, Jesus raised his glass, and toasted his friends, saying
“This is to joy, to the possibilities within and among us, to the newness which will live within you in my absence.”
All are invited to this table.
All genders, gender-nonconformity, all sexualities, asexuality…
All expressions of the Divine among us.
All are welcome to remember in body or spirit our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
All are welcome to receive in body or spirit the gifts this table offers.
Divine Light, you shine most brightly in us when we are most fully ourselves.
Your holiness awakens within us in our wholeness.
Your image is upon us as we gather at the table and continue to elongate its welcome. May our everyday lives also reveal the ever-expanding, ever-becoming table, and an openness to the most profound possibilities of love.
Divine love, may this food and drink be a reminder of our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Your image is one of belonging, expanding, celebrating––and lives among us and within us.
Go with us now, to live lives of the great celebration, to live lives true ourselves and true to your love.
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.
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.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
This beautiful compilation of blessings from enflshed was a powerful project to be a part of. You can order this incredible book of blessings, “HELD: blessings for the depths” here. (Note: The first run of the book sold out and this is a pre-order for the second run). You can read the blessing I contributed below:
The Reminder Blessing, by Cassidy Hall
This blessing crossed the rivers of certitude, the seas of tension, the storms of life, and dropped at your feet in-between all that is known and unknown.
This blessing is here to swaddle you in care.
This blessing made space for your feelings, heard your worries, saw your emotions, and gently said: “nothing about you is too much.”
This blessing is proud to be with you.
This blessing has been waiting its whole life to be with you.
This blessing woke up next to you saying, “good morning,” to the most marvelous person it has ever met.
This blessing is a lover in disguise.
This blessing is the reminder of your oceanic oneness with the world, the beloved, yourself, your neighbor, and the stranger.
This blessing keeps showing up.
This blessing is hearty and vigorous, tender and sensitive.
This blessing is your permission to let go
and your encouragement to hold on.
This blessing is the reminder of that softened inner stance which offers the least resistance to the gift of you.
This is the blessing you’ve been waiting for, and also never needed.
I was also asked by a friend earlier this year to add a homily or reflection to a forthcoming book from Clear Faith Publishing. True to form, I wrote about the power of doubt for the 3rd Sunday of Easter and somehow found myself published alongside some brilliant voices. You can find “Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C” from Clear Faith Publishing or on Amazon. You can read my piece below:
The Doubt of Jesus, by Cassidy Hall
I’ve been a skeptic about God for as long as I can remember. Around the age of 8, I began having reoccurring dreams about death. Dreams of floating in a sea of nothingness: alone, lost, stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. Even years before these dreams began, I was already asking questions of the divine. But throughout my life, these questions weren’t always welcomed.
In middle school, I became really interested with spirituality and the possibilities it beheld. I had friends in various youth groups and from time to time I’d attend those groups with them. At that age, the events were more about feeling a sense of belonging. The gatherings were often deeply entangled with the emotional manipulation of the minds and hormones of young teens.
Once, while I was at an evangelical conference with the local youth group, I continued my skepticism and questioning, but this time was different. During one evening’s session, I was moved to participate in an altar call and was immediately flooded with questions of what I had just done. As we gathered in our small groups after the session, my youth leader told me, “Your questions are of the devil.” My insides stirred with a surprised, “huh?” But, baffled and confused, I went along with the adult in the room and regretfully shut my mouth.
Over twenty years later, I find myself in seminary and pursuing ordination more full of questions about the divine than I’ve ever held. Only now, I remember to show them off like treasures, reminding others and myself that questions innately connect us to the divine by the very fact that they belong to mystery. Now, I claim my questions and doubts with pride. I remember to bask in the questions, because they mean growth, change, and movement. But, perhaps most importantly, I remember questions take me to the place of infinite possibility, the place where God resides.
It seems to me faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Faith makes room for doubt’s entrance as doubt demands faith for its existence. One cannot host doubt unless there is some knowledge of that which is being doubted. Therefore to doubt, is to both have and demonstrate faith.
When I look at John 21, I sometimes wonder if Jesus asked Peter three times not because of his three denials but because he actually doubted him. Perhaps the humanness of Jesus needed a sense of affirmation and clarity, like the times I need to hear a truth on repeat from a loved one. And, what if Jesus was also instilling his faith in Peter by revealing his doubt? What if doubt belongs to faith more than knowing or even thinking I know?
In my experience, humans have ruined my doubts and questions. God, on the other hand, has valued, honored, and even respected them. I often find the more I question and am honest about my doubt, the more God shows up –– in the mystery, in the uncertainty, in the unknowing. And, so I wonder, what if Jesus asking questions is a model for our own questioning? What if Jesus was living and loving the questions?
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke to young aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus. “Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.”
What if Jesus, in his humanness, was openly living and loving the questions amid his uncertainty of what the church might become? What if Jesus, in all his divinity, was modeling a way to hold uncertainty, unknowing, and the infinite possibilities within the unknowing?
For me, doubts and questions are fruits of a life of faith. Doubt reminds us to engage our questions, to search the books, to ask the neighbor, to grow and learn and engage. Doubt belongs to faith in the same way that mystery belongs to God. And my teenage questions were not of the devil and neither are my 37-year-old doubts.
When I arrived back home after that trip with my youth group I remember the shock and surprise my young teenage self felt. Being that I was the only “nonbeliever” on that trip I was a kind of project for people to huddle around and convert. And amid all of that misinformation
Amid all of the lies and good intentions with false pretenses, God was with and within me.
Honoring my unbelief.
Respecting my doubt.
Reminding me to love and live the questions.
Opening me into the infinite possibility where God is.
Prayer: God of all questions, Teach me to hold the doubt and love the questions. Lead me to the infinite possibilities in them, the very same possibility found in your tomb. Help me to bask in the awe of mystery, give me a sense of safety and comfort there. Grant me the courage to hold uncertainty, the resilience to carry unknowing, and the endurance to bask in all of life’s mysteries. Remind me, O God, that basking in mystery is basking in you.
DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I am a mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me. I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not?
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Davelyn Hill is the Executive Director for Speaking Down Barriers. Speaking Down Barriers is an organization whose mission is equity for all. It seeks to build community across all that seeks to divide us by ending oppression and valuing everyone. Davelyn has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Converse College, and is currently working on a Master’s in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry. Davelyn is a poet activist, and alongside providing counseling services, she’s led support groups, presented research and conducted University presentations around racial trauma and oppression. Davelyn Hill, also known as Davelyn Athena, has been published by the Plants and Poetry Journal, and has also been featured by Spark and Echo.
CASSIDY HALL: Well, Davelyn, thank you so much for joining today.
DAVELYN HALL: You are very welcome. I’m glad to be here.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways I like to kind of begin orienting our conversation is by asking you what the words “contemplation” and/or “mysticism” mean to you. And how do you see them lived out in the world today?
DAVELYN HALL: That’s a — I mean, you have some questions, but I don’t know, I feel overwhelmed by the idea of mysticism. I’ll start with that one. Just when you hear about the Desert Fathers and some of the people who have known God in ways that make me wonder about how it’s even possible to be close and achieve some sort of like felt oneness is kind of what I think about when I think about mysticism, is being super connected to God, so much so that you feel you have a felt feeling of oneness. I believe that oneness can exist without you feeling it, but I feel like my particular journey as a mystic is to be united, have a like a uniting with the universal Christ. That’s kind of what I see. And so when I think about people, some of the nuns of old and people who have had experiences that they then go back and relate to us, like Luther has, is to have said to have those meetings with God is just as amazing. And because of like, our society is so focused on logic, it feels like oh, well, that’s extra biblical. You know, a lot of people say, that doesn’t matter, your experiences don’t matter, the only thing that matters is the word because it’s written. And you’re like mmhhmm for a lot of folks it wasn’t written when it was happening not for them, they didn’t have access. So, I sometimes wonder if our logically… from kind of having the uniting that many of the mystics talk about. And so I think of contemplation as a way… to see mysticism lived out. So if I live a contemplative life and prayer as the mundane or in the mundane, contemplating blades of grass or thinking deeply about things that just kind of happen in the earth, in the universe, and how that leads us back to the creator in oneness. And so having a contemplative life through like reading, and journaling, and meditation, and community, and serving leads me to having then mystical experiences.So then I can refer to myself as a mystic. Because I don’t know how else you’d get there without contemplation.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love the things you’re saying and you also said, correct me if I’m wrong, but you said I believe oneness can exist without feeling it. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit more into that? Because it seems to me, right, there’s an effort to contemplative life that maybe draws us into mysticism that draws us into the oneness. And sometimes we don’t feel it because we’re doing it.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I get. And that my feelings I can speak to those are, they’re varied. And so I keep working toward the feeling but the oneness already exists. So I come from just believing in my doctrine that I’m already connected to God that I’m already in oneness. And so my journey is having that felt oneness. So become more and more able to kind of tap into oneness in my life. And so that comes and goes. One day can be like, ah bliss, I’m so connected to the God of the universe. Oh! And the next day, I’m like is there a God? I think there is based on like my feelings. And so that’s what I meant by like, I have oneness every day whether I tap into it or not.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, right, right, that makes a lot of sense. And what about this oneness in terms of our unity with our fellow human? So I guess along with that, do you think that there’s an important aspect of being a contemplative and/or mystic that also innately makes us an activist and or someone who points to the collective unity of all of humanity?
DAVELYN HALL: I don’t think I can say that I’m am mystic without being connected to community. So I can’t say that for me, I need to be connected to community in order to be a mystic, how do you not? Because each person kind of gives us another picture of who God is, and so how each time I’m connected to people in community, they reveal another part of God that I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. And so as they either growing towards their relationship with God and opening oneness, or are suffering because of the injustice in the world, and so I’m connected to that as well, to the suffering of God, the suffering of the Christ. And so if I’m not connected to those people, how do I get to see that lens? I can’t. And then also like, we’re literally the love of God made flesh. And so without us people don’t get to see God and we don’t get to see God. And so I don’t understand how — I really don’t. I’d love to meet some folks to tell me you know, I can live this life on my own and be connected to God and it’s wonderful... Right? Like, that’s what I think anyway.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. So in your work with Speaking Down Barriers, which is about fostering dialogue and trust among people with different backgrounds and experiences, first of all, maybe you could tell us maybe the origin story of Speaking Down Barriers, and then I could ask a follow up question about that.
DAVELYN HALL: Sure. Speaking Down Barriers started in November of 2013. And it started originally, as poetry and conversation. Before the start in 2013, the founder of Speaking Down Barriers name is Marlanda Dekine and they were at a conference and did a poem and Scott Neely who is our current chief strategist heard her do a poem and was like [gasps] that was amazing how it transformed the room. It was like, ooh, then he saw her again, and same thing happened. And so they decided, I want to have poetry and conversation. And so Marlanda, who was a spoken word poet, she’s an amazing poet. She and some other spoken word poets, all black, or for the most part black, got together and started to do this poetry and conversation, and it began to grow. And Marlanda decided to make it Speaking Down Barriers. It was named by our current Admin Support, she was looking for a name like not poetry and conversation. So it moved into, well, we want to speak down barriers, and so that’s how it got its name. And so Speaking Down Barriers had poetry, conversation and food. And so you know, what’s better than that? A communal meal where you can eat together, starts that way, we talk about a topic, whatever it is, open up with a dialogue question and then poetry pushes that dialogue to places it couldn’t go, especially first person narratives. It was for you to argue with your first person narrative poem. They can listen to it and receive it, and so it bypasses some of that stuff that comes up and blocks us when we think logically only. And also it causes us to feel things in our bodies. Whereas a lot of time I know for me, I didn’t even recognize my body was actually a part of life. It was so much lived in my head, and it feels and I was like, wait a minute, feelings actually happen in your body. So what am I actually feeling? And spoken word made me feel that. In 2015 it became speaking down barriers and then started to reach out and do trainings. Our current mission is equity for all, we revamped that in 2020. And beginning to think about what the world looks like when there’s equity for all? Well, first of all, it’s ending oppression, all kinds, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all the gender violence, the ways that immigrants are treated in this country, all of that. All of that kind of oppression needs to go. And then also valuing everyone. So while I might not agree with you, I value your humanity because you are human; when I devalue you, I’ll lose myself. So we’ll have to hold on to that, even if I don’t agree with you. And I can have a conversation with folks I don’t agree with as long as their disagreement doesn’t oppress me, I’m okay. When we start to get oppression, I can no longer be in conversation with you, but I still believe in your dignity as a human.
CASSIDY HALL: I’m over here, just like jotting down all these notes of these beautiful things you’re saying. You can’t be a mystic without being connected to community, and this notion of poetry, being able to transform the room, and what you just said, when I devalue you I lose myself. I mean, these are just such profound things. And I’m seeing the ways that this goes back to the beginning of the conversation where we talked about that experience of oneness, and its existence of oneness with God, with each other, and how to touch that. And I’m wondering if you’ve experienced kind of the moments where we touch that or where you’ve been able to touch that with other people in a room, with poetry as this transforming force that maybe takes us to this liminal space or this transcendent space.
DAVELYN HALL: It’s a good word, yeah, transcendence. Yeah, I’ve been in many rooms where this has happened. Where even things are stuck, until a poet does a poem. And it’s like, all of a sudden the room opens up. Or we’ve also started using art. So we’ve been using virtual spaces, so the art is like in your face, you can do it on zoom, where like the art is like, wow! Okay, so I’m seeing this art, hearing from the artist, and hearing their experience. And all of a sudden, the room opens up again, things you never thought of — It’s a tool of expansion. And so I’m really big on freedom chants, I love a freedom chant. Freedom Chants all the way from enslaved folks using the oral tradition, using language for all kinds of purposes, using it to be incognito, to plot the way forward, to encourage hearts then becoming part of the gospel tradition and become a huge and civil rights. And I feel like now — it’s even now, I was always been existing, but it feels like I’m more aware of it now. And so I’ve been in rooms where freedom chants have done the same thing. It’s like a uniting, like a oneness when we’re all like fighting and singing and hoping for the same, for equity, for justice and for just being able to kind of live and thrive.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. One of the things I noticed is that you define yourself not solely as poet nor solely as an activist, but as a poet activist. And I wonder if you could share what it means to merge these words as a role. Are poets also innately activists, by the nature of the way poets use words to transform or transcend the moment to point to something that could be amid what is?
DAVELYN HALL: I think when you say it like that, that’s it.
CASSIDY HALL: I guess to be fair, right, we can we can all misuse words still.
DAVELYN HALL: Mhmm. Yeah. And I don’t necessarily think — so when I use the word activist, I mean, speaking truth to power. And so in that way, not all poets are activists. Now, in the way that they kind of reveal what is and can a lot of times cause like all of the fluff around something to disappear so that you get to the heart of the matter, then in that way, I believe they could all be activists. To be able to take nature, even the way of like words worth and be like, wow, I see nature anywhere, have a deeper appreciation for nature. Or when I read Mary Oliver stuff, I’m wowed by the beauty of language and the ability of language to connect us in a way. Mary Oliver, and I don’t have anything common, but when she puts the words on the page, we have a lot in common. So in that way, like, causing humanity to maybe appreciate itself, and to see us in each other’s eyes, then I think it definitely works. However, I don’t think we all use poetry to speak truth to power. And that’s what I mean, when I say a poet activist. I want to use my words to make people feel something, like Julie Cameron says that she wanted her words make people feel something and I want the same. And so when you feel something though I want you to do something, and hopefully to be a part of the fixing the problem, be a part of change whatever that looks like.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. In your work do you see this work of poet activist, and mystic as intertwined? Do you see those as similar or one that leads to the other or is there a relationship there I guess I’m wondering?
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, sometimes like when I talk about the felt oneness, you have to pick up your pen and write down a poem because it’s like grand. And then other times, I’m just kind of writing from humanity, from that place of kind of whatever I’m experiencing, sometimes about various like traumas and joys, both. Find the page, but then sometimes there’s that work that you know, this poem was not mine. I’m just scribing it down.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. Do you think there’s anything to learn from contemplation and/or mysticism that informs things like activism and/or collective protest or movements that take place today? And then vice versa, right? Can those also feed the contemplation and feed the mystical moments?
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, I do. I do. I think when lots of people, especially you’re out in protesting and taking care of each other, making sure people have water and making sure that people are taking care of themselves, even in the midst of kind of protesting the state, that for me is beautiful community and an opportunity to think about in the moment, but definitely after the moment, like what was that like? How do we share with each other? Did we move anything forward? Having those discussions, I think helps you lead a contemplative life. So I think the feedback loop works both ways. And yeah, those things definitely feed poetry, I think, because poetry is of the stuff of everyday life too. And so being able to kind of really live in moments, with other people and alone, and see God in those moments, I feel like helps the page and helps the poetry, which then goes forth for people to read and enjoy and be moved by. I mean I write poems for myself too, but I want people to read it. And I think most people — well, some people do write just for their journal and just for themselves, but that’s just not the kind of poetry or painting or anything that I do. It’s not just for me.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Speaking of I would love for you to read a poem. I do want to ask one more question before we get to that. You talked a lot about logic at the beginning of the conversation. Do you think our obsession with logic and knowing and wanting to do things right and the talking about the thing but not doing the thing, do you think that makes — it doesn’t make us slow down, but doesn’t it also make things just less close to the oneness and the way it makes a lot of things inaccessible or unreachable or like there’s just too many words in the way?
DAVELYN HALL: I frequently feel that.
CASSIDY HALL: Even my own right now, right?
DAVELYN HALL: No, no, no, I frequently feel that way that there are so many words, so so many, and even in silence, people like are like oh I had silent time today. But really, the silent time was music, with words, and it was reading. And so like even self wasn’t silent, even though you are alone, like solitude does not equal without words. And so, I’ve been thinking about that previously, like what does it mean to actually breathe in a moment, with actual silence. Not the phone, not scrolling, even not writing and journaling about it, but actual silence. So yeah, I think it does make things inaccessible. There are some things that just really need to be felt. We’re talking about — I was talking to a group of people who were talking about language and how even we who don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate, you can communicate heart and care and concern. Wow, I think that that means something. Yeah.
CASSIDY HALL: So at this ordination, where our paths crossed, you wrote and you read a beautiful poem, titled Beloved Community, which moved me and I’m sure everyone else in that room to tears. And I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind reading that for us today?
DAVELYN HALL: I do not mind at all. Thank you. I really love to hear that it moved folks. It’s really, you know, I want to make people feel and so feeling is not necessarily — I guess there is a direct feeling. I’d like people to feel connected to each other, connected to God, connected to themselves, that poetry would be connection.
Beloved Community, by Davelyn Hill
Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives. Martin Luther King Jr.
The image of God we shine like constellations in the galaxy.
Beloved, be loved, one who is loved, taken care of, needs met, heart filled, accepted, forgiven much for terrible and for inaction, not fighting for the least of these and still being the beloved,
Community, I am because we are,
Sharing the cup, being the body, binding each other’s wounds in places we cannot reach ourselves.
We are the bride,
God calls us woman, exalts woman, asks us to become woman,
To receive all our good from Spirit to enter into a covenant relationship.
We co-create, expand, thrive, all things become shared,
Humanity, flaws, and all
Love made visible through flesh.
Beloved Community loves all, endures all, because we do it together,
Like trees gathered in a forest, like wandering lights in the night sky, who create constellations, binding each other’s wounds, loving the least of these because we are the least of these.
We are the image of God,
At times bruised and broken, beloved, be loved.
We are the Beloved Community,
Ashe and Amen.
CASSIDY HALL: Thank you. Yeah, just as powerful once again. I also found some of your work on a page called plants and poetry.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, yes, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So I have gone through years of illness, and at times, just really unable to do anything. And during that time, I had a tree outside my window, and I named the tree Dolores. And yes, Dolores, I would stare Dolores, I would talk to Dolores. And Dolores got me through, just thinking about her roots. I read a book on trees while I was ill, and just learning about trees and how they communicate with each other, and they’re super smart. And it’s just God’s little design is amazing. But yeah, like they communicate with each other, they help each other survive attacks, they will give with the other trees need and receive what they need from the other trees. And so just looking at the Delores after having read that I was like, I don’t know, like there’s some kind of vibrational thing happening between us. And we are all connected and we’re connected to all of life. And so I wrote a poem, a short poem about Delores in a Plants and Poetry journal, took it in…
CASSIDY HALL: I mean, I really want you to read that now. And you named her Dolores.
DAVELYN HALL: Yeah, so it’s really short, but it says it’s called Dolores.
Delores, by Davelyn Hill
The tree outside my windows name is Dolores.
I open my blinds in the morning and she waves at me.
This morning, she was changing clothes.
The beautiful green she normally wears turned into hues of orange, red and yellow.
I was too tired to change clothes.
The wind blew so fiercely, that she shook and trembled.
I would love to see her roots.
I’d wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes.
CASSIDY HALL: That’s great. Thank you.
So Davelyn, thank you so much for joining and just for this incredible conversation. And I’m wondering where people can find you and find your work, and if you’re working on anything currently that we should be on the lookout for?
DAVELYN HALL: Sure, thanks. So Speaking Down Barriers website is http://www.speakdownbarriers.org. And not speaking, but speak down. And on our website page, and we’re also on Facebook, and Instagram at Speak Down Barriers. You can find out all the things. We’re having all of our events virtual at the moment, so we love it when people come from far away and from post by. Just love all the peoples to come and have a conversation. We’re really trying to build a multi-ethnic coalition and the only way we can do that is by having conversations together. Also we can find our poets, we have a spotlight poet every four months. And currently, her name is Sharae “FIRE” Walton, but we’ve all called her “Fire.” Fire is amazing as well. So people can find out about her work and the people who come before her. ShAy Black and a Hayle Oswell, (AKA Celestial Poet) had been our previous spotlight artists. And we want people to come and share their poetry and their life. And they do an awesome job using poetry and art to push us forward. It is good to get to know someone, so after four months, I feel like we know these poets and they know us in some part of the community. Right now I myself am holding abolition really close to my heart. I consider myself an abolitionist. And for me, that means abolition is creating things. So it means creating a world where everybody can thrive and where we have things set up for harm like conflict-mediation and conflict-resolution, conflict-coaching. We also have transformative healing circles and we have places where harm can be mitigated versus the system that we have with over-policing, over-surveillance, and just profiting off of crime, making things that really aren’t criminal-criminal, making things more important than people. And so while that exists, I just can’t get behind that system. So I want to bring it all down, and also build. So it’s a both-and for me.
CASSIDY HALL: Thank you so much for joining me today and for taking the time to chat. I really, really appreciate it and I’m grateful for your work. I’m grateful for your voice. And yeah, the mystical presence that you brought that day when I heard you read poetry was transformative and transcendent, so thank you.
DAVELYN HALL: Well, thank you. Sometimes I wonder, I think what my words are doing. I spend a lot of time with just sending my work out, somebody to take my work, somebody take my work. And so on the other end of that is like in the felt experience of folks. And so it gives me kind of joy, I think, oh, the work is doing something regardless of what it does in other places. When I hear from people, it’s like, okay, my work is doing good doing, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.Support the Podcast
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 includeIf 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.
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.
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.
In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).
Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”
While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.
He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”
On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”
A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”
Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away.In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).
Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”
The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960
The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more.
Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary, I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.
The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you.
Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.
The Christian Century(progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.
This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall
I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.
Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.
(Below is a piece of mine which originally appeared on the enfleshed website. For more Moments for Common Nourishment from enfleshed, go here.)
Here we are, beloveds. We’re making it through the final month of 2020. The year of chaos and discourse that left us wounded, grieving, lost, amiss. The year when time went too fast and too slow all at once. The year of deeper collective awakening to the injustices around and within us.
But, we made it.
We’re making it.
While on a walk around the park today, I stopped to pause and gaze at a leaf. One leaf. A singular friend hanging on, despite the arrival of winter, despite the pain of 2020, despite it all. This leaf reminded me that mourning, grieving, and letting go is difficult for all of us—the trees, too. But this leaf also reminded me that sometimes our staying and our hanging on is an act of courage, an assertion in remaining, an allegiance to steadiness amid the turmoil.
In 1967-68, an artist and nun named Corita Kent made a list of 10 rules for her art department. The list opened with “Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.” And by our very remaining, I wonder if that’s precisely what we’re doing. Our very staying to see 2020 through and withstand its tumultuous weather is an act of courageous trust.
I celebrate your resilience.
I bow to your persistence.
I honor your strength.
Wherever you are at the end of this year, maybe you need to stay, maybe you need to let go, but I urge you to carry forth the resilience you have proven. I ask that you remember the grief you have waded and the awakenings you have come to know.
We are undoubtedly bound together by all that has transpired this year. Our connectedness has revealed itself in new and astonishing ways. I now know all the more deeply that my actions are bound up in our communal well-being. I now understand all the more clearly that your woundedness is carried in my tears, and mine in yours.
And, this leaf. This singular commonality of holding on in the midst of letting go presents differently in each of us. But at the same time, it also binds us together in that place of hidden unity, mysterious rootedness, ineffable silence.
We not only belong to each other, but in the deepest place, in the crux of the imago dei, we are each other.
79 years ago today, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani Abbey, three days after Pearl Harbor.
52 years ago today, he died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a lecture on “Marxism & Monastic Perspectives.”
At the end of his talk, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.” Some call this prophetic, but I think it was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy (and controversial) talk.
Many of you know I’ve begun to sway away from Merton in some of my scholarship, recognizing we don’t need to admire more white-cis-male leaders. I’ve always been open about critiquing Merton, and will continue to be. To be frank, I think Merton himself would be on board with this (despite him being an enneagram 4 and needing to feel special). I think he would also be seeking out more work and scholarship by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other People of Color.
Why does this matter? For me, it matters because perpetuating voices who already have great attention in our world makes other brilliant voices more difficult to find. For me, it matters because lifting up white-cis-male voices elongates said power and feeds an already patriarchal and white-supremacist world. For me, it matters because white-cis-men have very little grasp on the fullness of the human experience when it comes to marginalization and oppression. I cannot learn from Merton, for instance, what it’s like to be Black in America. Merton cannot convey the pain of being Queer and rejected. He can provide historical perspective or researched ideas, but a white-cis-male cannot speak well into the fullness of an oppressive situation separate from his identity.
For me, it matters because the generalized cis-white-male experience is far from inclusive of all people, is far from understanding all oppressions, is far from understanding all experiences. For me, when I yield to thoughts and theologies that oversimplify oppression, I participate in the dominative systems at hand.
The fullness of liberation lies with the fullness of voices. And so long as I participate in perpetuating the domination of cis-white-male voices in spiritual leadership, I perpetuate slower movement toward the fullness of liberation for all people (shoutout to Womanist methodology).
Merton was controversial in his time, indeed. His words are relevant and helpful, indeed. His correspondence and work focused on and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences, indeed. He himself was an immigrant from France, indeed. He speaks prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in, indeed.But, what am I reading whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives NOW?What voices am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial TODAY?
This is my journey, not yours, not someone else’s. Merton himself spoke to the significance of integrity saying, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. …They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain effort to be some other poet, some other saint.” And, it is my hope that we all find and navigate our own journeys, whether privately or openly. The fullness of myself relies on the fullness of you, that we might all be true to our uniqueness and dive deeper into communal care.
The spiritual life is simultaneously simple and complex, infinitely static and dynamic. May we all find our own sacred center so that we can continue evolving and participating in each other’s liberation, each other’s freedom, and each other’s fullness of self.
“We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.”
(Note: I am well aware of Merton’s works on other faiths and correspondences with: Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rachel Carson, works in the Sufi tradition, James Baldwin, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., studies in Taoism, exploration in indigenous wisdom, Hesychasm, Judaism, Protestant Tradition, … … …)
It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.
Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.
Mysticism is a riot.
In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.
The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.
Mysticism breeds revolution.
Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”
Mysticism is a protest.
Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.
Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves: Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
Mysticism is on the streets.
So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”
Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”
For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”
Mysticism is now.
If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.
Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.