Currently there are 351 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in the U.S.*, most of which are direct attacks upon transgender youth. The very existence of these bills (whether they pass or not) impacts mental, spiritual, and physical well-being of LGBTQIA+ folks everywhere. 293 of those bills are currently advancing,** coming closer to becoming laws and moving towards perpetuating an irreparable harm. Last month alone, bills in 14 states were pushed forward by lawmakers targeting drag performers and even drag story hours at libraries. And just this past week, the current state I call home (Indiana) advanced two anti-LGBTQIA+ bills including Indiana’s very own “Don’t Say Gay” bill (HB1608) and another (SB480) opposing medical science, standard treatments for trans youth, and human dignity–which just passed yesterday.
Instead of reminding LGBTQIA+ folks of our innate belonging, these bills perpetuate a false notion that belonging must be fought for, that belonging is not a birthright, that belonging isn’t entwined with the Divine’s image already upon us.
As I mull over these issues and bills in my head, I am brought back to the ways LGBTQIA+ existence, LGBTQIA+ embodiment, LGBTQIA+ minds in schools, LGBTQIA+ intelligence in healthcare and therapeutic resources –– continues to establish a firm foundation of innate belonging, persistent existence, and celebrated personhood.
And, as a pastoral leader, theologian, and queer woman, these bills remind me that perhaps it’s time to queer our spaces even more – our places of work, our homes, and our places where we host faith gatherings. Maybe it’s time to queer our liturgy more boldly––to queer biblical stories in order to more clearly recognize our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Perhaps, the last supper was a drag brunch.
Communion Liturgy: Drag Brunch
The Divine among us be within you.
And also within you.
We lift our spirits to the Divine’s shine.
We lift our light to meet the Divine’s brightness.
We fill ourselves with gratitude.
We embody an abundance of gratefulness.
On the night Jesus was unjustly arrested by the systemic structures of oppression and hatred, even as he saw the moment approaching, he chose to gather friends and share a meal.
He wanted celebration to be a part of his memory.
He longed for an abundance of love to carry him into life eternal.
Letting his friends know where and when to join him, he gathered wine and bread at the biggest table he could find.
As they came together, the table elongated,
Until all of the faces he loved were present––
Until all presentations of the Divine’s image in gender/agender, sexuality/asexuality expressions were among them.
In the overflow of love,
In the delight of celebration,
In the wonder of the vastness of humanity,
A drag brunch ensued.
Jesus and his friends gathered to see the kings, queens, and those in drag among them,
Fawning and fanning themselves as they glided around the room,
Dancing, singing, and storytelling in their most bold expressions of self,
Most fantastic reflections of the Divine.
In the joy of gathering,
Exhilaration of life,
Pleasure of extravagance,
And the deep peace of togetherness,
Jesus sat delighted to be among his friends,
Jesus sat pleased with his chosen company.
Then, John, Jesus’ beloved, leapt up from his seat to go behind the curtain and prepare to join the show.
Upon emerging in drag, she leaned over and whispered in the ear of Jesus,
“I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Jesus smiled, as if seeing his most beloved come fully alive for the first time.
The celebration continued until amid the noise and clamor, entwined with the joy and elation of life most alive,
Jesus took the bread in the middle of the table, lifted it and exclaimed,
“May the joy among us now, live amid you in my absence. May you remember to love one another, love yourself, and live in the abundant beauty of exactly who you are.”
Then, Jesus raised his glass, and toasted his friends, saying
“This is to joy, to the possibilities within and among us, to the newness which will live within you in my absence.”
All are invited to this table.
All genders, gender-nonconformity, all sexualities, asexuality…
All expressions of the Divine among us.
All are welcome to remember in body or spirit our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
All are welcome to receive in body or spirit the gifts this table offers.
Divine Light, you shine most brightly in us when we are most fully ourselves.
Your holiness awakens within us in our wholeness.
Your image is upon us as we gather at the table and continue to elongate its welcome. May our everyday lives also reveal the ever-expanding, ever-becoming table, and an openness to the most profound possibilities of love.
Divine love, may this food and drink be a reminder of our innate belonging, our persistent existence, and our celebrated personhood.
Your image is one of belonging, expanding, celebrating––and lives among us and within us.
Go with us now, to live lives of the great celebration, to live lives true ourselves and true to your love.
Cole Arthur Riley: Contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life and the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds. At least that’s how I think about it.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast focused on the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spiritualties 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.
Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest. Black Liturgies is a project of the Center for Dignity and Contemplation, where she serves as the executive curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the recently published book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us .
Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Your new book is absolutely incredible and your work is so important. Thank you so much for being here.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you, and thanks for having me.
Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is just kind of a way to orient our conversation. I’m wondering how you personally define the words contemplation and mysticism, and maybe also how you see them lived out in the world today.
Cole Arthur Riley: I would say contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life in the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds, at least that’s how I think about it. How I see them in the world today, I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to–I think, especially in western contexts to have it show up, particularly mysticism, with any kind of clarity. It’s hard to see in other people. There are certainly these kinds of spaces where it’s safe to talk about one’s kind of exploration of mystical things, and mysticism, but I don’t find myself always in those spaces. I’ve lived a life kind of tangential to the academy, to college settings and worked with academics for many years and talking about their kind of connection to spirituality and what they do in their work or their research. And I found that was all very exciting. But when it came to talking about kind of element of mystery and the unknown, and in terms of engaging that spirituality, it was a little more difficult to do it felt like more is at stake almost.
Cassidy Hall: I love that fidelity to mystery or fidelity to magic. When I hear that, when I think about that, I also think of things like transcendence. And I’m wondering if you see any association with Reverend Dr. Holmes, Barbara Holmes, who talks about this notion of public mysticism. And I wonder if you see that fidelity to magic is also existent in activist movements?
Cole Arthur Riley: Absolutely. I think, that there’s something there. When you think about what activism requires, the kind of belief activism requires, the kind of moral imagination, just general imagination, it requires for you to kind of protest. You’re protesting, which shouldn’t be, but to do that it requires you have some kind of concept of what should be and I think that takes a lot of kind of contemplation and mystical work to, to dream up a different way, almost. But I think that there is a very credible tension, I would say between the life of a contemplative and the life of an activist. I talked about this in the book, briefly, that I had a boss and a mentor who said, right before I began writing This Here Flesh, she said, if there’s anyone that I’ve met who’s both contemplative and activist, they’ve never been able to do both well. If they’re out there, I haven’t met them. And I mean, immediately, I thought, that’s what I want. Challenge accepted. That’s who I want to be in the world. But also, I do think there’s something really credible about that tension that he was articulating. The kind of urgency I think that activism can seem to require and does require, at times can seem in conflict with the contemplative, but I don’t think it needs to be. I love what Barbara Holmes says about the contemplative life. I’m also thinking of this really brief article that Christian Wiman wrote for the Christian Century actually, a while ago, I think it was like a decade ago, he wrote about this tension of the contemplative in him and this kind of desire for action. Anyways, it’s a really beautiful remarks on what I’m describing about that tension.
Cassidy Hall: It’s kind of going back to a previous thing you said, where essentially, this idea that academics have a harder time hosting that ambiguity, hosting that space, you think it’s just this determination to put language to things or, what do you think that is?
Cole Arthur Riley: Well, I can see some of it in myself. I’m not an academic. I’ve worked closely with them and I’m not an academic… I think I was just kind of born a mystic and it was like, worked out in me. So when I was little, my sister and I–I’ve only just recently been reflecting on these weird stories, but my sister and I, we would like literally mix potions out of expired condiments and give each other these signs. Like you’re the sun sign today or you’re the moon sign. And in the book, I talk about this friendship, one of my earliest kind of friendships with this girl, and we would have like ceremonies in the field at recess before, I think we even understood what a ceremony was, we would like call them, this is our ceremony, and like eat chocolate icing and talk to clouds. And so I had something in me that, I think, as I grew up, became more and more legible. And what became more pronounced was like this hyper rationalism. It became serious and dare I say, rational. And when we speak of, I think, the mysterious and the miraculous, I do sometimes find it difficult to believe. I think maybe academics have had some of that childlike wonder and mischief worked out at them as well, drilled out of them. So it requires a resistance in me. This like resistance to the formation that says, clarity and like you were saying, articulation: “Clarity and articulation are the most important things.” I’m very suspicious of that. But I’ve been formed to think that that’s the most important thing. So anyway, I’m constantly trying to travel back and revisit my child self and her wisdom, kind of homecoming, really,
Cassidy Hall: And that fidelity to magic is also kind of like you’re saying this fidelity to play, to pleasure, to joy, to engaging with the natural world as your child self even and, of course, our adult selves. I’m thinking if I were to go make potions in the yard right now, which sounds like a great idea, and talk to the clouds which are pouring down rain right now. But my adult mind would so much say, oh, but rationalize this. You look crazy, or all these things that kind of hinder our fidelity to play or hinder our fidelity to this magic.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yes. It’s so true. It’s difficult. I’m not mixing potions in the basement anymore sadly, but I’m trying to learn how to just be open to mystery. But even mystery in the mundane I think. So I was watching the barn swallows. We have a barn on our property and the barn swallows are returning and just watching them fly earlier this afternoon and watching them kind of swoop and dance and make the wildest shapes in flight and somehow communicate. I start thinking how do birds do that? How do they know? And even just to kind of pause and let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit in that very mundane observation. It’s not quite the magic of the like recess ceremonies but there’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: I love that. Let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit. It’s beautiful. And your work with Black Liturgies is a work of artistry, poetry, therapy, activism. What’s the origin story of creating Black Liturgies?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes. So I started Black Liturgies in the summer of 2020 July, I believe, and what a summer that was. I feel like that’s forever going to be kind of etched into everyone’s consciousness. It was in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. And we had these resurfacing accounts of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. And I’d been in liturgical spaces for a handful of years by that point, and found a lot of rest, I think, rest and beauty and liturgy and I’ve always written and so it’s been a kind of natural way for me to connect with God. But I found myself so hungry, like so desperate for a spiritual space that was capable of holding my Blackness, the grief of the moment and the anger, my rage. I wanted a space that could hold that. And so I started Black Liturgies, kind of hoping to find some like-minded people.
Cassidy Hall: And within that work, do you continue to get in touch with kind of that that space of tension? I think my question is, is contemplation a part of your writing process and how do you maybe hold the tension in those moments when you write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah.. definitely… Black Liturgies is definitely developed and it’s continued to contain that the anger, the grief, but I think it’s expanded into other emotional expressions. I’m really interested in just connecting the body and embodiment and emotional experience… in my writing, I think I absolutely need contemplation and mysticism. I use this language, I made it up of contemplative storytelling in the book. So it was kind of important for me to put language to that, so it feels a little bit distinct. I’m really disinterested in contemplation, purely as a mental experiment. I think more and more people are. I’m interested in embodied contemplation and emotional contemplation, and I’m trying to nurture and preserve stories in the book that are so important to me. And I think they kind of demand a contemplation. If you want to use the language of attention, they demand a kind of sacred attention to ensure that I’m most honest, and a good steward of the stories. So one way that looks, I mean, I wrote my book in about three months. Of that time, around 15 – 17 days were actually spent writing, the other days were spent in listening, and in thought, and embodiment. Being attentive to the stories of my grandma and father, and resting in them as I sat in bed, or I sat in the shade of the oak tree next to my house. And an embodied contemplation as well. I very rarely will relay a movement or motion and a story without practicing them. I don’t describe a person folding a piece of paper without mimicking that in the air with my hands. And so it’s an embodied contemplation as a part of the writing process as well.
Cassidy Hall: That’s such a deep, deep commitment to the work. Like you’re saying, even folding the piece of paper in taking the time to really let the fullness of yourself engage and tell the story.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, seeing writing is just a small, small part of that.
Cassidy Hall: You also in the book, as you’re saying, you write so much about the mind, body, spirit connections, and the importance of embodiment and spirituality. And similarly to me, you write about the importance of undoing the whiteness of God. Do you think these things are connected and that as we move towards undoing the whiteness of God, we might also move towards a deeper embodiment of spirit as a closer enmeshment with the truth and the valuing expanse and have movement towards liberation from those hindrances of those false images?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, beautiful question. Yeah, I do I think the more we undo the whiteness of God, absolutely. I think we experience a kind of deeper and closer connection with the divine, I think, whiteness loves disembodiment. I’ve started to ask this question recently of like, when I’m disembodied, or when I’m kind of find myself really out of sync with my physical self. I’ve been asking my question, if you weren’t in your body today, who was? And the answer to that question has so often been like, white capitalism? The kind of threat of productivity and I think whiteness loves disembodied people because it makes those bodies more easy to colonize, and to take control over ultimately. And I think if you think about whiteness as a force, I mean, how does integrate it? Does have to be to commit the tears that I think whiteness is committed. You have to be a pretty disintegrated person, if you want to talk about what your body is doing. If you want to talk about the hand that holds the whip, and the chains, and then the person with the heart and an emotional experience, I think man has, emotional restriction that absolutely nurtured through the hand of whiteness, this emotional restrictions, detachment from one’s physical self and the acts you’re committing, and one’s emotional, self and empathy. So I think whiteness is absolutely a tool for disintegration–loves it, continues to nurture it. And the more we undo the kind of the force of whiteness in our spiritual imaginations, I think the more the divine, at least for me kind of expands, it opens up, it becomes less about narrowing in on exactly what one thinks about any given topic. And it becomes much more about this kind of play and curiosity and, mystery even and, you know, my thought doesn’t need to be supreme. My experience of God doesn’t need to be supreme in order for it to matter and have value to me. I think that’s kind of the shift you see? I mean, you’ve thought about this as well is that how you’ve experienced it in your own work?
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. The more undoing I experience and the more embodied I am, the more there is to the mystery, to the expanse, to God, God’s Self. I mean, it’s like a deeper pool. But instead of this being a terrifying space where I need to cling and name, it’s a space of freedom and a space of embracing the vastness of God and in myself and in other people, and in nature, and in the squirrel outside my window.
What you said earlier was a form of movement away from that sense of productivity and capitalism and whatnot, even the way you chose to write this book, the way you sat in story, the way you committed to having your body be in touch with story before you put pen to paper it sounds like. Was that like a conscious thing before you started doing that as practice? Or was that something that you kind of just knew you needed to do and it happened?
Cole Arthur Riley: Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. I think I was changed in the process of writing this book. Some of the stories, some of the familial stories I’d heard before. I’d heard fragments of them. But to become a kind of care caretaker of them in a new way, to have the responsibility of translating them to strangers, I think I felt a different kind of responsibility to their stories. And even now, my grandma passed while I was in the final stages of editing the book. And what that does to you in terms of wondering if you’ve done the stories justice. So as you know, as I was listening I’d call them pretty much on a weekly basis and I would have a series of questions for them and have them retell portions of stories or describe certain things. And sometimes I would video chat them or I have lots of videos from before I started writing the book that I would go through, and something about those moments felt so sacred and distinct that I couldn’t just rush to the page. If I would have rushed to the page, I probably would have brought all of me and very little of them ultimately, because I was so in my own experience of their stories, as a daughter, as a granddaughter. And so required some time and space and rest from the like, impulse of productivity, use these stories. How are you going to use these stories? I had to think how are you going to rest in them and honor them? And so that looked a lot like sitting around and staring at a wall or staring at a tree, for me to really be present. Toni Morrison, oh, she has these beautiful words in the sight of memory, where she talks about this practice of imagination for the interior worlds of the people that made her. She was talking specifically about her ancestors who were enslaved. But I think it definitely transcends that. What does it mean to have this really true and honest practice of imagination for my father’s world, for my grandma’s world, that requires time? And I love that she uses the language practice, because it is. And I think that’s really compatible with contemplation and what we’re talking about.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that practice is also a form of healing, and a form of finding your connectivity to the story and your movement into your truest self from those stories? Do you find that as a form of, maybe healing is the wrong word?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, it’s funny that you asked that because Morrison she talks about that practice of imagination. And then she says, they are my entrance. The people you are kind of cultivating this imagination for, they are my entrance into my own interior world. Which I think is really beautiful, and really profound. And I’m 31 and I think I’ll probably understand the depth of that as I age. But there’s something in that, that in encountering my father and my grandma’s stories, and resting in their interior worlds, their lived experiences, I become closer to myself. And there’s something really mysterious in it. Like I have a hard time articulating it if I’m honest, but I feel so close to myself, especially after writing the book, I felt nearer to my own soul than I ever felt. Because I think the honesty in their stories demanded an honesty in me. And so it brought me closer to what I think what I believe and what I’ve lived in my own body.
Cassidy Hall: I just want to name that you also have like this energy of utter groundedness that’s really centered. I experienced that in you, that you are close to yourself.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you.
Cassidy Hall: So I want to ask, and you can choose to answer both or neither of these, of course. I want to ask what was the hardest part of the book to write and what was the easiest part of the book to write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Storytelling really comes pretty easy, easily to me. In writing, I’ve realized very early on that my kind of strength as a writer is in storytelling and kind of play. But listening to the stories were, of course, difficult and costly, and going to the places that most parents and grandparents don’t want to take their children and granddaughters that was hard. But in the writing of it, it felt strangely natural. The contemplative kind of reflections throughout the book. Now those were more difficult for me because I have a really difficult time, pinning down what I want to say with any kind of certainty. So my editors will tell you that my earliest drafts were just like riddled with maybes and perhapses and I don’t know, could be. Because that’s just what contemplation is brought out and ultimately is more uncertainty. I think it’s a editors nightmare to make sense of that on page. What do you think? And my answer is like, well maybe, maybe not. That is really hard to communicate without sounding weak to have a kind of mystery and uncertainty in your contemplation that still feels like it has a depth, I think I learned it’s really difficult, because sometimes uncertainty can sound really shallow. And so it’s really afraid. If I don’t have a clear belief on this, well, it seemed like I haven’t thought deeply about it. And in paradox, I think the deeper you think about things, as most contemporaries will tell you, the more kind of curious and unsure you become. So I realized just how little I have a firm grasp on so the contemplative reflections were really difficult. I think when I’m 50, I’ll probably look back and just laugh at some of the things I’ve said, but at least I know I’ve told the truth, as best as I can tell it for who I am in this moment, but whooo it was difficult.
Cassidy Hall: Maybe some of those contemplative reflections are more expressed in like bodily knowing rather than language. So right, it was maybe just kind of what do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely that as well. This kind of, how do you communicate the embodied knowledge, the intuition, the kind of, I mean, I tell the story of a very significant dream in my grandmother’s life. She was a dreamer. And I’m a person of just a lot of skepticism and doubt, but I believe her. I don’t believe most things people tell me but I believe my grandma. I’ve never wavered in that. But it was really difficult to communicate for example, that dream. It’s a very mysterious dream of an encounter with her ancestors and her father, her father’s father, and uncles and aunts and all these people kind of surrounding her in a dream. Anyways… it’s really hard to communicate what I cognitively think about that experience versus like this embodied intuition I have when my grandma would tell the story. Things like that are really hard to think to translate into pages.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Another thing you talk about in the book is, you kind of push us away from this binary of right and wrong work. And you hone in on expressing the importance of instead focusing on work with integrity and protecting dignity. And in our society, so focused on individualism and productivity. What is your hopes that someone might take away from, from understanding this difference among the other binaries you point us away from?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, I think that society kind of has a vested interest in us making this big deal, this big theater of choosing what work we’ll do and what career we’ll have. I mean, especially if you’re privileged enough to attend college, it’s this very elaborate, vocational discernment. What are you going to do? What work are you going to choose? And that’s how we think about vocation. Man, I’m more and more suspicious of that. And like, oh, okay, when you have that sense of connection, that sense of I was meant to do this, how much easier is it then for a society and like a capitalist driven society to use that and say, like, do, do, do. you know, God’s going to use you? Or, I mean, even if that’s your kind of spiritual formation, how is God going to use you think society and that spiritual formation work in tandem to really get the most out of our bodies that they can possibly get. How exhausting. Now, if you have an idea of vocation, and that discernment is like, how will I do my work, becomes a little more difficult to exploit. If you think it’s about how am I going to do this work with integrity? How am I going to protect dignity and my work? It has a way of disarming I think, the powers that be, the systems that are more concerned with using you because it de-centers a product and it centers like a connection and an honoring. That’s one example as you said. I think I was more and more when I thought about communicating a liberating spirituality in the book. I did want to dismantle these binaries of like, this is the right kind of way and this is the wrong way and more so have us think about the why and the how and the lived experience of a thing as opposed to this definitive choice. Anyways, I think for me at least, the more I experience kind of contemplation as well as the divine God, as a with a fluidity, I think just the more free and like playful and curious I am in my daily life. It feels very liberating to me to not know or to not choose the right way or the wrong way and instead just ask why to convey a human experience. So anyways, people ask me what I want people to take away from this book. And I say in the book, I don’t really want people to come away thinking what I think. I think that would be a real failure on my part. As a contemplative, I would be really proud if people put the book down and were closer to themselves in some way, and closer to their, their own kind of interior world closer to the lives they occupy, and that they feel more free to explore what they think and believe.
Cassidy Hall: That reminds me of a quote from your book, where you write “protect the truest things about you, and it will become easier to hear the truth everyplace else.” Which is incredibly powerful, and goes back to what we’re talking about earlier about the true self and finding the true self. And it seems to me that a lot of true self theology, for lack of better expression, has kind of got that wrong, because it seems to me a lot of true self theology actually hosts some of those binaries and capitalistic and white supremacist values that are guised as your true self is within those. And it seems to me that you’re pointing us to a true self in a in a really new way.
Cole Arthur Riley: You know, I haven’t thought about it the way you’ve put it. But yeah, I hope I’m doing that I think there can be a kind of like, true self theology that becomes about pinpointing. The journey to your true self is about pinpointing these very clear things about yourself. I’m an introvert or I’m this or that, and it becomes this kind of process of narrowing. I’m really interested in expert exploration of my true self is, again, an expanding. So instead of narrowing in on this is, what that means you are these qualities I’m trying to travel into stories that have formed me. I’m trying to, I think encountering my true self, for me means just, you know, even just the practice of going back to six year old Cole and, you know, resting in a memory or these fragments, and not necessarily always needing to make a clear judgment about that, but there’s value in the encounter itself, the nearness itself with that story or that that experience.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Who are some people today that you might name as mystics or contemplatives in our midst?
Cole Arthur Riley: Ocean Vuong certainly comes to mind. A poet and writer who I really admire. Rita Dove, she’s a poet. She has that very famous phrase, if you can’t be free be a mystery. Who else? John O’Donohue, I would say Christian Wiman, who I mentioned earlier. As I’m saying this, what all these people have in common that I that really excites me is that they’re all poets, maybe even primarily poets. And I think that probably reveals a kind of innate trust I have in poets. James Baldwin, I mean, he talks a lot about the artists and the role of the artists. But at one point, he says that only poets, I’m paraphrasing, only poets can be trusted to tell the truth. I’ve just revealed that in myself, you know, there’s something about the heart of a poet, I think, that allows, you know, poetry, it’s not really about communicating a clear idea. It’s these images, it’s these fragments, often it’s the impressions that one is left with after they encounter a poem. And so I think, I have to think about this more, but now I’m getting really energized by the idea of like, what do poets know that we don’t know about contemplation and mysticism. There’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: So Cole another question I want to ask you is, what is your hope for the future of Black Liturgies and for your book?
Cole Arthur Riley: I mean, Black Liturgies I hope it continues to be this kind of harbor. I mean, it’s hard. It’s a public harbor. So you always have to ask yourself how safe is the space if you can’t control who’s was in it? Who comes and who goes so? Yeah, but I hope to kind of find ways to continue to protect people in that space protect black people in that space and kind of have it be, a kind of harbor for black emotion, the black body, black literature, and yeah, kind of spirituality that just feels safe and restful and nuanced, I hope. And I mean… I’m just trying to become more and more honest. You know, in my writing. I mentioned, I’m 31. I think that the art and the literature that I’m most drawn to, it’s the people who have been able to find some connection with this deeply honest self. It even at cost and risk. I think I took some of those risks, and this year, but I hope to do that more and more, as my writing develops, to have more of a more of a closeness to, like an honesty and me.
Cassidy Hall: I’m so grateful for your work and I really look forward to continuing to hear more from you, Thank you for the beautiful things you shared today, even the very beginning when you talked about contemplation as a certain commitment to paying attention and mysticism, as a fidelity to magic. And the way you talked about your writing practice. The way that almost gave me a sense of permission. Anytime I go into a writing space, the world tells us we’re supposed to write the whole time and we’re supposed to sit and write even if it’s garbage that comes out you’re supposed to sit and write, but the permission you gave me today to let my body know more about what I’m doing and what I’m saying was just really encouraging to me. So thank you.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you and thanks for having me. It’s been a really very good and peaceful conversation. So I’m grateful that you have trusted me with your space that you’re creating with your podcast. So thanks again. Yeah,
Cassidy Hall: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
This beautiful compilation of blessings from enflshed was a powerful project to be a part of. You can order this incredible book of blessings, “HELD: blessings for the depths” here. (Note: The first run of the book sold out and this is a pre-order for the second run). You can read the blessing I contributed below:
The Reminder Blessing, by Cassidy Hall
This blessing crossed the rivers of certitude, the seas of tension, the storms of life, and dropped at your feet in-between all that is known and unknown.
This blessing is here to swaddle you in care.
This blessing made space for your feelings, heard your worries, saw your emotions, and gently said: “nothing about you is too much.”
This blessing is proud to be with you.
This blessing has been waiting its whole life to be with you.
This blessing woke up next to you saying, “good morning,” to the most marvelous person it has ever met.
This blessing is a lover in disguise.
This blessing is the reminder of your oceanic oneness with the world, the beloved, yourself, your neighbor, and the stranger.
This blessing keeps showing up.
This blessing is hearty and vigorous, tender and sensitive.
This blessing is your permission to let go
and your encouragement to hold on.
This blessing is the reminder of that softened inner stance which offers the least resistance to the gift of you.
This is the blessing you’ve been waiting for, and also never needed.
I was also asked by a friend earlier this year to add a homily or reflection to a forthcoming book from Clear Faith Publishing. True to form, I wrote about the power of doubt for the 3rd Sunday of Easter and somehow found myself published alongside some brilliant voices. You can find “Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C” from Clear Faith Publishing or on Amazon. You can read my piece below:
The Doubt of Jesus, by Cassidy Hall
I’ve been a skeptic about God for as long as I can remember. Around the age of 8, I began having reoccurring dreams about death. Dreams of floating in a sea of nothingness: alone, lost, stagnant in limitless space and eternal time. Even years before these dreams began, I was already asking questions of the divine. But throughout my life, these questions weren’t always welcomed.
In middle school, I became really interested with spirituality and the possibilities it beheld. I had friends in various youth groups and from time to time I’d attend those groups with them. At that age, the events were more about feeling a sense of belonging. The gatherings were often deeply entangled with the emotional manipulation of the minds and hormones of young teens.
Once, while I was at an evangelical conference with the local youth group, I continued my skepticism and questioning, but this time was different. During one evening’s session, I was moved to participate in an altar call and was immediately flooded with questions of what I had just done. As we gathered in our small groups after the session, my youth leader told me, “Your questions are of the devil.” My insides stirred with a surprised, “huh?” But, baffled and confused, I went along with the adult in the room and regretfully shut my mouth.
Over twenty years later, I find myself in seminary and pursuing ordination more full of questions about the divine 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 questions and doubts with pride. I remember to bask in the questions, because they mean growth, change, and movement. But, perhaps most importantly, I remember questions take me to the place of infinite possibility, the place where God resides.
It seems to me faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. Faith makes room for doubt’s entrance as doubt demands faith for its existence. One cannot host doubt unless there is some knowledge of that which is being doubted. Therefore to doubt, is to both have and demonstrate faith.
When I look at John 21, I sometimes wonder if Jesus asked Peter three times not because of his three denials but because he actually doubted him. Perhaps the humanness of Jesus needed a sense of affirmation and clarity, like the times I need to hear a truth on repeat from a loved one. And, what if Jesus was also instilling his faith in Peter by revealing his doubt? What if doubt belongs to faith more than knowing or even thinking I know?
In my experience, humans have ruined my doubts and questions. God, on the other hand, has valued, honored, and even respected them. I often find the more I question and am honest about my doubt, the more God shows up –– in the mystery, in the uncertainty, in the unknowing. And, so I wonder, what if Jesus asking questions is a model for our own questioning? What if Jesus was living and loving the questions?
“Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves…” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke to young aspiring poet, Franz Xaver Kappus. “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.”
What if Jesus, in his humanness, was openly living and loving the questions amid his uncertainty of what the church might become? What if Jesus, in all his divinity, was modeling a way to hold uncertainty, unknowing, and the infinite possibilities within the unknowing?
For me, doubts and questions are fruits of a life of faith. Doubt reminds us to engage our questions, to search the books, to ask the neighbor, to grow and learn and engage. Doubt belongs to faith in the same way that mystery belongs to God. And 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” on that trip I was a kind of project for people to huddle around and convert. And amid all of that misinformation
Amid all of the lies and good intentions with false pretenses, God was with and within me.
Honoring my unbelief.
Respecting my doubt.
Reminding me to love and live the questions.
Opening me into the infinite possibility where God is.
Prayer: God of all questions, Teach me to hold the doubt and love the questions. Lead me to the infinite possibilities in them, the very same possibility found in your tomb. Help me to bask in the awe of mystery, give me a sense of safety and comfort there. Grant me the courage to hold uncertainty, the resilience to carry unknowing, and the endurance to bask in all of life’s mysteries. Remind me, O God, that basking in mystery is basking in you.
If the news in America has flashed across your screen in any manner, then you know that ignorance and white supremacy culture are on full display. It’s easy to name it, scoff at it, recognize it as damaging, and know—or think, one is on the right side of history. But, as a white person, this time demands my self-reflection. As much as I can name myself as someone who is not a participant in what is happening at the Capitol, the fact is that I have far more in common with those participants than I care to consider.
Many of us are saying “if they were Black…” but that fails to recognize that they are white and they are our (white people) problem. To examine what is happening is to see the blatant display of whiteness, white supremacy, and white privilege. I am a white person. Perhaps you are, too. This is our problem.
You might be thinking, like myself, that “they’re not like me,” or “I’m not like them,” because I didn’t vote for Trump or I don’t agree with what’s happening… but what are we doing? It’s not enough to be against something that is threatening lives, justice, and collective liberation—what are we actively doing in favor of those things? How are we actively protecting and caring for those whose lives are under direct threat? How are we actively protecting our democracy?
It’s moments like today when I confront the “white liberal” in myself. The one who “sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form.” In Black Theology & Black Power, James Cone goes on to write that this liberal “wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict… He wants change without risk, victory without blood.”
Similarly, over 50 years ago, MLK warned us that “The white liberal must escalate his support for racial justice rather than de-escalate it…. The need for commitment is greater today than ever.”
Denouncing is no longer enough. What is our active participation against the things which perpetuate white supremacy culture?What is our active participation in ensuring justice and liberation in our lifetimes? What is our daily ongoing active-work against the kinds of things that are taking place today?
For those afraid to begin for fear of being wrong and being corrected. “White feelings should never be held in higher regard than black lives.” (Rachel Cargle)
May we get over ourselves. May we see the value of being uncomfortable, the importance of trying and getting it wrong until we get it closer to right.
For those whose ignorance is debilitating humanity’s resolution. “it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.” (James Baldwin)
May we read, watch, listen, heed, and do our own work both individually and collectively.
For those who fear moving away from the comfort and safety of “being good.”
May we remember, there is always a place for “creative trouble” (Bayard Rustin), “Good trouble, necessary trouble” (John Lewis)
May we pivot into discomfort, lest we perpetuate the status quo.
May we recall that “There is no place in this war of liberation for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.” (James H. Cone)
For those so focused on their self-worth’s connectivity to black worth that we fail to do the work from the right intentions.
May we remember, “Anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people. It doesn’t end when white people feel better about what they’ve done. It ends when Black people are staying alive and they have their liberation.” (Rachel Cargle)
For those flailing so much that they’ve chosen to do nothing, without realizing the privilege of choice. “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs… they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.” (bell hooks)
May we stop flailing in the sea of to-dos and begin to be moved to change and step into risk––one task at a time.
For those who cannot see the work of justice in a riot.
May we see the truth of the fire and see both within and beyond it.
For those who cannot understand the rage.
May we awaken to the necessity of uprooting systems of oppression embedded in American society and our very lives.
May we recognize these systems and be against them, clearly and boldly.
May we know that disruption of a system which holds on to the status quo is necessary for these are the systems which refuse to “relinquish [their] oppressive ways without confrontation. This is the methodology of the oppressed as they are fighting for liberation.” (Pamela R. Lightsey).
May we remember that “to practice love is to disrupt the status quo which is masquerading as peace.” (Austin Channing Brown)
May we see and understand that “Oppressive systems must be exposed and deconstructed or dismantled (even in sacred texts), not simply recycled or cosmetically adjusted to palliate and opiate the oppressed and their allies.” (Mitzi J Smith)
May we see the distress, agony, and trauma of these systems which is perpetuated in our own white bodies, ways of being, and participation (see Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands).
For those claiming only silence or spending time in prayer is necessary for such a time as this.
May we heed the balance demanded of a truly contemplative life.
May we remember “All contemplation should be followed by action.” And that the wholeness of contemplation “MUST consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” (Therese Taylor-Stinson)
May we remember that the “altar of justice” clearly shows historically and biblically that “resistance was [and is] an action” of our faith. (Dean Leah Gunning Francis)
For those who think we can “set the timetable for another man’s freedom” (MLK, Jr.) No, just no.
May we heed the “fierce urgency of now” (MLK, Jr.) and recognize God in our fellow humans who are literally struggling to breathe in this. very. moment.
For those who still can’t get behind the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
May we remember “we don’t live in a world where all lives matter.” (Alicia Garza) Thus, we must elevate the lives deemed unworthy by a society we (as white people) perpetuate (whether unknowingly or not).
May we remember that “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” (Toni Morrison)
May we wake up to see this truth in our everyday lives: our schools, our places of work, our streets, our parks, and our homes.
For those at home, unable to leave for health reasons of their own, another’s health, or unable to be on the streets for other reasons.
May we remember that there are countlessways to show up.
May we recall that “Revolution is not a one-time event” (Audre Lorde) nor a one-place event. But may we also remember that for a revolution to take hold, it must seep into all avenues of our lives.
May we remember where we spend our money matters, our voice or writing matters, our work with our white friends, white children, and white family members matters.
May we learn to see by paying attention.
May we learn to understand by listening.
May we learn to change by doing our own work.
May we be true to both ourselves and our unique expressions while also being true to our human family.
May we participate in the revolution, a revolution that doesn’t need us but will define us.
Parking along the street felt ordinary enough. Our group of seven got out of the car to see ourselves flanked between an everyday row of homes and the Arizona/Mexico border wall. What a strange thing to see amid a neighborhood. What a strange thing to opt traveling to.
As we walked along the wall on the US side, I noticed an immense amount of garbage and an unnecessary amountof razor wire. We listened to a story of a pregnant woman climbing the wall and falling to be shredded by the wire. We kept walking. We listened to the story of a young boy being shot by border control on the Mexican side—a boy who was not attempting to cross the border. The bullet holes still embedded on the wall. We kept walking. We heard about how the border agent was tried twice only to get off twice and that all issues with border agents are handled internally. We kept walking.
bell hooks explores the fact that domination and love cannot coexist, writing, “Whenever domination is present love is lacking…. The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.”* And, I wonder, what on earth are we––the United States, doing?
The humanity across the border was pure grace — the people, the beauty, the art, the color. The ways in which the kindness of the people embraced us with smiles, warmth, welcomeness and inclusiveness. That same sense of inclusion we claim to host within our church doors and even our nation. This was grace. Grace from a group of people who owe me––us, nothing. Grace from a space whose demands supersede my provisions and yet whose kindness seeks nothing in return.
Then, there was the art. The radiance of colors telling stories. The boldness of truth painted around bullet holes. The clarity of love depicted by an array of mediums while the quiet hands behind the scenes of these pieces were nowhere to be found. Artisans of justice. Visionaries of peace. As similar to me as my own flesh and blood, and yet, caged away like animals, barricaded apart as though monsters. By what form of grace do I deserve to see this beauty, to witness these artists and to receive their love?
It seems to me that so much of learning someone or someone is showing up. James Cone writes that “a man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” Often times this means showing up to the truth of someone which may not reflect nicely upon myself. This also means stepping far enough away from my own (and my nation’s) missteps that I am truly present to the fellow human before me. The one I’ve show up to. The place of presence I’ve chosen to be.
In the same breath, I often find myself wondering: what does this solve? What does showing up really mean in a world of walls and laws, a world who tears families apart and imprisons them? The answer is: I’m not sure. I only know that bearing witness to the truth of someone is a means of love, of friendship, of solidarity in our common humanity. This journey of being a human is impossible to accomplish alone and often in my place of privilege I fail to hold before me the clarity and urgency of what that really means.
Domination shrinks the table while Grace has the table set and expanded for our arrival.
Domination feeds fear while Grace always assumes the best.
Domination has nothing to teach me while Grace patiently awaits my arrival to the classroom.
The following day, our group went on a hike behind a home to visit migrant memorials. Locations where the bones of bodies once filled with breath were found and laid to rest. Pausing at each grave our group read poems, breathed prayers, and considered these lost lives. we finished with the gusto of “uno, dos, tres: ¡PRESENTE!” This, to remember the presence of those we’ve lost on this journey of dreams and freedom. To remember:
“Now your bones are part of the story Part of the architecture of this landscape. Your spirit followed the evening star into a new day. One we all will enter when it is our time. The bones you left behind we all share … In what farm, village, or city does someone look at an old photo weep and say your name Again and again and again like a prayer. Caress that photo as though you were still near… Here in this place we hold questions falling in tears Remember that once you were here in this place. Know that we, too, will leave our bones behind. Know that we, too, will carry some answers Beyond the reach of those we love” (Marie Vogl Gary).
The final grave belonged to a teenage boy. A young woman in our group said, “my mom and dad used to sing me ‘You are my Sunshine’, can we sing that?” As we all sang the song we ended with the final words that felt more like a gut punch of truth, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
The US/Mexico border situation is beyond words. But I can listen to grace. I can see the vibrancy of story. And I can witness my fellow human in this in this world of unimaginable pain and suffering.
“The embracement hopelessness rejects quick fixes. Now, I think one of the problems is when we think of hopelessness we think of despair, and despair was horrible, I mean despair I just want to roll it up into a fetal position and cry but hopelessness is not despair, it is desperation.
And there’s a big difference. When a migrant decides to cross the desert, it’s not an act of despair. It’s an act of desperation, even though they know they probably will die. And as a side note, every four days five brown bodies die crossing the desert in this country. Probably the greatest human rights violation occurring since the days of Jane and Jim Crow.”
I grew up nearby a street named Lincoln Way. This transcontinental highway runs all the way from Lincoln Park in California to Times Square in New York. And, it ran through the town I grew up in, giving me a kind of landmark for directions, much like I was taught to treat the street’s namesake when it came to history. I grew up being told to admire Abraham Lincoln––the 16th president of the United States, a man of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), one who fought for the Union and to end slavery… or did he?
While it’s not surprising, our history books lied to us and Lincoln got it wrong.
Recently, I’ve been reading a number of books by theologian James H. Cone including Black Theology & Black Power, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and God of the Oppressed. Struck by his words and my growing understanding of truth as clearly laid out before me, I couldn’t help but fumble around when I read about this “great” president. I’ve come to realize that when we see the history we’ve been told is a lie, it’s not only our responsibility to listen, learn it, and apologize; It’s our responsibility to not look away. This writing is my apology. This writing is my refusal to look away.
“There is no place in this war of liberation,” Cone writes in 1969, “for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.”
While reading Black Theology & Black Power, I came across Cone’s notes on Abraham Lincoln and the frequent lies told about him as a man who longed for the freedom of slaves. Cone writes, “Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:
“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” (Abraham Lincoln)
Cone goes on, “If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people:
“I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races––that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and interior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln)
With a whitewashed history, what does the future hold? Years from now, will the 45th president be portrayed with the light of racism and white supremacy under which he stands? Or will we––yes, we––continue to add layers and layers to the facts and perpetuate a world of hatred and injustice, a world comfortable enough for the nice white person who wants (and thinks under these severe circumstances that there is) progress without any conflict or discomfort?
“A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” ––James H. Cone
If the truth no longer propels us to care, what will? If we can look upon the suffering of our fellow human and remain neutral because we are comfortable, we have lost our humanity. There is no time for neutrality when humans are suffering. Or as Cone says, “There is no time for talk when men are suffering.”
Cone’s words in Black Theology & Black Power were written 50 years ago this year. His preface contains his own newfound truths including a recognition and apology for the sexism within the book (both in his gendered language and leaving out the leadership notes and significance of black women) as well as a new clarity that “we need to develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world,” in accordance with some of the lessons he heeded from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Some may say, “The history books didn’t lie, they only didn’t share the whole truth.” Some may say, “Often times our imperfections are used for ultimate good and slaves were freed, weren’t they?” I, for one, refuse to bow my body or tip my cap to a man whose blatant racism was left out of history so that he might be elevated as some kind of white savior. Lincoln did not free slaves, he did not believe in the equality of our black brothers and sisters. To “free” a human from the labor and life of a slave in language yet to continue to treat them as less-than in any way is to keep slavery alive.
I am not a history expert. I claim no in-depth knowledge about slavery or presidential history. That being said, I do know my history books got it wrong. I do know there is a sitting president who is an undisguised racist and I do not want my nephews reading anything less than the truth in their history books. I do know that I am sorry for my ignorance. I do know we have a long, long, long way to go and we must bind ourselves together so that we can all stand on equal ground or we will continue to fall deeper alone.
And, some may say “How can the Republican party go from the 16th president of the United States to the blatant racism of the 45th president of the United States?” Relearning history makes it not only obvious but abundantly clear. Patterns are being repeated. History covers up racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia––by rewriting history through erasure, by perpetuating lies and therefore perpetuating hatred.
Next time I visit my hometown, I will remember the truth about the namesake of the street which runs through my town. The inevitable thought will make me consider just how many daily reminders we have of unabashed racism. The result will be a reminder to be louder against hatred, bolder against falsities, and clearer about the truth. Because I want my fellow human’s value in this world to be clear, known, and not just a pretty phrase. Because we can’t keep lying about our history. Because I want my nephews reading truth. Because I’m done being another nice neutral white face in the crowd.
“The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding ‘Freedom Now,’ he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” ––James H. Cone
Text from: Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone, 1969.
Cone’s references for Lincoln quotes:
First quote by Lincoln: “Reply to Horace Greeley,” 1862, in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1; revised, S. Bradley, R.C. Beatty, and E.H. Long, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 1567.
Second quote by Lincoln: Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 92-93.
(***Image from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” 1978.)
“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” –Pauli Murray
Coming off a week-long class on activism, organizing and social movements in Durham, North Carolina (and my first full year of seminary at CTS), I climb back into the quiet walls of a Kentucky monastery: Gethsemani Abbey. Here, the silence seeps into my bones like a forgotten nourishment as my ears wade through the heightening sounds of the natural world––the birds and the wind erupt in chorus around me. Suddenly, I’m able to more fully engage with myself, my senses are overturned until I begin feeling what I hear, tasting what I see, and even knowing all that I’ll never know. This, for me, is a place of letting go, of opening up, of deepening my common humanity with all human beings.
The tension of paradox is not lost on me. And in being present to the paradox this suggests, I’m remembering a different way of being which allows the contemplative to be an activist and the activist to be a contemplative. It may be seen as absurd to come to such a place after a class on activism. Yet, I’m reminded that for me, there is a vocation of solidarity in the solitariness found here. This “absurd vocation,” as Thomas Merton puts it, is a vocation which yields to a “supernatural unity.” Merton goes on to write that the solitary, “seeks a spiritual and simple oneness in himself (themselves) which, when it is found, paradoxically becomes the oneness of all men (humans)––a oneness beyond separation, conflict, and schism. For it is only when each man (human) is one that mankind (humankind) will one again become ‘One.’”
In her book about contemplation and justice, Therese Taylor-Stinson writes, ”So that contemplation can be whole, it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” In other words, for me, it is the step away which allows me to both awaken and stay awake. It is the time of opening up and overturning my very being which allows a deepening within myself for and with all beings.
While the world so often sees the contemplative life as an excuse to do nothing, the contemplator most often sees this way of being as a path to feel everything. This solidarity of and in suffering that the contemplative often gets in touch with is rarely reached in our days of chaos and discourse. That being said, there are indeed times in which this way of being can be misused as a means to back away where action is necessary. And contemplation without action is as good as silence in the face of injustice.
“What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world…” –Thomas Merton
While in the Durham class, I was able to engage further with my understandings of activism, organizing and social movements. Our new friend (and professor) Tim Condor led us in an intensive week of exploring and making sense of these things, while maintaining deep respect and kindness towards the number of different paths the class approached such information. Yet the central truth was far too evident to ignore — it is all about relationships. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other, and whoever we may deem as ‘the other’ is the core to our ability to create more love, more truth, and ultimately change for the better.
“… As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
One day in class we met in pairs to practice relational meetings. My friend Kerry and I naturally paired up and went outside to chat. A little bit more about Kerry is this: She is a wonderfully bold woman who cares deeply (and not quietly) about the injustices in our world—rightfully so. She is a blogger, author of the forthcoming book Good White Racist (Spring 2020), and a kind of perfect (seemingly opposite) match to navigate this little assignment with. As we sat down and began talking, it became more clear what we might be bringing to one another––my voice surprised me and emerged asking, “Okay, so what would happen if you slowed down more and had more solitude and contemplation in your life?” — her eyes welled up with tears as her expected voice of challenge came charging through to me—“And what would happen if you spoke up more?” We looked at each other a knowing look and began to laugh. Both of us were reminded in that moment of the unique balance our individual scales hold and the importance in lovingly challenging each another to ensure we are remaining true to ourselves and our fellow humans.
I needed her nudge to remember to open my mouth more, to push pen to paper more, to know I will make mistakes in these ways but there are quite literally people dying when I sit silently—whether I do something or not. So why not try and do something? She needed my nudge to remember the necessity of respite to listen, breathing room to reignite our voice, and that sacred step away into solitude that our work might carry longevity beyond our lives.
“The world needs both ways,” we concluded. And those ways need one another in order to host the possibility of lasting change. While the world’s insistent demands often require an urgent response––that response needs undying endurance, abiding fortitude, and an overwhelming stability we cannot possess on empty, and we sure as hell cannot possess alone.
At the end of class that evening, I walked by a mural of Durham native Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest. The mural read, “True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Once again, I smiled that knowing smile Kerry and I shared earlier in the day and kept on walking.
Today I had the honor of being on the Spark My Muse podcast with host, Lisa Colón DeLay. We talked about what it means to tend the fire within, the place of infinite possibility within each of us. The space we must protect, guard, feed, and learn to share in a way that offers love and creativity to the world––as opposed to violence or destruction.
Later in the interview Lisa asks about my pilgrimage to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the United States, my current role as a seminarian at CTS pursuing ordination, my thoughts on the need for more voices/faces in the contemplative world, and my thoughts on being a queer woman in these various spaces.
“Those drawn to the contemplative path… We are the feelers. We feel everything. We feel the whole world… It’s a good home for the sensitive, at least for me.”
“…frustration is due precisely to the incapacity for positive, constructive, creative activity. Creation in this sense is then nothing else but frustration failing to express itself freely and normally, calling desperately for help in a way that fails to be heard or understood…When everything is creative, nothing is creative. When nothing is creative, everything tends to be destructive, or at least to invite destruction. Our creativity is in great measure simply the expression of our destructiveness, the guarded, despairing admission of destructiveness that cries for help without admitting it. The only positive thing left in our destructiveness is its bitter anguish. This, at least, can claim to be. This has creative possibilities.”
Thomas Merton, Theology of Creativity
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”
Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
“First, silence makes us pilgrims. Secondly, silence guards the fire within. Thirdly, silence teaches us to speak.”
Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
“…There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and they walk on.
All right, then, what is to be done, should one tend that inward fire, turn to oneself for strength, wait patiently – yet with how much impatience! – wait, I say, for the moment when someone who wants to comes and sits down beside one’s fire and perhaps stays on? Let him who believes in God await the moment that will sooner or later arrive.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh tohis younger brother Theo van Gogh, July 1880 at the age of 27
Islamophobia is not just a problem for Muslims, it is a problem for all of us.
It is not the “job” of the marginalized, persecuted, or attacked group to solve the problem. To ask the even more deeply grieving “what do you need,” or “what can I do,” puts even more agony upon them. This is my problem, this is ourproblem, this is not the problem of my Muslim brothers and sisters.
An injustice that happens outside one’s country and one’s space of worship does not diminish the injustice. Instead, it is an opportunity to say more, to do more, to decrease hate and eliminate discrimination. A blind eye does nothing. A turned cheek only hides from the truth of hatred embedded in one’s own life. Speaking up against one injustice is not speaking up against all injustices. When we see wrong, we must say so. When we see pain, we must be present. When we see wounds, we must learn how to move the wounded towards healing.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (16 April 1963), he unequivocally points to the error of the “white moderate,” amid injustices writing,
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom… I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action… Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions…”
The timetable for another person’s freedom is always now.
The season for justice is always now.
There is no preparation needed for more love, more truth, more justice… It must be now lest we fail to see the humanity of our fellow human, the desperation of our beloved earth… There is no middle ground.
The only question is, “What is my ‘now’?” What is the urgency of this present moment that beckons me to speak, move, change, go, grow. It won’t be convenient, it won’t feel comfortable, it will make me tired and weary—but it is right. It is truth. It is love. It is justice. And it must be listened to.
There is no middle ground.
“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” (MLK, Jr.)