“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.”
In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).
Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”
While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.
He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”
On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”
A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”
Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away.In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).
Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”
The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960
The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is a Carmelite nun in Baltimore, where she’s been a Catholic sister since 1972. Previously, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun working in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. She was also a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference and was active in the civil rights movement during the height of the race riots in 1968. She’s been a spiritual director since 1982.
Sister Barbara told the Washington Post, “There comes a point when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands. Through prayer, I feel I can touch the world.”
In this interview I ask Sister Barbara about mysticism’s role in activism, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, the insurrection of January 6th, and more. She defines a mystic as “someone that observes mysteries or experiences but their intuition is held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Because, Black Lives Matter. I mean, none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now, and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patience endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer.
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 am your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster pastor, and student, and I am here to learn with you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is an 88-year-old Carmelite Nun in Baltimore where she has been a sister since 1972. Prior to her arrival, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. According to the New York Times as a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference in 1968, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the height of the race riots. She has been a spiritual director since 1982. In a Washington Post Article sister Barbara Jean is quoted as saying, “there comes a time when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands through prayer I feel I can touch the world.”
So when we talked on the phone about a month ago you had told me, “everything that happens in the world happens in here.” When you were referencing the cloistered life. Can you tell me more about how cloistered life exposes all of what happens outside?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, first of all, we are all human beings. That is the number one, that’s the commonality. We are all human beings and whatever happens outside of the monastery, people get angry, people get upset, people want to fight, people don’t like what so-and-so said, my sister did this and if I get them I am going to do the same thing. Happens the same thing in that monastery, we are 16 here; two of our sisters, well three were away––one passed in October from COVID, but we are still 16, and we have two young women who are coming to live with us to see if this is what they really want, in their twenties, they are going to have the same thing. I get angry sometimes, but it’s a matter of not putting that anger out on another person. But the same thing that happens outside of the monastery happens within the monastery because we are all human beings and we are human beings in here and actions speak louder than words.
Cassidy Hall: And I love your writing, your writing is just wonderful and so important. And in piece that you wrote titled “Black and gifted our ministry the spiritual direction,” you write, “if there is one gift which stands out more than other in the journey of Black folks, it is the gift of patient endurance.” So my question with that is how have you seen that patient endurance exist for you and contemplative life and how have you seen it in our world today?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : In religious life today, some communities still have, unfortunately, some communities still do not have African-American sisters, and if they do they accept them. But they are still Hedgy about that. I think it’s going to continue because, maybe it will I should say, and maybe it won’t. I know for myself, I am the only one here, the African-American here, but I was brought up in a home where my mother had, it was two colors and she was like white when she died. Brown and white, well I had spots on my legs. I said thank God they are on my legs and not on my face. While growing up with her being in a home, orphanage, she was a nurse anesthetist and I saw all these things, you don’t say much but you can observe, you see what people see people, white people, look we get on the bus before we had cars and there were three of us, I was the oldest, and she made sure that we had seats together. She would stand up and I would watch look around. And the people would be looking at her, looking at us, looking at her, looking at us. Talk about patient endurance, I think it’s the actions that happen. And it still goes on today. It still goes on today and see even worse today. I think because Black Lives Matter, I mean none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patient endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer: God, I can’t be out there to walk, I can’t be there to express what I would like to say even to help. But I ask you to use the pain that I’m feeling. Patient and endurance is individual, it’s communal, and the people that are going through this, they are out there, but they are doing this every day, whatever happens to them. I am the same way but I am inside and I am going through it with them. They were on the front lines and I feel the pain. I said this as soon as it was over, the first day that this happened at the Capital, if that had been African-Americans, they would have been shot dead. They would––nothing asked, they would have been gone. There weren’t––I mean, there were individuals, yes––but as a group, there wasn’t. And I think that’s the biggest gift that was given to us because of the patient endurance that’s there. That was there, but that’s what it is for me.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. It reminds me, some of the writings I have read of Howard Thurman and the writings about him and his writings about his contemplative practice and how people have pointed to his contemplative practice, kind of being this undergirding to the Civil Rights Movement and this kind of support that’s not just solidarity, but like you are saying it is “IT.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : This is it. It is. I mean we are enduring what they are going through out there, but we are enduring it in here, and it’s just as painful as could be. And the tears were just coming to my eyes. I mean, we were all sitting in a group, so I was by the window and I had my water or whatever there, and I just could not believe it. I said out loud, “if this had been African-Americans, we would have been shot dead,” they wouldn’t have even asked. The tears just –– it was unbelievable. And I still feel inside what people are going through. It is very hard––patient endurance goes on every minute of every day with someone that we don’t even know, we don’t even know, and it’s even with children, it’s even with children. Because my mom said, this is how we were brought up, we are to respect everybody, everybody, regardless of how they act. You can always tell that to whoever is in charge––but you can’t––And my two brothers, one brother was close to me, the other one was two years younger than me. And I am the only one left in my family now because he died last January. But she would say, “what you do makes a difference, how you do it makes a difference, and remember that. I may not be here with you all the time. But if something happens to you, you have to respect yourself and no you can’t mouth it or hit somebody,” or whatever because everything makes a difference.
Cassidy Hal: about spiritual direction and talking about contemplative life, and you mentioning that you are the only African-American sister at your monastery, just the importance of representation and the importance of, I mean, I mentioned Howard Thurman, but very few people even know of Thurman’s work as a Black mystic, as a Black contemplative. And I wonder if you could just speak into the importance of that––representation.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I was docket here three times, Cassidy, for leadership in the community, and I didn’t get it. And that, well I mean, I didn’t think I was going to get anyway, but the last time there were two of us––between myself and another person, and the sister that died in October. And this was in, I am not sure whether it was the late eighties, beginning of the nineties, I am not sure. But anyway, we had the meeting and then the name surfaced and they brought it down to the two of us. And that evening she came into my office, knocked on my door, she said, “Barbara Jean, I’m taking my name off the list, I cannot do this.” The Bishop was supposed to come the next morning at 10. And I said, “are you sure?” She said, “I am sure,” she went to bed, this was like nine o’clock. I said, fine, I went to bed and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is this? What does this mean? So I went to bed went to sleep, got up the next morning, and I was in the office in my office here, the Bishop was supposed to come at 10. So they usually come about 10 of 10, whatever. And [knock, knock, knock], she walks in again. She says, “I know I told you last night, that I was taking my name off the list.” She said, “but I was told to leave my name on and whatever I needed, they would help me.” I had never, ever said that to anyone, yet, but it’s in my archive. It’s written in my book. I was so shocked. She didn’t say who, but I can surmise. I mean and sure enough, she got elected after that. I took my name off of everything, never again. For me that was blatant but that’s what happens.
Cassidy Hall [10:07]: It reminds me of the thing that we began this conversation with that everything that happens in the world happened there.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Exactly, exactly, and if I were to say that now, I don’t know that they would even own it. I don’t know if they would, or they wouldn’t but it’s finished––as said, at that point, this is going down in my––I’m writing it down exactly the way it happened, and God rest her soul, she’s gone, she died in October, but they will have my archives.
Cassidy Hall: And your story is a testament to that patient endurance we were just talking about. You also write about, I think this kind of goes along with this, you also write about questioning our institutions for authentic living. And I think, you know, you kind of just described that by telling that story. I guess my question is as a contemplative, what does it look like to question institutions? Because a lot of people have the misunderstanding that being contemplative is being passive.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I don’t think so. It’s not being passive, no way, it’s not being passive at all. What we do, how we act, that’s very active. Even in here, you don’t have to go around doing whatever, no; it could be just going to prayer where you are quiet, where you can sit, where you can bring someone else’s problem to the Lord and talk. So it’s, it’s not passive at all. I don’t think so.
Cassidy Hall: Well, even, you know, the story you just told about writing down your story is an act of resistance.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Where you wouldn’t think, you know that’s my way of saying who I am, and being true to me.
Cassidy Hall: And that’s truth-telling, I mean you writing down your story is truth-telling
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Whether anyone believes it or not. And that’s what my mom used to say, “be true to who you are.” And that has resonated. I see this, I hear this all the time. It’s hard because you don’t know, just to even see her, she would always call, “how are you doing? You need anything?” you know, that kind of stuff, you know, have you heard from your brothers and this and that and you know, she was good.
Cassidy Hall: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about contemplation’s role in mysticism and or what mysticism means to you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester: Mysticism is a particular gift of God, that God gives to people. And the combination of mysticism with contemplative life, with contemplative prayer, is that people are sometimes going into prayer and they can come out with a prescription or a solution that they know is from God––and this is good, and we should do it this way, whatever. That it’ll take maybe two or three of us who rely on God, and we just don’t see or feel that, or even add that, to be able to jot it down. It comes more, it’s a little bit more work for us, as opposed to a mystic that can see and really be in touch with on a deep level of prayer. And that’s a grace that’s given to few people, but that’s how the two work together.
Cassidy Hall: Do you think it’s possible to see or experience mysticism in everyday life, everyday people so to speak?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Yes. Well, people or some people know they can pick them out. They get a feeling, you wonder why, how did they know? And that’s just a grace. Mystic is someone that observes mysteries or experiences, but their intuition is, it’s held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it, and with an intuition that’s beyond, almost, the possibility of trying to figure something out that you can’t, and that’s what it is. Harriet Tubman, she was a mystic. She knew, I mean, with her going from the South to the North, to the South, I mean, who would do that with nothing that she had really, you know. She was the ideal woman. She was a mystic. Everything was down to earth for her, but she had that, I don’t know what you call it, where God was, she didn’t do this only by herself–she relied on a higher power than herself, and it always worked for me.
Cassidy Hall: That again goes to the point we were discussing earlier about how a lot of people think things like contemplation is passive. Similarly, I think people think mysticism is this naval gazing, absence going inside oneself when really, I mean a case in point Harriet Tubman.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : [15:04]: Exactly. Who else did I put down? Thea Bowman. I have known her since the 60s, when we started the National Black Sisters conference. The first day we went down, we had the first conference, and then we had a break like in the afternoon for maybe a half-hour or so. I wanted to walk, take a walk outside because it was nice. So I walked down this hill, I mean the open wide, green on either side, but down the whole road. And then I hear this singing, what the heck is that? I haven’t heard or seen anybody who was that. And so I stopped where I heard it, and I am looking around and I did not see anything. Finally, I see someone sitting on the ground, it was there on the ground, sitting down under the tree singing. That’s how we met in 1964. And I sat down with her, “I’m Sister Thea, who are you?” “I’m Sister Barbara.” And we became friends like I don’t know what, after that.
Cassidy Hall: What a perfect way to meet.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester Yes, but she was, talk about mystic? She and her work, her preaching, it was unbelievable. And the song she came out with–– she was another one, African-American––the only one in her community. So many people don’t even know some of the stories, she said when they would leave the convent to go the sisters to work, whatever, there maybe four or five, four in the car, I guess, but she was always in the back, she didn’t drive, but if they stopped at a red light and there were people waiting for the bus there, she’d always have to bend down in the car so that they wouldn’t see her––that they would only see the white sisters there. So we all have, every one of us has something about, she loved her community. I love my community too, but we are not perfect, but we still live. And I believe everybody is God-oriented. I don’t want to be a mystic, I don’t see, I don’t get answers like they do, you know, I just live my life day to day and give it the best I can. That’s all God wants.
Cassidy Hall: Another thing you wrote in “Black and Gifted,” you talked about liberation as a “willingness to walk through the deserts of one’s own internal fears to liberate and free the spirit for holistic integrated living.” And I am particularly struck by the willingness to walk through the deserts for liberation to move towards liberation. Again, that patient endurance that those desert experiences require.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Right, it’s a willingness to walk in through the desert of our fear, internal fear, to walk through our fear, to be free and to free the spirit for holistic integrated living. In direction, sometimes, when they ask what to do, I don’t know, I do not have an answer, really: lay it at the feet of God, and the term metanoia, anybody that’s Catholic has grown up with a totally different idea of metanoia than it’s looked at today. That’s what it’s calling us to: There is life, even in the midst of what we perceive or what we see as non-life.
Cassidy Hall: Amid that patient endurance. What are the glimpses of liberation or the glimpses of holistic integrated living? What gives you hope?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : The fact that even within the race that I am in, we can treat our brother and sister as human beings and this purports and helps us to see others as human beings, also. The fact that we can accept to a point what we have and what we’ve been given and work diligently at that to make ourselves better and to lift someone who is younger than we to be in a place where they can spread their wings and, and do something better and more than we did, this is what I see. And this is what I hope for all the children that I have taught. It’s amazing that they still remember me. My name was Robert, then, a couple of them have come for my Jubilees and they tell stories about what I used to do, what I would tell them and all that. But they are nurses, some of them have gone up in their own companies, people that you didn’t even think of what they would do because they were so small, but it’s piercing it onto another generation or even generations below that. I really believe I am a firm, firm beeliver that what we do, what we say, how we act has an effect on people, whether you know them or not. And when you are the only one in all whiteness, everybody looks at you, never mind them not saying anything, you know what is going on in their mind: What is she doing here? I wonder what she is up to. Some of them may come and talk even, but this is what I believe that actions speak louder than words. And that’s what people see.
Cassidy Hall: One of the things we kind of addressed earlier, but I wonder if you might have anything else to say to the question of, do you think there is anything contemplation can teach protests and movements? Do you think there’s anything that contemplative of life can learn from protest and movements?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : There is always change going on in the world. We don’t even know about it. As a human being who is part of this world, the same thing happens to us individually. I am contemplative, yes, but there are other movements of religion in the world besides myself. They don’t pray the way I do, but they do pray. I don’t pray the way they do. They don’t pray the way I do, but they still pray to a person that they, a God that they believe in. And I believe that God made all of us and God has given each of us gifts and graces to use. So I think people can become mystics, which means they go deeper into God. However it fits them––however, they feel called or drawn. They can touch the God that they believe in and God can touch their hearts. And this is prayer and it doesn’t have a name. It’s God, they are in touch with their God. And I am in touch with my God, but its God. This is really something because we don’t talk about this all the time. I went last night; I was up to 10:30 going through that. I said, “oh my God, I hope I remember what to say.” I didn’t know what was going to be, but you know sometimes even like we will have a dialogue homily at our communion service and we have communion service every day. So you read the scripture for the day and something might pop into my head as I am reading it, whatever the reflections and all of that. And I say, but when it gets down to it, I know what I want is, but the words don’t come out anymore like they used to.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that aging makes us even more contemplative?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, if we look at it like that, yes. You say because there is a lot of loss in aging, but the other side of that is aging is a gift. Everybody doesn’t get to age, that’s what I’ve come to myself.
Cassidy Hall: And you had mentioned that you are, are you writing kind of like a memoir type thing about your life or?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I do a lot of poetry off and on. I wouldn’t say every single day, I barely write, but things that are important, yes, I do. So I’m making sure that one person that if anything ever happens to me, they know I have archives. Yes, it’s important.
Cassidy Hall: Well, Sister Barbara Jean, it has been amazing to speak with you. Listen to your stories and your patient endurance. And listen to just everything that you have been through. Everything that you do and continue to do is just amazing.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, God bless you and your work that you are doing. This is something, really, kudos, really. I hope your life goes the way you want it. God bless. Bye-bye.
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.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song, “Trapezoid Instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which has generously allowed us to use it. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting e- sankofa.com. The podcast is 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 resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.
“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 I 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
“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.
Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”
Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.
Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”
The towering redwoods of northern California have always mystified me. I’m constantly swept away with awe and wonder, as if I’ve rewinded my life back into childhood. With my gaze upward and my mouth wide open, I oooo and ahhhh at the way the light shines through the endless towers, the great elevated heights of trees, and squint my way through each crevice in hopes of seeing the array of creatures who call these woods home.
While on a stroll by a creek bed, I was so at ease with my surroundings that an overwhelming sense of equilibrium and a peace began to hypnotize me. I was startled back into the moment by noticing I was holding my own hand, as if the nature I was surrounded by intertwined with each of my fingers. Glancing down at my hands, I smiled in wonder, and continued my gentle clasp. I could breathe, feeling as if I inherently belonged to the moment — I to the trees, the trees to me, and the moment to us.
I’ve often wondered why these ancient trees bring me so much contentment and comfort. To me, this isn’t just about being in nature and reveling in her beauty. This is about growing trees that can attain the height of 378 feet with bark as thick as 12 inches; this is about a living thing whose arms (branches) can be up to 5 feet in diameter; this is about something that can live through 2,000 years (3,000 years for their inland relations, the giant sequoias)* worth of storms and remains standing; this is about trees who see, house, and intimately know generations of squirrels, birds, butterflies, bears; this is about trees who lived through the births and deaths of mothers and fathers of religious movements; this is about wisdom beyond human understanding, ancient wisdom.
This ancient wisdom is beyond any insight of words written on a page or stories passed from age to age. Though the desert fathers and mothers of 4th century Christianity often offered words, phrases, and a variety of insight to passing pilgrims asking for a word; these trees speak a different language, a universal language to thousands of generations of meandering pilgrims. This is the wisdom whose words speak to our deep mind in the silences and spaces between. This is the wisdom of the discourse we run father away from in our busy every day lives. Though we muffle it with destruction, it remains below our feet; though we forget it with distraction, it exists in the silences of our days. This is the wisdom whose exclusive interest is to be.
We live in a society that values the decided mind, yet the decided mind often doesn’t have room to be, because the decided mind is closed, shut, and unopened to the fluidity of being. The tree moves and dances with the winds, but remains a tree. The tree encounters wounds in the storms, but doesn’t cease to stand and be. This ancient wisdom points me back to wonder precisely so I can also be. So that I let the unfoldings of my own life open out, so that I may accept myself with the child-like wisdom of innocence, holding my own hand. From here I may evolve in the spaces where I lack understanding, so I may at every moment unfurl my tired clasping hands. And in doing so, I get to partake in this ancient wisdom, this deep beholding, and let it hold my hand.
Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.
“…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59
I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.
On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.
Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.
Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.
As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.
These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?
This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.
Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.
“The world is like an anesthetic… people are not going beyond the superficial to the meaning of life — they don’t even ask that question because they’re caught up in that anesthetizing process.” A Monk of Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah
I woke up this morning with an overwhelming feeling of being so distant from my own self. While in the midst of a frenzied work month, drained by piles of to-dos, and in an echo-chamber of my own mind; I seem to have lost touch with the precise thing that brought me here. I’m waking up for a city’s premiere of a documentary film I’ve been working on titled In Pursuit of Silence, and yet, I’ve managed to lose touch with my own silence, space, and solitude. I’ve become the precise paradox our film opens our eyes to; I’ve forgotten myself, my own way of being, and the natural spaces around me. Like an anesthetic fog just after surgery, I’ve been going through my days clouded by the demands of modern day life.
Anesthesia seems to be an ideal sentiment for describing the world we live in today. We’re consumed by our phones, computers, televisions, technology, work, and busyness itself. So much so that there’s nothing left of us for the solitude, space, and silence for which we were designed. Our days are so marked by modern day life’s measurements of likes, comments, and first place ribbons of who has the most emails — that we come to the day’s end without the depth of sensations we were created to have. Even our allegiance to the word busy seems to fill our mouths like a badge of honor. Our society tells us only a busy life is a successful and productive life, while research and studies continue to quietly tell us otherwise. There’s an undertone that busy is a title, a symbol we’re doing life right, a life worth living — but what if it’s precisely this busy that anesthetizes us from living a genuine life of meaning, a memorable day, and a life true to who we were made to be?
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates
Spreading ourselves too thin is now the law of the land; we insist we’re no longer good enough or doing enough for the people and world around us unless we’re giving more than what we have. And, as we watch our unique passions, desires, and hopes float away — we decide it’s time to take on even more. We cover our original design with layers of modern day life; we convince ourselves that losing ourselves is loving others more. And still, our purest and richest (in love and joy) selves come out in those moments when we’re true to who we are — listening to our creative urges in work and play, saying a hearty yes or empowering no to those around us, and being able to truly interact with our loved ones from a space of wholeness.
“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Hermann Hesse
For some of us, remaining busy is a way to feel sane — to keep us running from what is really going on, to avoid the truth of ourselves. But, what if the truth is actually an easier space to navigate? What if our true selves contain a space where we can see and feel more whole again — perhaps the real world we need to explore is not the world of to-dos and sensory overload but the vast interior world of ourselves. Maybe it’s time to turn off excerpts of our anesthetizing days so that we might feel again, recenter ourselves again, and re-engage with our natural equilibrium.
It seems that even when those small spaces peek up within our days, there is never enough time. Sleep is more important (it often is), my phone is more vibrant, those emails will just add up, and between all the day’s tasks the breaks to breathe are just that — how could anyone expect us to do more than breathe in such moments? And we know that we’re all so beautifully different in these realms: the ways in which we balance ourselves, the different rhythms that agree with us, and what makes sense for each of our lives. Thus, it’s all the more important to tune into our personal ways of being and trust that natural rhythm as we go about our days. The anesthetic fog will come again and again, because it is a part of modern day life — but there’s choice for us somewhere to see beyond that, through that, and let the fog lift.
“At the still point, there the dance is.” T.S. Eliot
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving.” Bell Hooks
This time, after jumping in my car, no maps were necessary as I navigated my way towards New Mellerary Abbey for the 10th time since 2011. Maybe I had gone enough times to know my way, maybe something beyond myself was helping to guide me, or maybe there was nothing mystical to the experience other than the way I chose to view it.
As soon as I arrived and settled in my room, that familiar piercing silence rang in my ears. I slowly meandered to the guest library to borrow 10 books: a handful of familiar authors, half of which I’d read, half I hadn’t. I skimmed through the pamphlet the monastery gives you upon your arrival – scanning for any new rules or suggestions for my time there, nothing new. I busied myself seeing if there might be wifi, navigating where I might have cell service and doing everything but precisely what I came there for.
This is nothing new. I go to get away from everything I chase as soon as I arrive because I live in a society that tells me I should never be alone. I live in a society that tells me I should always be connected, I should always be doing something, and even in being there for a retreat – I should have something to “show” for my time there. Alas, I know better. Every second of my aimless searching and grasping only reiterates to me just how ingrained these societal shoulds are. And, as we all know, when we finally come to terms with being in our solitude the guilt piles up of everything we should and could be doing.
“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” Pico Iyer
Solitude’s paradox comes in to play when we realize that, despite what others may say, silence and solitude are some of the most productive things we can give ourselves. Studies* demonstrate just how far we’ve gotten from true productivity (a relative statement as we all define productivity differently). Our fear of boredom (a root of creativity and imagination) has hypnotized us into screen hungry zombies. We wake up and check our emails, our social media, the news, and everything BUT checking in with ourselves; we’ve lost touch with what it means to know who we are. And in this convoluted state, we continue to reach for the quick fixes: the retreats or trips we can’t afford, the social media fast or cleanse, the “less screen time,” a cut back on work, and so on. Then as we emerge once again to be bombarded by society’s expectations alongside the needs of friends and family, we’re left confused. Almost as if an addict fresh off of rehab, our ensuing relapse only deepens us further into our modern day addiction.
“The inner fire is the most important thing humankind possesses.” Edith Sodergran
We’re tired. And the cycle continues as we try to figure out how to marry what we feel is best to what the world seems to need and expect of us: in what situations do we bargain it all and dive in, what places do we let go for good, in what realms can we stick to a practice that allows us to truly and regularly hear ourselves? In the same breath, we’re so concerned that if we let go anywhere we’ll miss something – we won’t have enough money to pay rent, we’ll lose our friends, we can’t go to all the activities, we won’t make enough money to feel okay, or we’ll be off everyone’s radar because we’re no longer “involved enough.” Then, we once again come to the end of our days and moments struck with the reminder that we’ve lost touch with who we are, what we want, and what we’re doing.
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” Oscar Wilde
We’ve become so busy that our days are mapped out to the second, our sleep is forced off rhythm by lack of time, our solitude is planned out to the minute, and we’re expecting ourselves to do it all. Another paradox to explore is that solitude was birthed in community; as we cannot know summer without winter, we lose sight of solitude when we isolate ourselves from community. Do the people around me truly know my needs in and out of solitude? How can we encourage one another to find those crevices of ourselves to love and explore more. How can we truly go away from commitments and people to come back more full of love, understanding, and compassion towards ourselves and others.
“The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.” Henri Nouwen
Once I finally settled into the rhythms of the monastery, I was able to let go of some of these things society has poisoned me with. I breathed into my time alone – allowing my thoughts, both negative and positive, to arise, listening to the silence, and grappling with those challenges and fears we all face in our silences. I was again reawakened and reopened to my vulnerabilities, my aimless clinging, and my continued awe for the mysteries of life.
I needed no map to navigate my way home, I needed no radio for company. The peace of knowing I at least spent half of my time basking in the solitude reassured me that I was in touch with the natural rhythms of my life, if only just a little. Perhaps there’s something different this time and I’m more open to listening to the solitude; allowing it to speak silence, truth, and rest into my life. Those moments I can finally say okay to letting go of the world in order to deepen my awareness. Those moments I reach for nothing and engage with who I really am. Those moments, I listen.
Studies and articles on silence, boredom, solitude, etc. Many thanks to these authors for their inspiration and dedication to the topic:
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