“How can we be sure younger generations learn about Thomas Merton?”
Every time I show Day of a Stranger, the documentary film I made about the Trappist monk, I’m asked some form of this question. Viewers find Merton’s words—which I excerpted from a set of stream-of-consciousness recordings made during his years as a hermit on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky—eerily prescient, and, like me, they want to share them with others.
This anxiety about Merton being forgotten has come up at every single Merton talk or panel I’ve been part of since 2011. That was when I quit my job as a counselor to travel to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States and began to work on my writing, films, and podcasts about contemplative life. Though I, a queer, young, non-Catholic woman, was an unlikely Merton ambassador, I was often invited to be a part of presentations and celebrations of Merton’s legacy. Every time, people would look around the room, take note of their mostly White, mostly grey-haired neighbors, and wonder how that legacy can last, whether his wisdom will be forgotten.
Typically I have responded with encouragement, mentioning Merton’s interfaith dialogue, his modeling of friendship, or the expansiveness of his correspondence as the ways his legacy might endure. But at my last film screening, after much self-reflection on the question, I answered with my own question: “What’s wrong with Merton disappearing?”
This month marks 53 years since Merton died in Bangkok after giving a lecture on Marxism and monastic perspectives. At the end of the lecture, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. . . . Now, I will disappear.” It was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy and controversial talk, but perhaps it was also prophetic.
The desire to disappear is a well-known tension at the heart of Merton’s work and his spiritual life, a desire that was often in conflict with his vocation as a writer. In 1946, 20 years prior to his death, he wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” In Thoughts in Solitude, written from his first hermitage, St. Anne’s Toolshed, on the monastic property, and published in 1958: “As soon as you are really alone you are with God.” In 1964, while attending mass after meeting with Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, he wrote in his journal with apparent satisfaction, “No one recognized me or discovered who I was. At least I think not.” In a 1967 recording, he says, “I am struck today I think, more and more, by the fundamental dishonesty about a lot of my clamor.”
Merton was indeed controversial in his time, and his words remain relevant and often helpful. His correspondence and work explored and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences. He often seems to speak prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in today.
But Merton’s most recent work is now more than half a century old. And while his conversations spanned gender (Dorothy Day, for example), sexuality (James Baldwin, though it’s said he never replied to Merton, and I can’t say I blame him), religion (Thich Nhat Hanh, Abraham Joshua Heschel, D. T. Suzuki), racial justice (Martin Luther King Jr.), and environmental justice (Rachel Carson), Merton, as a White cis man and vowed monastic in a patriarchal church, perpetuates damaging exclusivity alongside his wisdom.
In truth, his prescience and ecumenism seem rare only if we’re looking at White spiritual writers or reading exclusively Catholic work from the 1940s–1960s. Does this context make his views appear more radical than they really were? I have to ask myself, before picking up yet another work by or about Merton, Who am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial today? What words am I reading now, by those whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives? What marginalized voices of experience am I listening to? Am I going to the source on these topics?
I’ve learned from womanist scholars that as long as I perpetuate the domination of only a few voices in spiritual leadership, I hinder movement toward liberation for all voices. I cannot learn from Merton what it’s like to be a queer woman, or to be an LGBTQ person who is rejected by one’s church, or to be Black in America, or to be a refugee. Merton can provide historical perspective and observations, but he simply cannot speak into an oppressive situation separate from his identity and experience.
Merton himself was often reminding us to go deeper, look harder, be willing to take the effort and time to seek out, read, and listen to the wisdom of voices missing from our libraries and bookshelves. I wonder if this is his true legacy—urging us to transcend his own contributions. To challenge the status quo, go beyond the comfortable, and heed the wisdom of the marginalized who have been too often overlooked.
Merton has words for those experiencing anxiety in the midst of change. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he writes of a crisis in the church in the 12th century, but he could have been writing about today:
In a time of drastic change one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love.
“What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges of the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” I wonder if this is how Merton might have answered the question of how his legacy can endure.
On my way home from my last film screening, I went out of my way to stop by Gethsemani Abbey. After a rain-soaked hike, I paused at Merton’s grave, marked by a simple white cross engraved with “Father Louis,” as he was known there. “They can have Thomas Merton,” he wrote in The Sign of Jonas of those who assumed they knew all about him solely based on his writing, “He’s dead. Father Louis—he’s half dead, too.”
What would happen if I let Thomas Merton die?
As I walked back to my car, I remembered the words from his essay “Integrity,” which had inspired my monastic travels in 2011: “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” Maybe it is time to acknowledge that my long obsession with the words and wisdom of Thomas Merton did crowd out other voices and other perspectives, preventing me from hearing them fully—including my own.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Now, I will disappear.”
“Callouses form easily,” I was recently told in a meeting, “endurance takes time.” And I add to these words perhaps endurance’s movement into healing and growth takes both time and tenderness.
I’ve been learning that working at a Level One Trauma Hospital for the summer creates its own heap of secondary trauma and invitations into the agony of humanity and oneself.
At the beginning of the summer learning goals were discussed and my foremost goal was to not become numb to human suffering while also developing an endurance for care, empathy, and human accompaniment. I asked, “how can I build endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering?”
Shortly after developing these goals, I encountered a number of unexpected deaths and grieving families during on-call shifts. One, a brand new baby who was well before birth and simply never began breathing. The other, a father, husband, and grandfather on Father’s Day. More recently, I was asked to tend to the bedside of a “terminal wean,” where ventilatory support is withdrawn from the patient as they begin to travel through the threshold of life into death. Another time, a notification on my pager to come to the bedside for “end of life.” In this instance, as I stood in a room with a family whose dear one was dying, I put my hand on the dying–holding them in the gratitude of what they brought to this earth by their presence. I put my other hand on the back of the grieving, as they wailed in disbelief, pain, and anguish. I shared and prayed no magic words, offered no comforting thoughts, and was only present to the moment. The waves of grief dominated these lives and rooms, as they do under these circumstances, and together we allowed the waves to roll through the space like a tsunami while striving to keep each other safe.
The inexplicability of death never ceases to haunt my imagination. The ways death offers no real response to the question of why stops us all in our tracks. Believing all of life is entwined, I realize how little I stop to ask why a tree dies in the middle of a burning forest or why I perpetually participate in the ocean’s walk towards death. Why isn’t the hope of new growth in the garden as astonishing as a brand new human life or the sight of a patient on the other side of a heart transplant? How can I celebrate and grieve in the fullness of life’s connectivity? And still somehow these moments of accompaniment in alongside the dying and their loved ones are simultaneously holy and horrifying.
If I’ve learned anything about grief and human accompaniment this summer it’s simply that there are absolutely no proper words or language to offer to the grieving. I’ve gone into the summer knowing that there are plenty of wrong things to say and quite simply nothing right to say. In this way, the presence of personhood and accompaniment is an offering beyond words. The statue of immovable presence and peace amid unfathomable loss is at best a sentiment. A presence which can affirm the anger, frustration, sadness, pain, worry, grief, loneliness, agony… A presence to witness human suffering and acknowledge the terror of all that is unknown and unknowable.
On the more difficult days I often ask myself, how does one mark the death and grief of total strangers with whom they’ve accompanied in some of the most impossible and insufferable moments of life? Are these moments tattooed on my soul like a mark of memory, are they (the dead and their families) now threaded together within the expanding quilt of my existence, or are they lost in the ether of full and busy days with little to no time for sacred pauses? Maybe instead, grief becomes a part of me ––of us, like a new limb, an added layer of emotion, or the daily piece of jewelry we put on before we begin our day.
Many of us can agree that not only is healthcare in America a broken system, but so too are its hospitals. The lighting, the noise, the anxiety, the loneliness, even its spiritual care programs which often offer little spiritual care for their own – this is a difficult place to heal and grieve. And when it comes to working in these spaces: detachment often means survival, disconnect allows for life beyond the walls of work, and disengagement is frequently a way to stay sane.
So as I reflect more deeply on my impossible goal of building “endurance without becoming desensitized to human suffering” I instead ask “how can I offer time, tenderness, and presence amid the mystery and terror of death?” The tsunami of grief comes when it comes, stirring up unfathomable emotion and unknowable pain. I can only be present to yours, mine, ours, show up, and offer some small sense of solidarity in the midst of all that is unknowable.
And, so, all of the answers to my questions land here: There are no answers. There’s no way to perfectly witness or accompany human suffering. There is no ideal way to witness grief. It can only be honored, tenderly seen, lovingly acknowledged, and any forms of healing and growth are both a process and an art. An art tethered to uniqueness by the way that each human interaction is unique.
As I walk out of the hospital on the more difficult days, I pause for a moment of acknowledgment in the hospital chapel. I speak names in my heart and shake my head with the tension of emotions. I offer the unknowable to the unknown, the mysterious to the mystery, the hopelessness to the possibility of hope.
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
“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.
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, … … …)
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.”
“The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patiently look for the coming of dawn. Monks and nuns wait in the dark, longing for the light of dawn but unable to hasten its coming. No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way. It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it. The ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment. By quietly watching and praying through the night, I learn to live with the slow process of my own spiritual growth. I have no control over the future and I do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death.”
–Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, who died on January 15, 2020.
I first met Fr. Charles in Huntsville, Utah during my 2013 visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (now closed). I would visit and get to see him several more times before he left to live and work with the sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia. Over the years we kept in touch via mail and email and I last heard from him on my birthday in November of 2019 (he never forgot!). The last line of that final email read, “All things pass.”
When I interviewed him in 2013, I was struck by his dedication to prayer and his longing to pray more. Despite having been a monk for over 50 years, he deeply desired more silence, solitude, and prayer in his life. While discussing why he initially decided to enter the monastery he told me, “When I was 20 I wanted to pray, I felt that the world needs prayer and I wanted to go to a group that was dedicated to the same ideal––that’s the way I felt I could make the best contribution to the world…”
We explored the topics of contemplation, silence, community life, solitude, prayer, and why he decided to be a monk. On the topic of contemplative prayer, Fr. Charles shared that although silence and solitude were ideal characteristics of contemplative prayer, he deeply believed in the monastic ideal of continual prayer: “it’s like carrying our contemplative prayer over into the rest of the day so we’re always trying to be in tune with God. The idea of contemplative prayer in itself is like a resting, silent, loving, attentiveness or attention, to the divine presence. In a relaxed and restful way––not a compulsive way. To relax in the divine presence, and to be attentive to it…”
Some excellent stories about Fr. Charles can be found on Mike O’Brien’s Blog, including a story about Father Charles sharing with a journalist “I’m glad there’s such a thing as monks. I’m no good at anything else.”
That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?” (Mary Oliver, Long Life, Forward)
We’ve all been reading a number of poems by and tributes to Mary Oliver since her death on January 17, 2019. And, to be honest, that’s exactly what this is… Another tribute, another ode, another homage.
I’ve often thought of her as my spiritual friend––reaching out beyond the page, sitting with me in sadness, elation, and especially awe. Her writing has a way of pointing the reader to wonder in the most simple moments and profound ways.
I was on a lunch break when I heard the news of her death. It was raining and my mind was detached from everything at hand, so I opted to go be with her in some small way by finding her in a bookstore nearby. And, of course, we all know Mary Oliver isn’t found indoors. Her work is steeped in the great outdoors from her long walks collecting clams, to her undeniably sacred practice of paying attention.
There are plenty of things I think about when I consider Mary and her canon of work: I am drawn to an endless list of poems, prose, essays, and even her instructional books for writers and poets alike. But, in an attempt to be true to what this poet-teacher has taught me, I want to focus on how and where she guided me in paying attention.
Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
(Mary Oliver, Red Bird, Sometimes)
Mary taught me that when I fail to live headlong into life––and love, I’m as good as being breathlessly underground.
In her love and adoration for her partner of over 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, she pointed to the many ways she noticed her. In The Whistler, she writes of her beloved M: “All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden I mean that for more than thirty years she had not whistled. It was thrilling… I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and ankle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too. And the devotions.” And in Long Life, she says of her life with M: “The touch of our separate excitements is another of the gifts of our life together.”
How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by
like this and
no more words now
(Mary Oliver, Felicity, How Do I Love You?)
Mary taught me about how loving the world takes many forms, all of which take uninhibited attention.
From “Yes! No!” Mary declares, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” And from her book Thirst, “My work is loving the world. Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – equal seekers of sweetness… Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
Mary taught me how recognizing the divine, alive in nature, isn’t just a way to live, but the only way to be more fully alive.
In her almost liturgically rhythmic words about nature, she shares in “Morning Poem,”“each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” And, in Upstream she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
Mary taught me the ways in which paying attention to myself can be an opportunity for growth and change.
From her short poem, “The Uses of Sorrow:” “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” And then, from “Wild Geese,” “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Finally, once again from Upstream, “Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”
In these ways––paying attention to love and the beloved, paying attention to the natural world, paying attention to ourselves––is not just about a life well lived but a life whose legacy is love. In her book Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil writes, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
Mary Oliver’s life testified to what it means to live into that great prayer of attention. She quite literally walked the things she wrote, lived the things she spoke, and always paid attention.
So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later. And always I wanted the “I.” Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted them — the “I” to be the possible reader.
Just a couple of months ago, in November of 2014, I was on a work trip in New York City. Naturally, and true to New York City, my days were filled with travel, organizing, preparing, and little to no down time. While I was there, my friend Bill called and left a voicemail on a Sunday and I didn’t get around to checking it until the following Tuesday.
“This is Bill Rice calling, probably for the last time. Because I’m going to go into hospice where you actually die…” Bill said in his voicemail, “I hope to die on our lady’s immaculate conception, which is tomorrow. And so I’m saying goodbye to you. I love you and you’ve been a wonderful person in my life…”
My heart sank. Was I too busy to check this sooner, too rushed to consider someone who was sick, too occupied to think of someone other than myself when I sat down alone? I immediately panicked and in the midst of my workday called Bill’s cell phone — selfishly hoping and praying that he might answer and still be alive. When he didn’t answer I couldn’t even begin to rationalize my busyness as more important than a loving goodbye. I fretted over the fact that I didn’t slow down enough for something like this, someone so important to me, and remembered that maybe this was a reminder to slow down and listen. I tried calling again about an hour later and he answered. Our talk was understandably a mix of foggy and lucid conversation about our friendship, about what he meant to me over the past 2 years, and even about how he was feeling about dying. We ended that conversation with a love filled goodbye and the hopes of talking again. Bill was 82 and he had cancer; a cancer so severe he was told numerous times that he had months to live, only to survive those months by years. Finding Bill’s obituary was no surprise to me. It was Monday the 5th of January 2015, and I hadn’t heard anything for some time, so I looked for his name on the Internet. There it was, Bill Rice, died on December 17th, 2014. The surprise came while reading his obituary which was filled with facts of where he went to school, what he did for work, who he is survived by, and so on. To me, there was little reminder there of who Bill was as opposed to what Bill did. Bill Rice and I met in 2013 while we were both on retreat at a monastery in Utah. He was then an 80 year old man whose life consisted of volunteering and yearly retreats to this monastery and I was then a 29 year old woman whose life was in the midst of an undeniable turning point. Bill introduced himself to me when he noticed me amongst the empty pews at a prayer service one evening. What began that first day as friendly surface oriented banter about being on retreat turned into sharing beers on the front lawn of the church. I’ll never forget those plastic chairs we fetched and gathered on the lawn which was painted with fallen leaves. Nor will I forget our conversation that covered topics such as work, death and dying, doubt, questions, and spirituality. Gradually, Bill and I began writing letters to one another; he’d recount from time to time the amount of letters I’d sent him. He told me on numerous occasions that he considered himself a surrogate grandfather of sorts, which I gladly accepted as both of my grandfathers had died prior to my birth. Bill had never married, had no children, and nearly became a monk in his earlier days. When we discussed why he chose to not become a monk, I recall him saying something to the effect of ‘I couldn’t handle the not talking.‘ This didn’t surprise me one bit as Bill could always be found talking to someone; He seemed to know no strangers. His dedication to Catholicism struck me, perhaps as much as my not being Catholic struck him – I received numerous letters from him with remarks about his not understanding why a woman like myself would travel to all these Catholic monasteries and not be Catholic. I recall a few precious letters when I was entrusted with some of the questions he had regarding this life, the mysteries we all face, and the questions we all dance with for a lifetime. I had no answers for him other than my support, my listening, and my willingness to accompany him in those questions and mysteries. Through our letters we continued to discuss these mysteries, sharing that perhaps part of our craving of the mysteries is that they remain unknown and that very paradox creates a greater awe. After I spoke with him from New York, Bill and I never had the chance to talk again on earth. True to Bill’s legacy, he came into my life with questions and openness, and he left me with an abundance of reminders. He reminded me the importance to staying in touch – even if it means sitting down and taking the time to write a hand-written letter (not everyone emails). He reminded me the importance of questioning things until the day I die – even if it means I’ll never know the answers (it’s comforting to be reminded we aren’t alone in our questions). He reminded me the importance of staying faithful – in friendships, in love, in spirituality. I knew I disagreed with Bill, on numerous things, but greater than that, I believe we knew one another’s hearts and intentions; this is friendship. Our disagreements didn’t deter or diminish my love for Bill – instead I was challenged by the idea of thinking of things in new ways, presenting thoughts in new capacities, and ultimately landing on the truth that our friendship and the love we shared was greater than disagreements. He reminded me that I’m never too busy to share a beer on an empty lawn outside a church. He reminded me to never be too busy for another person. He reminded me to slow down and listen. In the end, how would Bill want to be remembered? Probably a lot like the way his obituary read in terms of relationships and the people in his life. Although, in remaining true to Bill, I’m certain he’d scatter and mention friends, acquaintances, and those people he had passed by briefly that we’d typically assume to be forgettable. Bill never met a forgettable person. If you knew or were friends with Bill, you probably knew of at least one of his other friends or acquaintances. And perhaps that’s the most important lesson I take from this man: there are no forgettable people; there is no forgettable person. I only knew Bill for about 2 years and the culmination of his kindness, generosity, openness, and love, accounted for a lifetime with a surrogate grandfather. True to how our friendship began: cheers, Bill. *Posted on my HuffPost Blog Here