Jim Forest was an activist and author, but more than anything he was a man of relationship and ritual. To know Jim was to know his family, his partner Nancy Forest-Flier, to feel his friendship, and to see the countless ways he saw and loved the world with great wonder.
Jim looked and listened with great attentiveness everywhere he went. On his daily walks, his museum visits, his time with new friends, and the vigor with which he reminded so many of us to pray.
His work was continually centered by his heart and faith. He worked with Dorothy Day as the managing editor at The Catholic Worker, he was a part of the Milwaukee Fourteen (a group of peace activists who burned draft cards during the Vietnam war), he corresponded and was friends with Thomas Merton, he was friends with at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh, he co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, he named Henri Nouwen his “spiritual father” amid a difficult time in his life, he was longtime friends with Dan Berrigan, and more. But somehow, even amid this list of spiritual giants–including Jim, it was impossible to not count yourself among his friends immediately after meeting him.
Writing this now, after the death of Jim and Thich Nhat Hanh only days apart, I think about these two friends reconnecting in the infinite mystery. One of my favorite stories of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jim Forest’s friendship comes from The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975), by Thich Nhat Hanh:
In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes. From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.
Jim and I last connected via email in December of 2021. I had the pleasure of spending time with Jim in-person on two occasions, first with friends at a Peace Conference in Toronto called Voices for Peace, and last at his home in the Netherlands in 2018. I joined he and Nancy in their evening prayers by the icons, walks, we spent time looking through stacks of books and papers, we climbed to the top of their local cathedral, and we navigated digitizing his tape cassette recordings of his friends including Thay and Joan Baez. At that time, Jim was compiling and working on his book about Thich Nhat Hanh: Eyes of Compassion: Living with Thich Nhat Hanh
The deep legacy of Jim’s life lives in personal relationship and the ways he taught so many of us to see. “What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives,” he shared. “Shape your life on truth,” he shared, “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.”
Memory Eternal. Rest in peace, Beloved Jim. Your memory and your light live on in the way we see, the way we pursue peace, and especially the way we love.
If you’re new to Jim and his work, I encourage you to take a look at Jim and Nancy’s site: https://jimandnancyforest.com/ where you can learn more about their writing and books.
“Understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.”
In 2016, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was elected the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, making her the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop. She holds a B.A. in architecture with a minor in urban studies from Smith College, an M.A. in historic preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP). Before coming to Indianapolis, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, Central New York, and Chicago. Her expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [00:04]: I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, of the episcopal diocese of Indianapolis is from New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture with a minor in Urban Studies from Smith College, an M.A. in Historic Preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in 1997. Before being elected bishop in 2016, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, and Chicago. She is the first Black woman to be elected a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Jennifer’s expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction. Well, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:25]: I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to it.
Cassidy Hall [01:27]: So one of the things I like to begin with is just kind of defining the terms that we’re going into for yourself and for our audience. How might you define words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” and along with that, maybe how do you see them in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:42]: I tend to think about those as two distinct things, contemplation and mysticism. And as we were preparing for our time today, I thought, oh, why is that? And I think it’s because the practice of contemplation as a spiritual discipline has been a part of my formation as a layperson. I mean, I was baptized as an adult and then went off to seminary not long after that. So learned pretty quickly on as I delved into the daily spiritual practices of our traditional Episcopal church, a lot of which is things like the daily office morning prayer, evening prayer, compline, but also wanting to explore other practices that were less vocal or verbal and was introduced in seminary to the contemplative tradition. So taking time for silence, for a kind of meditation practice that focuses on a word or a mantra or an object, has been a part of my discipline on-and-off for 30 years or so. When I think about the mystic tradition and mysticism, and I’m thinking you know I should know from the dictionary, like what are the differences? But to me, that’s more about how we experience and the movement of the spirit in moments or experiences that seem, at least I think of is more supernatural. You can’t explain them, you can’t conjure them up. You know, I can choose to enter a contemplative moment, but the experience of the mystic Christ or having an experience of mysticism is something that’s beyond my ability or desire to plan it; it kind of just happens. And I will admit to having had experiences that I would classify as mystical in my lifetime, they’re memorable, but I couldn’t say that I could have recreated them if I wanted to, it just happened.
Cassidy Hall [03:21]: The distinction of contemplative life or contemplative practices as like a rhythm and a ritual, something that we create and that we engage with, but yet the mystical is boundless, it’s not tethered to rhythm or ritual and I love that. Would you be willing to share one of your mystical experiences?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [03:42]: Sure, I would say, you know, it’s interesting because I’ve not had a compare and contrast kind of conversation about mystical experiences, really. So I am wondering with a new hunger about what that’s like for the people. But there’s an experience I had that falls on the mysticism spectrum. I remember I was in a church as a teenager, doing a sleepover with the youth group for a period of time in the years when I was a seeker, I attended an AME Zion church. The African Methodist Episcopal church, Zion Church that was across the street from me and all my friends went. So I remember though, being at this church and everyone was downstairs doing whatever activity they were making cookies or something. And I went up into the sanctuary that was darkened and just, there’s no sanctuary lamp, it wasn’t that kind of space, it was just the worship space. And I remember just getting in a pew, off the pew, sort of on the floor and feeling like the embrace of what I would say, like God’s embrace. I could feel it palpably like my body being hugged an embrace that was letting me know that things were okay. And it was a, you know, a fraught time, I’ve always had a robust prayer life before I never attended church I was taught to pray at home. And so have this long, like I’ve never known a time when I didn’t talk to God, so this was just a part of that conversation, but I think I’d gone up to the sanctuary for quiet and prayer and felt God’s presence in a physical way.
Cassidy Hall [05:13]: That’s beautiful, thank you for sharing that. And in the Episcopal tradition, you were elected and then consecrated as the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis in 2017, making you also the first Black woman to be elected Diocesan Bishop. And in an interview with Sally Hicks just recently in February of 2021, you said, “I just think racial justice is the work that has to be done 24 hours a day all the time, every place.” So along with that, I mean, that’s a pretty clear statement, there’s not really much to unpack there, that’s pretty clear. And in talking about things like the rhythm we create with contemplative life, and then this meeting place of mysticism with God, I wonder what your vision for the church and racial justice work is? And do you see it as connected to the practices that we engage with or do you see it as disconnected and maybe this more mystical thing that happens when we begin doing the work?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [06:08]: Well, let me describe it this way, you know, I feel like I’ve been on a journey in many ways of understanding the depth of need to be attending to dismantling racism and all the other isms. I mean, I just, have always been passionate about it, but in these current moments just feel like we all need to lean into it. It’s like, there’s no escaping it. Whereas I used to think, well, you know, we can take a break and there are lots of things that are critical. Except that as the more I’ve dived into the work of actively trying to be intentionally anti-racist as an institution of the church, it makes me understand that whether we’re talking about climate change, whether we’re talking about how we follow Christ in our tradition, which is about understanding that all are beloved. So at the very basic nature of who we say we are as Christians, where the Episcopal Church, the mission is to reconcile all people to God in one another in Christ and to be about recognizing the full dignity of every human being, then there’s no way for me to be a Christian and not to be attending to this work of dismantling racism all the time. And because it’s so pernicious and so everywhere, at least in this country, I mean, it’s different than other places, but this is the country I know. I feel like there are always opportunities and understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue, but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.
Cassidy Hall [07:34]: Yeah, I appreciate you talking about it as a theological imperative and, you know, anything from our God images and our icons, you know, and the way they depict whiteness predominantly, you know, our stained glass in our old church buildings, those kinds of things. And I guess my question for you along with that would be how important is the work of recognizing the past missteps in our particular settings? How important is that to the fullness of the anti-racist work we need to do?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [08:05]: Well, you know, if you’re thinking about what does it mean to be a beloved community where we’re reflecting everyone? And all of the richness that all of the cultures that we might be in any particular place have to bear, means that we have to make space. And so I’m all for trying to figure out how do we actually just share all of that richness on a rotating basis, knowing that instead of assuming that there’s only one way, only primacy of one culture––set of images, and everything else has to be fit in amongst the edges––to think about how do we actually honor all of them? This means some things need to be off-center so that, you know, you hear the word de-centering whiteness a lot, right, and I’m thinking well I guess that’s the term. Because there is a way in which we just, without with reflection automatically center whiteness in this country, what does it mean to actually, to be sharing that space? And as a leader in the church, I’m grateful for congregations and leaders who are asking the questions: “why are all the stained glass windows only white people?” Now I will say I was Rector of a church in Syracuse, which was very, very integrated racially, Black, white, almost 50/50, and the first Native American to be ordained Deacon in the Episcopal tradition was ordained in that building. And there had been a storm that had happened in 1998 that took out a set of windows and so, as I was coming in as Rector in 2004, they were installing newly designed windows in the place of where this glass used to be. And I will say it’s a different thing to worship in the space where you have Native American images and faces in the stained glass, as well as the white Jesus that was over the altar, right? Like you can’t help, but pray and think differently because we were formed so much by those visuals. We have congregations here in the Diocese of Indianapolis who was saying, “why is the only Black image on the wall the Bishop’s picture?” Like maybe we need to do something about that and ask the question because there were other images we can choose. And of course, Jesus was not white. Just to have that conversation about how we center some images and ideas about things more than others means that we can get to some real change that reinforces the work we’re doing outside the church, you know? So we’ve been having this disjointed experience of like, we’re all about dismantling racism on the streets of the cities we live on, but then we come back in the churches, you know, pre-pandemic come in the buildings and it’s like white, white, white, white, white. We are waking up all of us and going, yeah, that doesn’t make sense anymore. It was okay for a while, but how about we enrich the imagery here?
Cassidy Hall [10:29]: There are a couple of things you said in that that was really striking to me. And one was, I’m thinking of, you know, the writings on the Black Christ: Kelly Brown Douglas, Albert Cleage, Jr., Deotis Roberts, and of course, James Cone. The way that, that was a way to center Blackness; yeah, in a way that was honoring and elevating, I don’t know where I’m going with that, but…
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [10:51]: Yeah, no, just, I mean, I’m just thinking in my personal story, not having grown up, going to church much. I had two years in this AME Zion Church and then joined the Episcopal Church, sitting in the pews when I was in college, and then was baptized the year after I graduated college. I’m grateful that my understanding of what it means to be a Christian was in the context where we were talking about the images of how Black people are portrayed in the news. Like, you know, there was an anti-racism committee that was really active in my church in the late eighties. And then Kelly Brown Douglas was being published and she was in New York City and a church. And now she’s a dear friend and mentor, she’s now at Episcopal Divinity School at Union. But my understanding of what Christianity is based on hearing her preach as amongst the first people I ever heard preach in person. I don’t know-how; so when you know, it’s very much intertwined that experience of understanding this particular way of seeing liberation theology; the Black liberation theology movement. It’s really been formative for me, not that my experience needs to be everyone’s experience. But it would be my hope that we are now being formed in this more expansive way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus. One, that’s not new, it’s been around for a very long time, but the voices are now coming to the fore in a way that is really important for this time.
Cassidy Hall [12:07]: Yeah; yeah, and I appreciate you sharing about your church experience. Also while I was preparing to interview you, I noticed you have a degree in architecture along with a minor in urban studies and a master’s in historic preservation. So putting on maybe your architect hat and your historic preservation, hat of buildings and structures in the context of social justice, and I know this is a big question, how do we navigate when it’s time to quote-unquote, burn it all down or to dig through the rebel, navigate the history, learn it, own it and rebuild with what’s left.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [13:10]: I wanted to study architecture because I loved beautiful buildings and having lived in places that were not always beautiful, you know, housing projects are not beautiful places, but they’re typically surrounded by beautiful places. And as a child, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 28. So I walked everywhere, I took the subways everywhere and explored New York City. And that formed me because one of the things that I would say is that as a child, I knew that the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, so you can hear my Brooklyn accent, because I can’t say those words without betraying my accent! But the BQE runs alongside people’s apartments, such as you could see them cooking dinner in their kitchens, they just cut through neighborhoods. The way they were building the highway systems didn’t really care about who was living there, right? So urban renewal came and did a lot of damage, but I knew that as a six-year-old because I could see it and wondered why that was okay as a child. So, you know, here we are, generations have passed since then just 40 years, 50 years outside of that urban renewal. And people know that that was wrong and we have opportunities to repair it because a lot of those highways are past their lifespan, right? They need to be somehow dealt with and what are the opportunities we have? And so I’m saying all that to say is that we can’t pretend to not know the damage that some of those projects have had. The damage that redlining has meant for people’s access to the quote-unquote American dream and wherever we are and understanding that reality, gives us an opportunity to choose differently. And this particular point in history means we actually can do a lot of change to rectify some of the damages of the past. And if we cannot be wallowing in the, do I feel guilt or shame about it like feel the feelings and let’s get to work to make the world better. I don’t know if that gets there, but I just think, you know, there’s history, there’s baggage, it’s always been thus, but if we’re alive today, we have an opportunity to kind of figure out how to band together to make things different. And that being said the last year of our history has shown us that we struggled with caring enough about how to make lives better for other people. So there’s the opportunity and there’s also I think the need for us as a country, particularly to learn that it’s really about everybody and not just what is going to get me through the day and my family alone, like we really have to care about other people.
Cassidy Hall [15:37]: Yeah and to your point, we have such a tendency to talk things to death or feel things to death before we actually begin just doing the things and showing up. And I think that’s a huge part of the work; what does it look like to show up and just start cleaning up the rubble and then deciding what to do together.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [15:56]: Right, you know, there’s one example, I’ve been in touch still with the folks in Syracuse where the church I served had been integrated because the Black congregation that they had birthed in was reunited with was needing to leave its building because the highway was going to come right through. While they built a highway across the street, but they demolished the building anyway and now it’s just like an empty corner. And like this horrible sort of scar on the environment and on people’s hearts, because that didn’t need to happen. But the folks didn’t have agency or power to make it different, right. So now that highway needs to come down and people are like, well, but the thing is having the highway cut through this neighborhood and makes it easier for people to get to the suburbs and they don’t have to go through the city. And there they’ve been fighting about this since 2006, and it’s still up for conversation, I check in on it every few weeks. And I’m going, why is it so hard to actually say to the people who are living with the effects of this highway, in the midst of their neighborhoods, to say, we’re going to ask you to do this thing for these people. And not worry about what happens to the suburban commute, because actually there are other ways to get to the suburbs faster, so let’s just do this, but it’s just complicated, doing hard projects like that, where you’re trying to actually take into account people’s concerns. But overwhelmingly it’s those who’ve got resources in power who get privileged over those who don’t. And if we can begin to put ourselves in different places of empathy, for the sake of healthy change, be willing to give up some things, you know. Eric Law, a priest who does a lot of the work around the Kaleidoscope Institute that he created anti-racism, he wrote in one of his early books that we believe, you know, that Jesus hung on the cross and we’ve constructed a world, this is paraphrasing, in which there are some people who are hanging on the cross like for eternity, you know even Jesus came off the cross eventually. How about we like, take some people off the cross for a minute and do something for the sake of those who don’t ever get a break.
Cassidy Hall [17:56]: Yeah, do you see a way in which contemplation––that practice, feeds our action in terms of our activist work in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [18:05]: Yeah, I mean, so those two through the tradition and certainly my experience has been that when I give myself a time to be restored and to have my brain synapses just rest so that they can be rebuilt, be wired, like that’s when new creativity comes and energy comes for the long haul. And I’m really clear about all of this, that the work of building the beloved community of dismantling the systems that oppress people is a long-term work. And I hope for a little progress in my lifetime, I don’t expect that it will be done in my lifetime, because it’s a huge human project, right. And, we do with divine help and inspiration. And, so we’ve got to pace ourselves in the work, meaning, you know, I run, so I like the running metaphors. I love it in a track race, when you have a pacer; the pacer is setting the pace, so that the runners who are competing can actually hit their splits towards whatever record they’re trying to break. And at some point, you know, the pacer can run faster than the racers to keep ahead of them, but then the pacer drops off because they can’t keep that up forever, so they might drop off and maybe another pacer comes in. So, you know, this is a long, long lifetime work and if we don’t step off the track to rest, to renew, to take our nutrition, to pray, to see what the Spirit’s going to open up to us if we are able to quiet our minds and our hearts for a bit. Then, you know, in doing that, we get renewed to be able to get back into it. But, you know, I chased rest, my Jesus chased rest, it’s hard, it’s because our inclination is to feel productive by doing all the time. And even when you stop, there’s always another thing, but human bodies are not constructed to do that, to go without stopping and resting and being renewed. And renewal and growth happen in the time of rest, this was a scientific fact. So why fight it?
Cassidy Hall [20:08]: And maybe even we’ll find ourselves in a mystical encounter with God feeling a sense of a hug.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:13]: Yeah.
Cassidy Hall [20:14]: So something else I read, which I found really interesting was a defining experience you had, when you found yourself near the World Trade Center, the morning of September 11th, 2001, would you mind sharing that?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:27]: Sure, I think about it all the time. It was such a moment for our whole country and just we’re living with the ramifications of that day in so many ways right now. But I had gone to the church where I was baptized, Trinity Church Wall Street to be a part of a consultation with the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams was convening folks who do spiritual work and leadership across the church and I was privileged to be invited and we were supposed to assemble for 8:45 that Tuesday morning. I remember arriving early and going to the bathroom and the bathroom of the parish house, which is no longer there, they’ve demolished it and built a new building in the last couple of years. But this was an old cranky building from the 1920s and I remember going this bathroom is still noisy, these pipes are as loud and, you know, and, but I was listening to actually was the first plane hitting the building, the South tower. Because we could feel the building shake and I thought it was just the old building. And then when we went out to the parish one of the classroom buildings where we were going to have our session, we thought there was a confetti festival of some kind because all this paper was flying. And then we began to hear the news and so, you know, here, I was with all of these people, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, but the majority of whom I’ve known since I became a Christian. And as the morning wore on just found ourselves kind of huddled in a staircase. And so the piece that is always with me is staying in this staircase of this parish house building and not knowing if we were going to get out. And hearing reports that we thought might be of bombings happening across the country. We thought the space needle in Seattle had been hit, we didn’t know. But how old was I, this was 2001, so like 35 and thinking that you know, I hadn’t done all the things I didn’t want to do, but if I had to die that day, then I was at peace with it because I was at the place where I’d kind of had a second life, you know, being baptized and having this new life in Christ. And I thought, well, I’m going to die anywhere, and then I will die with the man who baptized me, who was up the stairs, a few steps. And then, you know, that didn’t happen, we escaped as the North tower was falling. And I was living in New Jersey at the time, but I had lived in; I grew up in Staten Island, and could walk blindfolded the way from the Staten Island ferry terminal to Trinity Wall Street because I was there every day for meetings, choir, rehearsals, church. And I grabbed a hand of a woman I met that day and ran blind all the way to the ferry terminal, I don’t know how many blocks, it’s a 10-minute walk, and got ourselves in the last boat to Staten Island, went back to the old department I lived in before grad school and rang bells until someone I knew could answer and kind of waited it out until my mom came home and was able to be reunited with me, so that was the day. And there are very few days now that, I mean, I don’t think about it every single day, but there was a time when it was just all I could think about because of the losses and the grief and the survivor’s guilt and all of that. But it’s one of the few times where I felt fearless about death. Death in me is not; like, I want to be here as long as I can, God willing, right. But that’s the moment where I thought, well, this is what faith is about, right, like if this is it, okay, God. And I pray that when it is my time to die, that I have that sense of ease about it.
Cassidy Hall [23:50]: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. There’s something that’s clarifying, it seems about moments in life when our backs are up against the wall and there’s just no option. And we have to give ourselves to the mystery that is if you’re willing to share, have you ever experienced that feeling outside of that day?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [24:11]: I have not. And it’s, you know, it’s just interesting to me, when that happened, I was ordained maybe five years. I was ordained in 97, so not ordained very long, not even long enough to have actually been with someone as they died at that point. And so a couple of years after that, being able; you know, we had people who died on that day, but I wasn’t with them at the point of death. But having that experience taught me something about how to be with people as they die, which, you know, I’ve counted as a gift.
Cassidy Hall [24:41]: So a little bit of a shift here back into yeah, social justice activism. I wonder if you could speak to maybe how important it is to work on these issues? Not just in our heads, but in our hearts and bodies and maybe how yeah, like the prophetic imagination or prophetic preaching is a way to kind of guide us there and the importance of that.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [25:19]: Yeah, I think it’s all, I mean, it’s; we’re not going ever to think ourselves–– if we could think ourselves out of this situation, I think we probably could have managed that already.But it’s about changing hearts, which means changing daily decisions. And so, there are people who are much smarter about this than I am and the kind of field about anti-racism work is shifting and growing. And it’s almost, you know, it’s becoming a discipline in some ways, right, because of the scholarship that people are bringing to it and so I’m learning all the time. So the one thing I would say is that there’s always more to learn and you can’t just read your way out of it.I think it really boils down to some simple things like place and relationship. So when this pandemic; one of the things I’ve been really attentional about while we are not traveling in the ways we’ve been used to, is that instead of driving through the neighborhoods, then I would just drive through to get from point A to point B. I drive to those places and walk the neighborhoods because I want to walk every day. And so for the first few months of the pandemic and I still do this, I have mostly had the same routes that allow me to walk out my front door and walk. But now I’m choosing different directions, I’m going to neighborhoods where people say, “Oh, that’s a problem neighborhood.” And I’m like, “well, have you walked around the neighborhood? Do you know that neighborhood?” Or do you see it as a problem because of your distance from it, from a comfortable place, and only know what you read in the news? I think there’s a lot of heart work that can be done by putting ourselves in those places where we feel like the other exists or wherever you might be afraid to go. It could begin by just flocking and being comfortable in different spaces. Which grows a piece of our capacity to encounter and be willing to be transformed by difference, maybe letting go of presuppositions, because we now have new facts literally on the ground. And then it’s about whom are we in relationship with? And I know that there are those who disagree, but I know I’ve been profoundly changed by having friends of different cultural and racial backgrounds. And, you know, I’m an African-American, Native American person who is in the minority in this country historically by numbers. So I have to; actually, I don’t have to have friends of different races, I’m choosing to do that because I find that enriches my life, and my particular experience of childhood has assumed that kind of diversity. And if you didn’t grow up with that kind of diversity, I don’t think it’s too late ever to find ourselves in different spaces where we can grow our friendship circles. And so I always ask people, tell me about the people who regularly get invited to your dinner table, remember not in the pandemic, right? Or folks will say, well, you know, I go to this club, I’m like, well, why don’t you go to this other club? Think about the places where you choose to put yourself. I play tennis here, but why don’t you play tennis in the park where everyone is mixing it up? Those are the kinds of a heart choices, I mean, there are technical choices, there are logistical choices, but we go out of our way to have experiences that are meaningful to us in all kinds of ways, except for the ones where we have to encounter different people of different races and classes, but we can do that. We just have to decide today, I’m going to do that.
Cassidy Hall [28:23]: And what you’re saying too, I mean that’s kind of practice too. I see my morning walk as a contemplative practice. And it happens to be, you know, in my neighborhood park where I see my neighbors and, you know, we all wave and kind of holler good morning at each other. But that idea of yeah, that the practices of our spirituality can more deeply engage us with all of humanity.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [28:57]: Yeah, I really think that’s a part of the journey, you know, I just think there’s probably more scriptural warrant for it. We haven’t thought about it that way, but there are stories of Jesus on the borderlines; the borderlands. You know, the Good Samaritan story that we love so much happened on the borderlands. And yet we don’t often willingly take ourselves there to hear, but other stories are playing out that way on those places. And you know, life is hard and it’s busy and it’s hard to be challenged by things; because life is already hard enough and yet, you know, racial oppression is harder. Like, why don’t we just take it; we could actually make life a little easier if we’re doing some of this heart work. And in the aggregate, then I think we begin to think about who we vote for differently. Our policies look different and we get to decide what impacts on our civic life are influenced by the kinds of things we think about and encounter in the world. But it won’t happen if we’re doing the same old, same old, get the same old stuff from the beginning, and no one’s happy. Well except for, one-percenters, probably. There there’s a segment of people for which this is working right, but the rest of us, the majority of us, this is not working.
Cassidy Hall [30:03]: So I want to flip a question backward a little bit as we come to the end of our time together. And you’ve kind of answered this, but I wonder if we could kind of reframe it. So let’s take a movement like Black Lives Matter and ask what can Black Lives Matter teach us about God and spirituality or contemplation?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [30:53]: Voices that have been intentionally silenced will not be silent forever. And I think the thing about Black Lives Matter is that it’s this new iteration of the voices of those who have been oppressed, silenced, forgotten, and left out that are not going to be kept down for long. And the tradition over and over again tells us that there will be prophets who will speak on behalf of those who are the oppressed. Because as it happens, God actually has a preferential option for God’s oppressed people, right? And so I believe that there’s a continuum in that movement, that’s saying in this particular moment, this is how we need to express I think from a spirituality point of view Black lives not to be oppressed destroyed, left out, and that there are lots of other voices that also need to be raised up. And it’s not a zero-sum game if there was some reading in that movement at the moment, but I’ve watched Black Lives Matter become a chant to become a really controversial thing.
And I’m like; I don’t understand what’s so controversial about letting Black people not die at the hands of the police. Or lifting up the values of the extended family instead of just, I’m going to go it alone with my nuclear family, which is, I hear that a lot. You know the anti-family and I’m going, let’s just think about what we are saying when we talk about family and how there are other ways to do it that are actually more scriptural and biblical than the way we tend to do it in this country. So anyway, it’s a complicated thing, I do think those who are leading in BLM are doing us all the good service in many ways. From having us look at how we dispense our resources in service of our communities, from policing all the way to mental health issues and everything in between to asking the question, why do we even need this movement? You know, I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
Cassidy Hall [32:52]: Yeah, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining today and for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your stories. I really appreciate it.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [33:01]: Well, it’s been a delight to think through some of these important questions. So thank you so much, Cassidy, it’s been a real joy.
Cassidy Hall [33:11]: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of contemplating now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
In 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.”
[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 Merton, was 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 understandingto 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 Geesand 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.
“Your questions are of the devil,” I was told at an evangelical youth conference in high school. My insides responded confused, “huh? What the hell just happened?!” But, instead of speaking up, I went along with the adult in the room and regretfully shut my mouth.
Over twenty years later, I find myself in seminary, pursuing ordination, and more full of questions than I’ve ever held. Only now, I remember to show them off like treasures, reminding others and myself that questions innately connect us to the divine by the very fact that they belong to mystery. Now, I claim my curiosities and doubts as boldly as my sexuality–with pride. I remember to bask in the questions––because they mean growth, change, my continual becoming, and perhaps most importantly––unknowing.
But, loving the questions in all their infinitely unanswerable ways seems impossible most days. It’s an easier task when I have something to hang on to. When I have a tangible or tactile sliver of evidence or hope. But when there’s nothing? Living alone in the midst of a pandemic when I find myself craving a sense of safety and knowing, I often wonder is it too much to ask to just be able to know or trust something, or someone?
In his seminal work, Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes with aspiring poet, 19 year-old Franz Xaver Kappus. Within their many exchanges Rilke wrote to Franz on July 16, 1903:
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future.”
Walker, on the other hand, expands even more on these notions:
I must love the questions
as Rilke said
like locked rooms
full of treasure
to which my blind
and groping key
does not yet fit.
and await the answers
mailed with dubious intent
and written in a very foreign
and in the hourly making
no thought of Time
to force, to squeeze
I grow into.
Unlike Rilke, Walker moves me into my body ––she offers me a tangible means of what it means to love and live the questions, she expands upon the metaphors of unknown language, unsealed letters, and an inaccessible door –– she enlivens and awakens my questions.
Why does it matter? For me, questions are the fruit of a life fully engaged. My doubt reminds me to take on my questions, to search the books, ask the neighbor, to grow, learn, and expand. Doubt belongs to faith in the same way that mystery belongs to God.
My teenage questions were not of the devil and neither are my 37-year-old doubts.
When I arrived back home after that trip with my youth group I remember the shock and surprise my young teenage self felt. Being that I was the only “nonbeliever” (evangelical lingo) on that trip I was a kind of project for people to huddle around and convert. And amid all of that misinformation and emotional manipulation, amid all of the lies and false certitudes, the divine accompanied me in all my questions, doubts, and uncertainty. The divine was — and is, my questions and doubts.
79 years ago today, Thomas Merton entered Gethsemani Abbey, three days after Pearl Harbor.
52 years ago today, he died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a lecture on “Marxism & Monastic Perspectives.”
At the end of his talk, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.” Some call this prophetic, but I think it was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy (and controversial) talk.
Many of you know I’ve begun to sway away from Merton in some of my scholarship, recognizing we don’t need to admire more white-cis-male leaders. I’ve always been open about critiquing Merton, and will continue to be. To be frank, I think Merton himself would be on board with this (despite him being an enneagram 4 and needing to feel special). I think he would also be seeking out more work and scholarship by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other People of Color.
Why does this matter? For me, it matters because perpetuating voices who already have great attention in our world makes other brilliant voices more difficult to find. For me, it matters because lifting up white-cis-male voices elongates said power and feeds an already patriarchal and white-supremacist world. For me, it matters because white-cis-men have very little grasp on the fullness of the human experience when it comes to marginalization and oppression. I cannot learn from Merton, for instance, what it’s like to be Black in America. Merton cannot convey the pain of being Queer and rejected. He can provide historical perspective or researched ideas, but a white-cis-male cannot speak well into the fullness of an oppressive situation separate from his identity.
For me, it matters because the generalized cis-white-male experience is far from inclusive of all people, is far from understanding all oppressions, is far from understanding all experiences. For me, when I yield to thoughts and theologies that oversimplify oppression, I participate in the dominative systems at hand.
The fullness of liberation lies with the fullness of voices. And so long as I participate in perpetuating the domination of cis-white-male voices in spiritual leadership, I perpetuate slower movement toward the fullness of liberation for all people (shoutout to Womanist methodology).
Merton was controversial in his time, indeed. His words are relevant and helpful, indeed. His correspondence and work focused on and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences, indeed. He himself was an immigrant from France, indeed. He speaks prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in, indeed.But, what am I reading whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives NOW?What voices am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial TODAY?
This is my journey, not yours, not someone else’s. Merton himself spoke to the significance of integrity saying, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. …They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain effort to be some other poet, some other saint.” And, it is my hope that we all find and navigate our own journeys, whether privately or openly. The fullness of myself relies on the fullness of you, that we might all be true to our uniqueness and dive deeper into communal care.
The spiritual life is simultaneously simple and complex, infinitely static and dynamic. May we all find our own sacred center so that we can continue evolving and participating in each other’s liberation, each other’s freedom, and each other’s fullness of self.
“We are going to have the questions tonight. Now I will disappear.”
(Note: I am well aware of Merton’s works on other faiths and correspondences with: Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rachel Carson, works in the Sufi tradition, James Baldwin, Rev. Dr. MLK Jr., studies in Taoism, exploration in indigenous wisdom, Hesychasm, Judaism, Protestant Tradition, … … …)
Many of us feel a complication between what is urgent and what is important. In my experience, contemplation has always taken me closer to the truth of urgency with a clarified mind and settled body. It has shown me the marriage of that which is urgent and important. In this way, I believe urgency can be an embodied means of reaching for justice and collective well-being. In this way, I see urgency in the minds of contemplatives attuned to the present moment and in the struggle of the activists’ pursuit of change. In this way, I see “activism” and “contemplation” as interchangeable dimensions of the same expression.
Often times, contemplative life errors on the side of silence and solitude instead of a meeting place for speaking out and showing up. But in order for contemplation to be whole, writes Therese Taylor-Stinson, “it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.”
Similarly, in his work on mysticism and social action, Howard Thurman talks about action as sacrament. He writes that the mystic “recognizes that he shares in the collective ills of his society… In him is mirrored the very life of the society of which he is a part, but he must begin with himself. For the mystic, social action is sacramental…”
Responding to these two voices I ask myself: To what am I willing to be present and awake? What ills of society am I identifying with? How am I yielding to social action as sacramental? How am I weaving together the indisputable connectivity of contemplation and social action? In recognizing they belong to each other, their beauty is enhanced wherever we find them coexisting.
The image I chose to share with this brief writing is a well known image of the late John Lewis standing his ground before the oncoming beating by the Police which would leave him severely injured. And, the reason I chose this image is because in his backpack at this very moment, Lewis was carrying Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (it’s been noted before that perhaps it was a different book by Merton). In the summer of 1998, Lewis said, “I had a book by Thomas Merton when I was walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, marching from Selma to Montgomery…I would also sometimes carry books by Gandhi and about Gandhi; books by Dr. King and about Dr. King; and Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience.'” Why is this important? Why would a man with the conviction of activism carry a book by a Trappist monk? I believe this image exemplifies a visual embodiment of Action as Sacrament. It shows what we all know that Lewis was a man of deep thought, sincere courage, and a man whose action was born out of his contemplation. Lewis was a man whose life was a constant weaving together of contemplation and social action. So, I give him the last word…
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’…we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.” –John Lewis, December 2019
As I confront my own role in racial injustice, I think about the false narratives embedded in white supremacy. False narratives that say my body will be protected if I remain silent on issues that matter, a false narrative which coddles and comforts white people. Upon these lies, countless systems of oppression have been built, systems which white people benefit from and knowingly or unknowingly participate in.
So what I am learning is that this work requires a daily, moment to moment confrontation of myself and my complacency in issues of injustice which is often bound up in my comfort. And that complacency is precisely what leads to my complicity.
One of the most significant ways we are failing Beloved Community, as white people, is that we are failing to go deep. We are using “Black Lives Matter” as another form of tokenism, a performative platform, while still being coddled by oppressive systems built upon injustice. And until we truly step into the daily and moment-to-moment discomfort, this will exist.
And, as we know, the depth begins with us–it begins with the individual work that must seep out into all areas of our life. The individual work which leads to collective work.
The work isn’t comfortable, but the only other option is complicity.
“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”
“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
This past Sunday I was asked to preach on antiracism. With the concept of antiracism being a new topic for some, I addressed its alignment with our willingness to say “Black Lives Matter.” The sermon was written and recorded with my white congregation in mind, and therefore, is a message from a white person to other white people pursuing and doing the work of racial justice.
The idea of antiracism means we do indeed see racism in the systems of oppression and in our lives, our newsfeed, even our own hearts. Antiracist work is a confrontation of ourselves and the world around us. It is work which seeks to heal because it is willing to begin seeing what is really happening.
Antiracist work is not comfortable. It requires a continual willingness to step into discomfort, lest we be complicit.
Yet, as white people in a world built for white comfort, we have a daily option to opt-out of the work of racial justice and antiracist living. This also means, it is a daily choice to opt-in–a daily decision to say “Yes” to the work of antiracism, “Yes” to “Black Lives Matter,” and “Yes” to the countless endeavors of racial justice in our midst.
“I need a love that is troubled by injustice. A love that is provoked to anger when Black folks, including our children, lie dead in the streets. A love that has no tolerance for hate, no excuses for racist decisions, no contentment in the status quo.”
“Anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people. It doesn’t end when white people feel better about what they’ve done. It ends when Black people are staying alive and they have their liberation.”
“The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.”
It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.
Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.
Mysticism is a riot.
In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.
The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.
Mysticism breeds revolution.
Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”
Mysticism is a protest.
Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.
Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves: Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
Mysticism is on the streets.
So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”
Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”
For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”
Mysticism is now.
If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.
Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.
Note: This is about recent news about what has been done to black and brown bodies in America, if you feel you cannot read more about that, I understand. This is written to white people. If you don’t identify as white, you are still welcome to read, but please know this is not in any way directed to you.
“What is it you wanted me to reconcile myself to? I was born here, almost 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me ‘It takes time.’ It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
Time, it seems, is a singular certitude which binds us together. We use it to mark, name, note, consider, forge ahead, look behind, and yet, we (societally speaking as it pertains to the US) don’t use it for honoring and loving one another in our common humanness. Time ought to stir up the reverence it assumes by its finitude. Time ought to point to the rootedness of our endless connectivity to every fellow human.
If time tells us much about the fight for equality specifically for black people in the history of America, we can take a VERY short walk with a few quotes I’ve recently read (and God knows we could take a much longer walk with history for time immemorial):
“There is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement that would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.” ––Bayard Rustin, 1965
“Our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers had to run, run, run! My generation has run out of breath. We just ain’t runnin’ no more.” ––Stokely Carmichael, 1967
“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.” ––Audre Lorde, 1978 poem (full poem here)
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. … hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language ― all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.” ––Toni Morrison, 1993 Nobel Lecture
“Our responsibility as citizens is to address the inequalities and injustices that linger…” ––Barack Obama, 2016
If time is that which unifies us, why has the greatest struggle––the one for our unity, taken so much time? Some suggest that we must slowly steer the ship in the right direction, meanwhile black, brown, and marginalized bodies die. There is no time to take the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. “There is no time for talk when men are suffering,” wrote theologian James Cone.
So what do we––white people, do?
Read. Listen. Heed.
Read from authors, journalists, and poets who don’t look like you, don’t think like you.
Listen to the stories of black, brown, and marginalized voices and bodies. Really listen. Listen until you feel their stories. Listen until your body recognizes itself in their body. Listen until it hurts (that’s how we know our listening becomes hearing).
Heed what you find out. Take action by way of encouraging others to do the same. Take action by beginning with yourself: your own research, your own learning, your own healing. End the war within yourself, the war which subconsciously elevates you above your fellow human.
Do not waste time being ashamed. Begin where you are. All we have is time. And let this time deepen our unity, let this time enliven our bond, let this time give us back to each other.
Suggested Books from Black authors (there are MANY, MANY, MANY more to all these lists, this is an effort to only suggest that which I have read/listened to/or watched myself):