“How can we be sure younger generations learn about Thomas Merton?”
Every time I show Day of a Stranger, the documentary film I made about the Trappist monk, I’m asked some form of this question. Viewers find Merton’s words—which I excerpted from a set of stream-of-consciousness recordings made during his years as a hermit on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky—eerily prescient, and, like me, they want to share them with others.
This anxiety about Merton being forgotten has come up at every single Merton talk or panel I’ve been part of since 2011. That was when I quit my job as a counselor to travel to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States and began to work on my writing, films, and podcasts about contemplative life. Though I, a queer, young, non-Catholic woman, was an unlikely Merton ambassador, I was often invited to be a part of presentations and celebrations of Merton’s legacy. Every time, people would look around the room, take note of their mostly White, mostly grey-haired neighbors, and wonder how that legacy can last, whether his wisdom will be forgotten.
Typically I have responded with encouragement, mentioning Merton’s interfaith dialogue, his modeling of friendship, or the expansiveness of his correspondence as the ways his legacy might endure. But at my last film screening, after much self-reflection on the question, I answered with my own question: “What’s wrong with Merton disappearing?”
This month marks 53 years since Merton died in Bangkok after giving a lecture on Marxism and monastic perspectives. At the end of the lecture, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. . . . Now, I will disappear.” It was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy and controversial talk, but perhaps it was also prophetic.
The desire to disappear is a well-known tension at the heart of Merton’s work and his spiritual life, a desire that was often in conflict with his vocation as a writer. In 1946, 20 years prior to his death, he wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” In Thoughts in Solitude, written from his first hermitage, St. Anne’s Toolshed, on the monastic property, and published in 1958: “As soon as you are really alone you are with God.” In 1964, while attending mass after meeting with Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, he wrote in his journal with apparent satisfaction, “No one recognized me or discovered who I was. At least I think not.” In a 1967 recording, he says, “I am struck today I think, more and more, by the fundamental dishonesty about a lot of my clamor.”
Merton was indeed controversial in his time, and his words remain relevant and often helpful. His correspondence and work explored and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences. He often seems to speak prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in today.
But Merton’s most recent work is now more than half a century old. And while his conversations spanned gender (Dorothy Day, for example), sexuality (James Baldwin, though it’s said he never replied to Merton, and I can’t say I blame him), religion (Thich Nhat Hanh, Abraham Joshua Heschel, D. T. Suzuki), racial justice (Martin Luther King Jr.), and environmental justice (Rachel Carson), Merton, as a White cis man and vowed monastic in a patriarchal church, perpetuates damaging exclusivity alongside his wisdom.
In truth, his prescience and ecumenism seem rare only if we’re looking at White spiritual writers or reading exclusively Catholic work from the 1940s–1960s. Does this context make his views appear more radical than they really were? I have to ask myself, before picking up yet another work by or about Merton, Who am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial today? What words am I reading now, by those whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives? What marginalized voices of experience am I listening to? Am I going to the source on these topics?
I’ve learned from womanist scholars that as long as I perpetuate the domination of only a few voices in spiritual leadership, I hinder movement toward liberation for all voices. I cannot learn from Merton what it’s like to be a queer woman, or to be an LGBTQ person who is rejected by one’s church, or to be Black in America, or to be a refugee. Merton can provide historical perspective and observations, but he simply cannot speak into an oppressive situation separate from his identity and experience.
Merton himself was often reminding us to go deeper, look harder, be willing to take the effort and time to seek out, read, and listen to the wisdom of voices missing from our libraries and bookshelves. I wonder if this is his true legacy—urging us to transcend his own contributions. To challenge the status quo, go beyond the comfortable, and heed the wisdom of the marginalized who have been too often overlooked.
Merton has words for those experiencing anxiety in the midst of change. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he writes of a crisis in the church in the 12th century, but he could have been writing about today:
In a time of drastic change one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love.
“What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges of the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” I wonder if this is how Merton might have answered the question of how his legacy can endure.
On my way home from my last film screening, I went out of my way to stop by Gethsemani Abbey. After a rain-soaked hike, I paused at Merton’s grave, marked by a simple white cross engraved with “Father Louis,” as he was known there. “They can have Thomas Merton,” he wrote in The Sign of Jonas of those who assumed they knew all about him solely based on his writing, “He’s dead. Father Louis—he’s half dead, too.”
What would happen if I let Thomas Merton die?
As I walked back to my car, I remembered the words from his essay “Integrity,” which had inspired my monastic travels in 2011: “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” Maybe it is time to acknowledge that my long obsession with the words and wisdom of Thomas Merton did crowd out other voices and other perspectives, preventing me from hearing them fully—including my own.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Now, I will disappear.”
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop?
CASSIDY HALL: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.
CASSIDY HALL: And so one of the ways I like to begin is kind of just asking for your personal working definitions of words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” what they mean to you and maybe how you see them lived out in the world.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think for me, personally, I think a lot of people think about these words as being passive words. But I would say that I have really been influenced by Ignatian tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola. And I think about that in terms of how the Jesuits move through life. I mean, they don’t spend a lot of time in prayer, they spend a lot of time doing things, they step back when they need to, and there’s the spiritual exercises of course, that help in order to sort of think through about how to be a contemplative in a different kind of way. And so I think that for me, being a contemplative doesn’t mean that you escape society, or you escape the world, but that you find a place to anchor yourself firmly first of all, and then secondarily, take care of those things in the ways in which you need to take care of them. And that might not be the way that people traditionally think that you need to take care of your religious or spiritual needs.
CASSIDY HALL: And do you think or do you see contemplation or mysticism playing a role in social action today?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Not in the traditional ways, no, I don’t. And I think that a lot of times, if we go through traditional ways of thinking about what contemplation means, you set yourself apart, you think about things, which I think is a very good way to be if you’re going to be an activist. But I also think that an activist means that you have to be active. And if we have this tension between contemplation and activity, then there’s times where you need to be active, and there’s times that you don’t. And I think that probably–I’ll describe it like a Depeche Mode Song, you have to get the balance right, you have to think about how you balance that out. And I think for a lot of people, especially right now, the rapidity and the speed in which things happen in the world. Sometimes you don’t have time to think, sometimes you have to actually act. But if you haven’t done that kind of work before to sort of think through and to sort of ponder where you are, then I think it becomes much more difficult.
CASSIDY HALL: So kind of in the sense of the practice, the engagement and the practice cultivates the action and a more immediate response to the things which we need to immediately respond to?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, you have to be prepared, because in other words — I mean, I think it’s like, people have an idea, like, I’m going to go — I’m a church historian. So I’m going to use an example. People think that the old monastics like, Simon the Stylite, who set up on top of a pole and contemplated is the way that you should be, or you should be like a Buddha and you should pull yourself away from everything. And I think that those kinds of — I’m not saying that’s wrong, I just think that that doesn’t work for some of us. It doesn’t work for somebody like me who is very reactive to what’s going on, especially for things that I care deeply about. So I think, you work through that in the ways that you need to. And for some people, you might think, oh, maybe you’re just going around and around circles. I’m not. What I’m saying is is that contemplation and a contemplative life means different things to different people. And not everybody is going to be able to go away and be on an island or be in a monastic place, or to have quiet in their house because they got three kids and a husband or wife or spouse and they’ve got to deal with things that you just can’t. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to be contemplative, but you have to figure out ways in which to do it that fit who you are.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I think to your point earlier, it seems like a lot of people can also use being a contemplative or having a contemplative life as an excuse to not fully engage in those things as well.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. And it means that they have the luxury not and I think that’s really important to say, is that, most people in the world, I’m thinking about Afghanistan this week especially, don’t have the luxury to stop and think about what’s happening or how to think through it because they have to be reactive. Their very lives depend on it. And so I think it’s also important to remember that these activities can sometimes be activities of the privileged and not of people who really do need time to think about things because they don’t have time. They can’t, they have to continue to work, they have to continue to run, they have to continue to try to figure out how to make their lives better.
CASSIDY HALL: In a 2020 piece that you wrote, titled, In a Season of Reckonings Forgiveness is not Forgetting, you wrote “displays of forgiveness do not lead to forgetting but to remembering all the wrongs, all the murders, all the pain, all the suffering, we and our ancestors have experienced in America.” So my question for you from this in that incredible piece, when it comes to racism in America, what other Christian practices might do more harm than good when we’re talking about this idea of maybe contemplation can also be an excuse or a way to not engage, when we fail to engage in the fullness of these things.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: How long you got? I mean, I think this is one of those moments where I’m just going to say, I’m sorry, I’m going to offend a lot of people. I think the Christian practice of just leave it to Jesus and everything is going to be alright is basically bullshit. This is a podcast, I can say bullshit. And I think that that’s number one. Number two, the ways in which, especially American Christians, like to think about themselves as in relationship with just Jesus and themselves, is stupid. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Jesus lived in a community, he had to deal with racism. I always use the excuse the example of the Syrophoenician woman to say even Jesus was racist. He didn’t want to give her anything, she had to remind him and tell him. So I mean, if your Lord and Savior can be racist, you can be too. And I think that what my — I wrote a whole book about this, so let’s just put that out there, “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America.” What I think is the problem in America is that so much of American Christianity is individualistic. We sing these nice little worship songs that don’t mean anything, that are focused in on how much we love Jesus, and not how much we love each other. And we can see the ramifications of that right now with the way that people aren’t getting vaccinated, people could care less about people going hungry, people are willing to put forth ideology instead of true Christian charity. I could go on all day long. But I mean, the fact of the matter is, is I found this very wanting and I think that it’s a horrible witness. I just do.
CASSIDY HALL: And speaking of that book, your book “White Evangelical Racism: The Politics and Morality in America,” you examine this incongruence, this deep incongruence in white evangelicalism. Like how white evangelicals often claim morality amid supporting immoral acts and immoral ways of being. Case-in-point the list you just offered. How do you think that this understanding or this understanding of that incongruence can help guide anti-racist movements or work in America?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Well, I think as a starting point. I mean, I wrote the whole book, as somebody asked me: what do you want to have out of this book? I said, I did what I wanted to have this book, which was tell everybody is this you? This is the way you behave? So that’s one but I think the incongruence is going to have to change when realities change. I mean, I think one of the things that is very difficult right now for a lot of evangelicals in this country to see is that, them harping on critical race theory, at the same time while they’re not getting vaccinated and their kids are dying, is pretty bad. And they’re worried about the wrong things. And this is just, it’s a waste of our time. It really is in a world in which time is of the essence, it’s a waste of our time to have to be dealing with these kinds of issues about so called morality. And I think that it’s really important to understand that when I say morality, it’s about not just treating your neighbors right and everything else. I say about there’s great moral issues of our time. Are we going to feed people? Are we going to make sure everybody has a living wage? Are we going to make sure that everybody has voting rights? I mean, there are moral issues and then there are moral issues. And I think that for evangelicals and others in this country, moral issues have only centered around personal moral issues, as opposed to structural moral issues that should be resolved like racism. And so when you ask me this question about how does this make somebody anti-racist, I think the first thing you have to address in anything about racism or anti-racism, is to realize the racist structures. And if we can’t get people to agree that the structure is racist, how do we get to anti-racism in the first place?
CASSIDY HALL: I appreciate what you said about it being a waste of our time and seeing that it’s almost a distraction of a large group of people being so individualistic and harmful to the world at large and not even touching the structures that we’re really after. So how do we hold that sense of urgency and action alongside the fact that evangelicals that are in this space, are really gaining momentum in and of themselves? Or is that just what it seems like in the news?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I think you think that they’re gaining momentum, I don’t think that they are. I think that people like to think this because they have a way to amplify their voices in the public square, but I think that the bigger issue right now is not even evangelicals it’s really about the ways in which people believe disinformation. And that’s including evangelicals, whether they believe in QAnon, or they believe other kinds of fantasies about the virus, or anything else. That’s actually our biggest issue right now alongside of racism, because the disinformation and racism go hand-in-hand. If you are inclined to believe all these things, and you’ll be inclined to believe other things. And there are just some truth that we need to grapple with in this country. And I think that at this particular time that we’re in, which is really dangerous for a lot of different reasons, I sort of despair about thinking about people being able to think straight with their heads on their shoulders, to be honest with you. I don’t know that the average Christian in this country, who misses going to church because of the vaccine and decides to go anyway, hopefully they go masked up or maybe they don’t, or maybe they’re like… others who have decided that they don’t care about that and they should just March and be out there with white supremacist and Oregon. Because that just happened not too long ago. Those are the people that I look at and I think I’m not sure we have a lot of hope here. At the same time where all these people are hoping that Jesus is just going to come back, I’m like Jesus might come back but he ain’t coming back for you all. I mean, I say it in the most Texas way possible, he’s not coming back for you. He’s not coming back for you because I mean, basically, you’re not his people. And I think it’s really, it’s something that people need to hear right now and that they don’t hear enough; that maybe you’ve been waiting, you’ve been found wanting. And maybe the result of all this is the chaos that we see right now because we can’t even come together to just wear a mask, to treat other people well. I mean, just to think about somebody else, to do the golden rule. I mean, if you can’t even do the golden rule how do we think that anything else is going to last? I know, we started this off, like you were asking about contemplation, what I contemplate a lot, is the fact that we don’t have people in this country that I think that I could rely on if something really bad happened. Because basically, I don’t think I could rely on their Christian charity, I don’t know that I could rely on their common sense to be quite honest, to do the right thing, because they are so much willing to be involved in thinking things that will harm others, and even harm themselves.
CASSIDY HALL: So where the hell did this Jesus come from? Is this just a product of America?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah absolutely. I mean, it’s a product of a lot of different things and I go through that a lot in my book, but I think these idealized Jesus’ that are always going to be there to support the nation, and always be there to support a white male patriarchy, maybe that sounds like a misnomer to put it like that but I think that’s the best way to say it. And these ideas about what family should be. I think that all of this stuff really has hurt us in certain kinds of ways. And if you put your moral center on these kinds of constructs, that nobody in the Bible had like a really great father, mother, two kids family. I mean, look at Solomon, how many wives? I mean, how much stuff is going on? Look at somebody like Paul who didn’t treat his mother right… There’s all kinds of crazy families in Scripture. And if we claim to say we want to look at scripture to be the model, then look at all of Scripture. Look at how people treated people. I mean, no different than what’s happening today.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I mean, back to what you said earlier about Jesus being racist.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I know that’s hard for people to hear.
CASSIDY HALL: No, but that’s important for people to hear. Like you say, I mean, and that a woman had to explain that to him and teach him.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. But I mean, nobody wants to be taught now. Everybody believes that they know everything because they looked something up, or they believe a certain television station, or a certain personality or a certain president, depending on which one you want to pick.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And that way, it seems like contemplation or space away when it’s really trying to gather clarity. Could be really healthy in order to respond properly to the things in which we find ourselves present and awake to, as Therese Taylor-Stinson says.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s times where you just should shut up. Honestly, I mean, shutting up is not a bad thing. I mean, I talk a lot on social media but I don’t think that I need to say everything about everything. I mean, I’m just, like right now I’m at a loss for words about Afghanistan. There’s tons of things that are horrible about it. Do I need to say something about it? Probably not because that’s not part of the world that I’m knowledgeable about. But at the same time, I’m very fearful about it because I know that this means that there’s going to be an uptick in fundamentalist religion. I know that this actually gives a lot of oxygen to people who are thinking about these kinds of regimes, whether that’s Islamic or Christian, that don’t treat women well, that have a very strong patriarchal structure. It’s a time of strong men. And we have to figure out how we’re go come out of this.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about your work as a contributor for the forthcoming book, “A New Origin Story: The 1619 project”?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Sure. This particular chapter in a 1619 book came about in part because I had contacted Nicole Hannah Jones back when the first project came out and said, “I don’t think you can really write the story, or do whatever you’re going to do with the story next, without talking about black religion.You have to talk about, the contributions that African Americans have made in the religious realm.” And so when they started doing the book, they contacted me. And so the chapter, without giving it away, is to talk about the ways in which the black church has always been a challenge, and––how do I want to say it, the fulcrum about democracy in this country. In other words, how has the black church always kept America to account about its foundational documents? In other words, why is it that you say that this is supposed to be for everyone, when in fact you didn’t give that to African Americans, you didn’t do this for Native Americans, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this. And these founding documents, which say all men are created equal, we seem to have to continue as African Americans to remind everyone in this country, that all people are created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that there’s lots of people here in this country who don’t think we should have any rights. And we need to continue to keep fighting for them all the time. And so that’s what this chapter is about in the 1619 project book. And I’m proud of it, it took a long time to write and it was really difficult, because this book has been fact checked so many times, it’s ridiculous. But that’s because of all the fear. And I expect that when it comes out in November that everybody will lose their mind, but you know, it’s okay.
CASSIDY HALL: Dr Butler, what are some things that give you hope amid all things we’ve kind of discussed so far?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I have to say, if there was a character that I would associate myself with, it would probably be Chicken Little, but even Chicken Little had to be hopeful that at the end of the day, he could go home, and live in some nice little hutch and maybe have a roof over his head have something to eat. I mean, what I’m hopeful for is that those of us who are thinking, who are trying to act and the people who are activists and stuff, are going to continue even with incredible odds. I get hopeful about people who are willing to stand up and speak the truth. I get hopeful about people who are willing to help others. I get hopeful about when I’m in the classroom, and if a student gets it, or they say I just didn’t know this, and I learned something, those are kind of little things that give me hope. I’m not sure that I’m hopeful about climate change, or am I hopeful about wars, or am I hopeful about the Coronavirus, I mean, that to me, are hopeless things. But I think the thing about the virus and I will say this, is that what’s been hopeful is to see how rapidly people have adjusted to thinking about things, whether that’s getting a vaccine, or research that’s happened or how people have tried to come together to help each other. That makes me help hopeful. And for those of us who’ve tried to do the right thing all through this time of virus, where we’ve tried to wear a mask, and we’ve tried to think about other people and tried to be as careful as we possibly could be, that gives me hope. Because it means that not everybody is a selfish son of a bitch.
CASSIDY HALL: And I mean, you remind me to be looking for and looking at those things more, and putting my energy towards those things and towards increasing those things and expanding the frequency of the hope.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah. I think we tend to think about the whether it is contemplation or activism, all these things on a big scale. I think we have to think about them as everyday quotidian things that we do, that can engender hope or engender a space of maybe this is going to change, maybe, hopefully, somebody is going to get it today. It might not be a hundred somebodies but maybe it’s one somebody. Maybe we can get one somebody to change their mind about getting a vaccination, maybe we can help somebody in a classroom or in everyday work, and our everyday lives are. Those are the little things that add up. And I think that taking that instead of just thinking about the big things that might overwhelm us all, is a way to take a bite out of this life that’s very different. And that in and of itself, is contemplation about where you are, when you are, and how you are in society.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, well said. Who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you?
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: That’s an interesting question. I think — Sorry, nobody alive. Nobody alive. I was going to be real with you, I’m not the kind of person I really honest, this is part of my Catholic tradition. I don’t think about people who are alive as people who are helping me, I see people who’ve been in certain situations I was thinking about one of my friends, who teaches at Penn, wrote a book about Josephine Bakhita, who is a saint. And again, I think about those kinds of people or St. Ignatius or others who’ve gone through tremendous trials. Or to think about the everyday lives of black people in America. I spent a lot of time when I was doing graduate work reading slave narratives. And I think about those are the people that really speak to me in terms of having to have hope in the midst of really horrible situations, of being enslaved and having your children sold, having to been raped or beaten, all of these things. I think about that and I think about those are the people give me hope, because they managed to take a lot of things that happened that were bad, and turn them into something good. Do I think about people like that today? I mean, I think there’s people who do certain things in their own communities that help. But I don’t look to people who are alive as a sense of this person focuses me about contemplation, or hope or anything. Because again, I’m a historian. I tend to look at it through a historical lens than I do present day lens.
CASSIDY HALL: We kind of went over this a little bit earlier and I’m wondering, in your personal work and experience, have you seen social justice work or activism point to the need or experience of a contemplative life? We’ve kind of discussed that. But…
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: You know, yeah, I think I’ll be straight up with the answer, no! You know why? Because you can’t do this while you’re trying to do be an activist. The whole thing about what’s going on in this country, and you think about the kinds of responses that African American people especially have had to make, to whether that’s been Mike Brown, or the myriad — Trayvon Martin, there’s so many people, I could just go through this list. There’s no time to be contemplative, because shit is happening all the time. And this is the point I was trying to get at in the first time but I think it’s really important for me to say it this strongly so people understand what I mean, is that how can you be contemplative and take a step back when the situation in the society, and the murderous ways in which black people get treated in this country continue to happen on a regular loop? How can you do anything? How can you have time to think? How can you have time to step back and replenish yourself? This is why we have a lot of activists who have committed suicide. We’ve had activists who just said, I’m burnt out, I’m tired. I mean, I think as a black person and a black woman in this country, just the idea that I could take time off to be contemplative is a- blessing, but, it’s privilege because even to say the word contemplative at this moment, is a word that it says privilege. And that, you know, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about the podcast or anything, but it’s a word that says privilege, it means that you have time. And most people don’t have time. They don’t have time to think about things or to sit back with a scripture or a book and think about stuff in that traditional way that we think about being contemplative, because stuff is happening in their communities all the time that they have to respond to.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love what you said that even to say the word contemplative at this moment is to say privilege, and to reveal that too. I think often about the people who go off for a Silent Retreat paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars, when people are dying, people are hungry, people are…
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, I would love to take people in my community in Philadelphia, someplace where it would just be quiet and in the woods for a weekend because people kept hearing gunshots and stuff. They hear the sound of screeching tires, they hear all kinds of things. Just to even just be silent, not even to think about anything, but just to be silent. Silence is actually something that you get with money. So I mean, I think that’s a different way to think about all this. And maybe I hope, somebody’s listening to this. And you’re like damn, I wasn’t expecting her to say what she said. I think we have to think about the ways in which even being contemplative is privileged, to have silence is a privilege, to exist in this world of cacophony and violence and anger and illness is in silence is, you know, something.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, silence is a rich person’s reward — it’s privilege–
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: It really is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it doesn’t mean that, you know, I hope that people can get it. I think, it’s just something that we don’t recognize as a privilege when we in fact, really should recognize it as such.
CASSIDY HALL: And also to your point, and some of the earlier things you’ve said, in striving for it we should be looking to share it and to offer it to others. Because it’s another thing that we’ve taken as this individualistic, this private retreat, this silence individual retreat away from the world or stepping aside without offering that space to others too.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, there we are.
CASSIDY HALL: I really appreciate everything you said, I really appreciate what you were saying about the changing one somebody was very, very powerful to me. And the association between contemplation and privilege is a really important reflection point, especially for white contemplatives.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. Because I think that whole construct just means that you have money. It just means that you have the means, you have money, you have time, those are things that most people don’t have. Yeah.
CASSIDY HALL: Well, thank you so much for joining and thanks so much for taking the time to be with me.
DR ANTHEA BUTLER: Yeah you’re welcome. You’re welcome.
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.”
“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…”
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.”
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.
(Friends, this is from my lecture last night, 01/31/2019, at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for the Thomas Merton Course I am lucky enough to co-teach. I decided to focus on the concept of vocation and in the lecture had also included quotes and concepts from Mary Oliver, Simone Weil, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Hope you enjoy a portion of what I shared in essay form).
I’ve long held the belief that the contemplative way is a way of agony. There are no shortcuts from human pain—ours or those we love. And being that such a way of living is also a way to love the world more deeply, there is no escape from this depth of agony. While this dull ache cannot be ignored, it also cannot be one’s central focus, for any focus solely on the pain limits the work of love and minimizes the infinite possibilities each of us host.
Many of us don’t identify with the word contemplative, and even the word contemplative is messy. In The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton writes, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” To be a contemplative, therefore, is perhaps just another way of letting go, a way of being with the suffering, in the suffering, a way of showing solidarity––a special way of being present to the pain of and in the world.
That being said, it seems any vocation where one so fully gives themselves to loving others and the world more deeply is inevitably a vocation of agony. It is often a place of loneliness, aloneness, and an ache for the world to know love. On April 4 of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz (a friend who propelled Merton’s interest in Sufism) saying,
“I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in the world, but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.”
Nearly five years later, on April 3, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared of his experience with vocational agony,
“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”
Thus, another pathway towards meeting the pain of the world is undoubtedly the way of the activist. In 1961, not long after his discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, a young Catholic Worker volunteer named Jim Forest first wrote to Thomas Merton. The correspondence began when Dorothy Day handed Jim a letter from Merton and asked him to respond. In the years that followed frequent letters were exchanged between Jim and Merton. In February of 1966, Merton wrote the young activist saying,
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. 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, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
The one whose vocation is love lives in a narrative that is controlled by reality. And it is within this reality that one meets the pain of the world. It can often feel like a lonely woundedness, a gaping ache, or a gnaw that is just simply ever-present. When speaking of loneliness and aloneness with a sister of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts, she shared how loneliness belongs to us all, to the most human of hearts,
“I think the loneliness strengthens you over time through whatever life brings about… it’s a loneliness that says ‘there’s space there for the whole world… there’s space there for the whole world.’”
This pain—for the contemplative, for the activist, for the contemplative-activist, for those of us in all vocations of lovinghumanity—is a pain that only deepens and widens with time. As we bear our own wounds and gaze lovingly at the scars and scabs of those we love, our compassion grows deeper still, our hearts break once again, and we move closer to the unending heart of God.
I’ve long believed that all of us are artists and all of us have the capacity to pursue this kind of vocation of loving in our individual ways. Sister Corita Kent once wrote,
“Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. 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.”
And, Evelyn Underhill argued, “All artist are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.” … Finally, Thomas Merton reminds us, “To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw…”
“My dishonesty with myself and others hinders the honesty of all humanity, hinders the progress of all people.” Journal entry on 2/12/12
In 2012 I made the decision to let go of some certainty in my life for the sake of exploring something unknown. I quit my job. I quit my salary-paying, insurance-giving job full of security and certainty so I could travel to the seventeen Cistercian monasteries of the United States. As someone who isn’t Catholic, this was a surprise to everyone I knew. I would say that this decision surprised me too, but as I went on doing what I was supposed to do each day, I only felt myself dying a million deaths. It doesn’t surprise me I took on such a drastic measure to keep on living.
So much of my life at the time was wrapped up in what other people thought of me and meeting the expectations meant sticking to the script. Quitting a secure job with a salary and benefits wasn’t just an unwelcome improvisation—it was dangerous one. And thrill seeking was absolutely not a part of those predictable characters’ make up.
Yes, I was open about my sexuality, but only quietly, only where I felt safe. Sure, I was open about my spirituality, but only to the degree that it blended in a room. Yes, I loved my job and the amazing people who crossed my path while working it, but it became mostly an uncomplicated way to pay the bills.
I thought I was “doing all the right things”, but as I did them, I couldn’t shake the nagging; the blatant certainty that there was more to this life and that it wasn’t reserved for the few, and that it might even extend to me. Fitting everywhere but belonging nowhere—it was no longer enough, and something inside me sensed my restlessness could only be calmed by letting go.
Quitting my job to pursue that which was pulling me from the center of my heart made me feel exhilarated in a way that I hadn’t experienced since the beginning of these piling expectations. The monasteries, their silence, their mystery, their unique provision of solitude felt like they could be an exception to the lack of belonging I sensed at every turn. As I gave more and more thought to this longing within me, the unknown abundance of mystery that was before me, a unique way of exploring my interior spaciousness, I knew I had to go.
And when I stepped inside these sacred places, overcome with a sense of belonging, I knew instantly I had not made a mistake. It was in these moments away that the focus sharpened and I could sense my place in the world more clearly. It was a space where the noise of any perceived audience’s approval or disapproval literally and metaphorically cleared from my life and I could hear the voice of my heart instead.
So, I poked my head into seventeen spaces bathed in prayer and talked with monks and nuns about silence, solitude and contemplative life. I didn’t realize until the pilgrimage began that part of this expression of my true-self was bound up in my existential and spiritual curiosity that had been a part of my meandering thoughts since childhood. We further explored topics related to social justice, the true-self, acedia, mental health, and community. My joy and curiosity could not be contained.
This strange pilgrimage was spurred on and then validated by Thomas Merton’s words in New Seeds of Contemplation, “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 wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”
This idea of spending my life on the things that aren’t of me is something I have had to navigate in my own way. It’s a lesson that is never over once it is over. It certainly isn’t easy for me to be true to myself. I have to learn and then relearn nearly every single day.
I know, for example, that in my writing life there are many topics I’ve avoided for reasons I’d rather not admit. Reasons that ultimately declare the comfort of others and myself as more important than the truth and freedom of all humanity. Reasons that shun my inner spirit and remove dignity from my identity. I learned long ago on my pilgrimage that the danger in not being my true-self had a ripple-effect that was larger than just me. My self-expression, being true to who I was, affected other’s ability to do the same. After all, we belong to each other. I knew then it was time for a change. It was time to let go of the world’s agenda for my life. And, it’s just as true now as it was then.
“Trust is very much about going beyond the guarantees; engaging into the future that is beyond what is known and seen.” A Monk of Mepkin Abbey
When I arrived home after nearly a half year on the road, I had no extreme revelations or clear-cut certainties to reveal. I only emerged with a new sense of listening to the heart of who I am and an openness to the silences and the stillnesses that speak into that true identity. I began to let go of those preconceived notions the world had seared into me for years, I began to let myself unfold and go off script.
“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” Rainer Maria Rilke
All of life is loving as much as it is a constant letting go. Sometimes that letting go is an initial step away from the noisy world into finding out more of who we are. And, sometimes this requires a grieving. A grieving of a narrative we’ve clung to or been told, or grieving a sense of certainty or ownership. But we cannot begin to meet ourselves without this letting go. We cannot begin to reunite with the wholeness of who we are until we strip ourselves of assumptions, predictions, and expectations. We cannot hold on until we truly let go.
“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism” in Love and Living
“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.
Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”
Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.
Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”
I am easily led to anxiety in unfamiliar situations. I don’t like to do things with other people, and though I recognize the necessity in community, I’d almost always prefer to go about my day on my own, for comfort’s sake. Like most of us, I like certainty. Like most of us, I realize life isn’t very certain.
While walking a labyrinth with a group of friends last week, I was brought to a place of holding this uncertainty in a new way. In our preparation to walk, we reminded one another that the walk is not a maze, and no matter how lost we may feel at any time, we aren’t lost at all — as long as we keep our eyes on the path under us. We read aloud, “there’s no wrong way to walk the labyrinth.”
My anxiety led me to jumping in the labyrinth as soon as I possibly could, keeping only a few things in mind from our previous discussion. I chose to walk in with my hands down, symbolically releasing all that was hindering and holding me back — the heaviness that has been insistently upon my mind and heart in recent times. And as I sauntered into the center I recalled the only other thing I retained from our discussion — that the 6th petal in the center represents the unknown, and I was darting for it because that’s all I did know.
“Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people; these have been dragged, so to speak, from the river of infinite possibilities and stuck on the dry bank where nothing happens.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The towering redwoods of northern California have always mystified me. I’m constantly swept away with awe and wonder, as if I’ve rewinded my life back into childhood. With my gaze upward and my mouth wide open, I oooo and ahhhh at the way the light shines through the endless towers, the great elevated heights of trees, and squint my way through each crevice in hopes of seeing the array of creatures who call these woods home.
While on a stroll by a creek bed, I was so at ease with my surroundings that an overwhelming sense of equilibrium and a peace began to hypnotize me. I was startled back into the moment by noticing I was holding my own hand, as if the nature I was surrounded by intertwined with each of my fingers. Glancing down at my hands, I smiled in wonder, and continued my gentle clasp. I could breathe, feeling as if I inherently belonged to the moment — I to the trees, the trees to me, and the moment to us.
I’ve often wondered why these ancient trees bring me so much contentment and comfort. To me, this isn’t just about being in nature and reveling in her beauty. This is about growing trees that can attain the height of 378 feet with bark as thick as 12 inches; this is about a living thing whose arms (branches) can be up to 5 feet in diameter; this is about something that can live through 2,000 years (3,000 years for their inland relations, the giant sequoias)* worth of storms and remains standing; this is about trees who see, house, and intimately know generations of squirrels, birds, butterflies, bears; this is about trees who lived through the births and deaths of mothers and fathers of religious movements; this is about wisdom beyond human understanding, ancient wisdom.
This ancient wisdom is beyond any insight of words written on a page or stories passed from age to age. Though the desert fathers and mothers of 4th century Christianity often offered words, phrases, and a variety of insight to passing pilgrims asking for a word; these trees speak a different language, a universal language to thousands of generations of meandering pilgrims. This is the wisdom whose words speak to our deep mind in the silences and spaces between. This is the wisdom of the discourse we run father away from in our busy every day lives. Though we muffle it with destruction, it remains below our feet; though we forget it with distraction, it exists in the silences of our days. This is the wisdom whose exclusive interest is to be.
We live in a society that values the decided mind, yet the decided mind often doesn’t have room to be, because the decided mind is closed, shut, and unopened to the fluidity of being. The tree moves and dances with the winds, but remains a tree. The tree encounters wounds in the storms, but doesn’t cease to stand and be. This ancient wisdom points me back to wonder precisely so I can also be. So that I let the unfoldings of my own life open out, so that I may accept myself with the child-like wisdom of innocence, holding my own hand. From here I may evolve in the spaces where I lack understanding, so I may at every moment unfurl my tired clasping hands. And in doing so, I get to partake in this ancient wisdom, this deep beholding, and let it hold my hand.