Sacramental Action

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 

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Mysticism is a Riot

Mysticism is alive.

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.

 

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

Things are Different: Grieve

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

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

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

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Slow Down

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

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

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

Here we are. 

Things are Different: Pay Attention

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

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

Am I paying attention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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