Time, Tenderness, and Terror: Reflections from a Hospital Chaplain

CW: Death, dying, grief, loss, infant loss

“Callouses form easily,” I was recently told in a meeting, “endurance takes time.” And I add to these words perhaps endurance’s movement into healing and growth takes both time and tenderness.

I’ve been learning that working at a Level One Trauma Hospital for the summer creates its own heap of secondary trauma and invitations into the agony of humanity and oneself.

At the beginning of the summer learning goals were discussed and my foremost goal was to not become numb to human suffering while also developing an endurance for care, empathy, and human accompaniment. I asked, “how can I build endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering?”

Shortly after developing these goals, I encountered a number of unexpected deaths and grieving families during on-call shifts. One, a brand new baby who was well before birth and simply never began breathing. The other, a father, husband, and grandfather on Father’s Day. More recently, I was asked to tend to the bedside of a “terminal wean,” where ventilatory support is withdrawn from the patient as they begin to travel through the threshold of life into death. Another time, a notification on my pager to come to the bedside for “end of life.” In this instance, as I stood in a room with a family whose dear one was dying, I put my hand on the dying–holding them in the gratitude of what they brought to this earth by their presence. I put my other hand on the back of the grieving, as they wailed in disbelief, pain, and anguish. I shared and prayed no magic words, offered no comforting thoughts, and was only present to the moment. The waves of grief dominated these lives and rooms, as they do under these circumstances, and together we allowed the waves to roll through the space like a tsunami while striving to keep each other safe. 

The inexplicability of death never ceases to haunt my imagination. The ways death offers no real response to the question of why stops us all in our tracks. Believing all of life is entwined, I realize how little I stop to ask why a tree dies in the middle of a burning forest or why I perpetually participate in the ocean’s walk towards death. Why isn’t the hope of new growth in the garden as astonishing as a brand new human life or the sight of a patient on the other side of a heart transplant? How can I celebrate and grieve in the fullness of life’s connectivity? And still somehow these moments of accompaniment in alongside the dying and their loved ones are simultaneously holy and horrifying.

If I’ve learned anything about grief and human accompaniment this summer it’s simply that there are absolutely no proper words or language to offer to the grieving. I’ve gone into the summer knowing that there are plenty of wrong things to say and quite simply nothing right to say. In this way, the presence of personhood and accompaniment is an offering beyond words. The statue of immovable presence and peace amid unfathomable loss is at best a sentiment. A presence which can affirm the anger, frustration, sadness, pain, worry, grief, loneliness, agony… A presence to witness human suffering and acknowledge the terror of all that is unknown and unknowable.

On the more difficult days I often ask myself, how does one mark the death and grief of total strangers with whom they’ve accompanied in some of the most impossible and insufferable moments of life? Are these moments tattooed on my soul like a mark of memory, are they (the dead and their families) now threaded together within the expanding quilt of my existence, or are they lost in the ether of full and busy days with little to no time for sacred pauses? Maybe instead, grief becomes a part of me ––of us, like a new limb, an added layer of emotion, or the daily piece of jewelry we put on before we begin our day.

Many of us can agree that not only is healthcare in America a broken system, but so too are its hospitals. The lighting, the noise, the anxiety, the loneliness, even its spiritual care programs which often offer little spiritual care for their own – this is a difficult place to heal and grieve. And when it comes to working in these spaces: detachment often means survival, disconnect allows for life beyond the walls of work, and disengagement is frequently a way to stay sane.

So as I reflect more deeply on my impossible goal of building “endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering” I instead ask “how can I offer time, tenderness, and presence amid the mystery and terror of death?” The tsunami of grief comes when it comes, stirring up unfathomable emotion and unknowable pain. I can only be present to yours, mine, ours, show up, and offer some small sense of solidarity in the midst of all that is unknowable.

And, so, all of the answers to my questions land here: There are no answers. There’s no way to perfectly witness or accompany human suffering. There is no ideal way to witness grief. It can only be honored, tenderly seen, lovingly acknowledged, and any forms of healing and growth are both a process and an art. An art tethered to uniqueness by the way that each human interaction is unique.

As I walk out of the hospital on the more difficult days, I pause for a moment of acknowledgment in the hospital chapel. I speak names in my heart and shake my head with the tension of emotions. I offer the unknowable to the unknown, the mysterious to the mystery, the hopelessness to the possibility of hope. 

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

James Baldwin, Nothing Personal

A Prayer for White People (including myself)

For those afraid to begin for fear of being wrong and being corrected. “White feelings should never be held in higher regard than black lives.” (Rachel Cargle)

May we get over ourselves. May we see the value of being uncomfortable, the importance of trying and getting it wrong until we get it closer to right.

For those whose ignorance is debilitating humanity’s resolution. “it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.” (James Baldwin)

May we read, watch, listen, heed, and do our own work both individually and collectively.

For those who fear moving away from the comfort and safety of “being good.”

May we remember, there is always a place for “creative trouble” (Bayard Rustin), “Good trouble, necessary trouble” (John Lewis)

May we pivot into discomfort, lest we perpetuate the status quo.

May we recall that “There is no place in this war of liberation for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.” (James H. Cone)

For those so focused on their self-worth’s connectivity to black worth that we fail to do the work from the right intentions.

May we remember, “Anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people. It doesn’t end when white people feel better about what they’ve done. It ends when Black people are staying alive and they have their liberation.” (Rachel Cargle)

For those flailing so much that they’ve chosen to do nothing, without realizing the privilege of choice. “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs… they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.” (bell hooks)

May we stop flailing in the sea of to-dos and begin to be moved to change and step into risk––one task at a time.

For those who cannot see the work of justice in a riot.

May we see the truth of the fire and see both within and beyond it.

For those who cannot understand the rage.

May we awaken to the necessity of uprooting systems of oppression embedded in American society and our very lives.

May we recognize these systems and be against them, clearly and boldly.

May we know that disruption of a system which holds on to the status quo is necessary for these are the systems which refuse to “relinquish [their] oppressive ways without confrontation. This is the methodology of the oppressed as they are fighting for liberation.” (Pamela R. Lightsey).

May we remember that “to practice love is to disrupt the status quo which is masquerading as peace.” (Austin Channing Brown)

May we see and understand that “Oppressive systems must be exposed and deconstructed or dismantled (even in sacred texts), not simply recycled or cosmetically adjusted to palliate and opiate the oppressed and their allies.” (Mitzi J Smith)

May we see the distress, agony, and trauma of these systems which is perpetuated in our own white bodies, ways of being, and participation (see Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands).

For those claiming only silence or spending time in prayer is necessary for such a time as this.

May we heed the balance demanded of a truly contemplative life.

May we remember “All contemplation should be followed by action.” And that the wholeness of contemplation “MUST consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” (Therese Taylor-Stinson)

May we remember that the “altar of justice” clearly shows historically and biblically that “resistance was [and is] an action” of our faith. (Dean Leah Gunning Francis)

For those who think we can “set the timetable for another man’s freedom” (MLK, Jr.) No, just no.

“How much time do you want for your progress?” (James Baldwin)

May we heed the “fierce urgency of now” (MLK, Jr.) and recognize God in our fellow humans who are literally struggling to breathe in this. very. moment.

For those who still can’t get behind the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”

May we remember “we don’t live in a world where all lives matter.” (Alicia Garza) Thus, we must elevate the lives deemed unworthy by a society we (as white people) perpetuate (whether unknowingly or not).

May we remember that “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” (Toni Morrison)

May we wake up to see this truth in our everyday lives: our schools, our places of work, our streets, our parks, and our homes.

For those at home, unable to leave for health reasons of their own, another’s health, or unable to be on the streets for other reasons.

May we remember that there are countless  ways to show up.

May we recall that “Revolution is not a one-time event” (Audre Lorde) nor a one-place event. But may we also remember that for a revolution to take hold, it must seep into all avenues of our lives.

May we remember where we spend our money matters, our voice or writing matters, our work with our white friends, white children, and white family members matters.

May we learn to see by paying attention.

May we learn to understand by listening.

May we learn to change by doing our own work.

May we be true to both ourselves and our unique expressions while also being true to our human family.

May we participate in the revolution, a revolution that doesn’t need us but will define us.

Closing: “Spirit gets what Spirit wants, so we might as well listen.” (Lerita Coleman-Brown)

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

(Fannie Lou Hammer)

(Icon: Ferguson Mother of God: Our Lady against all Gun Violence, 2015 by Mark Dukes).

 

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Zoom Diaries: A Week’s Lesson in Finding Voice

Last week, I had the opportunity to be with a group of friends from all over the country. With each of us in a different state, we gathered at 9 in the morning until about 5 each night to discuss what it means to find our call, know our voice, and live into the creativity we were made for.

The key themes I took away can be narrowed into four main points: 1. Own your creativity, 2. The who is always more important than the what (people over things), 3. Language is limiting and can only be used as a tool, and 4. True belonging only exists where radical difference is embraced.

Own Your Creativity:

Times of chaos require the creative one in each of us—that unique creativity which only you or I can bring to a particular situation at a particular moment, when we choose to be true to ourselves. The beauty of our creativity being necessary in difficult times is that our uniqueness feeds one another—they inspire and change each other for something more beautiful, something more truthful, something more loving, something more whole.

There is a prophetic power to creativity which helps us see beyond panic. Today, our class had the opportunity to hear from artist and activist Genesis Be. And while we were discussing this prophetic power, she reminded us: “If we seek to be prophetic, it inherently diminishes the purity of our work…” In other words, if I enter into something so focused on outcome that I lose sight of the goodness and rightness of the work or invitation into the moment itself, then I am missing not only the purity of my creativity but also the truth of my own being.

I was immediately reminded of Thomas Merton’s words in Message to Poets: “A hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.” How do I maintain a sense of clarity within my creativity in a world filled with alerts, unsolicited feedback, and notifications? How do I surrender to the truthfulness of my own being and what I do (and sometimes don’t) have to offer?

Well. Don’t worry. Genesis Be had an answer for that, too, when she said that this reminder was a staple to her work:

“…Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”
―Lao-Tzu

We are creative beings. Each one of us. Nun and Pop Art Artist, Sister Corita Kent once wrote that creativity belongs to “the artist in each of us,” she went on, “To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

A part of creativity is simply being true to who and how we are. Ensuring that we are remembering the fact that being is more important than doing.

Language Has Limits:

Language is limiting. Anything in or of language is a social construct. Yet day after day we use words as meaning-makers, as markers, as navigational tools on this journey we find ourselves on. Today in class, theologian Barry Taylor told us, “we constantly try to arrest the transients of life,” we spend our time making meaning of that which we cannot contain. We’re so fearful of the moment slipping between our fingers that we try to dominate and control it with what we think will keep it still: words. But time still takes it from us. The hour still passes. The sun still sets. Our only certitude lives in utter finitude.

To truly be a person of becoming
To really be a person evolving
Is to be constantly grieving

Perhaps, as Barry suggested, we need to develop a new way to think about possible worlds we can inhabit: a post-alphabet way of speaking, a way that continually moves us: from doing to being, from thinking to existing, from destructing to creating. These new ways, or possible worlds only begin to get created when we take risks with our words (which often leads to poetry and prophesy), deep-dives into our imagination (which expands our creativity), and lean into accepting the transience of life.

The who is always more important than the What (people over things):

“A key question that emerges for me is who (as opposed to what) is left out of the conversations about liberation in our various contexts?” ––Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes

Today in class, the topic of intersectionality emerged. Intersectionality is the ways in which categories like race, class, gender, dis/ability, and sexuality merge, crossover, and coexist. We discussed what it means when someone is unwilling or unready to speak to an intersection and how that impacts the whole.

And I wonder, when I breathe truth and love into one of these aspects of life while dismissing another, am I really living into vision of unity I long for? If I belong to you and you to me, are not all your issues my own, are not all intersections of interest to me precisely because they are our common humanity?

What does it look like to live into loving, embracing, and being inclusive of the fullness of personhood which surrounds us?

Many of us (including myself) fail to speak up and out because lack clarity; most of us (including myself) fail to speak up and out because we lack understanding. But if my love for a human becomes less important than how I look or how something goes, I am missing the mark. And what if that voice of love is precisely what is vitally necessary to save a life, maybe even possibly, my own?

“There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.”

––Mary Oliver, Moments

 

True Belonging coexists with Radical Difference: 

How do we live into our belonging while honoring radical difference? Revering radical difference demands that we deem our own difference as distinctive, important, a part of the whole of humanity and its possible unity. I must belong to myself and be at home within me so that I might be able to see, respect, and honor others. Belonging while honoring radical difference requires radical self-belonging. It requires security, clarity, and self-respect. Because that which most often has me pushing away radical difference is my own insecurity. There is a movement I must complete within myself before I can begin to complete it with my fellow human:

Being to Belonging.
Becoming to Beholding.

May we all feel fully free to move outside of ourselves, and yet choose the stillness of the work within (Shelley Rasmussen Pagitt).

I belong.
You belong.
We belong to each other.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
––Audre Lorde, (Our Dead Behind Us: Poems)

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Things are Different: Grieve, Slow Down, Pay Attention, Stay Tender.

Things are Different: Grieve

Our lives will be forever changed. The grief and loss we now face will forever change us. They already have changed us. They will continue to change us. As long as I keep letting it in, grief is tenderizing me in ways my body had yet to feel. Loss is softening me to myself and others like never before. There is an opening, a deepening, a widening which can only take place in the searing furnace of grief, of loss, of uncertainty.

What would happen if I gave grief and loss more control amid a time of no control? What would happen if I let go to sink into the grief and anguish this moment beckons me to?

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us”
––Mary Oliver, Ocean in Red Bird

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

Our slowing down depends on each other, and, the thing is, it always has. Nature cannot heal, you cannot heal, I cannot heal, until we slow down and begin to listen to ourselves and each other. This collective slow-down has really pointed me to the crux of the situation at hand: we belong to each other. My moral and ethical responsibility to my fellow human is about the collective us. My staying home is for me, for you, and for the collective body. And yet, my responsibility to me, to you, to us, was there all along. Sometimes slowing down is an uncovering. Sometimes slowing down is a return. Poet Wendell Berry captured the irony of this moment nicely in his 1980 poem titled Stay Home (an excerpt):

“I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.”

What would happen if I slowed down enough to embrace the stirrings within my own body. To feel my agonies and my longings. What would happen if I slowed down enough to remember my self-belonging, my belonging relationally, my belonging to the collective us?

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

Slowing down naturally leads me to paying more attention. My senses become more attuned, aware, and clear. And as I deepen my own connectivity to myself, it is inevitable that I touch an even deeper rootedness to all humans. “Attention,” Simone Weil writes, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

This collective slow-down tells us a lot about our systems — our countless systems which uphold injustices and oppression: the innumerable ways we are seeing the imbalance of Black deaths to COVID, the perpetual racism towards Chinese-Americans, the news segments of privileged white men with no symptoms and even tigers having easier access to testing than someone gasping for air, the continually dismissed clarity from the chronically ill and dissabled communities whose work has been speaking wisdom for time immemorial, the vulnerability of a number of groups including the homeless and incarcerated populations.

Am I paying attention?

It is safe to say that among other things, there is a “racial pandemic within the viral pandemic,” which is continuing to make the truth all the more clear, if I let it. If I am willing to pay attention. If I am willing to slow-down and heed the truth of innate belonging. A belonging which demands I see and yield to my connectivity to my fellow human––each and every one of of the collective body. “Sometimes,” writes Ibram X. Kendi in the Atlantic, “racial data tell us something we don’t know. Other times we need racial data to confirm something we already seem to know.”

In 1963 James Baldwin wrote, “I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the time burden is a reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage.”

What does paying attention look like in this time of slowing down? What would happen if I did not forget what this moment in time is doing to the collective us, to the whole body of humanity?

“Neighborliness,” writes Howard Thurman in 1949, “is nonspatial; it is qualitative.”

Things are Different: Stay Soft, Be Tender, Let Yourself Rest (and eat chocolate)

Last week I opened the notes on my phone and wrote to myself: “Suddenly you have all this time and you’re not doing a damn thing? Good, you’re doing this right.”

If I have only learned one thing so far in this time of sheltering in place and slowing down, it is this: Stay soft, be tender, and let yourself rest.

That is enough. You are enough. However you’re doing this, you’re doing it right. You’re doing a good job.

Things are different: Grieve. Slow down. Pay Attention. Stay Tender. Repeat. 

(Oh. And, don’t forget to eat a little chocolate. In a recent piece on tips to cope with acedia––“the feeling of being totally bored and totally restless,” author Kathleen Norris shared, “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going.” Amen.)

Here we are. Welcome to the collective slow-down. 

 

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The Wall Between Grace & Domination

Parking along the street felt ordinary enough. Our group of seven got out of the car to see ourselves flanked between an everyday row of homes and the Arizona/Mexico border wall. What a strange thing to see amid a neighborhood. What a strange thing to opt traveling to.

As we walked along the wall on the US side, I noticed an immense amount of garbage and an unnecessary amount  of razor wire. We listened to a story of a pregnant woman climbing the wall and falling to be shredded by the wire. We kept walking. We listened to the story of a young boy being shot by border control on the Mexican side—a boy who was not attempting to cross the border. The bullet holes still embedded on the wall. We kept walking. We heard about how the border agent was tried twice only to get off twice and that all issues with border agents are handled internally. We kept walking.

bell hooks explores the fact that domination and love cannot coexist, writing, “Whenever domination is present love is lacking…. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”* And, I wonder, what on earth are we––the United States, doing?

The humanity across the border was pure grace — the people, the beauty, the art, the color. The ways in which the kindness of the people embraced us with smiles, warmth, welcomeness and inclusiveness. That same sense of inclusion we claim to host within our church doors and even our nation. This was grace. Grace from a group of people who owe me––us, nothing. Grace from a space whose demands supersede my provisions and yet whose kindness seeks nothing in return.

Then, there was the art. The radiance of colors telling stories. The boldness of truth painted around bullet holes. The clarity of love depicted by an array of mediums while the quiet hands behind the scenes of these pieces were nowhere to be found. Artisans of justice. Visionaries of peace. As similar to me as my own flesh and blood, and yet, caged away like animals, barricaded apart as though monsters. By what form of grace do I deserve to see this beauty, to witness these artists and to receive their love?

F61ED26F-D850-418A-91FE-78DE1D1E9713

It seems to me that so much of learning someone or someone is showing up. James Cone writes that “a man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” Often times this means showing up to the truth of someone which may not reflect nicely upon myself. This also means stepping far enough away from my own (and my nation’s) missteps that I am truly present to the fellow human before me. The one I’ve show up to. The place of presence I’ve chosen to be.

In the same breath, I often find myself wondering: what does this solve? What does showing up really mean in a world of walls and laws, a world who tears families apart and imprisons them? The answer is: I’m not sure. I only know that bearing witness to the truth of someone is a means of love, of friendship, of solidarity in our common humanity. This journey of being a human is impossible to accomplish alone and often in my place of privilege I fail to hold before me the clarity and urgency of what that really means.

Domination shrinks the table while Grace has the table set and expanded for our arrival.

Domination feeds fear while Grace always assumes the best.

Domination has nothing to teach me while Grace patiently awaits my arrival to the classroom.

The following day, our group went on a hike behind a home to visit migrant memorials. Locations where the bones of bodies once filled with breath were found and laid to rest. Pausing at each grave our group read poems, breathed prayers, and considered these lost lives. we finished with the gusto of “uno, dos, tres: ¡PRESENTE!” This, to remember the presence of those we’ve lost on this journey of dreams and freedom. To remember:

“Now your bones are part of the story Part of the architecture of this landscape. Your spirit followed the evening star into a new day. One we all will enter when it is our time. The bones you left behind we all share … In what farm, village, or city does someone look at an old photo weep and say your name Again and again and again like a prayer. Caress that photo as though you were still near… Here in this place we hold questions falling in tears Remember that once you were here in this place. Know that we, too, will leave our bones behind. Know that we, too, will carry some answers Beyond the reach of those we love” (Marie Vogl Gary).

The final grave belonged to a teenage boy. A young woman in our group said, “my mom and dad used to sing me ‘You are my Sunshine’, can we sing that?” As we all sang the song we ended with the final words that felt more like a gut punch of truth, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The US/Mexico border situation is beyond words. But I can listen to grace. I can see the vibrancy of story. And I can witness my fellow human in this in this world of unimaginable pain and suffering.

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“The embracement hopelessness rejects quick fixes. Now, I think one of the problems is when we think of hopelessness we think of despair, and despair was horrible, I mean despair I just want to roll it up into a fetal position and cry but hopelessness is not despair, it is desperation.

And there’s a big difference. When a migrant decides to cross the desert, it’s not an act of despair. It’s an act of desperation, even though they know they probably will die. And as a side note, every four days five brown bodies die crossing the desert in this country. Probably the greatest human rights violation occurring since the days of Jane and Jim Crow.”

–Miguel De La Torre

To learn more about the story of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez watch this to hear the story from his grandma. 

*bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

 

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A Monkish Friendship: Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO (1940-2020)

“The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patiently look for the coming of dawn. Monks and nuns wait in the dark, longing for the light of dawn but unable to hasten its coming. No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way. It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it. The ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment. By quietly watching and praying through the night, I learn to live with the slow process of my own spiritual growth. I have no control over the future and I do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death.”

–Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, who died on January 15, 2020.

I first met Fr. Charles in Huntsville, Utah during my 2013 visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (now closed). I would visit and get to see him several more times before he left to live and work with the sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia. Over the years we kept in touch via mail and email and I last heard from him on my birthday in November of 2019 (he never forgot!). The last line of that final email read, “All things pass.”

When I interviewed him in 2013, I was struck by his dedication to prayer and his longing to pray more. Despite having been a monk for over 50 years, he deeply desired more silence, solitude, and prayer in his life. While discussing why he initially decided to enter the monastery he told me, “When I was 20 I wanted to pray, I felt that the world needs prayer and I wanted to go to a group that was dedicated to the same ideal––that’s the way I felt I could make the best contribution to the world…”

We explored the topics of contemplation, silence, community life, solitude, prayer, and why he decided to be a monk. On the topic of contemplative prayer, Fr. Charles shared that although silence and solitude were ideal characteristics of contemplative prayer, he deeply believed in the monastic ideal of continual prayer: “it’s like carrying our contemplative prayer over into the rest of the day so we’re always trying to be in tune with God. The idea of contemplative prayer in itself is like a resting, silent, loving, attentiveness or attention, to the divine presence. In a relaxed and restful way––not a compulsive way. To relax in the divine presence, and to be attentive to it…”

Father Charles was visiting the Trappist Abbey in Vina, California (The Abbey of New Clairvaux) when he died after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke. At 80 years old, with 57 years of monastic vows under his belt, he was planning to transfer his vow of stability to The Abbey of New Clairvaux.

“All things pass.” And still I wonder if our paths might cross on that great infinite river of continual prayer.

Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, Felicis Memoriae (Happy Memory). Requiescat in pace (Rest in Peace). 

CharlesAndBill
Photo of Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO who died on January 15, 2020, and my friend, Bill Rice who died on December 17th, 2014 (Father Charles sent me this photo from one of Bill’s final visits to Holy Trinity Abbey)

Father Charles was the author of a number of books including Monastic Practices, Spirituality and the Desert Experience, Eco-Spirituality: Toward a Reverent Life, and more. 
Some excellent stories about Fr. Charles can be found on Mike O’Brien’s Blog, including a story about Father Charles sharing with a journalist “I’m glad there’s such a thing as monks. I’m no good at anything else.”

 

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New Year, Same Past

New doesn’t always feel good. We are told to embrace the New Year full of things that have never been as if we’ve been given a clean slate. As though we have no histories of brokenness, loss, torment, or suffering. And our world preys on us with its expectation of resolutions and quick-fixes––there’s a product for everything. For a day or two, maybe, we forget our pasts and embrace this newness, until the rest of us catches up and we deflate into the truth of where and who we are. Perhaps, for me, it’s the third-day itch of the New Year. Some feel it earlier or later. Some never feel the newness. My friend sends me a text: “Everyone now expects a depressed Christmas, but by New Year’s you’re supposed to get over it?”

On this third day, I did not rise. Instead I awoke to the silences around and within me. My heart as still as the days that move slow. My mind as empty as the blank page before me. Everything hushed to nothing. Reaching back into myself, I could only find the spaciousness of absence, the expanse of void. 

Tears are emptied.

The heart is out of questions.

The mind is thoughtless.

The list is so full, it is empty.

The hope is so deep, it is lost.

There’s a feeling of being so together, so clear; There’s only brokenness.

There is the place in my life, paradoxically, where mystery is conceived and the best of myself is birthed. It never seems to be a place of great joy, but it is a place of great truth. The world tells us this is brokenness, that we are the wounded walking around aimlessly. But, I dare to think that these are the breeding grounds for more truth, for more love, for something of the healing we all need and are looking for.

Suffering, Parker Palmer says, breaks our hearts, but the heart can break in two different ways. We can release the anxieties and sadness upon the world in a way that is reminiscent of breaking into shards, shattering the one who suffers as it explodes, and sometimes taking others down when it’s thrown like a grenade at the ostensible source of its pain. Or, we can transform like the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, the one that can grow into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”

How to be that supple heart? The heart that breaks open, not apart? To suffer in a way that connects us? I cannot wander around looking for wounds that match—for that limits personal healing. I cannot thrust myself into the suffering over and over again, for that prolongs the pain. I can only be. Just be. Be with my suffering, my pain, my anguish, in all of its vulnerability. I dare to remember the strength and the courage that this kind of suffering takes. The kind of suffering that is so deep, I’ve lost words to describe it. The kind of agony that is so dark, I fear it will not let me go. Of course there are times and days when I must reach out, whether that be to friends or for professional help, for I am not meant to walk through suffering alone. But I do believe I am asked to try and see the fertile ground on which I stand when I suffer or when I encounter another’s suffering.

In Thomas Merton’s “Hagia Sophia” essay, he expresses that there is “in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom…” Going on to name wisdom as Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), he says of the suffering, “Gentleness comes to him when he is most helpless and awakens him, refreshed, beginning to be made whole. Love takes him by the hand, and opens to him the doors of another life, another day.”

On one of the last days of 2019 I cracked open a fortune cookie and read, “Believe in miracles.” Scoffing at the note I thought to myself, what does that even mean? What does it mean to believe in miracles amid a world so broken, so lost, and in such desperate need of healing? The word “miracle” often seems like a far-fetched hope which lives on the outskirts of possibility. My mind wants to make miracles smaller: there are the miracles of ordinary stuff of life, like the friend sitting to my left, who mocks the fortune right along with me. My nephews, who constantly remind me that play is more important than the seriousness of life. The relationships in my life that offer me the rarest and purest form of love by way of time and presence.

But what if the miracle is also so much bigger?

And I know that for too many, suffering has no end. And yet I’ve seen some of the greatest wisdom among those long sufferers—a raw wisdom drenched in presence and love.  While my agonies may not bring me closer to new life, they may bring me closer to an unveiled one. May my dark nights embolden me, on this painful ground, to long for more love and more truth.

Thomas Merton spoke of our world as a place where humanity is “taught not to be content with what they are and to be constantly yearning for something else.” In our longing to feel better, we find ourselves reaching for things to fix or even sustain us. For the everyday miracle. But it is on the ground of being where the miracle of the ordinary lives and a great depth abounds. He goes on:

“…the most crucial thing, at least for me, is the necessity to dig into what one is. A mysticism of is-ness, a mysticism of existence, a mysticism of accepting what is here and now right in front of your nose. And seeing that it is useless to reach out to what one is not and what one will never be. The passage is immediate, there is no passage. You’re not going anywhere, you’re where you are.”

So, onward we all go, into exactly who we are. Into a new year with the same past. Into another day with the same pain. Into the ordinary miracles of life, breath, love. And to the extraordinary miracle of being.

In this new year,

Blessed are you who are broken.

Blessed are you who are suffering.

Blessed are you who are trying.

Blessed are you who feel you cannot try today.

Blessed are you who are hopeful.

Blessed are you who are hopeless.

Blessed are you whose hearts are supple.

Blessed are you who heed the wisdom within yourself. 

Blessed are you who keep opening for the sake of Love, for the sake of Life, for the sake of Truth.

Blessed are you in your dark nights, my friends.

 

 

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The Absurd Vocation

“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” –Pauli Murray

Coming off a week-long class on activism, organizing and social movements in Durham, North Carolina (and my first full year of seminary at CTS), I climb back into the quiet walls of a Kentucky monastery: Gethsemani Abbey. Here, the silence seeps into my bones like a forgotten nourishment as my ears wade through the heightening sounds of the natural world––the birds and the wind erupt in chorus around me. Suddenly, I’m able to more fully engage with myself, my senses are overturned until I begin feeling what I hear, tasting what I see, and even knowing all that I’ll never know. This, for me, is a place of letting go, of opening up, of deepening my common humanity with all human beings.

The tension of paradox is not lost on me. And in being present to the paradox this suggests, I’m remembering a different way of being which allows the contemplative to be an activist and the activist to be a contemplative. It may be seen as absurd to come to such a place after a class on activism. Yet, I’m reminded that for me, there is a vocation of solidarity in the solitariness found here. This “absurd vocation,” as Thomas Merton puts it, is a vocation which yields to a “supernatural unity.” Merton goes on to write that the solitary, “seeks a spiritual and simple oneness in himself (themselves) which, when it is found, paradoxically becomes the oneness of all men (humans)––a oneness beyond separation, conflict, and schism. For it is only when each man (human) is one that mankind (humankind) will one again become ‘One.’”

In her book about contemplation and justice, Therese Taylor-Stinson writes, ”So that contemplation can be whole, it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” In other words, for me, it is the step away which allows me to both awaken and stay awake. It is the time of opening up and overturning my very being which allows a deepening within myself for and with all beings.

While the world so often sees the contemplative life as an excuse to do nothing, the contemplator most often sees this way of being as a path to feel everything. This solidarity of and in suffering that the contemplative often gets in touch with is rarely reached in our days of chaos and discourse. That being said, there are indeed times in which this way of being can be misused as a means to back away where action is necessary. And contemplation without action is as good as silence in the face of injustice.

“What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world…” –Thomas Merton

While in the Durham class, I was able to engage further with my understandings of activism, organizing and social movements. Our new friend (and professor) Tim Condor led us in an intensive week of exploring and making sense of these things, while maintaining deep respect and kindness towards the number of different paths the class approached such information. Yet the central truth was far too evident to ignore — it is all about relationships. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other, and whoever we may deem as ‘the other’ is the core to our ability to create more love, more truth, and ultimately change for the better.

“… As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

–Thomas Merton to peace-activist Jim Forest

One day in class we met in pairs to practice relational meetings. My friend Kerry and I naturally paired up and went outside to chat. A little bit more about Kerry is this: She is a wonderfully bold woman who cares deeply (and not quietly) about the injustices in our world—rightfully so. She is a blogger, author of the forthcoming book Good White Racist (Spring 2020), and a kind of perfect (seemingly opposite) match to navigate this little assignment with. As we sat down and began talking, it became more clear what we might be bringing to one another––my voice surprised me and emerged asking, “Okay, so what would happen if you slowed down more and had more solitude and contemplation in your life?” — her eyes welled up with tears as her expected voice of challenge came charging through to me—“And what would happen if you spoke up more?” We looked at each other a knowing look and began to laugh. Both of us were reminded in that moment of the unique balance our individual scales hold and the importance in lovingly challenging each another to ensure we are remaining true to ourselves and our fellow humans.

I needed her nudge to remember to open my mouth more, to push pen to paper more, to know I will make mistakes in these ways but there are quite literally people dying when I sit silently—whether I do something or not. So why not try and do something? She needed my nudge to remember the necessity of respite to listen, breathing room to reignite our voice, and that sacred step away into solitude that our work might carry longevity beyond our lives.

“The world needs both ways,” we concluded. And those ways need one another in order to host the possibility of lasting change. While the world’s insistent demands often require an urgent response––that response needs undying endurance, abiding fortitude, and an overwhelming stability we cannot possess on empty, and we sure as hell cannot possess alone. 

At the end of class that evening, I walked by a mural of Durham native Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest. The mural read, True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Once again, I smiled that knowing smile Kerry and I shared earlier in the day and kept on walking. 

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Be The Hope, Now

Islamophobia is not just a problem for Muslims, it is a problem for all of us.

It is not the “job” of the marginalized, persecuted, or attacked group to solve the problem. To ask the even more deeply grieving “what do you need,” or “what can I do,” puts even more agony upon them. This is my problem, this is our problem, this is not the problem of my Muslim brothers and sisters.

An injustice that happens outside one’s country and one’s space of worship does not diminish the injustice. Instead, it is an opportunity to say more, to do more, to decrease hate and eliminate discrimination. A blind eye does nothing. A turned cheek only hides from the truth of hatred embedded in one’s own life. Speaking up against one injustice is not speaking up against all injustices. When we see wrong, we must say so. When we see pain, we must be present. When we see wounds, we must learn how to move the wounded towards healing.

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (16 April 1963), he unequivocally points to the error of the “white moderate,” amid injustices writing,

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom… I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action… Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions…”

The timetable for another person’s freedom is always now.

The season for justice is always now.

There is no preparation needed for more love, more truth, more justice… It must be now lest we fail to see the humanity of our fellow human, the desperation of our beloved earth… There is no middle ground.

The only question is, “What is my ‘now’?” What is the urgency of this present moment that beckons me to speak, move, change, go, grow. It won’t be convenient, it won’t feel comfortable, it will make me tired and weary—but it is right. It is truth. It is love. It is justice. And it must be listened to.

There is no middle ground.

“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” (MLK, Jr.)

 

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(St. John of the Cross)

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Love’s Undercurrent

Failing to feel is not something I’m accustomed to. You can catch me crying at the beauty of the world, laughing with overwhelming joy, weeping because of the kindness of strangers, smiling because I simply see the sky, shedding a tear over missing my nephews… The point is, letting myself feel is the way I know myself and the world more deeply.

But, the truth is, it’s frequently more for me. Often times, my commentary gets in the way of my actual feeling. My announcement that a stranger was kind can (doesn’t mean it necessarily does) diminish my deep embrace with the infinite undercurrent of love within the moment. Sometimes emotions get in the way of experience, encounter, and a genuine embrace. Sometimes my smile at the mountains is more important than my proclamation of love for them. Sometimes my silence with a thought is more potent than writing it down. Sometimes, my unknown tears are from a place that doesn’t need to be explained.

Many of us face complicated days—memories abound, thoughts stop us in our tracks, histories take over present moments, and we still try to drudge through it all to emerge loving towards ourselves and our fellow human. There’s nothing wrong with exploring feelings with words, it’s human nature to reach for a sense of understanding within language. But, sometimes, the most boundless moments demand our silence. Sometimes the piles of language we create give us even more to sift through.

There are emotions we believe we innately know. For instance, many of us have a kind of faith in love. We’ve felt it heal, hold, cleanse, grow. We know love, or at least like to think we do. We’ve also felt it go amiss, and seen it tilted on its side until it becomes both unrecognizable and no longer life-giving. When I consider the indistinguishable relationship between love and freedom, I realize how often naming the nameless or clothing the bodiless can leave all disguised. Layered upon by language and definitions, the encounter is lost, the unspoken nature of the wholeness is penetrated by words. While love’s undercurrent demands to be felt, love still can be subtle while not being defined, and certainly never aggressively explained.

It is solely in the mystery where love lives, despite the fact that humans have spent their existence naming it. Perhaps love is both a letting go and an opening up, an ever-widening circle capable of holding more and more of the lover and the beloved, in our vast array of human relationships. All too often it’s easier to let go and that can be done in a toxic nature, especially when we find ourselves protecting the ego. On the other hand, we may find ourselves letting go simply because the suffering cannot be held an longer. But without letting go and opening up, there’s room to grow. The rigidity of solely letting go becomes nothing but an end point.

“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.” Rainer Maria Rilke

Love grows where there’s room for it.

A desperate clinging is the precise opposite of a unfurled “knowing” (not to say there is such a thing). Clinging dissolves freedom, which dissolves a core aspect of faith, hope, and love. Theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” In other words an emptiness or language-less space of freedom must exist before something can begin to fit, make sense, give life.

We are all hurting people. And our openness cannot be mistaken for wholeness. Wholeness does not exist without openness, while openness doesn’t necessarily mean wholeness. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker J. Palmer writes, “But choosing wholeness, which sounds like a good thing, turns out to be risky business, making us vulnerable in ways we would prefer to avoid.” Because choosing wholeness takes us on an inward journey—a place of revisiting ourselves, our scars, our woundedness, our darknesses. This inward stroll through the interior museum is not for the faint of heart, but it is for the one seeking wholeness. For wholeness with openness, is a life that abounds in both freedom and love. It is a life whose unattached faith and hope cannot help but delight in the unknown.

“Things take the time they take,” writes poet Mary Oliver.

Hurrying mystery, disables it.

Prodding wonder, forces it to hide.

Coercing awe, makes it dissolve.

“Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable,” a monk of Snowmass Monastery once said to me.

And in his 1964 essay to poets, Thomas Merton writes,

“We are content if the flower comes first and the fruit afterwards, in due time.  Such is the poetic spirit. Let us obey life, and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers – fruits of hope that have never been seen before.  With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man. Let us be proud that we are not witch doctors, only ordinary men. Let us be proud that we are not experts in anything. Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing; not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anyone absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence where nothing can be said. We are not persuaders. We are the children of the Unknown. We are the ministers of silence that is needed to cure all victims of absurdity who lie dying of a contrived joy.  Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing.  But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb…”

Love grows where there’s room for it.

I, for one, will keep doing my best to make room, which is a lifelong engagement. For love is the most worthwhile gift on earth.

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