The Absurd Vocation

“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” –Pauli Murray

Coming off a week-long class on activism, organizing and social movements in Durham, North Carolina (and my first full year of seminary at CTS), I climb back into the quiet walls of a Kentucky monastery: Gethsemani Abbey. Here, the silence seeps into my bones like a forgotten nourishment as my ears wade through the heightening sounds of the natural world––the birds and the wind erupt in chorus around me. Suddenly, I’m able to more fully engage with myself, my senses are overturned until I begin feeling what I hear, tasting what I see, and even knowing all that I’ll never know. This, for me, is a place of letting go, of opening up, of deepening my common humanity with all human beings.

The tension of paradox is not lost on me. And in being present to the paradox this suggests, I’m remembering a different way of being which allows the contemplative to be an activist and the activist to be a contemplative. It may be seen as absurd to come to such a place after a class on activism. Yet, I’m reminded that for me, there is a vocation of solidarity in the solitariness found here. This “absurd vocation,” as Thomas Merton puts it, is a vocation which yields to a “supernatural unity.” Merton goes on to write that the solitary, “seeks a spiritual and simple oneness in himself (themselves) which, when it is found, paradoxically becomes the oneness of all men (humans)––a oneness beyond separation, conflict, and schism. For it is only when each man (human) is one that mankind (humankind) will one again become ‘One.’”

In her book about contemplation and justice, Therese Taylor-Stinson writes, ”So that contemplation can be whole, it must consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” In other words, for me, it is the step away which allows me to both awaken and stay awake. It is the time of opening up and overturning my very being which allows a deepening within myself for and with all beings.

While the world so often sees the contemplative life as an excuse to do nothing, the contemplator most often sees this way of being as a path to feel everything. This solidarity of and in suffering that the contemplative often gets in touch with is rarely reached in our days of chaos and discourse. That being said, there are indeed times in which this way of being can be misused as a means to back away where action is necessary. And contemplation without action is as good as silence in the face of injustice.

“What is the contemplative life if one becomes oblivious to the rights of men and the truth of God in the world…” –Thomas Merton

While in the Durham class, I was able to engage further with my understandings of activism, organizing and social movements. Our new friend (and professor) Tim Condor led us in an intensive week of exploring and making sense of these things, while maintaining deep respect and kindness towards the number of different paths the class approached such information. Yet the central truth was far too evident to ignore — it is all about relationships. Deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other, and whoever we may deem as ‘the other’ is the core to our ability to create more love, more truth, and ultimately change for the better.

“… As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

–Thomas Merton to peace-activist Jim Forest

One day in class we met in pairs to practice relational meetings. My friend Kerry and I naturally paired up and went outside to chat. A little bit more about Kerry is this: She is a wonderfully bold woman who cares deeply (and not quietly) about the injustices in our world—rightfully so. She is a blogger, author of the forthcoming book Good White Racist (Spring 2020), and a kind of perfect (seemingly opposite) match to navigate this little assignment with. As we sat down and began talking, it became more clear what we might be bringing to one another––my voice surprised me and emerged asking, “Okay, so what would happen if you slowed down more and had more solitude and contemplation in your life?” — her eyes welled up with tears as her expected voice of challenge came charging through to me—“And what would happen if you spoke up more?” We looked at each other a knowing look and began to laugh. Both of us were reminded in that moment of the unique balance our individual scales hold and the importance in lovingly challenging each another to ensure we are remaining true to ourselves and our fellow humans.

I needed her nudge to remember to open my mouth more, to push pen to paper more, to know I will make mistakes in these ways but there are quite literally people dying when I sit silently—whether I do something or not. So why not try and do something? She needed my nudge to remember the necessity of respite to listen, breathing room to reignite our voice, and that sacred step away into solitude that our work might carry longevity beyond our lives.

“The world needs both ways,” we concluded. And those ways need one another in order to host the possibility of lasting change. While the world’s insistent demands often require an urgent response––that response needs undying endurance, abiding fortitude, and an overwhelming stability we cannot possess on empty, and we sure as hell cannot possess alone. 

At the end of class that evening, I walked by a mural of Durham native Pauli Murray: a civil rights activist, lawyer, author, and the first African American woman to be an Episcopal priest. The mural read, True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” Once again, I smiled that knowing smile Kerry and I shared earlier in the day and kept on walking. 

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Carl McColman Interviews Cassidy Hall

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

How did you get inspired to create a film about Thomas Merton and his hermitage?

“We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.” — Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Recorded 12/8/1962)

Even aside from politics, our days host an array of their own problems. Many have viewed the life of a monk or hermit to be a departure from the world and its many problems. But I’ve come to see this going away from the world as a way to love it—and its humans—more deeply.

I began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation sometime back in 2011. This evolved into a Gethsemani Abbey pilgrimage which led to me traveling to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the US to talk to monks and nuns about silence, solitude, and contemplative life. Somewhere along the way I became more and more interested in Thomas Merton’s work and hermitage years—why would such a brilliant person who has so much to offer the world go away from the world. The joke was on me until I began to read further into his desires for solitude and how this tension and paradox was another way of expression, another way of showing solidarity with the suffering of the world. 

There’s a tension in the contemplative life—a tension that holds a paradox. This tension is intertwined with the pain of the world while meeting said pain in the silence and solitudes of our everyday lives (a paradox to many). This doesn’t make sense to everyone and the contemplative path is certainly not for everyone, but I do sincerely believe aspects of it can benefit the whole world. 

Day of a Stranger is a title taken from one of Thomas Merton’s most beloved essays (May 1965). The essay was published in Latin America as a response to a journalist’s question about what a typical day in the life was like for Merton in his new hermitage home. Unbeknownst to Merton or the journalist that this would be his final home and “Dia de un Extrano,” (Day of a Stranger) was published in Papeles, a journal from Caracas, Venezuela in July of 1966 (also published in The Hudson Review in the summer of 1967).

Other questions answered:

What has surprised you the most about listening to Merton’s old tape recordings?

You were a co-producer of In Pursuit of SilenceHow did working on that film help to shape your creative process for Day of a Stranger?

Why, a half century after he died, does Thomas Merton remain so popular? What do you think is at the heart of his appeal?

Read the full interview on Patheos here.

 

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When Letting Go Is Holding On

“My dishonesty with myself and others hinders the honesty of all humanity, hinders the progress of all people.” Journal entry on 2/12/12

In 2012 I made the decision to let go of some certainty in my life for the sake of exploring something unknown. I quit my job. I quit my salary-paying, insurance-giving job full of security and certainty so I could travel to the seventeen Cistercian monasteries of the United States. As someone who isn’t Catholic, this was a surprise to everyone I knew. I would say that this decision surprised me too, but as I went on doing what I was supposed to do each day, I only felt myself dying a million deaths. It doesn’t surprise me I took on such a drastic measure to keep on living.

So much of my life at the time was wrapped up in what other people thought of me and meeting the expectations meant sticking to the script. Quitting a secure job with a salary and benefits wasn’t just an unwelcome improvisation—it was dangerous one. And thrill seeking was absolutely not a part of those predictable characters’ make up.

Yes, I was open about my sexuality, but only quietly, only where I felt safe. Sure, I was open about my spirituality, but only to the degree that it blended in a room. Yes, I loved my job and the amazing people who crossed my path while working it, but it became mostly an uncomplicated way to pay the bills.

I thought I was “doing all the right things”, but as I did them, I couldn’t shake the nagging; the blatant certainty that there was more to this life and that it wasn’t reserved for the few, and that it might even extend to me. Fitting everywhere but belonging nowhere—it was no longer enough, and something inside me sensed my restlessness could only be calmed by letting go.

Quitting my job to pursue that which was pulling me from the center of my heart made me feel exhilarated in a way that I hadn’t experienced since the beginning of these piling expectations. The monasteries, their silence, their mystery, their unique provision of solitude felt like they could be an exception to the lack of belonging I sensed at every turn. As I gave more and more thought to this longing within me, the unknown abundance of mystery that was before me, a unique way of exploring my interior spaciousness, I knew I had to go.

And when I stepped inside these sacred places, overcome with a sense of belonging, I knew instantly I had not made a mistake. It was in these moments away that the focus sharpened and I could sense my place in the world more clearly. It was a space where the noise of any perceived audience’s approval or disapproval literally and metaphorically cleared from my life and I could hear the voice of my heart instead.

So, I poked my head into seventeen spaces bathed in prayer and talked with monks and nuns about silence, solitude and contemplative life. I didn’t realize until the pilgrimage began that part of this expression of my true-self was bound up in my existential and spiritual curiosity that had been a part of my meandering thoughts since childhood. We further explored topics related to social justice, the true-self, acedia, mental health, and community. My joy and curiosity could not be contained.

This strange pilgrimage was spurred on and then validated by Thomas Merton’s words in New Seeds of Contemplation, “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 wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”

This idea of spending my life on the things that aren’t of me is something I have had to navigate in my own way. It’s a lesson that is never over once it is over. It certainly isn’t easy for me to be true to myself. I have to learn and then relearn nearly every single day.

I know, for example, that in my writing life there are many topics I’ve avoided for reasons I’d rather not admit. Reasons that ultimately declare the comfort of others and myself as more important than the truth and freedom of all humanity. Reasons that shun my inner spirit and remove dignity from my identity. I learned long ago on my pilgrimage that the danger in not being my true-self had a ripple-effect that was larger than just me. My self-expression, being true to who I was, affected other’s ability to do the same.  After all, we belong to each other. I knew then it was time for a change. It was time to let go of the world’s agenda for my life. And, it’s just as true now as it was then.

“Trust is very much about going beyond the guarantees; engaging into the future that is beyond what is known and seen.” A Monk of Mepkin Abbey

When I arrived home after nearly a half year on the road, I had no extreme revelations or clear-cut certainties to reveal. I only emerged with a new sense of listening to the heart of who am and an openness to the silences and the stillnesses that speak into that true identity. I began to let go of those preconceived notions the world had seared into me for years, I began to let myself unfold and go off script. 

“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” Rainer Maria Rilke

All of life is loving as much as it is a constant letting go. Sometimes that letting go is an initial step away from the noisy world into finding out more of who we are. And, sometimes this requires a grieving. A grieving of a narrative we’ve clung to or been told, or grieving a sense of certainty or ownership. But we cannot begin to meet ourselves without this letting go. We cannot begin to reunite with the wholeness of who we are until we strip ourselves of assumptions, predictions, and expectations. We cannot hold on until we truly let go.

“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism” in Love and Living

Cassidy Hall is a writer, photographer, filmmaker with a MA in Professional Counseling. Cassidy’s writing is featured on The Huffington PostPatheos and her website, www.cassidyhall.com. You can find her on twitter @cassidyhall | instagram @casshall | and Facebook cassidyhall77

Cassidy’s forthcoming book, “Notes On Silence,” co-authored with Director Patrick Shen can be pre-ordered here.

Originally posted on The Sick Pilgrim Blog.

 

 

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