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

Things are Different: Grieve

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

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

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

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

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

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

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

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

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

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

Am I paying attention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

The Absurd Vocation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Thomas Merton to peace-activist Jim Forest

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

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

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

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

IMG_0658

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

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

Enjoy my work? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

Love’s Undercurrent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love grows where there’s room for it.

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

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

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

Hurrying mystery, disables it.

Prodding wonder, forces it to hide.

Coercing awe, makes it dissolve.

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

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

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

Love grows where there’s room for it.

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

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

The Way of Love; The Way of the Outlaw

(Friends, this is from my lecture last night, 01/31/2019, at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis for the Thomas Merton Course I am lucky enough to co-teach. I decided to focus on the concept of vocation and in the lecture had also included quotes and concepts from Mary Oliver, Simone Weil, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Hope you enjoy a portion of what I shared in essay form).

I’ve long held the belief that the contemplative way is a way of agony. There are no shortcuts from human pain—ours or those we love. And being that such a way of living is also a way to love the world more deeply, there is no escape from this depth of agony. While this dull ache cannot be ignored, it also cannot be one’s central focus, for any focus solely on the pain limits the work of love and minimizes the infinite possibilities each of us host.

Many of us don’t identify with the word contemplative, and even the word contemplative is messy. In The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton writes, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.” To be a contemplative, therefore, is perhaps just another way of letting go, a way of being with the suffering, in the suffering, a way of showing solidarity––a special way of being present to the pain of and in the world.

That being said, it seems any vocation where one so fully gives themselves to loving others and the world more deeply is inevitably a vocation of agony. It is often a place of loneliness, aloneness, and an ache for the world to know love. On April 4 of 1962, Thomas Merton wrote to Abdul Aziz (a friend who propelled Merton’s interest in Sufism) saying,

I believe my vocation is essentially that of a pilgrim and an exile in life, that I have no proper place in the world, but that for that reason I am in some sense to be the friend and brother of people everywhere, especially those who are exiles and pilgrims like myself.”

Nearly five years later, on April 3, 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared of his experience with vocational agony,

“And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak… Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.”

Thus, another pathway towards meeting the pain of the world is undoubtedly the way of the activist. In 1961, not long after his discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector, a young Catholic Worker volunteer named Jim Forest first wrote to Thomas Merton. The correspondence began when Dorothy Day handed Jim a letter from Merton and asked him to respond. In the years that followed frequent letters were exchanged between Jim and Merton. In February of 1966, Merton wrote the young activist saying,

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

The one whose vocation is love lives in a narrative that is controlled by reality. And it is within this reality that one meets the pain of the world. It can often feel like a lonely woundedness, a gaping ache, or a gnaw that is just simply ever-present. When speaking of loneliness and aloneness with a sister of Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey in Massachusetts, she shared how loneliness belongs to us all, to the most human of hearts,

“I think the loneliness strengthens you over time through whatever life brings about… it’s a loneliness that says ‘there’s space there for the whole world… there’s space there for the whole world.’”

This pain—for the contemplative, for the activist, for the contemplative-activist, for those of us in all vocations of loving humanity—is a pain that only deepens and widens with time. As we bear our own wounds and gaze lovingly at the scars and scabs of those we love, our compassion grows deeper still, our hearts break once again, and we move closer to the unending heart of God.

I’ve long believed that all of us are artists and all of us have the capacity to pursue this kind of vocation of loving in our individual ways. Sister Corita Kent once wrote,

Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is ‘to fit together’ and we all do this every day. Not all of us are painters but we are all artists. Each time we fit things together we are creating ––whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”

And, Evelyn Underhill argued, “All artist are of necessity in some measure contemplatives.” … Finally, Thomas Merton reminds us, “To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw…” 

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

(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)

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

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)

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

The Uncertainty of Silence

(This will be among the many essays featured in the forthcoming book Notes on Silence that I’m co-authoring with Patrick Shen which can be purchased here.)

“…I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone…” 
Rainer Maria Rilke

I was around 8 years old when I began to have reoccurring dreams about death. With a rush of adrenaline, shocked and relieved to be alive, I’d wake up only remembering I was dead and floating in a white sky-scape of silence. I was alone, lost, and stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. This dream doesn’t sound grim to me anymore, but at 8 this nothingness had me sprinting to my parent’s bed. These dreams created in me a reverence for mystery and a deep longing to know the unknowable, to hold the ungraspable, and to forever chase what can never be met. 

We live in a world that loves to know. We like to intellectualize things, name people, describe experiences, and we covet our ability to share tangible evidence of these ungraspable things. Metaphors, on the other hand, hold meaning for the nameless. Metaphors help us to make sense of the unknowable things. We spend our lives clothing the many mysteries we encounter with metaphors which may not otherwise have any meaning. 

Defining is an interesting tool. It can be both harmful and helpful. We often use names to remain in control. We control our environment by regulating it, containing it, qualifying it. Most often names are used to define in order to make the definer feel more comfortable. Having a sense of knowing or grasping more creates comfort, and comfort makes us feel in control. Yet, I can’t help but contend that a controlled experience always takes us away from a mystical encounter. Holding creates an impossibility of beholding. And as a monk once told me, “Naming the nameless can leave all unrecognizable.”

Naming an encounter by way of our senses implies an unattainable certitude when really the elusive nature of mystery befalls all of our understanding. Silence is unnameable. To say something is or isn’t, to say something has a name or doesn’t, implies a dualistic nature. And in our desperate nature to cling, we are left time and time again barefaced before the mystery silence is. Only when we rid ourselves of this dualistic nature, we begin to see mystery for what it sincerely is. We begin to touch the bottomless depths of something hosting imponderable facets. 

 While working on In Pursuit of Silence, the topic of silence as a spiritual or religious practice came up on a regular basis. Silence is not necessarily spiritual or religious, and yet for some it may be entirely spiritual or religious. Silence is not a stranger to being likened to God in some fashion, yet similarly silence’s markings have been precisely that not of God, at least by concept. Silence holds the tension of absence and presence. Silence lives and breathes in the paradox of mysteries. Silence is infinite in its magnitude while remaining invariably naught. Silence is fully here and fully there, as much as it is nowhere and everywhere. But to create silence into being solely dualistic is to strip silence of its infinite possibility.  

Maggie Ross has named silence as salvation. Others, like Saint John of the Cross, have marred it with a place of darkness and despair. And yet, these implications don’t diminish the capacity of the thinker to associate such an absence, or presence, with silence as it relates to God or otherwise. And, this is the beauty of silence: it finds its way of understanding into each individual mind. 

“One might say I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife…So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.” Thomas Merton, Day of a Stranger 

For me, silence has been a place where I find the divine and I find myself. While my wariness of silence has been potent since my first meeting, I realize this is because of the depths of the unknown to which She has taken me. 

Silence is where I meet myself and my fellow human. 

Silence is where I see my darkest corners and my hidden faults. 

Silence is where I meet God. 

Silence is where I can grow and evolve. 

Silence is where I bathe in wonder.

Silence is where I listen. 

I often consider those reoccurring dreams first leading me to a lifelong love affair with the forever unrevealed. I consider the terrified 8 year old worrying her way through life, reaching for something always withheld. To be honest, not much has changed. My worry is now anxiety. My reaching is now a longing. Only now, I sit drenched in wonder as I tirelessly stretch out my arms towards the unknown. Now, I smile in awe as I untiringly attempt to package the mystery in language. 

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 1.12.29 PM.png
Here ends the book, but not the searching. The end of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain”

 

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

When Letting Go Is Holding On

“My dishonesty with myself and others hinders the honesty of all humanity, hinders the progress of all people.” Journal entry on 2/12/12

In 2012 I made the decision to let go of some certainty in my life for the sake of exploring something unknown. I quit my job. I quit my salary-paying, insurance-giving job full of security and certainty so I could travel to the seventeen Cistercian monasteries of the United States. As someone who isn’t Catholic, this was a surprise to everyone I knew. I would say that this decision surprised me too, but as I went on doing what I was supposed to do each day, I only felt myself dying a million deaths. It doesn’t surprise me I took on such a drastic measure to keep on living.

So much of my life at the time was wrapped up in what other people thought of me and meeting the expectations meant sticking to the script. Quitting a secure job with a salary and benefits wasn’t just an unwelcome improvisation—it was dangerous one. And thrill seeking was absolutely not a part of those predictable characters’ make up.

Yes, I was open about my sexuality, but only quietly, only where I felt safe. Sure, I was open about my spirituality, but only to the degree that it blended in a room. Yes, I loved my job and the amazing people who crossed my path while working it, but it became mostly an uncomplicated way to pay the bills.

I thought I was “doing all the right things”, but as I did them, I couldn’t shake the nagging; the blatant certainty that there was more to this life and that it wasn’t reserved for the few, and that it might even extend to me. Fitting everywhere but belonging nowhere—it was no longer enough, and something inside me sensed my restlessness could only be calmed by letting go.

Quitting my job to pursue that which was pulling me from the center of my heart made me feel exhilarated in a way that I hadn’t experienced since the beginning of these piling expectations. The monasteries, their silence, their mystery, their unique provision of solitude felt like they could be an exception to the lack of belonging I sensed at every turn. As I gave more and more thought to this longing within me, the unknown abundance of mystery that was before me, a unique way of exploring my interior spaciousness, I knew I had to go.

And when I stepped inside these sacred places, overcome with a sense of belonging, I knew instantly I had not made a mistake. It was in these moments away that the focus sharpened and I could sense my place in the world more clearly. It was a space where the noise of any perceived audience’s approval or disapproval literally and metaphorically cleared from my life and I could hear the voice of my heart instead.

So, I poked my head into seventeen spaces bathed in prayer and talked with monks and nuns about silence, solitude and contemplative life. I didn’t realize until the pilgrimage began that part of this expression of my true-self was bound up in my existential and spiritual curiosity that had been a part of my meandering thoughts since childhood. We further explored topics related to social justice, the true-self, acedia, mental health, and community. My joy and curiosity could not be contained.

This strange pilgrimage was spurred on and then validated by Thomas Merton’s words in New Seeds of Contemplation, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves… They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. …They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”

This idea of spending my life on the things that aren’t of me is something I have had to navigate in my own way. It’s a lesson that is never over once it is over. It certainly isn’t easy for me to be true to myself. I have to learn and then relearn nearly every single day.

I know, for example, that in my writing life there are many topics I’ve avoided for reasons I’d rather not admit. Reasons that ultimately declare the comfort of others and myself as more important than the truth and freedom of all humanity. Reasons that shun my inner spirit and remove dignity from my identity. I learned long ago on my pilgrimage that the danger in not being my true-self had a ripple-effect that was larger than just me. My self-expression, being true to who I was, affected other’s ability to do the same.  After all, we belong to each other. I knew then it was time for a change. It was time to let go of the world’s agenda for my life. And, it’s just as true now as it was then.

“Trust is very much about going beyond the guarantees; engaging into the future that is beyond what is known and seen.” A Monk of Mepkin Abbey

When I arrived home after nearly a half year on the road, I had no extreme revelations or clear-cut certainties to reveal. I only emerged with a new sense of listening to the heart of who am and an openness to the silences and the stillnesses that speak into that true identity. I began to let go of those preconceived notions the world had seared into me for years, I began to let myself unfold and go off script. 

“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” Rainer Maria Rilke

All of life is loving as much as it is a constant letting go. Sometimes that letting go is an initial step away from the noisy world into finding out more of who we are. And, sometimes this requires a grieving. A grieving of a narrative we’ve clung to or been told, or grieving a sense of certainty or ownership. But we cannot begin to meet ourselves without this letting go. We cannot begin to reunite with the wholeness of who we are until we strip ourselves of assumptions, predictions, and expectations. We cannot hold on until we truly let go.

“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism” in Love and Living

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, filmmaker with a MA in Professional Counseling. Cassidy’s writing is featured on The Huffington PostPatheos and her website, www.cassidyhall.com. You can find her on twitter @cassidyhall | instagram @casshall | and Facebook cassidyhall77

Cassidy’s forthcoming book, “Notes On Silence,” co-authored with Director Patrick Shen can be pre-ordered here.

Originally posted on The Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

 

Enjoy my writing? Become a Patron. become_a_patron_button@2x

“Cassidy Hall found silence in an Iowa monastery and brought her discoveries to a new documentary” Des Moines Register

“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.

Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”

Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.

Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”

Read the rest of The Des Moines Register feature article “Ames native goes on quest for silence” by Mike Kilen here.

Screen Shot 2017-04-05 at 9.21.16 AM
Photo by Rachel Mummey of The Des Moines Register