“Now I will Disappear”

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, … … …)

The Wall Between Grace & Domination

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 amount  of 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?

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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.

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“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.”

–Miguel De La Torre

To learn more about the story of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez watch this to hear the story from his grandma. 

*bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

 

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