Embodied and Boundless: A Conversation with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Content warning: In this episode, we briefly mention suicide in the context of dealing with rage and racial injustice.

In this episode, we explore the ways mysticism cannot be embodied, the importance of cultural sanctuary as a place of safety, and the value of rage: “That is not the purpose of any spiritual practice, to wipe away what you have,but to take what you have,” said Sensei Zenju. “And rage is what we have.”

Transcript:

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [00:03]: Because that’s what happens contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat, I say “no, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest.”

Cassidy Hall [00:22]: 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.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel Osho is an ordained Zen Priest and the Dharma heir of Buddha and the Suzuki Roshi lineage through the San Francisco Zen Center. Zenju’s practice is influenced by Native American and African indigenous traditions. 

She was raised in the Church of Christ, where she was an avid reader of the Bible and adored the true mystic teachings on Christ’s path well into adulthood. She’s the author of several books, including most recently, The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging. And in The Way of Tenderness, she writes, “But if we were to simply walk past the fires of racism, sexism, and so on because illusions of separation exist within them, we may well be walking past one of the widest gateways to enlightenment.”

Sensei Zenju welcome to Contemplating Now.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [01:48]: Thank you, thank you for having me and inviting me.

Cassidy Hall [01:51]: It’s really good to be with you. I got to speak with you on the Encountering Silence podcast. For this conversation, I’m wondering if you could tell us how you define “contemplation,” and how you define “mysticism” also?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [02:05]: First of all, the word “contemplation” is rarely used in Zen Buddhist tradition, maybe in other Buddhist traditions, but I don’t know. But in Zen, it’s not really used. So when I used it in my book I was really kind of jumping out the box in some way, not on purpose. It just felt like that’s what I was doing. So contemplation, if you were to contemplate in the Zen tradition, then you’re not really doing––you’re not doing meditation, and you’re not doing Zazen, which we call meditation. To contemplate means you’re thinking, a pondering, wondering, so we don’t use it, because in our practice, we’re not pondering, and we’re not thinking upon something like when people say I’m going to go meditate on it, we don’t go meditate on it, although some people might but that’s not the point.

Zazen is a ritual up opening through the silence, and to see where you’re going to land, you don’t never know when you’re going to land. There’s no guided meditation either. So a lot of people have asked me to do guided meditations constantly they asked me that. And I understand that they don’t understand Zen, they know nothing about Zen when they ask me to do a guided meditation. Because a guided meditation is not allowing that open field, you know, that open way of allowing silence to speak through you in the stillness to activate the activated and to bring something different to you that you don’t know that you have never thought about. So I think it’s a ritual in that sense. So, contemplation to me, when I use it is I’m kind of combining Zazen, my meditation Zen practice, with once what comes through, then I contemplate on it. 

I may contemplate on it, but then I’m not I’m outside of the practice in that way, when I do that. Because I love to contemplate I used to be a daydreamer as a child. I love thinking on things. I do feel that I contemplate as a Zen priest but it’s not the practice itself that contemplation arises out of the Zazen, out of the stillness and meditation and silence then I may contemplate.

So “mysticism” is to me Zazen, you know, because Zazen is very mystical in the sense that you don’t know what is going to happen. There’s the unknown, there’s a discovery, and that’s the hard part about it because you know, everyone’s like, why I’m sitting here, you know, tell me what to do. You don’t fill in the space, you just allow whatever is going to come up for you to come up. And what you’re doing, which many mystics and all mystics I’m sure did and do, is taking that time to just be, period.  Just be, and then see what you sense into, you know, what’s happening and what’s around you. So just developing that kind of silence and stillness helps to navigate the world navigate life, you’re actually honing and cultivating a way of walking in the jungle of life. And so this to me, Zazen is most close to me to what may be a medicine man or woman in indigenous cultures––many, many, many, way before Buddha––because meditation is way before Buddha, did in order to hear and see and be able to create the medicine that’s needed for the people for themselves, and so Zazen is like that. And that’s the mysticism for me. It’s definitely steeped in what I already am practicing and probably was practicing before I even, you know, became ordained, or before I even walked into the gateway of Zen. I think I was already doing such.

Cassidy Hall [05:46]: Yeah, in that way do you see a connection between contemplation as you’ve described it as thinking on the things, right or… 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [05:56]: Pondering, yeah.

Cassidy Hall [05:57]: Yeah, pondering. Do you see that as connected to ways that can form our role in social justice in the world? I’m thinking of something from your book, The Way of Tenderness you write about interconnected intimacy and you write that, “Interconnected intimacy that is messy, uncomfortable, and difficult but worthy and liberating to attend to.” And I think, you know, in my experience, when I do a sit, I never quite know what to name it. I just, you know, go there, right in the silence and stillness. And it always seems to be kind of a grounded, rooted meeting place for everyone else. And it reminds me of this interconnected intimacy, but I love also what you’re saying about, but if you go there to meet it, that’s not the way to meet it, so. 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:40]: Right so you’re asking whether activism, social activism, or social justice work, is there contemplation in it? 

Cassidy Hall [06:48]: Does a contemplative practice help or undergird movements or activism and vice-versa?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:56]: When you said in my mind went way out, like, “no!” because I feel that we have not been able to integrate contemplation or meditation with social justice. So we’re either doing one or the other. Okay, so they’re still quite separate, even if, in our minds, we think, ‘Oh, I’m an activist, I’m going to go out and do this and then I’ll go sit, well, that is what that is.’ You’re going out to, you know, activate, and you’re going to sit, they’re separate walks. It’s a good question because I’m very nervous about it in the sense of a person who’s been an activist and still considers myself that but I wouldn’t probably go out and do some of the things many activists do today for many reasons, not because I don’t think what they’re doing is profound, or needed. 

But I feel that people do not have a good ground and foundation and understanding of contemplation in order to be able to bring it to the movement, it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean you act differently, like okay, when we get there, we’re going to meditate and that shows that we got it. No, this is not true. What is true for me, and not just true for me, in my experience, and having been a very strong activist and organizing in my life, and then going completely into spirituality and coming out with both of them integrated, has been a profound experience for me. Because I am able to articulate the social issues and the way we are as human beings because of the contemplation that is influencing and our foundation to my activist work. Or if I were to speak, even in politics, that even if I speak politically, which I do, I’m speaking from that place. I’m not just speaking politics, and then I go rest because that’s what happens. 

Contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat I say, “No, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest because you need that energy to do this work.” This inner work is not, this is not the place you come. I have seen people come to retreats, and they think they’re going to get relaxed and then they get all upset, especially in Zen. Where you have to work, work, work, work, work, boom, you know, go to sleep and they’re like well, “This is worse than what I was doing when I was in the world. I’m working more than ever before.” It’s a different kind of work. You learn it that later but it’s a different kind of work. But if you are not prepared to sit because people think you don’t have to prepare to do it’s too easy. 

You just sit down, but you have to be prepared, your body has to be prepared to do it. If your body can’t do it, then the sitting practice is not for you. It really isn’t. There are other things maybe you could drum, paint, or something you know that has meditation within it you know, but to do to actually come to the ceremony ill-equipped is only going to make you suffer more. I did. I was suffering more because I didn’t understand I was coming in ceremony and meditation or you know anything. So practicing to be a contemplative, you’re practicing in that way you’re learning to have an embodiment, to be embodied, and to be boundless, okay, at the same time. But you can’t learn that with your mind, and you can’t talk yourself into it, although we do. Do I look like I’m, you know, balanced or whatever, empty? You know. 

So we try to talk ourselves into those places, and you can’t, you must go through the practice through the path in order to bring that to your political or activist movement, or actions. I would like to see more people speak on the integration of it, especially those who are going to teach both contemplation meditation and activism, if you’re going to teach all of that, then you must see it as an integration. So what I find in here is people either talk completely on the justice side or completely on still on the religious side, despite ethnicity, race, sex, anything, it doesn’t matter. I just hear it being still split. I might do it myself at times, but inside I don’t feel that you know, and there are some other people that I’m sure you know, have that ability, but I think it’s very few. It’s very…  It’s a rare thing because it takes so much time for you to embody that sense of being, like here and not right here and not here being part of everything in the world. That’s pretty tough. We’re not ready to be part of everything and everyone we talk about… sounds so beautiful, so romantic. But as soon as someone climbs the Capitol wall, we’re like, “Ah, you know, we’re not with them.” I’m going to separate myself from that, and we can’t, unfortunately, or fortunately. We cannot separate ourselves from that, because we’re human beings.

Cassidy Hall [11:57]: I appreciate you distinguishing contemplation, contemplative practices, meditation from rest. Because when we do begin to think about integrating contemplative life for contemplative practice and activism, those integrated without rest is bound for failure, right? I mean…

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [12:14]: Well, we get exhausted, you know, and depressed and hopeless and helpless, all these kinds of things will come up, and then you’re like, well, this is not going to change and then your rage is intensified, because, oh, we’re really not changing white supremacy it’s getting worse. And there’s a reason for that, too. We won’t go into that. But you know, right now, but there is a reason for that, and one of the reasons is simply is we keep invoking it. And so once we invoke it, and continue to invoke it, it will be it. It will be in the world. And we do have to look at it. I’m not saying we need to be silent on it. Because there’s white supremacy can the contemplation and meditation, allow you to talk about it in a different way so that we can land in a different place on the path.

Landing on anti-blackness, or landing on white supremacy is just one place on the path. And we know that we’ve been knowing that can we shift that a bit to say, that’s what I was trying to do with The Way of Tenderness to shift that language to talking about superiority and inferiority and how it gets systematized. That’s good, but it doesn’t invoke just the whiteness, it also invokes class, you know, rich and poor, it invokes all that is superior and dominant in a more integrative way than just this one thing because if we just work on this one thing, we forget that there is all the other things. So then we have to go, Well, I’m not going to do race, I’m going to do class. And then everybody says, “Well they’re together” when we know this. 

And I think contemplation for me, and meditation has taught me how to do this, you know. How to view the truth or view the nature of life, which means to view the nature of humanity, because that’s all I know. I don’t know how to be alive in any other way. And the interrelationship of that, and I push my students that way, too. So they really can’t talk about whiteness, we’re all black our Sangha. We don’t talk, I don’t want to, because it just keeps invoking, and centering whiteness. And so when they get upset, then what is that and what can we talk about so that when we come back to that place on the path or go, oh, okay, I’m going to do something different right here, and I’m going to do something, whatever I’m going to do is going to not only not center whiteness, it’s going to center wellness and transformation and movement for me, and for my people, my community, and my family. 

Cassidy Hall [14:35]: Yeah. In your book, The Deepest Peace you beautifully write about rage and making room for rage, you write, “I don’t quiet the rage for peace. Peace is not superior. Peace is persistent. Rage is persistent as well. I meditate while trembling with rage. Rage is here because love is needed.” Wondering if you could speak to the importance of not ignoring rage and how it can be this valued aspect of, yeah, peace, love, justice-centric emotion.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [15:07]: Yeah, rage is that for me is accumulated anger over many, many decades, right. And I think generation I really think it’s just passed on it’s imprinted on the bone. You know, what you do is that when you come in, I don’t know. I didn’t come in interested, I didn’t come to contemplation interested in removing all emotions. I remember a teacher pointing out a student once he said, “I like that student.” And I said, “Mm her?” and I was wondering what it was and he said the way she is the way she moves and I saw her as kind of lost her personality in the practice like I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her and a chair. There was just nothing there––wake up, what are you doing? And that is not the purpose of the practice or any, I think any spiritual practice is to wipe away what you have but to take what you have. 

And rage is what we have. And I take rage, and I have sat with it as sacred fire. I used to just let it go, flame, poof, and burn people up and everything. And then I started, like I said, this can’t continue, you know, otherwise, I’m not going to be in relationship and engaged in the world. And so when it would start, the next step for me was to take the rage and just hold it as sacred. In that, I don’t share it, you know, unnecessarily but I do use it. I think most of my writing comes from rage, even The Deepest Peace, can you imagine? That’s when contemplation is working. And you can deliver the message in which you want to deliver without burning people or burning places or burning ideas or just losing your own mind, you know. 

Cassidy Hall [16:52]: And burning yourself down, right?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [16:53]: Burning yourself. Yeah. So it’s just like killing, I mean, rage can kill you. And literally, it is and has taken years off my life. I got a diagnosis that says, you know, I’m more like an 80-year-old, and I’m not nowhere near 80. That’s rage, that’s racism. That’s this life. And that’s why so many people have hypertension, African Americans have hypertension because, and that’s a killer. You know, we’re walking around like ticking bombs, you know. And so it was important for me to stretch that out my life out as much as I can, still is, given there’s this rage, so when I took it in as sacred, it allowed me to use that fire. To use that fire for my own healing and transformation because even when I did throw it out there, it was just like a mess. 

When you know, when you burn something down, it’s a mess. And so then you have to work on the mess. And that’s too much work or you need to go tell somebody, look, this needs to go this way. And if you do it this way, it’ll make it better for us. Now that can be said and told, but I find that exhausting too because then the person or people, institution, they’ll do it and it’s still embedded in all that you’re trying to break down, break away. All the oppression is still there, even in that work. So if rage is going to be there, if oppression is going to be there, then I say use it, use it, don’t fight it. Don’t fight with it, fight with it, fight it, but use it to come to the wisdom that these wisdom practices are offering. 

So a lot of people come they’re not looking for the wisdom. They… ‘I already have wisdom. I don’t need the wisdom of contemplation and meditation. I’m coming with wisdom.’ You know, like, let me tell you that’s wrong what you’re doing. That’s the wisdom I have. That’s not wisdom. We think we have wisdom. And I always ask people, “what wisdom are you relying on when you feel you’re being compassionate or loving and kind? What wisdom are you relying on, your grandmother’s? Some teacher? Some book? What insight yourself? What experience have you had of any of that? And how did you get there?” Other than that, then, you know, most of us need to be just pretty much silent. Even myself, I feel that, I do. You know, just keep your mouth closed because we’re all in progress and we don’t know, we’re always discovering ourselves and discovering life. 

That’s why homage is paid to the ancestors who have gone through it, you know. And in most traditions, people who say ‘oh no, my sister or my brother is an ancestor the day they die’ –– well, no, not in most spiritual paths. That person who has just died is learning how to be wherever that is. If there is anything, they’re not capable yet. And so some African tribes, they don’t even listen to elders, they listen to ancestors only. Elders is like, eh, because they’re still in the learning process, the living process.

Cassidy Hall [19:49]: So I recently attended a conference titled Holy Rage, Holy Hope. And it was the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference and I was one of a handful of white people that attended. And in learning how to most deeply respect and revere the prophetic spaces, the prophetic nature of Black spaces, I’m reminded of your words in, The Way of Tenderness when you talk about, you write, “Creating and entering sanctuaries allows us as people of color to address the circumstances that are specific to who we have been born as, on our own terms, without interference. The desire of those who are not people of color to enter the spaces where people of color face these issues betrays a disregard for the uniqueness of the work that must be done within these cultural sanctuaries. It indicates an unjust sense of entitlement on their part.” And I wonder if you just could maybe speak to the importance of those sanctuaries? 

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [20:40]: Yes. Maybe, should have written more in that area of that part of the book, because I’ve gotten that question many times. A spiritual path requires when you enter to strip down to be exposed to be seen, and all these kinds of things. It requires a place in which you can do that and feel free. It’s kind of like if you go to the doctor’s, there are some doctors you would not undress with, some you will, you know, you can feel whether or not this is going to be safe for you to do this, while you’re taking care of the things that are bothering you. You’re suffering, you know, do I want this doctor to touch that, where… this? Well, that’s the same thing. So I feel that we need places to do that, just to do the stripped-down, and then be able to walk the path we’re in. 

We’re understanding more about internalized oppression and walking that path so that when we’re in situations of racism, we’re also understanding the internalize oppression part of it not just blanket racism, or white supremacy or anti-blackness or any of these things–– it’s all there not just that piece that’s out. There’s the in and the out. What I’ve seen in some cultural sanctuaries, when I say cultural a lot of people think I mean Black or people of color, but anything, it’s of the culture. So I’ve heard of lawyer Sangha’s, women Sangha’s, all kinds of Sangha’s, right, or gatherings based on various aspects of culture –– artists. I feel that there’s always this truncation, you know, like, Oh, we need a special place, because we’re so in BIPOC, Black, Indigenous People of Color, need a special place because we’re so weak and vulnerable. And that’s not really true. It may be true, but that’s not everything. You know, or we’re wounded and I think that that’s a misperception of cultural. And so, one Sangha member did a Dharma talk at a Sangha. And the guy says, “I think we need to start a cultural sanctuary,” because he had read the book, right? That same part you’re reading, you know, he was a white male. He says I think, you know, from his heart, I knew it was coming from his heart, “We need to start a cultural sanctuary.” And I said, “Why you have one, you’re in it. It’s your Sangha. Right here, this Zen Center is the Cultural Center, the culture is Zen and it’s what it is, and you work within that culture.” Because not every person of color wants that either, too, that’s an assumption, you know. I feel that that’s the truncation and the lumping.

But I feel that we do need spaces, I needed it when I went into Zen, I was fortunate enough to enter a people of color group. I didn’t know what it was, what people of color was, at the time, I didn’t know what people were talking about because that language came from academia world, and I wasn’t in academia, in that sense of the word. You know, like I had already done, I had my Ph.D. So I was like, what’s this people of color? You know, I went to one Zen Center in Berkeley, and they said, “Well, they have a people of color group over at San Francisco Zen Center,” and I go, “Okay,” and then we would come to Berkeley Zen Center, me and my partner, we come to Berkeley Zen Center, and they said, “Oh, well, you know, there’s a people color group.” So I said, “What is this thing about the people of color group?” And so finally, we just left Berkeley Zen Center and went to the people color group. And it was great. It was perfect. It was what I needed. 

But it was interesting what they thought I needed. And when I thought I needed it, and that I understood something about what they were saying. So I think that is important. What I find too, is that and what can happen, I would say is that cultural groups, when they get together can be embedded in their own culture. And I remember when I was in the people of color group, I asked the teacher, I said, “Are we not reifying our wounds here,” because that’s all I’m hearing is the wounding stories. I really wasn’t interested in hearing the wounding stories, I wanted to transform and get well, you know. I wanted to do the practice. And so it was okay to tell those stories. That’s the stripping down and but I wondered, you know, were we reifying something because Zen especially, is the ceremony and there’s rituals. So if you’re in there reifying what makes you suffer in the ceremony in a ritual you will continue to suffer, you will just continue this it will just be invoked, invoked, invoke just suffering. And so I just feel for people to be careful around that. What is the purpose of the cultural sanctuary in relationship to the path, the spiritual path? And I have to always constantly tell students, “this is not a social club.” You know, can we just like, just hang out, I mean, I went somewhere and then came back and they had gone to a concert together, I said, “That’s not the purpose,” because something’s going to happen out there, you’re going to bring it to the Sangha. And it will have nothing to do with doing practicing Zen. Now in other traditions, maybe that works, I don’t know. 

But I feel that if we’re in there just to come together just to talk about the wounding, talk just about whiteness, you know when my students get on that I get, stop, you know, we’re not doing that. So, you know, I want to hear about Blackness. You know, one student said, “Well, I think this is when the kind of neo-KKK,” I don’t know, “were walking down the street with the torches,” the tiki torches and everything walking into parks that time, and one of the students says, “I want to go down and sit in the park and meditate.” And I said, “I won’t be with you.” “Why?” I said, “I’m not going but you can do that. But we’re not going as a Sangha either. We’re not going to have our little banner saying, Still breathing is out here. No. But you can go there if you want. And he’s like, “Why?” I said, “Because when that Black boy died, Tamir Rice, you didn’t say, let’s go anywhere. Why didn’t we get our banner and go there?” 

So I’m just trying to… just so that people can see where the attention is. And we all know where the attention goes, that’s what happens. That’s what life is. I think we have to have attention. I’m not saying, you know, turn our back. But I think we have to have a broader picture. I don’t care if all Zen Centers were diverse, or all white people, suddenly were not racist. What is that going to do for me? What do we think that’s going to do for us? I don’t know what we’re thinking. That’s like, if my partner could do it this way, we have a good life. And you know what that kind of partnership is, pretty bad right? Suffering. So it has to be more rounded. And I think contemplation and meditation can bring that other aspect, if we’re interested in it, which I call a spiritual justice. And I talk about that in the book, too, to create a spiritual justice. I’m not the first to talk about it. I mean, Martin Luther King, Jr. that was his whole sermon in one big sermon, really, you can just say, this was one big sermon, spiritual justice, you know. The spirituality part is if we can consider each other interrelated as humans, and as of God, then we would have justice, you know, so that’s why I do believe in justice work. Because in that day and that view justice work in trying to change somebody’s minds and attitudes is hard work. And I’ve tried it, I’ve done it, I’ve done diversity work. And I told somebody, I can’t do it. And they say, “You can’t, we’re making $10,000 a month, come on, make the money.” I said, “I can’t, I’d be spending all that money in therapy,” because they’re going to… that’s like a wall. That’s like walking into the brick wall going ‘bunk.’ And they said, “Well, you don’t have to do it with any results.” And I said, “Oh, well, okay, that’s interesting.” Then why should I use my entire life? Why should I sacrifice myself for absolutely nothing, for the money? That’s not enough.

Cassidy Hall [27:56]: The way you’re talking about this feels like when I imagine you know, the conflicts of our world, our country today, it’s almost like this really strong binary energy. And you’re talking about the work that’s much bigger, much more below?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [28:12]: Yeah, because it’s on the ground, it’s at the ground at the base, where Thich Nhat Hanh called transformation at the base, and I’m teaching that right now with my students and what that means, you know. And how that affects what we manifest are what comes into being because what comes into being comes from the base comes from our perceptions come from, you know, our mental formations, and all these kinds of things we learn in our practice. It comes from that so we can know the list, but if you don’t understand how perception or mental formation or being embodied affects what you do in the world, helps you understand what’s happening in the world, there’s going to be something missing. 

And I don’t say you have to do Buddhism, either, or meditation because they…or contemplate, I think those are for particular kinds of people who have that nature. Most people do not, they have another kind of temperament and you have to find what works for you. What would be that place in which you would awaken to everything, despite the horror in the world, despite or because of the horror in the world? What would you be doing? What would you do? What do you do? You know, I have people that come, “oh, you know, stuff, I can’t meditate. Every time I sit down, I just suffering, I’m just suffering.” And I was at a meditation center when I was teaching and I said, “Well, I think you need to stop meditating.” I said, “You can just like, go on home right now and rest. This is not for you, not now.” 

And I don’t know why folks think it’s for everyone because it’s not. It’s only for those who are interested in going into this kind of deep nothingness this deep unknowing, this way of discovering those who want to walk out on the metal and not really know what’s going to happen out there. But the practice is teaching you so you keep running into it–the racism, then, now it’s time to use this and to be with it, not to still be back when I was first discovered that my skin was not welcome, the color of my skin was not welcome. If I lived there, I think I’d have been dead by now, I would have committed suicide, I would have. It is just too deep and too heavy, to not feel you belong on the planet. Or that you can never have a full life because of the color of your skin, or because you don’t have any money or all these things they say you have to have in order to have life. 

So if you don’t discover life, then you’re going to think you need all those things to have life and you’re going to just suffer. We’re just going to suffer anyway, without all of that. And then we suffer the suffering, which I did. I did… All the things I speak on are my experiences, not necessarily something I just read, but the experience of being in practice and the experience of being in life coming together, because I wanted to see, why bother?

Cassidy Hall [30:58]: In your work, you also write a lot about the connectivity with nature and the earth. And I love what you wrote about this death of an oak tree, in your book, The Way of Tenderness you wrote, ‘The sudden death of oak trees, where I live in Oakland is like a clear cry naturally emerging from nature, just as cries emerged from groups of people when they are ignored or mistreated.” And I love that being able to see the fullness of life in nature.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [31:26]: Yeah, that piece is interesting to hear that again, because these things repeat. And so I don’t know the repeating till I hear it sometimes come back to me. We are the earth. And we know that, we are of the earth, we are the earth. And anything that’s happening in the earth is happening to us, all living beings. So like when that tree fell, I just… it was me falling off that cliff too, and how old that was and how unstable and unpredictable life is. And I’m writing right now I wasn’t going to write another book. But it looks like it might be one I was hoping it was just going to be an essay, but it keeps going. And I’m doing basically an account of our kind of daily life, our daily embodiment of earth. The daily and how to bring again, integrating so it’s not earth, and how beautiful it is, is earth in us, us as earth. There’s this mystical place of life, that is us as earth, you know. And when you contemplate and meditate, that gets… become so clear. If you’re not meditating and contemplating your partnership, or your job or your whatever, you’re not reifying the things that are hurting you, you’re just allowing yourself to be open to receive, which is what Buddha did, which is what Jesus did any, Sojourner Truth, you know. Harriet Tubman, name any of these people, and that’s what they were doing. That’s what they had to do in order to enhance their sense of the world, and their understanding and the nature of life. So that they could do the work that they were doing––fear or not, with fear and without fear with both. 

So, I feel that looking at the earth and embodying the earth is important to understanding who we are, you know, you can understand transformation by just being in nature, right? You understand it completely. And so you can take that understanding because the reason why I understand it is because it’s you. When you look at the tree dying, you know that as you. A tree falling off a cliff, if you don’t feel that I don’t know, something needs to stimulate you to feel that interconnection, of all that’s around you.

Cassidy Hall [33:46]: Yeah. Yeah. Sensei Zenju, one question I want to end on, I’m actually going to change based on our conversation. And that question is who is, someone and I’m going to say someone or something that embodies mysticism for you?

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [34:01]: First it’s very hard to embody mysticism. I don’t really think it can be embodied. I think it comes through some people at particular times, for those who are open and ready for that, like Buddha was. He was just a person that had a mystical experience. Now did he embody them, maybe later but I don’t think so in the beginning. So when I think of people who I feel live in that realm, I think of diviners. You know, people who do divinations, those who have been trained to be seers, that’s another word. I see seers, I see myself in there too, as seers so when I think what comes to mind are the people I know who are seers, who work with the earth, they work with the unknown, they work with the dark on to bring forth any kind of medicines be that messages or whatever they worked in that realm. And some are still in some indigenous parts of the world living and some are not. 

I actually met a whole… I didn’t know they were diviners till 20 years later, a whole group of diviners from Africa. And I think about them all the time, and they were Dahomeyan, and how they were and how I felt to be a part of them and I didn’t know them, the whole community, I don’t even know them, I didn’t even know their names because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the mystics’ name, or where the mystic live, or who the mystic’s mother was. Those are all irrelevant to a mystic because it’s not of the body. It comes through it, the conduit so many conduits have come. 

Ramana Maharshi I feel is a mystic and his presence spoke. I think that that’s a mystic. That’s very powerful to me, that one’s presence speaks. I know my teacher transmitted to me, but I couldn’t tell till years later. Because I remember I chose her because she was so joyful in ceremony and ritual, I said, “she really loves Zen and I’m really having a hard time here. So I’ll just choose her,” and I did Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who has passed. And then after all the years, 20 years, I could hear myself sounding like her talking to my students about, oh, you know, so excited about this ceremony and that ceremony and this ritual and that ritual. And I just get so excited when it’s time for us to [unknown] and retreat. And they’re like, “What is wrong with her,” you know, like, “These things are not fun. That’s not fun.” That’s how I knew that that got transmitted without her telling me. I was walking with that, the joy of that and how I was able to stay in a place that where people didn’t look like me, mostly, were… have a different culture. It was a cultural sanctuary, in which I was not from. What saved me was that mysticism is not embodied.

Cassidy Hall [36:52]: Well, thank you, Sensei, for this beautiful conversation and for taking the time to be with me today. I really, really appreciate it.

Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [36:58]: All right, thank you.

Cassidy Hall [37:03]: 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.

Being A Truth Teller: A Conversation with Sophfronia Scott

In this episode, author Sophfronia Scott and I discuss the power of truth-telling, encounters with mysticism, and the ways in which contemplation can lead to mystical encounter. Of mysticism she says, “There is something all around us that sustains us and the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil.”

Transcript:

[00:00:03] Sophfronia Scott: It’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that. You mentioned Walter Scott and that happened in 2015, 5 years later, we have George Floyd, and suddenly it’s like something––people are acting like something woke up––it’s like wait, wasn’t this––what happened with Ferguson? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then?

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 social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall.

Sophfronia Scott grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, hometown she shares with author Toni Morrison. She holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she began her career as an award winning magazine journalist for both Time and People. When her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published in 2004 Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards. Her other books include the novel is Unforgivable Love, an essay collection titled Love’s Long Line, and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son. Her most recent book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Mertonwas published just this year in March of 2021. And in that book, on a chapter about resisting racism, she writes, If we don’t become the truth tellers than a different kind of erosion can happen, in which resentment breeds a resentment that would threaten the wholeness of my heart and soul. If nothing else, I must be whole and respond to racism in a way that is true to the depths of my being. So Sophfronia, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining me.

[00:01:57] Sophfronia Scott: I am happy to be here. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

[00:02:01] Cassidy Hall: So I want to begin by asking you, what does the word “contemplative” mean to you and how do you see it lived out in our world today?

[00:02:09] Sophfronia Scott: Now that that second part, how do I see it lived out? You know, that’s a difficult one. Because to me, contemplation is an inner journey. It involves solitude and it involves a reflection on what God has given that particular individual and how you’re taking that in and walking through the world with that grace. So how do you see that? You know, how would I observe that? How would I know, the world in general, I can see it in certain people. But the world in general, it’s like we’re coming out of a year of being–of forced contemplation, right, at this point, the pandemic, right? So, it’s like that was a period where people suddenly did have to take stock and really look at the way they were living their lives. So I would have to say that maybe it wasn’t present in the world before in the way that it could be now.

[00:02:58] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, just we navigate that differently based on the language that we use to maybe define it, but either way, we’ve all kind of become contemplatives. So being that we all kind of went to that meeting place together over the last year. I know in my experience, right, it created a kind of the sense of deeper connectivity or deeper solidarity and connection to each other, right? Also seeing the things played out on the news, between disparities of the issues related to covid and racial injustice–George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. So do you see or sense that our togetherness in that contemplation created a connection with social action or social justice?

[00:03:37] Sophfronia Scott: You used the word together, Cassidy. Actually, I think all of that happened because we had assumed early on that we were doing that together, right? It looked like we had gone into this pandemic, and there was a spirit of togetherness. But it became apparent right away that we were not together in this, right, that people did not, we’re not experiencing this pandemic in the same way. Then what happened with George Floyd put a very specific face on the whole thing, right? And and then the people who realized that, Okay, we are not together on this, then we need to do something about it, that’s when the action came about. You know, Cassidy, it’s a very subtle type of thinking, we often don’t know we’re doing it. Last night I was in a group of people, a large group, it was a zoom group, and there was like a survey. One of the questions had been “Have you ever tested positive for Covid 19?” Almost 90% of the group said “no,” and someone responded, “Well, isn’t that you know–That’s great, we were safe, we took good care of ourselves.” But then someone else said “No, that just means we were privileged.” We don’t notice. We don’t realize. We just think Okay, we did it. But, no, there was a reason why this may have been easier for you to be this way than for somebody else. So not together, we were not together.

[00:04:50] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I appreciate that reflection and that togetherness is definitely not not a word that works there. And I think maybe it’s more about the ways it was revealing and opened up the truth to us more clearly. And this kind of reminds me of a story from your book, although it relates to a story from 1963, it’s again, this opening this peeling back the curtains of the truth of what’s happening. In your book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton –– Hold on before we go to this story, I just want to ask why talk to a dead white guy?

[00:05:26] Sophfronia Scott: [Laughs] I think it connects to the other word. You and I we’re going to talk about, which is “mysticism.” I think that if you contemplate on a certain level, it rises to connection, it rises to an experience of something. So this person, my experience in reading and engaging with the work of Thomas Merton was just a part of me so much that I was able to experience them on a different level. It was not my choice, right? It’s not like I get to choose who I’m going to connect with. You know, I heard his words first, right? He could have been a black person, I had no idea. I only heard the words and the words are what drew me to him.

[00:06:11] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. So going back to this 1963 story, you share a story about Thomas Merton responding to a young black priest named Father August Thompson. And Father Thompson, like other black priests and parishioners, could only receive communion after white people. He was prohibited from saying mass and Catholics refused to call him, “father.” I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how Merton responded to Father August’s letter and more importantly, how this led to your own personal reflection of taking care of your heart first.

[00:06:41] Sophfronia Scott: Merton told him to consider, and father August was specifically also complaining about his Bishop at the time, and Merton told him, ‘Okay, you have to understand where he is coming from.’ It begins there. It begins with how you think about this person, seeing that person’s humanity. That was striking to me, seeing how this man probably doesn’t know how to think any other way than his white racist way, right? And that you have to start from that point, and when you do that, you are protecting your own heart, you are protecting your own soul because you are not going to that place of antagonism. You’re not going to that place of hatred, right? This is really what he was trying to teach him was really the source of Nonviolence, because non violence is not just about not fighting with the police, it is about being nonviolent within within your thoughts within your heart and to come at it from a holistic perspective with the feeling that we are all humans in this. It is not me against you, it’s we are all in this together. This is truly the unity you’re talking about: We are in this together. And how can we come to accept our humanity, our shared humanity? How can you bring him away from that thought? And he brings in the word faith which I thought was absolutely interesting. Okay, because faith means that there can be conversion, that means there is hope, that means this person’s way of thinking can be changed. But you have to be in a place of your own faith and non-violence to help bring that about. And

[00:08:08] Cassidy Hall: I think that relates to another part in your book where you write “if we don’t become the truth-tellers than a different kind of erosion happens in which resentment breeds.” And I think along with that, I’m wondering, What do you think it means to be–– How do we hold the tension, rather, of being truth-tellers and contemplatives? What does that look like to embody truth telling alongside a contemplative life.

[00:08:30] Sophfronia Scott: When you’re a contemplative, you come to see things a certain way and you can either share that or it stays within you. And when I say, resentment, I think about you know there are so many relationships, marriages, friendships that go bad because there was something wrong going on there that wasn’t spoken about: you didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to get in a fight, and you don’t say anything and everything looks great. But there is resentment because that thing has not been addressed that that changes you, right? That’s again where your non-violence is going to be hurt. You have to be in the space of being able to say your truth. But how do you do it? How do you do it so that it is from a place of love and innocence, like the child who said, “Well, the emperor has no clothes on,” right? He was stating it, there is a fact he wasn’t saying it to to shame the emperor or anything, he was just stating this fact. So how do you come at this, to be able to say in a way that people can hear, “You are devaluing my humanity. You’re devaluing my humanity, and that is what this is about. I am not angry with you, but you must see that there’s something wrong here and in order for us to heal––for you to heal because it’s not right that you feel this way too, this is hurting you, too. How are we going to work together to bring this about?”

[00:09:49] Cassidy Hall: It reminds me of. I think it’s June Jordan that talks about telling the truth is being a political act. And I love that a political act can even take place. in these just relational one-on-one times when we tell the truth to each other.

[00:10:01] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly. And it allows you, and it’s not necessarily a truth that has to bring you down and feel like you’re being blamed. It could be a truth that shines a light that allows you to see yourself in a different way and become something better, to bring you to the fullness of who you really are.

[00:10:18] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. You’re having my mind to go to so many different, beautiful places, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how contemplative life and contemplation, when we go to really kind of meet ourselves in that inward place is another form of truth-telling and truth meeting, maybe, of ourselves and our inner being.

[00:10:38] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah. I remember once. I was in a conversation about therapy, about why people go to therapy and on a certain level, being in therapy helps people bring to the surface things that they already know we’re there. But they’re not addressing, it’s been stuffed down or it’s been avoided or it’s been not addressed. And that is something, we all know what is within us. We know something of where we come from and what we’re thinking. So if we’re willing to pay attention and to say, “Wow, yeah, I did that,” or “this is something odd about the way I think,” you know. Not only can it not be addressed, but but it gives us an opportunity to say “Okay, I’m okay anyway,” right? By the grace of God, I’m this egotistical or whatever you wanna call it self centered person. But by the grace of God, I am here, and I recognize this, and I’m gonna try today to be a better person. It may not work out today. But I’m gonna try to be different. I’m going to try to think differently, right. So that’s what contemplation gives us. How can I reach for that dream that God has of me, for me, in any given challenging moment?

[00:11:49] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. One thing I loved in your chapter on race and racism and having a conversation with Merton about that. You mentioned many names in your book, including Walter Scott, who was murdered by the police in 2015. And you write, “What really leaves our souls scorched and grieving is the casual behavior of the police officer who fires the weapon. It’s as though this event were not extraordinary for him.” And I wonder, as we talk about these things like non-violence and our relational meeting place and our true togetherness, what might you say it looks like––what does it mean to be a contemplative activist, and especially as it relates to police violence.

[00:12:28] Sophfronia Scott: I think it means finding some way to address that nonchalance, right? Um, it was the same thing with George Floyd, right? That’s one of the things people talked about, like how calm that guy was, that officer was. Again, there’s something wrong there. There’s something wrong with that person’s humanity, right? And is it going to get solved by adding hate on top of that? No, it’s not. So how is it going to be addressed? How do we come to bring this person to see that this is a life? This is a life, right? There’s something wrong there. There’s something hugely wrong. And contemplation is to me, the constant considering of how how do we come to bring an understanding to that person –– it’s not like I can fix him, right? Can’t fix people. But there must be a way to help bring about understanding. And I may not come to an answer of that. But just being to understand that and to come from that point of of awareness, and if enough people are coming from that point, we’re walking on down the road that may eventually get us there. Police officers are acting out of fear, right, so they are in highly dangerous situations. But maybe there’s something about them that they need to be contemplative themselves, right? How can they better address or assess, I should say, assess a situation, right? Because that is the thing, right? They overdo it. What is going on here? Does this and I know they say, Oh, but it’s a split second moment. No, that guy was kneeling on that guy’s neck almost nine minutes. He did not have to do that. There were people pleading with him not to do that. Something inside you has to say, “Okay, I need to do something different here.” So what was it in that awareness that that that didn’t happen? And it’s not like diversity training is necessarily going to get you there. But to be in an ongoing conversation. Yeah, the training happens, and then you go your way and you forget about it. How can you be in constant conversation with police officers to help them think about what they’re seeing in any given instance? And can we help them see it in a different way, to come from a point of humanity and not just thinking “threat”? They protect and serve. That’s on a lot of police cars: “protect and serve.” So how do you How do you help them come to that mindset first? I have no answers, Cassidy, but this is where I think contemplation plays a role.

[00:14:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and it also reminds me of the connecting about earlier regarding truth-telling. And I think one thing I’m learning as a white person is about how there’s a lot of conversations that need to be had between white people and to navigate these things and even the recognition right that the police is relationship to systems, systems of oppression and the systems that was built upon and systems of racism. And yeah, I mean, there’s just so many, so many layers, and I’m really struck by kind of going back to that thought of truth telling. What can we do? We can tell the truth and peel back, clench fists and be present to what we know is true and speak to that

[00:15:36] Sophfronia Scott: Because otherwise, and this is my concern about the current social justice movement, is that it’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that, right? You mentioned Walter Scott, and that happened in 2015, right? And so five years later, we have George Floyd. And suddenly it’s like something people are acting like something woke up like – wait, what happened with Ferguson? What? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then? I’m sorry, Dylann Roof walked into a church and killed a whole room of black people, so why didn’t that wake us up? Right. So this is this is where I have to protect my heart and and see it as an ongoing journey and that this is this is like a wave that’s going to disappear, the problem is still going to be here. So I could get really resentful about that and cynical and say, “here we go again.” Or else I can be the truth-teller and say exactly what I just said and say, “Look, this is this is not a new thing.” So if we keep discovering this, obviously there’s something wrong with the way we think we’re solving this. So how do we need to look at this differently, right?

[00:16:38] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, we could list names back to Emmett Till and even still, that wasn’t the beginning. That wasn’t the beginning at all.

[00:16:47] Sophfronia Scott: We have to come at this from each person’s experience and their own humanity, right? I just told you about how I want to teach my son how to behave when a police car stops him. But you also have to know that my son my son’s experience of police is very different. He does not fear the police. And we’ve had discussions. We looked at the George Floyd video. We talk about this all the time and he said to me, Um and this is just a few months ago, he said, “But Mama, you have to remember that my experience with the police is different.” I hope I don’t cry here. And I don’t know if you know this Cassidy, but I you know, we live in Sandy Hook. My son was in third grade. He was He was in the Sandy Hook school during those shootings. A dear friend of ours, his godbrother died. He has lived with police outside his school for years. They shake his hand, he knows the police intimately, we have police who lived down the street. So to him, the police are there to protect the police are his friends, right? and I’m not going to take that away from him. I’m not going to say yeah, but But police can do this. No, because that has not been his experience. And I said to him even when he said that, that that brought to a realization to me. And I said to him, You know, Tain, that could be your experience could be the source of your non-violence that if you are in an experience like with your friends and and there’s some sort of encounter with the police, you may be the truth-teller that helps deescalate a situation because you don’t come from a point of fear where the police are concerned, right? So how do I help him use that as a as a power? And this is also like a kind of thing where contemplation comes in action. He has to be aware of that, right, to know that that is in him and he already for him to bring it up to me, he’s obviously already aware of it. So it’s up to me to say “Okay, here’s That’s a superpower. Here’s how to use that superpower Tain,” right?

[00:18:45] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. So you also write about white friends being stunned by the continued racism in America. And you speak of this as a “betrayal in which there continues to be a lack of fruitful conversation,” commenting that “many white folks begin to sound like the trope, ‘I have black friends'” and it’s here in the book when you turn to Merton’s readings of James Baldwin. I was aware of Merton reading The Fire Next Time, and he did write a letter to James, didn’t he? And I want to share a little bit more about what Merton said about Baldwin.

[00:19:18] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, so I’m going to read from you. This is what he wrote in his journal. He said,

“He [Baldwin] seems to know exactly what he is talking about, and his statements are terribly urgent. One of the things that makes most sense—an application of the ideas behind non-violence, but I think it is absolutely true: that the sit-in movement is not just to get the negroes a few hamburgers, it is for the sake of the white people, and for the country. He is one of the few genuinely concerned Americans, one whose concern I can really believe. The liberation of the Negroes is necessary for the liberation of the whites and for their recovery of a minimum of self-respect, and reality. Above all he makes very shrewd and pointed statements about the futility and helplessness of white liberals who sympathize but never do anything. Well, a few have got beat up on freedom rides, this is true. But really the whole picture is pitiful. A scene of helplessness, inertia, stupidity, erosion.”

So I think it’s interesting how he brings up that we all have something at stake here, right? This isn’t just being allowed to sit in a restaurant, right? This is about how all of us address our our own humanity, right? And if we can’t get this right, you know, Where are we? Where are we, as a people? And he was noticing that that James Baldwin, you know, is expressing this concern. And it’s even amazing, you know, knowing how fiery James Baldwin could be, that as Merton points out, he is still coming from a place of non-violence. He is being a truth-teller, right? And he’s also coming from a point of compassion.

[00:21:07] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, Yeah. I wonder if we could shift a little bit to the mystical conversation. You know, hearing some of these stories. It’s almost like you stumbled upon Merton. You said you didn’t choose him and then uncovered some of these really powerful relationships and and thoughts that he had on on various issues. And I wonder if you consider meeting Merton in that way and coming across his writings and whatnot, you consider that in and of itself a mystical experience?

[00:21:35] Sophfronia Scott: I think coming across his writings, I said earlier, I think contemplation leads to the mystical. So he has been part of my contemplation. When I went to his monastery in Kentucky, I felt I had a mystical experience there, and it was totally unexpected. And and it wasn’t until I was standing at his grave weeping that I realized that there was a closeness that I felt that I was missing him and experiencing him all at once during my time there. So I feel that–and it’s the same thing with any connection that that if we steep ourselves in it enough, we can we can touch the divine right. Isn’t that what we want? We want to have some sacramental experience of God in our lives, right? And and maybe it’s easier to do that through, you know, people who have been flesh and blood, right? Wasn’t the point of Christ, right to give us a way to reach for such connection. To understand how to do that, I don’t want to get in trouble, [laughs] I don’t know if what I’m saying is theologically sound. But I can only share what what I experience, and there is something all around us that sustains us. And the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil. That’s what I think of the mystical. And I think that’s what the Mystics were able to do. That they were so steeped in their study and reflection and in their prayer that they were able to able to feel the sense of God and to feel God at work in their lives. So the mystics aren’t necessarily like special people. I think it’s something that’s available to all of us, but do we take the time to come away from the noise to, to hear, to hear anyone. I think that the people have left us are still around, but they also leave, they leave clues, and when you connect with something that they’ve left behind. This may sound like a really silly tangent, but I recently kind of rediscovered the music of the Bee Gees, and I’ve just been absolutely fascinated by their music by some of the things that Robin Gibb himself has said and written. And at first I thought, you know, I’m hearing this with different ears for some reason, and I’m thinking about that song, To Love Somebody, right? You know: “There’s a light, A certain kind of light, That never shone on me. I want my life to be lived with you, Lived with you…” And there’s something about the sound of that song. And then I did hear an interview where I think there’s someone from Rolling Stone who said, “this music does have a spiritual aspect” and it touched people in ways that they didn’t realize, and I realized, Okay, that’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing that now at a different level than when I was, what, 12 and first heard that music. And so it’s it’s making me go back and look at their thinking to look at their experiences and to see that these were deeply spiritual guides, but not in the way that you expect. Robin Gibb was in a deadly train accident when he was 19, and he said, as that train is rolling over and over that that crash killed 50 people. In an interview later, he said, “I thought about God,” and he’s like, I’m not a church going person but in that moment I thought about God. It brought him to a place – that feeling brought him to a place that when that train stopped rolling, he was able to then function. He got his girlfriend. out of that train, he got a bunch of people out of that train that day and I recognized it. I recognized what he was talking about. That sense of being in a traumatic situation and recognizing feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I’m going to be okay, and since I’m okay, then I can function. I need to see how I can help people out of this thing. Cassidy, sometimes I think about that, and I’m like, ‘man, why is Robin Gibb dead?’ Because I want to talk to him about that, here I’ve discovered these words of someone who’s experienced God in a certain way, and it’s like, Oh, my gosh, but he’s not here anymore, right?

[00:25:37] Cassidy Hall: Next book, Next book. [laughs]

[00:25:38] Sophfronia Scott: [laughs] my gosh, no. But you see, I mean, there are connections out there, right? We have to just understand what’s going on within ourselves so that we can reach out and find it elsewhere out there with other people.

[00:25:52] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, you said you talked earlier about contemplation leading to mysticism or mystical encounter. And then I love hearing this story about the Bee Gees and you almost recognizing the truth teller in the song and creating like a mystical encounter between his output connecting with your almost your work and your output, right? Like there’s this beautiful encounter that takes place when we’re able to recognize the mystical in each other, recognize, you know, the Imago dei and each other.

[00:26:20] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly what is that song from Saturday Night Fever, “When I see your eyes in the morning light,” How Deep Is Your Love. The word “savior” isn’t that song, “You come to me in the deepest, darkest time You’re my savior, when I call,” you don’t just use that word lightly. They use that word with an understanding. So, yeah, to recognize that we are all speaking a certain language. Merton talks about that about finding a spiritual companions that we don’t have. You don’t make friends just, yes, you have friends. But then there were friends who truly understand the journey you’re on and who have that same type of connection. And it’s fantastic when you can find them and they’re alive. But for some reason, I keep coming across these ones who are dead.

[00:27:03] Cassidy Hall: And I also love that it was a piece of music. I’m really struck by this. I love this piece of music because I’m really interested right now, in yeah, sounds and vibrational things that kind of take us elsewhere, that enliven our body and help us to go to like an embodied space, I wonder if you experienced that––you talk about your time at the monastery, if you experienced any kind of like a vibrational encounter. I know you mentioned the silence of the monastery.

[00:27:28] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, you and I talking about music and I was, you know, in the church and praying, but it was the silence that struck me when I went for a hike and standing by a lake a deep, deep silence. I was just absolutely mesmerized by it. It felt like I could step inside it and put it on like, wrap it around me. And I just felt like Okay, this is this is the silence that Merton heard. Like I could see why he wanted to be out here all the time. It just It feels like, you know, the voice of God is out of here, right? That God speaks in silence. I was just absolutely enthralled with it.

[00:28:06] Cassidy Hall: That’s another thing about about those mystical encounters, mystical experiences. We also go to this wordless place, this place where you know you want to tell your friends or you want to explain it to somebody, and it’s just like nobody had that, but you, nobody gets that, but you. It’s such a beautiful gift when were given gifts that are wordless because we go to that mind-boggling place that almost makes us become a child again.

[00:28:29] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, but I’m a writer so that it can be crazy to not have the words right. And really, that’s what this book is about. You know, people expressed interest in how I talk about Merton. And so really, this book is about me trying to explain that it’s like, Okay, well, here’s how I engage with this person and not on the theological or not on an academic level. But personally, this is what it means to have words move me to the point of letting it affect and influence my life. I can learn, I can change, and I can find a deeper way into connection with my Alpha and my Omega through someone who did it himself.

[00:29:07] Cassidy Hall: So, going back to the conversation we were having earlier about social justice issues, we talked a little bit about how contemplation can maybe inform protests and movements. Do you think mysticism also plays a role or can play a role in informing or undergirding movements of social justice?

[00:29:27] Sophfronia Scott: Maybe, especially if you get to a place of how do I think like that person, right? What would Martin Luther King Jr. have done how How would Gandhi approach this right? People who thought very deeply about Nonviolence. Even looking back at how how they did things. So, for example, the people who protested with Martin Luther King Jr had had to prepare, right? They were taught to prepare for their protests. They had to read, they had to study scripture. They really had to grasp the non-violence within themselves and to know that they were not going to respond in hatred and violence, no matter what happened at that protest site. So if we go back to that place now to really think about okay, what was it like for them? What can we take and and learn from someone like John Lewis, right. How do I channel John Lewis as I’m standing here across from this police line, right. It may be easier to do than we realized if we think about it exactly in that way, I’m wondering if we slip in and out of personalities. You know, My friend Jenny once said she she would go shopping and sometimes she would bring back something for me and she said, “You know, I think I was being you when I bought this.” This isn’t these earrings are more you than they are me. But I was I was in a you know, there’s in your frame of mind, right?

[00:30:53] Cassidy Hall: I love these themes of contemplative space being a place of truth telling and invigorating us to tell the truth. And mysticism being kind of this place of, you know, namaste, seeing the God and you and recognizing the God and you and the God and myself. And I love the way you yeah, call to us to you consider those who have died and consider what they might do in given situations and what they have done in given situations. I think one of the things I’m trying to ask is related to: You know, sometimes we can’t get to that place of mysticism of recognizing that God and each other when both people aren’t telling the truth. Right? Like I can’t fully honor you unless you’re bringing your true self to me in this place, right in our togetherness. And I think that can really complicate things

[00:31:51] Sophfronia Scott: if you have to inauthentic people like what is actually isn’t that what we’re seeing get played out in politics right now, right, that we’re coming to the table inauthentically, right, expressing that they know not to be true. And you kind of have a stalemate there because they are invested in these untruths, that that is bewildering. So something has to shift there, something has to shift, and maybe it’s something in at the core of us, right? My son once said when I was doing a diversity training for my job, right, and it was via Zoom. And so he, you know, was waiting for me in my office, and he was listening to some of it and he said to me, “Mama, that’s that stuff they’re telling you, that sounds like stuff people should have learned at home when they were kids.” I said, yeah Tain, you know, but they didn’t and and so sometimes it’s like recognizing something as basic like, wow, what we’re learning here is common sense. Well, why is this not, you know, automatic, right? I don’t know. Cassidy.

[00:33:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think I do think it’s possible, and correct me if you disagree, I think it’s possible to be, you know, maybe we don’t know the full truth of ourselves, but if we’re still willing to come with honesty and vulnerability, I think we can still meet each other in that place of mystical encounter.

[00:33:19] Sophfronia Scott: I agree. Is it Rumi, the mystic poet, that says, out there’s an open field, I’ll meet you there. Because we “have to know” simply, for example, me sitting here telling you I don’t know, right? So I could be in a place of thinking, ‘I can’t I can’t say to Cassidy. I don’t know because I’m being interviewed. I’m supposed to know something. I wrote a book.’ No, it’s starting from that place that I don’t know and being open to the fact that we are not complete and we are we are ever-changing. But to me, that’s also hope that’s a possibility. If we can come to the table with what’s missing, only then can we find the possibility of completion.

[00:34:02] Cassidy Hall: Beautifully stated. Is there someone or some people that embody mysticism to you or for you?

[00:34:09] Sophfronia Scott: I mentioned Robert Vivian. You know Robert Vivian, he was actually the one who read the passage of Merton that that brought me to Merton in the first place. Robert Vivian is a talented writer, and he’s in the English department at Alma College, which is where I now run the MFA program, I’m the director of the MFA. But Robert Vivian writes these prose poems called Dervish Essays, and they’re very full of of the ecstatic. And he is someone who is constantly, I can’t, I’m not sure if I can describe it. You can tell that he has taking in like a sponge, absorbing constantly every single moment what is going on around. But when you read his work and his latest book is called, All I Feel Is Rivers, it just came out. You you get the sense that this is a person who through that contemplation has touched on something mystical, that he is communicating with a higher power and recognizing there will be a moment, and there’s a line where he hasn’t said something like that, that he will put everything that is that is him, he will put it all down and stand there naked before that power. And in that place of vulnerability, I I just feel like you can’t write something like that unless you know what it is to encounter that great love and your great source.

[00:35:31] Cassidy Hall: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time today, and you know, as soon as we get off here, I’m about to go listen to the BeeGees.

[00:35:41] Sophfronia Scott: Yay! Thank you for having me.

[00:35:45] 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 Emmolei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in Partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in Partnership With enfleshed. An organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.

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Patient Endurance: A Conversation with Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is a Carmelite nun in Baltimore, where she’s been a Catholic sister since 1972. Previously, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun working in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. She was also a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference and was active in the civil rights movement during the height of the race riots in 1968. She’s been a spiritual director since 1982.

Sister Barbara told the Washington Post,  “There comes a point when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands. Through prayer, I feel I can touch the world.”

In this interview I ask Sister Barbara about mysticism’s role in activism, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, the insurrection of January 6th, and more. She defines a mystic as “someone that observes mysteries or experiences but their intuition is held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it.”

Sister Barbara Jean’s writings
1983 NY Times piece
1983 Washington Post piece

Transcript:

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Because, Black Lives Matter. I mean, none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now, and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patience endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer.

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 am your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster pastor, and student, and I am here to learn with you.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is an 88-year-old Carmelite Nun in Baltimore where she has been a sister since 1972. Prior to her arrival, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. According to the New York Times as a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference in 1968, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the height of the race riots. She has been a spiritual director since 1982. In a Washington Post Article sister Barbara Jean is quoted as saying, “there comes a time when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands through prayer I feel I can touch the world.”

So when we talked on the phone about a month ago you had told me, “everything that happens in the world happens in here.” When you were referencing the cloistered life. Can you tell me more about how cloistered life exposes all of what happens outside?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, first of all, we are all human beings. That is the number one, that’s the commonality. We are all human beings and whatever happens outside of the monastery, people get angry, people get upset, people want to fight, people don’t like what so-and-so said, my sister did this and if I get them I am going to do the same thing. Happens the same thing in that monastery, we are 16 here; two of our sisters, well three were away––one passed in October from COVID, but we are still 16, and we have two young women who are coming to live with us to see if this is what they really want, in their twenties, they are going to have the same thing. I get angry sometimes, but it’s a matter of not putting that anger out on another person. But the same thing that happens outside of the monastery happens within the monastery because we are all human beings and we are human beings in here and actions speak louder than words.

Cassidy Hall: And I love your writing, your writing is just wonderful and so important. And in piece that you wrote titled “Black and gifted our ministry the spiritual direction,” you write, “if there is one gift which stands out more than other in the journey of Black folks, it is the gift of patient endurance.” So my question with that is how have you seen that patient endurance exist for you and contemplative life and how have you seen it in our world today?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : In religious life today, some communities still have, unfortunately, some communities still do not have African-American sisters, and if they do they accept them. But they are still Hedgy about that. I think it’s going to continue because, maybe it will I should say, and maybe it won’t. I know for myself, I am the only one here, the African-American here, but I was brought up in a home where my mother had, it was two colors and she was like white when she died. Brown and white, well I had spots on my legs. I said thank God they are on my legs and not on my face. While growing up with her being in a home, orphanage, she was a nurse anesthetist and I saw all these things, you don’t say much but you can observe, you see what people see people, white people, look we get on the bus before we had cars and there were three of us, I was the oldest, and she made sure that we had seats together. She would stand up and I would watch look around. And the people would be looking at her, looking at us, looking at her, looking at us. Talk about patient endurance, I think it’s the actions that happen. And it still goes on today. It still goes on today and see even worse today. I think because Black Lives Matter, I mean none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patient endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer: God, I can’t be out there to walk, I can’t be there to express what I would like to say even to help. But I ask you to use the pain that I’m feeling. Patient and endurance is individual, it’s communal, and the people that are going through this, they are out there, but they are doing this every day, whatever happens to them. I am the same way but I am inside and I am going through it with them. They were on the front lines and I feel the pain. I said this as soon as it was over, the first day that this happened at the Capital, if that had been African-Americans, they would have been shot dead. They would––nothing asked, they would have been gone. There weren’t––I mean, there were individuals, yes––but as a group, there wasn’t. And I think that’s the biggest gift that was given to us because of the patient endurance that’s there. That was there, but that’s what it is for me.

Cassidy Hall: Yeah. It reminds me, some of the writings I have read of Howard Thurman and the writings about him and his writings about his contemplative practice and how people have pointed to his contemplative practice, kind of being this undergirding to the Civil Rights Movement and this kind of support that’s not just solidarity, but like you are saying it is “IT.”

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : This is it. It is. I mean we are enduring what they are going through out there, but we are enduring it in here, and it’s just as painful as could be. And the tears were just coming to my eyes. I mean, we were all sitting in a group, so I was by the window and I had my water or whatever there, and I just could not believe it. I said out loud, “if this had been African-Americans, we would have been shot dead,” they wouldn’t have even asked. The tears just ­­–– it was unbelievable. And I still feel inside what people are going through. It is very hard––patient endurance goes on every minute of every day with someone that we don’t even know, we don’t even know, and it’s even with children, it’s even with children. Because my mom said, this is how we were brought up, we are to respect everybody, everybody, regardless of how they act. You can always tell that to whoever is in charge––but you can’t––And my two brothers, one brother was close to me, the other one was two years younger than me. And I am the only one left in my family now because he died last January. But she would say, “what you do makes a difference, how you do it makes a difference, and remember that. I may not be here with you all the time. But if something happens to you, you have to respect yourself and no you can’t mouth it or hit somebody,” or whatever because everything makes a difference.

Cassidy Hal:  about spiritual direction and talking about contemplative life, and you mentioning that you are the only African-American sister at your monastery, just the importance of representation and the importance of, I mean, I mentioned Howard Thurman, but very few people even know of Thurman’s work as a Black mystic, as a Black contemplative. And I wonder if you could just speak into the importance of that––representation.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I was docket here three times, Cassidy, for leadership in the community, and I didn’t get it. And that, well I mean, I didn’t think I was going to get anyway, but the last time there were two of us––between myself and another person, and the sister that died in October. And this was in, I am not sure whether it was the late eighties, beginning of the nineties, I am not sure. But anyway, we had the meeting and then the name surfaced and they brought it down to the two of us. And that evening she came into my office, knocked on my door, she said, “Barbara Jean, I’m taking my name off the list, I cannot do this.” The Bishop was supposed to come the next morning at 10. And I said, “are you sure?” She said, “I am sure,” she went to bed, this was like nine o’clock. I said, fine, I went to bed and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is this? What does this mean? So I went to bed went to sleep, got up the next morning, and I was in the office in my office here, the Bishop was supposed to come at 10. So they usually come about 10 of 10, whatever. And [knock, knock, knock], she walks in again. She says, “I know I told you last night, that I was taking my name off the list.” She said, “but I was told to leave my name on and whatever I needed, they would help me.” I had never, ever said that to anyone, yet, but it’s in my archive. It’s written in my book. I was so shocked. She didn’t say who, but I can surmise. I mean and sure enough, she got elected after that. I took my name off of everything, never again. For me that was blatant but that’s what happens.

Cassidy Hall [10:07]: It reminds me of the thing that we began this conversation with that everything that happens in the world happened there.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Exactly, exactly, and if I were to say that now, I don’t know that they would even own it. I don’t know if they would, or they wouldn’t but it’s finished––as said, at that point, this is going down in my––I’m writing it down exactly the way it happened, and God rest her soul, she’s gone, she died in October, but they will have my archives.

Cassidy Hall: And your story is a testament to that patient endurance we were just talking about. You also write about, I think this kind of goes along with this, you also write about questioning our institutions for authentic living. And I think, you know, you kind of just described that by telling that story. I guess my question is as a contemplative, what does it look like to question institutions? Because a lot of people have the misunderstanding that being contemplative is being passive.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester :  I don’t think so. It’s not being passive, no way, it’s not being passive at all. What we do, how we act, that’s very active. Even in here, you don’t have to go around doing whatever, no; it could be just going to prayer where you are quiet, where you can sit, where you can bring someone else’s problem to the Lord and talk. So it’s, it’s not passive at all. I don’t think so.

Cassidy Hall: Well, even, you know, the story you just told about writing down your story is an act of resistance.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Where you wouldn’t think, you know that’s my way of saying who I am, and being true to me.

Cassidy Hall: And that’s truth-telling, I mean you writing down your story is truth-telling

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Whether anyone believes it or not. And that’s what my mom used to say, “be true to who you are.” And that has resonated. I see this, I hear this all the time. It’s hard because you don’t know, just to even see her, she would always call, “how are you doing? You need anything?” you know, that kind of stuff, you know, have you heard from your brothers and this and that and you know, she was good.

Cassidy Hall: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about contemplation’s role in mysticism and or what mysticism means to you.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester: Mysticism is a particular gift of God, that God gives to people. And the combination of mysticism with contemplative life, with contemplative prayer, is that people are sometimes going into prayer and they can come out with a prescription or a solution that they know is from God––and this is good, and we should do it this way, whatever. That it’ll take maybe two or three of us who rely on God, and we just don’t see or feel that, or even add that, to be able to jot it down. It comes more, it’s a little bit more work for us, as opposed to a mystic that can see and really be in touch with on a deep level of prayer. And that’s a grace that’s given to few people, but that’s how the two work together.

Cassidy Hall: Do you think it’s possible to see or experience mysticism in everyday life, everyday people so to speak?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Yes. Well, people or some people know they can pick them out. They get a feeling, you wonder why, how did they know? And that’s just a grace. Mystic is someone that observes mysteries or experiences, but their intuition is, it’s held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it, and with an intuition that’s beyond, almost, the possibility of trying to figure something out that you can’t, and that’s what it is. Harriet Tubman, she was a mystic. She knew, I mean, with her going from the South to the North, to the South, I mean, who would do that with nothing that she had really, you know. She was the ideal woman. She was a mystic. Everything was down to earth for her, but she had that, I don’t know what you call it, where God was, she didn’t do this only by herself–she relied on a higher power than herself, and it always worked for me.

Cassidy Hall: That again goes to the point we were discussing earlier about how a lot of people think things like contemplation is passive. Similarly, I think people think mysticism is this naval gazing, absence going inside oneself when really, I mean a case in point Harriet Tubman.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : [15:04]: Exactly. Who else did I put down? Thea Bowman. I have known her since the 60s, when we started the National Black Sisters conference. The first day we went down, we had the first conference, and then we had a break like in the afternoon for maybe a half-hour or so. I wanted to walk, take a walk outside because it was nice. So I walked down this hill, I mean the open wide, green on either side, but down the whole road. And then I hear this singing, what the heck is that? I haven’t heard or seen anybody who was that. And so I stopped where I heard it, and I am looking around and I did not see anything. Finally, I see someone sitting on the ground, it was there on the ground, sitting down under the tree singing. That’s how we met in 1964. And I sat down with her, “I’m Sister Thea, who are you?” “I’m Sister Barbara.” And we became friends like I don’t know what, after that.

Cassidy Hall: What a perfect way to meet.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester Yes, but she was, talk about mystic? She and her work, her preaching, it was unbelievable. And the song she came out with–– she was another one, African-American––the only one in her community. So many people don’t even know some of the stories, she said when they would leave the convent to go the sisters to work, whatever, there maybe four or five, four in the car, I guess, but she was always in the back, she didn’t drive, but if they stopped at a red light and there were people waiting for the bus there, she’d always have to bend down in the car so that they wouldn’t see her––that they would only see the white sisters there. So we all have, every one of us has something about, she loved her community. I love my community too, but we are not perfect, but we still live. And I believe everybody is God-oriented. I don’t want to be a mystic, I don’t see, I don’t get answers like they do, you know, I just live my life day to day and give it the best I can. That’s all God wants.

Cassidy Hall:  Another thing you wrote in “Black and Gifted,” you talked about liberation as a “willingness to walk through the deserts of one’s own internal fears to liberate and free the spirit for holistic integrated living.” And I am particularly struck by the willingness to walk through the deserts for liberation to move towards liberation. Again, that patient endurance that those desert experiences require.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Right, it’s a willingness to walk in through the desert of our fear, internal fear, to walk through our fear, to be free and to free the spirit for holistic integrated living. In direction, sometimes, when they ask what to do, I don’t know, I do not have an answer, really: lay it at the feet of God, and the term metanoia, anybody that’s Catholic has grown up with a totally different idea of metanoia than it’s looked at today. That’s what it’s calling us to: There is life, even in the midst of what we perceive or what we see as non-life.

Cassidy Hall: Amid that patient endurance. What are the glimpses of liberation or the glimpses of holistic integrated living? What gives you hope?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : The fact that even within the race that I am in, we can treat our brother and sister as human beings and this purports and helps us to see others as human beings, also. The fact that we can accept to a point what we have and what we’ve been given and work diligently at that to make ourselves better and to lift someone who is younger than we to be in a place where they can spread their wings and, and do something better and more than we did, this is what I see. And this is what I hope for all the children that I have taught. It’s amazing that they still remember me. My name was Robert, then, a couple of them have come for my Jubilees and they tell stories about what I used to do, what I would tell them and all that. But they are nurses, some of them have gone up in their own companies, people that you didn’t even think of what they would do because they were so small, but it’s piercing it onto another generation or even generations below that. I really believe I am a firm, firm beeliver that what we do, what we say, how we act has an effect on people, whether you know them or not. And when you are the only one in all whiteness, everybody looks at you, never mind them not saying anything, you know what is going on in their mind: What is she doing here? I wonder what she is up to. Some of them may come and talk even, but this is what I believe that actions speak louder than words. And that’s what people see.

Cassidy Hall: One of the things we kind of addressed earlier, but I wonder if you might have anything else to say to the question of, do you think there is anything contemplation can teach protests and movements? Do you think there’s anything that contemplative of life can learn from protest and movements?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : There is always change going on in the world. We don’t even know about it. As a human being who is part of this world, the same thing happens to us individually. I am contemplative, yes, but there are other movements of religion in the world besides myself. They don’t pray the way I do, but they do pray. I don’t pray the way they do. They don’t pray the way I do, but they still pray to a person that they, a God that they believe in. And I believe that God made all of us and God has given each of us gifts and graces to use. So I think people can become mystics, which means they go deeper into God. However it fits them––however, they feel called or drawn. They can touch the God that they believe in and God can touch their hearts. And this is prayer and it doesn’t have a name. It’s God, they are in touch with their God. And I am in touch with my God, but its God. This is really something because we don’t talk about this all the time. I went last night; I was up to 10:30 going through that. I said, “oh my God, I hope I remember what to say.” I didn’t know what was going to be, but you know sometimes even like we will have a dialogue homily at our communion service and we have communion service every day. So you read the scripture for the day and something might pop into my head as I am reading it, whatever the reflections and all of that. And I say, but when it gets down to it, I know what I want is, but the words don’t come out anymore like they used to.

Cassidy Hall: Do you find that aging makes us even more contemplative?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, if we look at it like that, yes. You say because there is a lot of loss in aging, but the other side of that is aging is a gift. Everybody doesn’t get to age, that’s what I’ve come to myself.

Cassidy Hall: And you had mentioned that you are, are you writing kind of like a memoir type thing about your life or?

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I do a lot of poetry off and on. I wouldn’t say every single day, I barely write, but things that are important, yes, I do. So I’m making sure that one person that if anything ever happens to me, they know I have archives. Yes, it’s important.

Cassidy Hall: Well, Sister Barbara Jean, it has been amazing to speak with you. Listen to your stories and your patient endurance. And listen to just everything that you have been through. Everything that you do and continue to do is just amazing.

Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, God bless you and your work that you are doing. This is something, really, kudos, really. I hope your life goes the way you want it. God bless. Bye-bye.

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.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song, “Trapezoid Instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which has generously allowed us to use it. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting e- sankofa.com. The podcast is 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 resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.

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We Are Interconnected: A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

In her book Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than-and can also be absent from-any relationship with the Church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality, is connected to our very being.” In this second episode of Contemplating Now, Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey shares about contemplation’s role in activism and asks, What does protest mean for a scholar?”

The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey is the author of Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice activist, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at The Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice and LGBTQ rights making note of her belief that “humanity is interconnected. This means, I have a responsibility to the world to agitate for justice; I also have a responsibility not to lose my love for the human soul and human dignity in the midst of that work.”

In her book, she writes, “Queer womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world. That happens in relationships.” and “At the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of queer womanist theological reflection. We must examine not just racism but sexisms, not just homophobia but transphobia, not just poverty but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Transcript:

Dr. Lightsey [00:05]: As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do–I mean the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another. We’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic.

Cassidy Hall [00:23]: 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. Today in the podcast, the Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey. She’s the author of Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. She is a scholar, social justice advocate, and military veteran. Since January of 2018, she has served as Vice President of Academic and Student Affairs, and Associate Professor of Constructive Theology at the Meadville Lombard Theological School. Before that, Dr. Lightsey served as Associate Dean of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice at the Boston University School of Theology.

Her work centers on the causes of peacemaking, racial justice, and LGBTQ + rights, in her book Our Lives Matter, she writes “Queer Womanist theology makes the claim that those bodies of LGBTQ persons are important for the tasks of helping build a peaceable and just world––that happens in relationships.” And she also writes, “at the end of the day, eradicating oppression is the heart of Queer Womanist theological reflection, we must examine not just racism, but sexism, not just homophobia, but transphobia, not just poverty, but war, and not just the fluidity of boundaries, but the hegemony of the status quo.”

Well, Dr. Lightsey, thank you so much for joining, and for taking the time to be with me today.

Dr. Lightsey [02:06]: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Cassidy Hall [02:09]: Your book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology was completed during Ferguson in 2014, published in 2015. And with that, you took the time to add an epilogue to the work, which voiced your outrage and despair. And also, as a veteran, you wrote that you felt a “sense of deployment” as a scholar and an activist. And in this epilogue, you specifically asked, “what does it mean to be a theologian who’s placed for doing theology is within in alignment, and or perhaps even as a participant within the activist movement?” And I’m wondering today, and you know 2021, could you speak into that question?

Dr. Lightsey [02:48]: Sure. I was particularly concerned when I was writing, and as I was doing the work, I mean, the reason that I was in Ferguson, and later in Baltimore, I was in Ferguson for more than just a brief period of time. My relationship with Ferguson spanned across years, after Ferguson. So I established deep relationships and, you know, commitments that lasted beyond. And that was good, and it should be so. My question was a question about the way that scholars have generally done their work. I saw scholarship as being work that’s done almost as a spectator, if you will of the events and the issues of our time, that we somehow are disattached-or believe to be unattached from those issues.

And I saw it in the book, and in my work, to make it clear that I was not trying to be an unattached presence in the commitment to liberation and justice. And that my scholarship, that I was committing my scholarship–as I was committing my body to being in the midst of the protest. Now, here we are in 2021, there’s an insurrection that has taken place at the Capitol. What does that now mean? You know, what does protest now mean for a scholar? I think in many ways, it means, even more: the necessity for the scholar to understand the goals and the motivation of the protest prior to committing even on paper, a connection to that movement and affinity that even saying that one resonated with the movement, you really have to understand it.

And it’s really important that we do that now more than ever before. You don’t want to be… You don’t want to naively engage a protest whose goals, whose motivations, whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the government, you see. Black Lives Matter, the aim of Black Lives Matter was justice and the end of excessive police force, ultimately, the killing of Black bodies, which we’ve seen on repeat over and over and over and over again. That in contrast to the insurrectionists, who saw, and who articulating, I mean, a primary goal of taking over the United States government, to control the government. They’ve not said what they’re going to do. They didn’t say what they’re going to do once they control it. What is the plan once you get in, once you have the, you know, the Capitol, have a legislator? What are you going to do for the people, people like me? You know, and during that time was really a lot of criticism against Black Lives Matter saying, you know, what do you all…what’s your goal? What are you shooting for? I don’t know how many times the goals of Black Lives Matter, and before that– Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, had to be articulated for the public. So that’s where I am on that issue.

Cassidy Hall [06:15]: Thank you for that. You know, it strikes me that you were writing a book when Ferguson happens. The death of Mike Brown, more specifically happened, the murder of Mike Brown. It strikes me that you were kind of in this maybe, maybe contemplative space, you were writing, you were processing, you were doing these kinds of things. Yet, the urgency, right, the urgency occurs. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to maybe the need for contemplation to know that, that we’re aligned with something does that allow us to more urgently respond to things?

Dr. Lightsey [06:47]: I don’t know that I have an answer to that…I can…And I hesitate to speak with a broad brush, I can only speak to my sensibilities and my sensibilities have been shaped by any number of things. One by growing up in a community that very much understood its place in the scheme of things, And that just not being the material world, but understanding that there was a spiritual world at work and that we were in the middle. We were but human beings in the middle of many things happening that we could see and not see. And that there were some things happening that were outside our control.

I grew up understanding that not everything is going to be in my control as a human being. Okay. That understanding that there are matters in this world that are outside human control, have suited me well, both as a person of faith and as a scholar, it has given me the luxury to rest easy with the questions of life, with things not being resolved totally, with also understanding that my work is a continuation, and may not always be a period at the end of a sentence, but maybe some ellipses, or commas, or, you know, continuations.

You know, I am a contemplative person also, because I’ve experienced a community of Pentecostal believers who also very much so reminded me of the spirit world. Now, sometimes that experience was really raggedy and lacked sound theology. And over the years, I’ve had to kind of reshape myself without totally tossing away the very fine things that Pentecostalism, excuse me, offered me, and gave me. But it certainly gave me an appreciation for the contemplative, for sitting oneself down and just resting, you know, connecting with another dimension of life.

Cassidy Hall [09:12]: I think for activists in particular, it’s important to acknowledge rest, even sleep is a form of contemplation, right? It is a regeneration, a meeting place, a sacred pause.

Dr. Lightsey [09:25]: I think it’s good. I hesitate to speak for all activists in terms of a kind of spirituality or religiosity. Because I speak through the lens of a Christian, and there are activists who are not Christian, there are activists who are agnostic, atheist, and are doing very fine work, and I respect and appreciate them for that. So I wouldn’t go so far as to articulate it in that way, although I know very much so that a good number of Black activists because such a large percentage of Black people in America are ascribe to spirituality at the very most, and Christianity, I say now at the very least. I would have switched that up maybe a decade or two ago but we do believe and understand ourselves to be spiritual beings. That a sense of or an appreciation for contemplative space, for one’s health and well-being, is certainly necessary. We talk about it all the time, and that is taking care of yourself in order to take care of others. And I’m with a group of activists who are committed to resistance but also committed to our well-being, it has really been good for me.

Cassidy Hall [10:48]: There reminds me of in your book, you write oppression on one level intersects with oppression on other levels, there is no safe quadrant of society if we allow unchecked and unprovoked hostilities to occur against any single community of people.

Dr. Lightsey [11:02]: Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, are equally discriminatory. And we do a disservice to humanity, when we try to parse them out, and level them up or subscribe, a percentage or, you know, a certain magnitude to one over and against the other. They’re all horrible. They’re all equally destructive to the human being, to our society, and to our communities. And I think as we’re paying attention to one, we are also making invisible, the other, you know, until that other demands its attention, you know, you ascribe attention to sexism, then what about racism, you know, so it’s a journey. It’s not a juggling act, but it’s a journey towards giving, giving attention to the fullness of who we are as human beings, while at the same time trying to resist, I think, in some ways, human nature to make subordinate certain other human beings on the basis of categorizing: that women are less than men, that Black people are less than white identified person, so on and so forth, that heterosexual persons are, you know, better than the LGBTQ community. As human beings, we are interconnected. And we really do, I mean, the survival of humanity is dependent upon the well-being of one another, we’ve seen that no better than during this pandemic. The race to a vaccine has been dependent upon human beings across a spectrum of diverse identity, and we’ve needed those persons.

Cassidy Hall [13:13]: Yeah, that’s another thing I really appreciated about your book and actually wrote about for a class is, recognizing the dynamic and the expanse of the Imago Dei, the image of God, as we see these intersectionalities, right? As we see each other, God expands, and more specifically identify as a queer woman, and in your book you write, “as queers, we declare that God cannot be limited, God is not finite.” And I think along with that queerness has something to offer to activism, to movements in the way that it expands the appearance of God. And again, of course, we’re talking in Christian terms in particular right now, but I wonder if you could speak into that a little bit.

Dr. Lightsey [13:53]: For me, the beauty of queerness is that it encourages people to deal with the ambiguity of life and the complexity of the human being. That’s the beauty of identifying as Queer, I identify as Queer Lesbian, for any number of reasons, which we don’t have time to go into today. But the beauty of queerness is that it asks us to accept ourselves as complex as we really are. And I’m still working with accepting some human beings in their complexity. Some things I don’t like about them, some things I read about and I say, oh if I knew about that, I wouldn’t. Oh. I wouldn’t. But then that part of me that understands human beings as complex says, okay, well, will you just throw this away? Will you throw this brilliance away because of this, you know? Is humanity totally irredeemable? I don’t think so. I think there’s something redeemable about humanity. Even though I have a low anthropology on most days. I think there is something that is redeemable about humanity. I mean, I deal with myself, you know, I’m my worst critic. So I think there is something redeemable. And queerness allows us space, not only for the complexity and the differences, but also for the imperfection. And we don’t…I don’t think we talk enough about that in queer space. Queerness allows us the capacity to embrace imperfection, more than anything else that I have really worked on in my academic career.

Cassidy Hall [15:47: Thank you for that.

Dr. Lightsey 15:48 You’re welcome. Thank you for the conversation.

Cassidy Hall [15:52]: Yes, likewise.

Dr. Lightsey [15:53]: I bid you well on your scholarship and your writing. I see all your beautiful books!

Cassidy Hall [15:59]: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

Dr. Lightsey [16:02]: Take care.

Cassidy Hall [16:03]: You too.

Dr. Lightsey [16:04]: Bye. Bye.

Cassidy Hall [16:05]:  Bye.

Outro: Cassidy Hall [16:08]: 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.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song “Trapezoid instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E-SANKOFA.com. The podcast is 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 resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.

And for those still here, one last reading from Reverend Dr. Pamela Lightsey’s book, Our Lives Matter, a Womanist Queer Theology. On page 63 she writes, “Black spirituality is deeper than and can also be absent from any relationship with the church universal. Black spirituality, especially Black women’s spirituality is connected to our very being.”

Everybody Can Be A Mystic: A Conversation with Therese Taylor-Stinson

Transcript: Episode 1, an interview with Therese Taylor-Stinson

[00:00:03] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think those words, Mysticism and Contemplation seems spooky to people, but I think everybody can be a mystic.

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 social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. On today’s episode, the founding managing member of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, joins us. She’s an ordained deacon and elder in the Presbyterian Church and is a practicing spiritually director for over 15 years. Therese is a graduate of the Shalem Institute and a member of the Chilean Society for Contemplative Leadership. In 2015, she founded the Racial Awareness Festival in Washington, D. C. An author and editor, she is the co-editor of Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color and the editor of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around — Stories of Contemplation and Justice, and her work appears in Kaleidoscope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Therese is also a certified emotional emancipation circle facilitator with the Community Healing Network Incorporated and the Association of Black Psychologists. In 2018 Therese won an Indie Author Legacy Award in the area of social awareness for her editing of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and she was named a collaborative bridge builder by Grace and Race Incorporated. So, Therese, welcome to Contemplating Now. And thank you so much for joining me.

[00:02:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Thank you for having me, Cassidy. I’m really happy to be with you.

[00:02:11] Cassidy Hall: And as you well know, because we’re friends on some social media sites, every chance I get, I quote your words from your book. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around Stories of contemplation and justice. And in that book, in the epilogue, you write, “So that contemplation can be whole. It must consist of both inward solitude and reflection and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” And that’s entirely what this podcast is about. So my first question for you is this — was action something that was always tethered to your understanding of contemplation? Or did that come later for you, or was it the other way around?

[00:02:54] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I think that the word “contemplation” is a relatively new term, at least in terms of using it in connection with spirituality. It wouldn’t be until I guess I went through the spiritual guidance program that I would begin to think about how contemplation fit into my cultural context, and I was not getting any of that from the program I was going through. The program was rich, and I enjoyed it, but it really did not inform me about my own cultural context. And so our final paper could be using one of the themes of the program or one of the particular mystics that were held up during that time. Or we could do a research paper. My paper ended up being more of an exploration than a research, but I decided to do some extra reading––20 more books. I had to find different books. That is how I introduced myself to Barbara Homes and read her book Joy Unspeakable, among others. Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion and Peter J. Paris’ is I think it was The Spirituality of African Peoples, 20 books that I read to try to see how it fit in with what I had just learned from mostly European mystics. There was some history given, and so I know that some of the people in that history are were people of color, but they were never identified as that in the program that I was in. So was action always tethered to my understanding of contemplation? I think I always saw in my own spiritually journey that out of my introspection, contemplation being defined as deep thought, out of my own idea of mysticism that there would be some action. And I know that in Indigenous practices, action is the outcome. And then I think it may have been during the time that I was writing my final paper. I had gone with SDI to an SDI conference that was in Houston, and at the end, they always have, like a little pilgrimage to different spiritually related sites in the city. And I’m not going to be able to remember the name of the museum right now off the top of my head. But anyway, we went to this museum and there was a book in the museum about contemplation, and it was called a “contemplation and action,” and in that book there was a chapter on contemplation and action in world religion, and L. A. Meyer Zola, who was the editor for that volume, wrote this, “Modern humans are constantly tempted to seek spiritual life in sheer method, or else in some kind of blind rapture, ringing with spontaneity and rich in creativity, contemplation needs both. Method in itself leads to dispensation and quarrels. On the other hand, inspiration in itself without the help of method will lead to vein strivings toward creativity for its own sake. Contemplation soars above the archetypes, and from these back to the point from which everything arises. Action is linked to the Greek begonia, which led to agony. Action in itself is always a sacrifice. When we leave the paradise of contemplation and descend into the earth of action, everything, including mystical action, becomes sacrificial. But [unknown word] signifies struggle contest as well as anguish. And that’s a terribly speaking, an unseen warfare. It may well be that the point of failure in contemporary civilization was precisely the failure to realize the necessity of constantly fighting against evil.” So what I take from what he writes there is that the whole idea of contemplation or mysticism is that from that arises the action that we take in the world. And an Indigenous beliefs, their mysticism isn’t so individualistic where it’s about oneness with God. In Indigenous beliefs, mysticism as they would call it–and I really don’t see a big difference between mysticism and contemplation. I think contemplation is just a new word. A newer word, Let’s say. In that mysticism is always for them, what’s for the social good. So there’s always some reaction or action after a time of contemplation or mystical consideration of what’s next.

[00:08:09] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I love that. And I love I want to unpack a little bit more what you said about kind of just the word contemplation being a new word. And I’m just struck by the way that that can be such a hindrance and make what contemplation actually is in the form of mysticism or otherwise almost inaccessible just because by language were almost complicating what it actually is, what’s actually happening.

[00:08:35] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I remember there was only one other person of color in my cohort when I went through the spiritual guidance program and toward the end of our cohort, Spiritual Directors International had a conference in the Washington DC area, and so we decided to go. But in in that cohort we had a conversation –we were the only two persons of color in the cohort, and we began a conversation about, you know, where are other people of color? We know we’re not the only contemplative that are people of color. And so then we go to the SDI conference and look around and we see a few others. And it turned out to be women, African American women that were reading some of the same books we were in asking the same questions. Where are people of color? We had dinner with them that night, and then we decided we would––SDI helped in that they had networking tables at the ending luncheon where you could invite people to have a conversation about whatever topic. And we started going around finding people of color and asking them what they come to our networking table. To my surprise, to my ignorance, perhaps because we were in the Washington DC area, I hadn’t really connected to the international part. And so I was thinking I was going to be calling African Americans only to the table, and we ended up with people from around the world, actually. And we were not a large group of people of color, but someone from Korea, someone from Puerto Rico, some people, different people from various countries in Africa, which was wonderful. And we were all asking, Where are the people that are like us? We’re sure we’re not the only ones.

[00:10:35] Cassidy Hall: and correct me if I’m wrong. But it sounds like Are you getting to the origin story of the spiritual directors of color network? 

[00:10:41] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Pretty much, yes, because at that table we talked. Everybody was saying, Where are the people like me? We decided that we would take each other. Actually somebody other than me, although it was in my head, somebody other than me said, “You know, maybe we could write a book or something,” and I was like, “Yes, let’s write that book.” And so we took names and phone numbers, contact information. At the end of that conference, we all went in our separate directions except for me really. I went home, I started telling my friends, they started telling their friends, so we started gathering people that I hadn’t even expected to gather after that, and then the people who I had their names and addresses, we started the network very loosely, and we wrote our first book and it published in March of 2014. And I remember one of the people on our conference call who was writing in the book is saying, “This is the first organization I’ve ever heard of that’s written a book before they’re even incorporated.”

[00:11:51] Cassidy Hall: Even the origin story of that is a demonstration of contemplation’s role in action and justice. And can you maybe just express a little more how you see contemplation’s role in social action and social justice in our world?

[00:12:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think that everybody should have some contemplation, some periods of introspection in their life, and for me, those periods of introspection, whether it’s figuring out something where you feel stuck or, you know prayerfully considering what it is that you’re called to do or whatever brings you to that place out of that place should come some response of some sort. So I guess what I was explaining to you and telling you that story is that in the midst of this cohort, learning about contemplation, learning about being a spiritual director, reading about contemplative practice and, you know, reading the many European mystics and everything like that–out of that came that action for me to want to write something that made it relevant to people of color as well as hopefully finding other people of color who were having a similar–maybe not the same, but a similar experience. And out of that came our first book, Embodied Spirits.

[00:13:23] Cassidy Hall: So we already explored a little bit, thinking of contemplation and mysticism as kind of interchangeable. So kind of along with that, in your contemplative life and your life of mysticism, do you see a difference between being a mystic and being an activist?

[00:13:39] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think you can be an activist, so I think those words, “mysticism” and “contemplation” seems spooky to people, but I think everybody can be a mystic. You know, mystic means––the root of mystic is “myst,” which is the same root is mystery and mystic, you know, basically means that you you’re living with a certain amount of uncertainty and whether we like it or not, we all have some uncertainty about things. And I think the only difference between a contemplative or mystic or whatever you call the person and the normal person who might be living with uncertainty is that we embrace it. You know, other people may, and we live in a culture that you’re supposed to have the answer for everything. So we live in a culture that if you’re just sitting around, you know, embracing uncertainty, then you’re not very well credentialed or something. But I think we all live with it. You know, I really think that those words, and I remember that being one of the discussions we had is we were starting the Spiritual Directors of Color Network. One of the things that came up for us is how can we make this journey that we’re having less spooky, you know, less, um, something that only certain people, only certain individuals can have that experience because if we’re having that experience, surely there others of us that are having that experience now some of us may be uncomfortable with that uncertainty and not want to take this path. But I think all of us are capable of having this path, and even whether we call it “contemplation” or “mysticism,” I think an activist somehow comes to the conclusion that this is what they’re called to do, or this is what they have the energy for. And they may have been in the midst of the active-contemplation or mysticism, without maybe calling it that.

[00:15:48] Cassidy Hall: I love that I did not know about the root of mysticism and just the idea that it’s just a willingness to go into the unknown, to just go there. That’s beautiful.

[00:15:58] Therese Taylor-Stinson: You know, in Indigenous practice, that is the way they see it, they don’t you know, they believe in the spiritual world. You know, I don’t know if they call it “mysticism” or not, but they believe that, you know, whatever energy we get to do certain things are coming from the supreme being and given to us for community––to give our gifts in community and you know, very deeply and very broadly, I think that’s why we’re all here. Just like the trees air here to exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen with us and all of the ways the planet works to sustain life here. I think we’re all here for that same reason––whether we know it or not.

[00:16:47] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah, right. Along with the Spiritual Directors of Color Network and some of the other things that we’ve discussed about spiritual direction, it’s striking to me that, a lot of spiritual direction programs are lacking. Black mysticism, Black contemplation. You know, we go to Howard Thurman a lot, but beyond that, I mean, there’s a lot missing.

[00:17:12] Therese Taylor-Stinson: And we haven’t gone to Howard Thurman a lot, actually. I know that people who go through seminary, particularly Black people who go through seminary, and if they go to a historically Black institution, they may learn about Thurman. If you go to Howard University, you will for sure learn about Thurman. Thurman worked there as a matter of fact at one point. But generally I don’t think that there is a lot of emphasis on Black spirituality. Particularly, I don’t even really think it’s just this country. I think that whiteness and colonialism is been, you know, spread throughout the world. But what I know about most, I guess, is the United States. And so in this country we live in a culture that from the Constitution has been you know promoting whiteness. And so in my book Embodied Spirits and in my paper that I wrote for my final paper for the program and published in SDI’s Presence Journal, I talk about how as I was reading I read a story from Albert Raboteau, where he talks about the enslaved. Actually, he doesn’t talk about it, but he’s explaining it in the third person. So there’s another person who’s observing the slave behavior, particularly around religion and Christianity, I guess. And he talks about how the enslaved––many of them, not everybody, but some of them had sort of a rule that you didn’t even try to read the Bible, which we weren’t allowed to do it one point anyway. But you didn’t even attempt to read the Bible until you were able to experience God or the Holy for yourself. And so isn’t that contemplation isn’t that mysticism to have that experience of God before you start reading the Bible about God, they that was the way they did things. And in my writing, I wanted to compare that with someone that was a reliable source for most people. And so I found a text by Thomas Merton, who explained contemplative practice in the very same way that the African people brought here into enslavement were practicing it without even knowing. I don’t know if they use the word “mysticism” or anything, but these were things that they had. The story about on the slave ships, when they were being brought over here, they were all packed together, and they were actually deliberately intentionally separated from people who spoke their language. The way they shared their pain together was in what the slave-catchers and and the ship people called “the moan.” They would moan in away together that I can imagine might have even been kind of a harmony with them, really expressing that they were having the same experience with one another. So this mysticism, this contemplation, which they probably never called it, was part of their very core of who they were. Particularly here in the United States, we make words for everything, but we know that when when Jesus was teaching and and when we go back to some of the languages that were the Hebrew and and the Aramaic, they were imprecise languages, and one word could mean many different things depending on who was talking and what they were saying.

[00:21:03] Cassidy Hall: The power and the truth and the rawness and the again the physicality, like going, again, going to the unknown––and right without having to put words to it or say it, right? That is holy.

[00:21:17] Therese Taylor-Stinson: One of my favorite books, Gerald May, I don’t think he was a founder, but he was one of the principals, and I think, one of the initial people in the gathering of people for the Shalem Institute. And he wrote a lot of books for Shalem and helped them, you know, to develop their spiritual guidance program. In his book Will and Spirit, he talks about, I think it’s in the chapter on energy, but he talks about how the experience of a thing is different from when we begin to talk about it, the moment we begin––just like me now talking to you now, the moment I begin to try to put words to it, it’s no longer the experience. That the truth, the truth, the raw truth of a thing is something that you probably don’t have language for.

[00:22:09] Cassidy Hall: Amen. So one thing I want to move into which you know we’ve kind of been getting at this whole conversation is this idea, this concept, of “public mysticism.” And this was first introduced to me by Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Homes in her book Joy Unspeakable. And I wonder if you could unpack that a little bit for us –– the significance of public mysticism, what it is to you, what it means?

[00:22:31] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So again, going back to African mysticism because Christianity is not the only place where you find mystics. There are mystics in the Christian tradition, but they’re also mystics Sufis in the Islamic tradition, there’s mysticism in Buddhism, there’s mysticism and a lot of places including Africa. And so in Africa, and among Indigenous people, so you know, Native Americans perhaps as well––There has always been a sense that whatever it is that you are receiving from you know the source, however you define or call that source, whatever you are receiving is for community, communal interest. At the core of most cultures, community is more important than the individual, and so whatever is given the individual, whatever gifts are given the individual, they are meant to be used in community. And reading Barbara Homes, but even considering that for myself, there are many public mystics that perhaps have gone unnamed as such. Even Thurman himself, I don’t think many people really referred to him as a mystic, you know, but he was, and he was a public mystic. He offered his mysticism as his public protest, you might even say. Some people were upset with him because he didn’t join in the civil rights demonstrations and everything, but he girded, undergirded the whole movement in contemplative practice, though I doubt if they were calling it that at the time. If you think of an Islamic, a Black Islamic figure, Malcolm X was probably a mystic, he often spoke in those kinds of terms. Harriet Tubman was a mystic, a public mystic. And, you know, I’m thinking that Thurman, his grandmother, was in an enslaved person, probably around the same time Harriet Tubman was doing her thing. And I don’t know what all Thurman may have heard from his grandmother, but surely he’d heard of at some point of Harriet Tubman, and I can’t imagine that he didn’t from his grandmother and Harriet Tubman, just from her life, learned some of the things that he was teaching people of color about internal freedom, you know, and how Jesus himself self-differentiated although we’ve kind of made Jesus into a figure who sits on a throne and all of that, Jesus was one of the people on the margins. But he was able to self-differentiate himself from their condition in a way where he could find the genuine and himself and out of that be of help to others on the margins with him. And eventually it got him in some trouble, but, you know, we can all be getting in some trouble if we aren’t going along with the status club.

[00:25:42] Cassidy Hall: Amen. So we’ve talked about going into the unknown as this mysticism and contemplation. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about looking at it in the reversed so in the reverse. So what could collective protest and, you know, movements today like Black Lives Matter, tell us about contemplation. So, looking at the public movement, what does that tell us about mysticism or contemplation?

[00:26:07] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I think this goes back to what I was saying earlier you were asking whether an activist was a mystic as well. So everybody may not, or they may embrace in different ways that which is uncertain or unknown. But I think there’s just something within us, I mean, it’s part of the life process, you don’t know everything. And if something is meaningful to you and some kind of way and meaningful enough for you, to put your life on the line because Black Lives Matter people have definitely put their lives on the line many times, you know, arrested, you know, they could have ended up very easily, like Breonna Taylor or George Floyd or something. Whether they call it “mysticism” or not, the ones that I know, they do feel some deep spiritual connection and and some deep calling to do this work, otherwise, it would be impossible to do, I think

[00:27:10] Cassidy Hall: At the end of the day, some of the most mystical things that we’re attached to don’t and won’t and don’t have language. We can’t talk about it because it’s so deep or it’s so collective, it’s so just full of the truth and love and beauty that we all need.

[00:27:28] Therese Taylor-Stinson: And and it drives us to action and sort of lends to the Indigenous belief that these things are meant for us, for public service, for community. And so whatever the private experiences isn’t really that important. What’s important ism I find this situation that I’m feeling called to act or to speak or to do something to make life better on the planet.

[00:27:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. So recently you and I had a brief email exchange where we were we were talking, and you reminded me of the value in the importance in not using the term “BIPOC” in the way that it minimizes individual story and limits the depth, um, that could be expressed by an individual. I’m learning, and I’m doing my work and I’m processing all that. And I was really humbled that you were willing to express this to me because it just showed me another way that whiteness and in my participation in whiteness, has co-opted language and shown kind of this laziness towards learning and understanding. I’ve also seen that whiteness and white supremacy has done this with contemplative language, which is a lot of what we’re talking about today, too. Just even, right, this need for language about contemplation and these kinds of things. And also how whiteness is kind of framed contemplation as inactive. All this to say I’m learning a lot about the range in the importance of embodiment and all of contemplation, including language and how one talks about it. So I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how the fullness of story of personal story impacts our ability to contemplate or go to a place of mysticism.

[00:29:13] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So for me, it’s not even about story. It has to be with me being a human being with an experience that you cannot define with an acronym. You know, if you say I’m African American, that says something about who I am and where I came from. If you even say that I’m a Black person in America that says something about my experience and and who I am, you know. But if you call me a “BIPOC,” that means nothing, you know, and you’ve clumped me in with a lot of other people whose experience may not be the same as mine, and they have their own identity and cultural identity that they would like to lift up. So, you know, I am retired from the federal government and in the federal government, acronyms are everywhere, so I’m used to acronyms, I’m not someone who doesn’t know anything about acronyms. But the thing about the federal government is when they use acronyms, they’re talking about agencies or, you know, things, objects, perhaps they given acronym to. They’re not talking about people, and human beings have stories, but even more than that they have identities. And so to clump a bunch of people together –– And as I start pushing back against the acronym “BIPOC,” I also myself, I want you to know I’m not just smacking you on the hand, because it made me look back at myself when I’m talking about the community that we define as an LGBTQ community, we’re using an acronym, but these people have names too: they’re lesbians, they’re bisexual, they’re transgender, they may like to call themselves queer, you know. So they’re not “LGBTQ.” Because that doesn’t explain anything that makes them, that just clumps a whole bunch of people. It makes it easier for us to name them that way, you know, if we’re writing or talking about them, but it takes away their humanity. That’s the way I see it.

[00:31:26] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And I mean I really value that in this discussion. It reminds me of, I was just writing a paper, I was just finishing a final paper on Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Queer Womanist Theology, you know, in that book she talks about how “oppressions on one level intersect with all oppressions on other levels” and kind of recognizing how intersectionality can point to the dynamic of God’s image, but at the end of the day, it’s all a purely separate image of God on each and every person. At the end of the day, you know, all those oppressions, stories of oppression and marginalization are entirely different stories, entirely different experiences. And, as you say, specifically, people. I mean I identify as Queer and my queer experience is different from my neighbor’s Queer experience, who maybe was rejected by their family or something like that. And it’s taking the time and the willingness to not be lazy and being able to fully see each other.

[00:32:27] Therese Taylor-Stinson: I can see if you’re writing a note to somebody using the acronym because, especially with our phones and everything. But if you’re writing a book or, you know, if you’re having a conversation and you’re talking about people, you should identify who they are and not trying to make them an acronym, that that seems very disrespectful to me.

[00:32:53] Cassidy Hall: Thank you for that. So in our world today, how at this time are you experiencing God and mysticism or activism? And what is your hope for the future of mysticism and activism?

[00:33:08] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So I identify myself, is an anti-assimilationist, and so I don’t clump myself––I mean, I do see blessings in my life, but I don’t clump myself with the privileged or whatever. But I feel in this time quite privileged as I understand the plight of many people of color who are more vulnerable to this virus, who I sit in front of the television and cry like It’s my own son being suffocated under the knee of a police officer who doesn’t care. Or I hear about a woman named Breonna Taylor who carries my last name being shot for no reason in her own house, awakened out of her sleep and shot, and then nobody does anything about it. And then a Black man, an attorney general, gets up and justifies such a thing? I could get very emotional about now. I’m a spiritual director at heart, everything I do comes out of that. And so my clientele has doubled, people are being introspective and I get to sit with them and people of color in particular, because that’s who I always really wanted to be able to sit with. So to be in this moment and sitting with people who are saying “what is mine to do” and you know “where do we go from here?” It’s a privilege and a blessing, you know that I get to experience. And because we’re on Zoom to be able to experience the varieties of ways of worshiping and considering different kinds of things, I think this time that we’re in ––as a matter of fact, I’ve been telling many of my directees that it’s something that I learned in my own experience that when trouble comes I used to get very anxious and disturbed about trouble, I didn’t want any, but what I’m learning now is that it’s an opportunity to learn, and it’s an opportunity to discern direction for your life. And I have done that and it’s brought me to this time here where I get to share with other people, you know those things. And so I don’t think that this time of pandemic and racism and craziness, I don’t know what else to call it, and all the things that are going on right now––I see blessing in the midst of it, and I get to experience some of it where I know there are others who––I have lost a couple of people that I know, but I have not lost ––at least not yet, lost close family members. I have not been sick myself in that way, and I’ve been able to sit with others and offer blessing and love and hope and to experience community. I don’t have any complaints except that I wish we could stop this because I do know that the numbers of people who have died and the situations that many people, particularly people of color find themselves where they can’t even find a place to wash their clothes so that they don’t be sick, is something that I am quite aware of.

[00:36:33] Cassidy Hall: And I love that, you know, you’re talking about having more directees and more people wanting more introspective. And it’s striking that, you know, that’s what we’ve been talking about that is public mysticism: going into the unknown and doing that collectively. I mean, that’s beautiful. Who’s someone for you or people for you that embody mysticism? So maybe some mystics that we don’t normally think of.

[00:37:06] Therese Taylor-Stinson: You know, this might be controversial for some people, but I think Jeremiah Wright is a mystic, I think Traci Blackmon. I’ve seen her, I’ve been in her presence when she preaches and everything, I believe she’s a mystic. I think Barbara Homes is a mystic. You know, I want to talk about and I’m talking about Black people also, not so much others. But I see ordinary people in my life who demonstrate for me mysticism. You know, maybe in some of my directees, if they’re not there yet there on the journey. So and then, you know, as I mentioned, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr., you know, Howard Thurman––so many people in some kind of way practice mysticism. And I believe the people that I named, even though they aren’t named that publicly so much, they knew. They knew who they were. But again, the personal experience with the divine was not as important as how they poured it out into the community.

[00:38:24] Cassidy Hall: You know, just for for a second I want I want to go there with you on Jeremiah Wright because recently in a class we were studying the relationship between Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright, a man named Professor Joseph Tucker Edmonds came and talked about this idea of –– we essentially only accept these, palpable domesticated prophets–– whereas someone like Jeremiah Wright, who was actually living out and living into the words of James Cone, you know, but we can handle Cone’s words in a book, but we can’t handle it in the flesh?

[00:38:59] Therese Taylor-Stinson: James Cone was a mystic.

[00:39:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think there’s so many mystics in our midst that we’re not willing to go there with and, you know, white people in particular white people, especially white people––mostly, to embrace the fullness of the prophetic in our presence, I mean––

[00:39:17] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Which is nothing new, if you read the Bible. The prophets were not popular people. They had all kinds of crazy things happen to them, including Jesus, you know, he got killed. So, you know, it’s not a popular thing to do.

[00:39:37] Cassidy Hall: Therese, could you unpack a little bit more about what it means to be a certified emotional Emancipation Circle facilitator?

[00:39:45] Therese Taylor-Stinson: So emotional emancipation circles are for people of African decent or those who identify as Black. And they are circles where we confront the lies that have been told that we have absorbed and we try to get past that and learn about the beauty of our own culture and experience and to be who we are and proud of it and not let it be something that continues our trauma or the trauma of others. So in our circles we have seven keys, the EEC’s were created by an organization called the Community Healing Network in Incorporation with the Association of Black Psychologists. It is a tool that has been given to us by professionals, and then we go through a training and organize groups, and wherever we live in the world to talk about those things and to heal ourselves and become more comfortable with who we are as people of color.

[00:40:59] Cassidy Hall: So, Therese, you mentioned something about the racial Awareness Festival. Could you share more about that?

[00:41:04] Therese Taylor-Stinson: It’s always the third Saturday of October. So right now we’re just beginning. Planning, we’ll start to advertising, send you something about it, if you like, or you can even Google “Racial Awareness Festival,” I’m sure and find out something about it. 

[00:41:21] Cassidy Hall: And yeah, obviously, in speaking with you, I mean, before we talk today, it is obvious to me that I am speaking with a mystic. So I thank you for your work. Um, your sacred and holy work and presence in this world. And look forward to your books. More of your books, rather, I’m looking at two of your books right next to me and more of your work. And thank you so much for joining.

[00:41:48] Therese Taylor-Stinson: Thanks for having me, Cassidy. I appreciated talking to you.

[00:41:51] 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 EmmoLei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei 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 resources and tools head over to enfleshed dot com. One final quote from our guest today from her book Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. Stories of Contemplation and Justice: “It seems that some people who call themselves contemplative have merely found a way to justify their own procrastination or to explain their introversion or to defend their unwillingness to change in the face of injustice. Remaining silent when there’s a need to speak. I have learned that our practice of contemplation requires integration into our callings and lifestyles. So that contemplation can be whole it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.”

New Podcast: Contemplating Now

NEW PODCAST ALERT 🚨

Contemplation has been a part of my life since I was a child taking long walks to pause and process. In 2011, after reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, I quit my job and traveled to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States. But as I journeyed, I sensed there was something lacking. As a Queer white woman, it took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize what was missing: voices and truths beyond white, male contemplatives like Merton, Rohr, and Keating. Voices speaking into the work of justice and liberation, while also hosting a contemplative interior life that fed their activism. Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Holmes speaks of  “public mystics,” leaders whose “interiority and communal reference points” must intersect, including Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Sue and Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. 

Since 2017 I’ve co-hosted the Encountering Silence podcast with my colleagues Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Through 100 episodes of interviews and discussions about the importance of silence, I continued to be drawn to the contemplative lives of the marginalized. Now in seminary,  I continue to see the ways a white-washed, patriarchal contemplative Christianity hinders collective liberation and justice.

The founder of Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Therese Taylor-Stinson, says contemplation “must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” The Contemplating Now Podcast was birthed from the desire to learn from scholars and activists who embody that fullness of action and reflection. During my studies for my MDiv and MTS at Christian Theological Seminary, and in my own contemplative practice, research, and deconstruction, I realized how whitewashed the field of contemplation was and began to seek out the work of Black women and nonbinary folks. In this podcast, I wanted to give them the mic and bring attention to their important contributions to the study and practice of contemplative spirituality and mysticism. My goal is to listen and learn from my guests alongside you. 

How to find it and more info:

Find it on all podcasting platforms, and if you’re so inclined, leave a review to help other folks find it more easily.

The Christian Century (progressive Christian magazine based in Chicago, the “journal of record” for mainline protestants, the first to publish “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963), will be hosting the podcast on their site.

This labor of love project is created, produced, and edited by me. With no funding or financial support for the project, I hope you’ll consider helping keep the work afloat by joining me over on Patreon.com/cassidyhall

I’m also delighted to have support in the form of loving-kindness from my friends over at enfleshed, an org which offers liturgical resources focused on collective liberation. Thanks also to the brilliance and eagle-eyed editor Jessica Mesman.

Finally, I am so very grateful to EmmoLei Sankofa for her delightful music in the opening and closing credits, and a perfect logo from my pal, Patrick Shen.

Spark My Muse Interviews Cassidy Hall

Today I had the honor of being on the Spark My Muse podcast with host, Lisa Colón DeLay. We talked about what it means to tend the fire within, the place of infinite possibility within each of usThe space we must protect, guard, feed, and learn to share in a way that offers love and creativity to the world––as opposed to violence or destruction. 

Later in the interview Lisa asks about my pilgrimage to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the United States, my current role as a seminarian at CTS pursuing ordination, my thoughts on the need for more voices/faces in the contemplative world, and my thoughts on being a queer woman in these various spaces.

“Those drawn to the contemplative path… We are the feelers. We feel everything. We feel the whole world… It’s a good home for the sensitive, at least for me.”

Cassidy Hall, Spark My Muse

Listen on the Spark My Muse website here.

“…frustration is due precisely to the incapacity for positive, constructive, creative activity. Creation in this sense is then nothing else but frustration failing to express itself freely and normally, calling desperately for help in a way that fails to be heard or understood…When everything is creative, nothing is creative. When nothing is creative, everything tends to be destructive, or at least to invite destruction. Our creativity is in great measure simply the expression of our destructiveness, the guarded, despairing admission of destructiveness that cries for help without admitting it. The only positive thing left in our destructiveness is its bitter anguish. This, at least, can claim to be. This has creative possibilities.”

Thomas Merton, Theology of Creativity

 

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook

 

“First, silence makes us pilgrims. Secondly, silence guards the fire within. Thirdly, silence teaches us to speak.”

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart 

 

“…There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and they walk on.

All right, then, what is to be done, should one tend that inward fire, turn to oneself for strength, wait patiently – yet with how much impatience! – wait, I say, for the moment when someone who wants to comes and sits down beside one’s fire and perhaps stays on? Let him who believes in God await the moment that will sooner or later arrive.

Letter from Vincent van Gogh tohis younger brother Theo van Gogh, July 1880 at the age of 27

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The Single Garment of Destiny

“…I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.…”
––Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

With yesterday’s holiday, I am considering many aspects of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work. I am remembering the retreat that never was with Thomas Merton (as planned for the month of Martin’s death in April of 1968). I’m recalling the many ways in which his work reminds us what happens when we are silent amid injustices. I am thinking about how his work revolved around love and truth. And I am most focused on the many, many, many lengths our society has to go in the good work he was a part of propelling.

Many of you know that a lot of my work has to do with silence. While I am sure to address the issues related to toxic and negative silences (i.e. silencing our fellow human, the silent treatment, the toxic ways in which society minimizes minority voices), I also try to focus on good and loving silence––the meeting place for ourselves and our loved ones. In the same breath, I’ve learned that silences amid social injustices of any kind not only wound humanity as a whole, but injure our very personhood and limit our common humanity.

Exactly one year before his death, MLK Jr. gave a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break The Silence.” In this speech he shared: “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”

My spirit is stirred as I read these lines. What is burning within my own heart? What places in my life are love and truth begging to be spoken to? What wrongs cry out to be healed, moved towards justice, or pursued for change? What humans desperately need our voices, our presence, our standing alongside them?

“But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?… So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

––Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

May our burning hearts lead us to extreme love. May we all grow in knowing when to break our silences, when to listen, and especially the many ways we can more deeply love one another in this “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” we call humanity.

“I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. … The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”

–– Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

Thank you, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. (1929-1968).

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(Another) Ode to Mary Oliver

That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” (Mary Oliver, Long Life, Forward)

We’ve all been reading a number of poems by and tributes to Mary Oliver since her death on January 17, 2019. And, to be honest, that’s exactly what this is… Another tribute, another ode, another homage.

I’ve often thought of her as my spiritual friend––reaching out beyond the page, sitting with me in sadness, elation, and especially awe. Her writing has a way of pointing the reader to wonder in the most simple moments and profound ways.

I was on a lunch break when I heard the news of her death. It was raining and my mind was detached from everything at hand, so I opted to go be with her in some small way by finding her in a bookstore nearby. And, of course, we all know Mary Oliver isn’t found indoors. Her work is steeped in the great outdoors from her long walks collecting clams, to her undeniably sacred practice of paying attention.

There are plenty of things I think about when I consider Mary and her canon of work: I am drawn to an endless list of poems, prose, essays, and even her instructional books for writers and poets alike. But, in an attempt to be true to what this poet-teacher has taught me, I want to focus on how and where she guided me in paying attention. 

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

(Mary Oliver, Red Bird, Sometimes)

Mary taught me that when I fail to live headlong into life––and love, I’m as good as being breathlessly underground.

In her love and adoration for her partner of over 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, she pointed to the many ways she noticed her. In The Whistler, she writes of her beloved M: “All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. It was thrilling… I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too. And the devotions.” And in Long Life, she says of her life with M: “The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.” 

How do I love you?

Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

no more words now

(Mary Oliver, Felicity, How Do I Love You?)

Mary taught me about how loving the world takes many forms, all of which take uninhibited attention.

From “Yes! No!” Mary declares, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And from her book Thirst, “My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – equal seekers of sweetness… Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”

Mary taught me how recognizing the divine, alive in nature, isn’t just a way to live, but the only way to be more fully alive.

In her almost liturgically rhythmic words about nature, she shares in Morning Poem,” “each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” And, in Upstream she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”

Mary taught me the ways in which paying attention to myself can be an opportunity for growth and change.

From her short poem, “The Uses of Sorrow:” Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” And then, from “Wild Geese,” You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Finally, once again from Upstream, “Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

In these ways––paying attention to love and the beloved, paying attention to the natural world, paying attention to ourselves––is not just about a life well lived but a life whose legacy is love. In her book Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

Mary Oliver’s life testified to what it means to live into that great prayer of attention. She quite literally walked the things she wrote, lived the things she spoke, and always paid attention.

So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later. And always I wanted the “I.” Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted them — the “I” to be the possible reader.

Mary Oliver in interview with Krista Tippett 

Thank you, dear Mary. Your courage in life perpetuates courage to live headlong in all of our lives.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

(Mary Oliver, When Death Comes)

Now, I picture here being reunited with her darling partner Molly Malone Cook as they wander the great outdoors of the unknown.

RIP, MO (1935-2019)

 

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The Tireless Pursuit of Peace

Looking up, I knew this was a moment to behold. Across the living room from me sat Jim Forest, laughing among friends while in Toronto for the first annual Voices For Peace conference. The 76-year-old peace-activist, author, storyteller, and lover of humanity was frozen in a moment of pure joy. I grabbed my camera to capture the glance of a life dedicated to peace, love, and a deeply rooted adoration of God.

Many know Jim by way of his friends: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Henri Nouwen –– to name a few. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list. His humility and sincerity pointed time and time again to a new way of listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human.

Throughout the week I had the honor of sitting down with Jim for meals, conversations, and laughter. We arrived in Toronto amid the backdrop of the van massacre that killed ten people just a day prior. Diving head-first into a pre-planned peace conference felt like apostolic work in a city mourning such a tragedy, but questions kept pressing me. How is the accumulation of information truly accompanying my neighbor? How is knowing the immorality of the weapons economy disarming my nation? How am I really helping the kids in my life and the land I stand on to see another day?

“Who is a peacemaker?” Jim asked in his keynote address, “Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment… Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, ‘There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.’”

Jim was editor of the Catholic Worker and co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. He was arrested numerous times while protesting war and jailed for burning draft cards. He’s an award-winning author. But a list of achievements isn’t what Jim is about. His passion for peace is entirely rooted in relationship. His centeredness goes beyond those friends in the living room. Jim has created a lifetime around loving all people, enemies included:

“Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s [Berrigan] many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it ‘outraged love.’ For Dan ‘outrage’ was an adjective; the key word was ‘love.’ Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.”

The days we live in are bleak and barren without love. Every news feed, each source of media, and conversations that surround us — are drenched in outrage untethered to love. Why is it that as soon as we can reconnect our outrage to love we see another headline that tears them apart again? “Fear is the great force that restrains us from acts of love,” Jim said in his second keynote address. “Fear is useful only when it serves as an alarm clock, a device that wakes us up by briefly ringing… When fear takes over, it tends to rob us creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom.”

As fear engulfs us, I wonder, are we debilitating ourselves from action that could better serve the world? The way of peace is as urgent as my next breath, and this is a literal statement for many, so why is it not for me? How can we navigate peace in the spirit of urgency? Is the response of a peacemaker not more important than the springboard of reaction born of urgency and conceived in the bowels of fear? How can I transform my fear-riddled flailing into a life of protest that is steeped in outrage and love?

“That’s the message we’re supposed to receive,” he told me, “’What you’re doing is a waste of time.’ But the truth of the matter is, it does make a difference. It doesn’t happen fast, and it sometimes doesn’t even happen in our lifetime. Sometimes it’s so slow, the iceberg is so big, so much of it is so hidden, so much of it is beneath the water line, watching it shrink is not easy for us. We live 60, 70, 80, even 90-100 years, but you know pick up a pebble on the beach, it’s 100s of millions of years old, it’s a different time scale.”

I was particularly struck by Jim’s tirelessness in these efforts of peace. At the age of 76, he’s flying six time-zones to share these messages with generations of activists. He’s zealously waking up to speak at a nearby church (Church of The Redeemer, Toronto) the day after offering two keynote addresses and countless interactions with strangers the day before. I quoted some of Jim’s own poignant words back to him amid asking for some advice for those of us navigating the ever present waters of activism today: “In your book, The Root of War is Fear, you said, ‘At the core of what is sane in our society I think you will find the pacifist movement, constantly reminding the populace that life is sacred, that justice–not vengeance–is our job.’ How would you advise the wearied activist among us today?”

“Shape your life on truth,” he told me, “live it as courageously as you can, as joyfully as you can. And count on God making some good use of it — what you do is not wasted. But you may not have the satisfaction of seeing the kind of results that you’re hoping for. Maybe you will, maybe you’ll be lucky but you can’t count on it.” 

Or, as his friend Thomas Merton once wrote to him in February of 1966:

“…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, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

JimAndCassidy
My friend, Jim. (Photo by Paul Pynkoski)

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