“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.”
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown has retired as Distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. Now, in addition to her academic work, she has pursued a life in ministry, becoming a spiritual director and leading workshops and prayer groups promoting contemplative spiritual practices and the life and work of Howard Thurman. More than 25 years ago, she underwent a heart transplant, which led to her strong advocacy for organ and tissue donation and the contemplative practices of stillness and living in the present moment. “I consider each day to be a walk of faith and hope,” she says.
Dr. Coleman Brown has contributed essays to Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell their Stories and Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America. She completed theSpiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in 2008. Her book When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom tells the story of her heart transplant.
In this episode, she and I talk about our need of being more expansive with definitions of contemplation and mysticism. “Mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens,” she says. “I hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism only happens to special people.”
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown: Are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the Oneness?
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.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown is a distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She studied Psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz and received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University. Some of her publications include Praying Without Ceasing, Basking in the Loving Presence of God, and she’s also published in the edited book, Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell Their Stories. In 2008, she completed the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalom Institute for Spiritual Formation. She’s a Howard Thurman devotee and serves as a spiritual companion, director, writer, retreat leader and speaker. Her first full-length book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom, was released in January of 2019, which tells the story of her heart transplant and the dialogue within.
CASSIDY HALL: Well Lerita, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s so great to see you.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, thank you. I always love talking to you Cassidy and I’m just delighted that you invited me to be a part of your podcast.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways we like to begin is to begin kind of orienting ourselves around you and your experience. So how do you define “contemplation”? And how do you define “mysticism”?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I’ve studied contemplation in so many different contexts. But certainly, within training for becoming a spiritual director, I find that my sense of it now is that contemplation is really about trying to find ways to live in the presence of God. And oftentimes, I define it in terms of: what is a contemplative. What kind of person is that? And usually, it is a person who is wanting to be aware of the presence of God all the time, but also knows that there are certain kinds of practices that they can engage in that will lead them to perhaps having that awareness more frequently. So taking time for silence, taking time for solitude, getting away from time to time, and then being outside, for me, at least, is sort of the three S’s. The stillness that you find often when you are anywhere in nature, it just seems to be like a vibrating energy kind of thing. And it reminds me quite a bit of a being in the presence of God. But I think that it’s really doing things, talking about things that intentionally, in some ways, lead us to that place where we are feeling or being aware of the presence of God.
Mysticism to me is something totally different. And I think people have mystical experiences all the time. But somehow or other, we tend to think about mysticism as something sort of mysterious and oftentimes there are people who, in some ways have negative views. They think of voodoo or something that is part of the occult, or bringing up spirits, etc. And I certainly, just in learning the word early on, had that sort of scary feeling, even though I was brought up in Catholic school and going to Catholic and not hearing anything about mysticism or mystics in the time in which I was a Roman Catholic. But mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens. And I think in my study of Howard Thurman, he’s helped me to sort of clarify it and have a little bit more concise sense of it, but it’s having a direct experience with God. So you could be praying, you could be singing, you could be outside, but all of a sudden, you have this experience of I call it oneness of unity. And so people have talked about it in different ways. Abraham Maslow in Psychology talks about peak experiences. I think he’s talking about a mystical experience. Jerry May, Gerald May, he calls it a unitive experience. And even Howard Thurman called it a religious experience. He was sort of saying, look, I think it’s just a religious experience. If you all want to call it a mystical experience, fine, but it’s really having sort of this breakthrough of whatever it is that keeps us from being at one with God all the time. It just happens. And I’ve had those experiences since as a young child, I didn’t know what it was. I remember once telling somebody that I felt the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once, and they were like, girl you’re crazy. But that’s what it felt like to me as a child. I think we need to be a little bit more expansive about our definitions of what that is. I think in the past, it’s been kind of restricted to people having visions and stigmata or the soul, touching the God, all of that. I would just want to sort of cut through that and say, my definition of mysticism is very different.
CASSIDY HALL: That is beautiful. Yeah. And it strikes me that even my wrong perceptions of this idea that being a contemplative might make us more prone to having the mystical experience is still limiting, that’s limiting of mysticism and of what the mystical experience can be and who gets it. Because that’s not, that’s not up to us. And it shows up when it shows up.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes. And somehow or other, as we sort of trace the evolution of mysticism, it seems as if what people used to be talking about as mysticism is now really spirituality. Like there’s this just kind of natural progression, and that in some cases, people might call it a transcendent experience. And then it’s not something that is restricted to a small group of people living in a cloistered community, and it has happened as a result of that they are praying or that they were singled out, but that children had mystical experiences. And certainly, Howard Thurman was also one of those children. I think it’s more common than it is uncommon that these transcendent experiences happen and we don’t quite know how to explain it, except for that it was really nice, and we wish we could go back, but we can’t make it happen again.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and also along with your definition of contemplation as solitude, silence and stillness, mysticism and a mystical encounter can happen in the middle of chaos. It can happen in the middle of a crowd, it can happen, like you’re saying, for a child at school.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Right. Or maybe they’re out somewhere at the ocean, or I mean, it could be anywhere, and you’re not trying to make it happen, you can’t make it happen. It’s just one of those things that happens to you. I would count two visions, that I know people have had dreams. I have a couple of friends who have dreams. And it’s like the divine has broken through and said, look, I want to tell you something, and it comes out in the dream. So I would hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism happens only to special people, or only special people are mystics, etc. And that it’s some special club that only a few people get invited to. But I think once you understand what it is and you are not afraid, and that you allow those mystical experiences to happen when they do, it’s such a lovely guide in some ways. It’s like, oh well, thank you for the visit.
CASSIDY HALL: So many things in there I want to unpack but I’ll try to stay on track. So Thurman speaks a lot to things like the sound of the genuine within and also speaks to the inward sanctuary. First of all, what do you think he means by these kinds of things, tending to the inward sanctuary or listening for the sound of the genuine within? And how can we take this advice to tend to those things in the context of today’s social justice movements which take so much attention, time and energy?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, in some ways, I think Thurman would probably say, you need to tend to your inward sanctuary before you get out there. You need to do some, I might call it house cleaning, so that you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Particularly in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, partly what he’s doing is saying to the disinherited, ‘it’s so important for you to protect your inward sanctuary because people are always going to be extending these or communicating these attributions about you that are just not true.’ And I think what happened with Thurman is that ––and I’ve had this experience myself, which is that you hit someplace within you and you realize, oh, this is who I am. And when people come at you with something else, you’re just like, looking at them, like, are you talking to me? Come into some knowledge, coming into some understanding of who you are inside. Who you are as God created you? Do you really believe your Holy Child of God? All of that. But you do have to protect them because they are going to be people that are going to come at you with attacks. I would add, that we also must begin to listen for what our call is in God’s plan to restore the beloved creation. And I emphasize creation, you know a lot of times people say community, but I emphasize creation. Both because Thurman believed it was all including the animals and the plants and the environment and the air, all of that was part of God’s beloved creation. You know, there’s this beautiful psychological stuff going on here, which is like who’s in control of you. So I think that has to get cleared up so that you can hear what is your role. Sometimes I think people associate social action with protests in the streets. But as we know, with every movement, every transformation, there are people in many roles. In the civil rights movement, there are people cooking, there were people taking care of children, there are people writing articles, there were lawyers behind the scenes to bail people out and to file legal motions. Howard Thurman was really great on what I call inner authority. He knew what he was supposed to be doing. He was not supposed to be Martin Luther King, Jr. He was supposed to be Howard Thurman. And so I often describe him as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. That was his role. I think it’s really important to do this, like I said, examining. Examining your inward sanctuary, your inward center, and to begin to be able to distinguish what it is that is truly you, what is genuine. And what it is, it’s somebody else’s issue that they are projecting onto you. Or they’re trying to cajole you into doing something that they want you to do.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, you know, my own experience of navigating the genuine within, navigating the inward sanctuary, and the ways this kind of connects to our conversation about mysticism, in that, in my experience, the genuine is often tethered to also that understanding of oneness. So it’s almost like a mystical experience when I actually am revealed of who I am and what I am.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, I think anytime that you say “yes,” to God, you know what I mean? That you actually are happy, that experience of oneness. It’s like, oh! And I think the difficulty for most people is, we live in such an individualistic culture, which is part of the mystical experience is to lose yourself, but your independent, autonomous self. But at the same time, I think that that sense of unity, that sense of connection is very familiar to our spirits. Even though we may be fighting it at some point. But I think it’s really difficult for people to just surrender and say, okay, I’m going to stop trying to figure it out. I’m going to stop trying to plan and I’m just going to try to move through my life, guided by the Spirit. That’s just like, real hard for a lot of people. I think for me, as I told many people that when I had a heart transplant about 26 years ago, more than 26 years ago, I got thrown into the deep end of the trust-surrender pool. And so in many ways, the pandemic, I don’t think was as traumatic for me. And so I could stay grounded, because I had done this. I had been in quarantine, I had awakened many days where I had no idea what was going to happen that day. Was I going to to be in the hospital, was I going to be at home, was I going to have to get some special medication, was I in rejection, was I not. So it was like familiar territory to me. But I had been through it. So I knew that there was another side, by continuing to use the guidance that I learned when I had to go through that trauma helped me to then be one of those people who could stay grounded for other people, that just weren’t used to so much turbulence.
CASSIDY HALL: In a lecture on mysticism and social action, which you informed me was originally titled mysticism and social change, Thurman spoke a lot about the autonomy of the self, which is interesting in the context of this navigating, being in an individualistic society, alongside these things we’re discussing. And in that he writes, or he said, “the call to social action must never be an end in itself, but rather, a means by which the individual sufferer can get access to his own altar.” So my question is, what do you think he meant by that?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: When he talks about the autonomy of the self, I think what he’s talking about is not being a conformist in the sense of going along with everybody else, just because everybody else is doing it. So you may be with a group of people who kind of talk about taking social action, but you might also be hesitant, if you think that people are going to think about you in a certain way. They might reject you, they might not be friends with you anymore, if you step out of sort of the party line, whether that be what your church’s theology is, or you know, take a stand on a particular political or social issue. So I think in part, what he’s saying is that you can’t really get to — he’s got this idea that there is an altar within all of us, sort of where God resides. And it’s really hard to get to that place if you don’t have the courage, if you don’t have the strength to do what you’re called to do. And so many people sometimes hesitate, because again, it might upset the total applecart of their life. Where they stand, their reputation, their economic situation, all those kinds of things. And so it’s really tough to be able to step out of that and say, “look, this is wrong.” So I mean, it’s like, where are those people who, particularly during Thurman’s time, were willing to step up and say, segregation in churches is wrong? This whole system is wrong. Because there was a lot of punishment for anybody who stepped out of that. But he’s saying you’re not going to get to that union with God unless you’re willing to answer the call. And in that way, you’re being an autonomous self. You’re sort of stepping out of the groupthink, if you will, deciding that you’re going to walk a different path. At least that’s been my sense of what he’s trying to say in those remarks. Because he says the call to social action must never be an end in itself. It’s always about: are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost you in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the oneness.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that’s a big call, the Spirit. That is the call of the Spirit. I love that you kind of informally named Thurman as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to Thurman’s relationship to that movement and how you see that role unfolding for him.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: So Thurman had a number of, I call them holy coincidences or sacred synchronicity, divine intervention, whatever things you want to call it, in his life. Because I think he did accept that call and he kept going with the spirit wherever it was taking him, sometimes reluctantly. And so, in 19, probably around 34-ish , he was asked to lead a pilgrimage to India. Initially, he was not particularly interested in going, because he certainly did not want to be evangelizing for Christianity. He was very ambivalent about traditional Christianity, because it’s like, sort of why am I promoting a religion that won’t even allow me to sit next to another Christian in a church? And why hasn’t this religion addressed some of these basic social issues? I mean, we could get into a whole discussion about when Christianity got co-opted for the state or whatever, but that’s beside the point, we’re just dealing with the reality of it. And initially, they didn’t want to invite his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, who was just an amazing woman in and of herself. And he was being invited by a group that was pretty much similar to the YMCA in the United States. But the sort of, you know, in India, and this guy Ralla Ram really wanted him to come, he wanted some darker skin people to come and sort of represent Christianity. Because at the time the people in that area of the world were not interested in converting to the colonizers religion. So he thought, well, maybe if they see some people that look kind of like us, they might change their minds. It ended up that he finally, and I should say, prior to, many years earlier, Thurman actually participated in the YMCA when he was in high school because they had a lot of programs for the uplifting of young colored boys or men, kind of thing. And there was some ambivalence by many people that were participating in that because they wanted to have segregated branches for YMCA. So we sort of run into these issues everywhere, but nonetheless, so in the Fall of 1935, he and Sue Bailey Thurman, Edward and Phenola Carroll boarded the ship to South Asia, Burma, Simon, all of these different countries and they actually spent six months giving talks about a variety of issues, not necessarily focused on Christianity. But sort of American Negroes and education, and Sue Bailey Thurman gave lectures on Negro women, because these are the terms that they were using at that time. They also, he also had a chance to meet Tagore, the Indian poet. He spent a little time with him, but they really wanted to meet Gandhi. And so they had some difficulties. I think, initially, Gandhi was sick, and then they were sick, and about maybe a week or two before they were to leave to come back the United States, Thurman was on his way to the post office to send a telegram and he saw this guy with a Gandhi cap on, and they kind of looked at each other and then turned around. He had come to bring a telegram from Gandhi. Nonetheless, they got a chance to meet and they met for three hours and had a long conversation. There’s a lovely book called Visions of a New World, Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India. And so what we now understand, which I never knew for many years is that it was really Thurman who brought the ideas of non-violence and civil disobedience from Gandhi to the United States. And Gandhi even said, after that three hour meeting, that he thought it was probably going to be through the American Negro that this message of non-violence and civil disobedience would be brought to the world. Thurman came back with this idea. And I think he incorporated some of that in Jesus and the Disinherited, which actually became the blueprint for the civil rights movement in some ways. That is the inspiration. So there were so many people that were later leaders in that, that basically read that book and got excited. So Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them, James Lawson was one of them, Jesse Jackson was one of them. There were lots of people who were inspired by that. But Thurman did cross paths by the way with King in a variety of different ways.
First, another providential occurrence: Sue Bailey Thurman and Martin Luther King’s mother, Alberta King, her name was not King before, Williams, were roommates at Spelman Seminary in high school, it was a high school at the time. And so they had known each other for a very long time. And then in the newest book Against the Hounds of Hell, written by Peter Eisenstaedt, who’s a Thurman scholar and historian, he said that after the Thurmans came back from India, they had dinner with the Kings. Martin Luther King probably was about seven years old at the time, and probably overheard much of this conversation. But it really wasn’t until he read Jesus and the Disinherited that I think he really got inspired like, well, we can use this as a way to understand what our role is. And then, of course, King and Thurman crossed paths at Boston University for about a year, as King was finishing up his dissertation work. They met a little bit over sports. Again, I’m sure at the urging of Alberta King and you know, let’s get these people together. King also spent a lot of time listening to Thurman’s sermons in the Morse chapel to take notes. And then one final thing is that King was stabbed by a mentally ill woman in 1958. And Thurman writes that he had this visitation or this vision that he needed to go there. And so he actually went to the hospital and talked to King and basically said to him, this movement that you’ve started, I think it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. And I would suggest that you take some time off or some silence and solitude so that you can discern what your role is going to be in this movement.
There are many people who write in various ways about coming to Thurman as kind of like the spiritual advisor. So Vincent Harding writes about it, Vernon Jordan, as well as Jesse Jackson, Otis T. MossII, P. Marshall, and her work also says that she used to consult Thurman for spiritual guidance. So there were a number of people, Marian Wright Edelman was influenced by him. And all the amazing people that went through Boston University. Barbara Jordan was a person who used to go to his sermons. So he would basically be the person holding the spiritual space for these people as they came in and out and asking the questions that a good spiritual director would ask like, well, so you know, how are you feeling about this? And what do you feel guided to do next? Asking sort of the deeper questions. I mean, it’s not wasn’t just about, let’s get angry and go out in the street. But really helping people to understand that this might be in fact a godly matter, that there’s some spiritual reason for their being a part this movement.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love that. It was the women and their family that ultimately got them together. In his biography With Head and Heart, Thurman talks about his vision for the church, which I really always loved this quote. But he notes that it was his “conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists. To me, it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church.” And it strikes me that he lived his life like that, he lived his life as a resource for activists and a place for people to find fresh courage.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes, yes. And I think that’s so important, a place for finding fresh courage. Because in my experience, particularly as a spiritual director – companion, but also as a friend, people are weary. They are worn out and worn down. And I think in part if you don’t have that spiritual undergirding, if you don’t have a sanctuary, if you don’t have a place where you can just bask in the renewal of being in God’s divine presence, then you are going to fall apart. I mean, you’re going to burn out. And I’ve been trying to help young, particularly African American contemplatives, as well as activists to understand that it’s more than, you’ve seen an injustice and you’ve got to go do something about it. It’s got to be deeper. Because if it isn’t deeper, you are going to burn out quickly. And that is going in for those moments of contemplation or contemplative prayer, centering prayer, whatever you want to call it, where your spirit is renewed. And then that’s when you get the courage to be able to stand up and say, or do, whatever it is that needs to be done without fear. You know, that’s where you get the strength to be able to have the stamina to stay as long as you need to stay or stay up as long as you need to stay up. But it’s got to have something other than just passion and fire. Because as we know, that just burns quickly. But it’s got to be deeply rooted into something else.
CASSIDY HALL: So I like to end by asking one last question, and that is, who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you or to you?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I wish I had more time to think about this. I think about all the people that I’ve read along the way. And I must admit that it really wasn’t until I stepped into the life and work of Howard Thurman that I felt like somebody was speaking to me. I mean, I read about a lot of people and they were talking, but in terms of having somebody speak to me, like, I know you, I know what you’re going through, here’s my take on it. He was probably the first person. But I think I think about Harriet Tubman. I mean, here’s the mystic involved in social action, and it doesn’t really matter how it happened. Some people say, well, you know, she had a brain injury. Okay. Well, you know, people talk about so many mystics its probably having some form of psychopathology. So let’s talk about courage. I mean, where do you get the courage and the guidance, you know, so that you don’t get captured and killed? Just incredible. So I’m very inspired by her and what she did and how it happened. But if I bring myself to modern day, I think about Barbara Holmes, I think she’s just an amazing person. And I’ve listened to a few of her presentations, and it’s like, she’s in the deep waters. I always think about mystics as moving into deep waters. They’re moving in the deep waters. And so was Richard Rohr. He was someone that I read early on and had a chance to meet once here in Atlanta. But just, I believe, following that call. I have some people that we probably wouldn’t define as mystics. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have him in that category because after I saw Hamilton, I thought, who could do this? I mean, this is just beyond. It’s like when you’re in the presence of genius or creativity at that level, it was like a divine experience to just watch the production. I think about Toni Morrison and some of the words and things that she came up with, August Wilson as a playwright, he was another one. Those people that clearly they are connecting with the divine in some way, are people that — There’s a woman many years ago wrote a book called Ordinary Mystics – Marsha Sinetar. And now I just want to cross out them the ordinary. I mean, because they are mystics, they just don’t happen to emerge from religious communities. And I’m hoping that, as I said before, we can move beyond that kind of definition of a mystic, not only demystify the word, but make it one that is not associated with something negative. As I said earlier, everybody has different roles. And so let’s not confuse activism or social action as one thing. Art can be activism, plays can be activism and poetry. Look at Amanda Gorman. What the activism is about is provoking people, is waking them up to paying attention to what’s going on around them.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and I love that you named so many artists too. And that idea of deep waters, deep waters and I remember being with you at the Wild Goose Festival at Wisdom Camp, and you said to me, “spirit gets what spirit wants, so we might as well listen.” And that was actually a time in my life when I needed to listen. I needed to rest. Yeah, so I see that mysticism alive in your life and I’m so grateful for you and your work and appreciate you taking the time to be with me.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Of course it’s always a joy to be with you, Cassidy. Great conversations and I think our love for this work is part of our calling.
CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
As I confront my own role in racial injustice, I think about the false narratives embedded in white supremacy. False narratives that say my body will be protected if I remain silent on issues that matter, a false narrative which coddles and comforts white people. Upon these lies, countless systems of oppression have been built, systems which white people benefit from and knowingly or unknowingly participate in.
So what I am learning is that this work requires a daily, moment to moment confrontation of myself and my complacency in issues of injustice which is often bound up in my comfort. And that complacency is precisely what leads to my complicity.
One of the most significant ways we are failing Beloved Community, as white people, is that we are failing to go deep. We are using “Black Lives Matter” as another form of tokenism, a performative platform, while still being coddled by oppressive systems built upon injustice. And until we truly step into the daily and moment-to-moment discomfort, this will exist.
And, as we know, the depth begins with us–it begins with the individual work that must seep out into all areas of our life. The individual work which leads to collective work.
The work isn’t comfortable, but the only other option is complicity.
“When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.”
“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
For those afraid to begin for fear of being wrong and being corrected. “White feelings should never be held in higher regard than black lives.” (Rachel Cargle)
May we get over ourselves. May we see the value of being uncomfortable, the importance of trying and getting it wrong until we get it closer to right.
For those whose ignorance is debilitating humanity’s resolution. “it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.” (James Baldwin)
May we read, watch, listen, heed, and do our own work both individually and collectively.
For those who fear moving away from the comfort and safety of “being good.”
May we remember, there is always a place for “creative trouble” (Bayard Rustin), “Good trouble, necessary trouble” (John Lewis)
May we pivot into discomfort, lest we perpetuate the status quo.
May we recall that “There is no place in this war of liberation for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.” (James H. Cone)
For those so focused on their self-worth’s connectivity to black worth that we fail to do the work from the right intentions.
May we remember, “Anti-racism work is not self-improvement work for white people. It doesn’t end when white people feel better about what they’ve done. It ends when Black people are staying alive and they have their liberation.” (Rachel Cargle)
For those flailing so much that they’ve chosen to do nothing, without realizing the privilege of choice. “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs… they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.” (bell hooks)
May we stop flailing in the sea of to-dos and begin to be moved to change and step into risk––one task at a time.
For those who cannot see the work of justice in a riot.
May we see the truth of the fire and see both within and beyond it.
For those who cannot understand the rage.
May we awaken to the necessity of uprooting systems of oppression embedded in American society and our very lives.
May we recognize these systems and be against them, clearly and boldly.
May we know that disruption of a system which holds on to the status quo is necessary for these are the systems which refuse to “relinquish [their] oppressive ways without confrontation. This is the methodology of the oppressed as they are fighting for liberation.” (Pamela R. Lightsey).
May we remember that “to practice love is to disrupt the status quo which is masquerading as peace.” (Austin Channing Brown)
May we see and understand that “Oppressive systems must be exposed and deconstructed or dismantled (even in sacred texts), not simply recycled or cosmetically adjusted to palliate and opiate the oppressed and their allies.” (Mitzi J Smith)
May we see the distress, agony, and trauma of these systems which is perpetuated in our own white bodies, ways of being, and participation (see Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands).
For those claiming only silence or spending time in prayer is necessary for such a time as this.
May we heed the balance demanded of a truly contemplative life.
May we remember “All contemplation should be followed by action.” And that the wholeness of contemplation “MUST consist of both inward solitude and reflection, and an outward response to the situations in which we find ourselves present and awake.” (Therese Taylor-Stinson)
May we remember that the “altar of justice” clearly shows historically and biblically that “resistance was [and is] an action” of our faith. (Dean Leah Gunning Francis)
For those who think we can “set the timetable for another man’s freedom” (MLK, Jr.) No, just no.
May we heed the “fierce urgency of now” (MLK, Jr.) and recognize God in our fellow humans who are literally struggling to breathe in this. very. moment.
For those who still can’t get behind the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
May we remember “we don’t live in a world where all lives matter.” (Alicia Garza) Thus, we must elevate the lives deemed unworthy by a society we (as white people) perpetuate (whether unknowingly or not).
May we remember that “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” (Toni Morrison)
May we wake up to see this truth in our everyday lives: our schools, our places of work, our streets, our parks, and our homes.
For those at home, unable to leave for health reasons of their own, another’s health, or unable to be on the streets for other reasons.
May we remember that there are countlessways to show up.
May we recall that “Revolution is not a one-time event” (Audre Lorde) nor a one-place event. But may we also remember that for a revolution to take hold, it must seep into all avenues of our lives.
May we remember where we spend our money matters, our voice or writing matters, our work with our white friends, white children, and white family members matters.
May we learn to see by paying attention.
May we learn to understand by listening.
May we learn to change by doing our own work.
May we be true to both ourselves and our unique expressions while also being true to our human family.
May we participate in the revolution, a revolution that doesn’t need us but will define us.
I grew up nearby a street named Lincoln Way. This transcontinental highway runs all the way from Lincoln Park in California to Times Square in New York. And, it ran through the town I grew up in, giving me a kind of landmark for directions, much like I was taught to treat the street’s namesake when it came to history. I grew up being told to admire Abraham Lincoln––the 16th president of the United States, a man of the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), one who fought for the Union and to end slavery… or did he?
While it’s not surprising, our history books lied to us and Lincoln got it wrong.
Recently, I’ve been reading a number of books by theologian James H. Cone including Black Theology & Black Power, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and God of the Oppressed. Struck by his words and my growing understanding of truth as clearly laid out before me, I couldn’t help but fumble around when I read about this “great” president. I’ve come to realize that when we see the history we’ve been told is a lie, it’s not only our responsibility to listen, learn it, and apologize; It’s our responsibility to not look away. This writing is my apology. This writing is my refusal to look away.
“There is no place in this war of liberation,” Cone writes in 1969, “for nice white people who want to avoid taking sides and remain friends with both the racists and the Negro.”
While reading Black Theology & Black Power, I came across Cone’s notes on Abraham Lincoln and the frequent lies told about him as a man who longed for the freedom of slaves. Cone writes, “Whatever may have been the motives of Abraham Lincoln and other white Americans for launching the war, it certainly was not on behalf of black people. Lincoln was clear on this:
“My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” (Abraham Lincoln)
Cone goes on, “If that quotation still leaves his motives unclear, here is another one which should remove all doubts regarding his thoughts about black people:
“I will say then that I am not, nor have I ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races––that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and interior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” (Abraham Lincoln)
With a whitewashed history, what does the future hold? Years from now, will the 45th president be portrayed with the light of racism and white supremacy under which he stands? Or will we––yes, we––continue to add layers and layers to the facts and perpetuate a world of hatred and injustice, a world comfortable enough for the nice white person who wants (and thinks under these severe circumstances that there is) progress without any conflict or discomfort?
“A man is free when he accepts the responsibility for his own acts and knows that they involve not merely himself but all men.” ––James H. Cone
If the truth no longer propels us to care, what will? If we can look upon the suffering of our fellow human and remain neutral because we are comfortable, we have lost our humanity. There is no time for neutrality when humans are suffering. Or as Cone says, “There is no time for talk when men are suffering.”
Cone’s words in Black Theology & Black Power were written 50 years ago this year. His preface contains his own newfound truths including a recognition and apology for the sexism within the book (both in his gendered language and leaving out the leadership notes and significance of black women) as well as a new clarity that “we need to develop a struggle for freedom that moves beyond race to include all oppressed peoples of the world,” in accordance with some of the lessons he heeded from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Some may say, “The history books didn’t lie, they only didn’t share the whole truth.” Some may say, “Often times our imperfections are used for ultimate good and slaves were freed, weren’t they?” I, for one, refuse to bow my body or tip my cap to a man whose blatant racism was left out of history so that he might be elevated as some kind of white savior. Lincoln did not free slaves, he did not believe in the equality of our black brothers and sisters. To “free” a human from the labor and life of a slave in language yet to continue to treat them as less-than in any way is to keep slavery alive.
I am not a history expert. I claim no in-depth knowledge about slavery or presidential history. That being said, I do know my history books got it wrong. I do know there is a sitting president who is an undisguised racist and I do not want my nephews reading anything less than the truth in their history books. I do know that I am sorry for my ignorance. I do know we have a long, long, long way to go and we must bind ourselves together so that we can all stand on equal ground or we will continue to fall deeper alone.
And, some may say “How can the Republican party go from the 16th president of the United States to the blatant racism of the 45th president of the United States?” Relearning history makes it not only obvious but abundantly clear. Patterns are being repeated. History covers up racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia––by rewriting history through erasure, by perpetuating lies and therefore perpetuating hatred.
Next time I visit my hometown, I will remember the truth about the namesake of the street which runs through my town. The inevitable thought will make me consider just how many daily reminders we have of unabashed racism. The result will be a reminder to be louder against hatred, bolder against falsities, and clearer about the truth. Because I want my fellow human’s value in this world to be clear, known, and not just a pretty phrase. Because we can’t keep lying about our history. Because I want my nephews reading truth. Because I’m done being another nice neutral white face in the crowd.
“The liberal, then, is one who sees ‘both sides’ of the issue and shies away from ‘extremism’ in any form. He wants to change the heart of the racist without ceasing to be his friend; he wants progress without conflict. Therefore, when he sees blacks engaging in civil disobedience and demanding ‘Freedom Now,’ he is disturbed. Black people know who the enemy is, and they are forcing the liberal to take sides. But the liberal wants to be a friend, that is, enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining to whiteness and also work for the ‘Negro.’ He wants change without risk, victory without blood.” ––James H. Cone
Text from: Black Theology and Black Power by James H. Cone, 1969.
Cone’s references for Lincoln quotes:
First quote by Lincoln: “Reply to Horace Greeley,” 1862, in The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1; revised, S. Bradley, R.C. Beatty, and E.H. Long, eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), p. 1567.
Second quote by Lincoln: Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (New York: Random House, 1964), pp. 92-93.
(***Image from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving” 1978.)