Solitude in a Toolshed

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.”

Cassidy Hall and Brother Paul Quenon
The Inside of St. Anne’s Toolshed

Quotes from:

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.”

— Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

Being A Truth Teller: A Conversation with Sophfronia Scott

In this episode, author Sophfronia Scott and I discuss the power of truth-telling, encounters with mysticism, and the ways in which contemplation can lead to mystical encounter. Of mysticism she says, “There is something all around us that sustains us and the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil.”

Transcript:

[00:00:03] Sophfronia Scott: It’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that. You mentioned Walter Scott and that happened in 2015, 5 years later, we have George Floyd, and suddenly it’s like something––people are acting like something woke up––it’s like wait, wasn’t this––what happened with Ferguson? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then?

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 social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall.

Sophfronia Scott grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, hometown she shares with author Toni Morrison. She holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she began her career as an award winning magazine journalist for both Time and People. When her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published in 2004 Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards. Her other books include the novel is Unforgivable Love, an essay collection titled Love’s Long Line, and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son. Her most recent book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Mertonwas published just this year in March of 2021. And in that book, on a chapter about resisting racism, she writes, If we don’t become the truth tellers than a different kind of erosion can happen, in which resentment breeds a resentment that would threaten the wholeness of my heart and soul. If nothing else, I must be whole and respond to racism in a way that is true to the depths of my being. So Sophfronia, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining me.

[00:01:57] Sophfronia Scott: I am happy to be here. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

[00:02:01] Cassidy Hall: So I want to begin by asking you, what does the word “contemplative” mean to you and how do you see it lived out in our world today?

[00:02:09] Sophfronia Scott: Now that that second part, how do I see it lived out? You know, that’s a difficult one. Because to me, contemplation is an inner journey. It involves solitude and it involves a reflection on what God has given that particular individual and how you’re taking that in and walking through the world with that grace. So how do you see that? You know, how would I observe that? How would I know, the world in general, I can see it in certain people. But the world in general, it’s like we’re coming out of a year of being–of forced contemplation, right, at this point, the pandemic, right? So, it’s like that was a period where people suddenly did have to take stock and really look at the way they were living their lives. So I would have to say that maybe it wasn’t present in the world before in the way that it could be now.

[00:02:58] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, just we navigate that differently based on the language that we use to maybe define it, but either way, we’ve all kind of become contemplatives. So being that we all kind of went to that meeting place together over the last year. I know in my experience, right, it created a kind of the sense of deeper connectivity or deeper solidarity and connection to each other, right? Also seeing the things played out on the news, between disparities of the issues related to covid and racial injustice–George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. So do you see or sense that our togetherness in that contemplation created a connection with social action or social justice?

[00:03:37] Sophfronia Scott: You used the word together, Cassidy. Actually, I think all of that happened because we had assumed early on that we were doing that together, right? It looked like we had gone into this pandemic, and there was a spirit of togetherness. But it became apparent right away that we were not together in this, right, that people did not, we’re not experiencing this pandemic in the same way. Then what happened with George Floyd put a very specific face on the whole thing, right? And and then the people who realized that, Okay, we are not together on this, then we need to do something about it, that’s when the action came about. You know, Cassidy, it’s a very subtle type of thinking, we often don’t know we’re doing it. Last night I was in a group of people, a large group, it was a zoom group, and there was like a survey. One of the questions had been “Have you ever tested positive for Covid 19?” Almost 90% of the group said “no,” and someone responded, “Well, isn’t that you know–That’s great, we were safe, we took good care of ourselves.” But then someone else said “No, that just means we were privileged.” We don’t notice. We don’t realize. We just think Okay, we did it. But, no, there was a reason why this may have been easier for you to be this way than for somebody else. So not together, we were not together.

[00:04:50] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I appreciate that reflection and that togetherness is definitely not not a word that works there. And I think maybe it’s more about the ways it was revealing and opened up the truth to us more clearly. And this kind of reminds me of a story from your book, although it relates to a story from 1963, it’s again, this opening this peeling back the curtains of the truth of what’s happening. In your book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton –– Hold on before we go to this story, I just want to ask why talk to a dead white guy?

[00:05:26] Sophfronia Scott: [Laughs] I think it connects to the other word. You and I we’re going to talk about, which is “mysticism.” I think that if you contemplate on a certain level, it rises to connection, it rises to an experience of something. So this person, my experience in reading and engaging with the work of Thomas Merton was just a part of me so much that I was able to experience them on a different level. It was not my choice, right? It’s not like I get to choose who I’m going to connect with. You know, I heard his words first, right? He could have been a black person, I had no idea. I only heard the words and the words are what drew me to him.

[00:06:11] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. So going back to this 1963 story, you share a story about Thomas Merton responding to a young black priest named Father August Thompson. And Father Thompson, like other black priests and parishioners, could only receive communion after white people. He was prohibited from saying mass and Catholics refused to call him, “father.” I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how Merton responded to Father August’s letter and more importantly, how this led to your own personal reflection of taking care of your heart first.

[00:06:41] Sophfronia Scott: Merton told him to consider, and father August was specifically also complaining about his Bishop at the time, and Merton told him, ‘Okay, you have to understand where he is coming from.’ It begins there. It begins with how you think about this person, seeing that person’s humanity. That was striking to me, seeing how this man probably doesn’t know how to think any other way than his white racist way, right? And that you have to start from that point, and when you do that, you are protecting your own heart, you are protecting your own soul because you are not going to that place of antagonism. You’re not going to that place of hatred, right? This is really what he was trying to teach him was really the source of Nonviolence, because non violence is not just about not fighting with the police, it is about being nonviolent within within your thoughts within your heart and to come at it from a holistic perspective with the feeling that we are all humans in this. It is not me against you, it’s we are all in this together. This is truly the unity you’re talking about: We are in this together. And how can we come to accept our humanity, our shared humanity? How can you bring him away from that thought? And he brings in the word faith which I thought was absolutely interesting. Okay, because faith means that there can be conversion, that means there is hope, that means this person’s way of thinking can be changed. But you have to be in a place of your own faith and non-violence to help bring that about. And

[00:08:08] Cassidy Hall: I think that relates to another part in your book where you write “if we don’t become the truth-tellers than a different kind of erosion happens in which resentment breeds.” And I think along with that, I’m wondering, What do you think it means to be–– How do we hold the tension, rather, of being truth-tellers and contemplatives? What does that look like to embody truth telling alongside a contemplative life.

[00:08:30] Sophfronia Scott: When you’re a contemplative, you come to see things a certain way and you can either share that or it stays within you. And when I say, resentment, I think about you know there are so many relationships, marriages, friendships that go bad because there was something wrong going on there that wasn’t spoken about: you didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to get in a fight, and you don’t say anything and everything looks great. But there is resentment because that thing has not been addressed that that changes you, right? That’s again where your non-violence is going to be hurt. You have to be in the space of being able to say your truth. But how do you do it? How do you do it so that it is from a place of love and innocence, like the child who said, “Well, the emperor has no clothes on,” right? He was stating it, there is a fact he wasn’t saying it to to shame the emperor or anything, he was just stating this fact. So how do you come at this, to be able to say in a way that people can hear, “You are devaluing my humanity. You’re devaluing my humanity, and that is what this is about. I am not angry with you, but you must see that there’s something wrong here and in order for us to heal––for you to heal because it’s not right that you feel this way too, this is hurting you, too. How are we going to work together to bring this about?”

[00:09:49] Cassidy Hall: It reminds me of. I think it’s June Jordan that talks about telling the truth is being a political act. And I love that a political act can even take place. in these just relational one-on-one times when we tell the truth to each other.

[00:10:01] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly. And it allows you, and it’s not necessarily a truth that has to bring you down and feel like you’re being blamed. It could be a truth that shines a light that allows you to see yourself in a different way and become something better, to bring you to the fullness of who you really are.

[00:10:18] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. You’re having my mind to go to so many different, beautiful places, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how contemplative life and contemplation, when we go to really kind of meet ourselves in that inward place is another form of truth-telling and truth meeting, maybe, of ourselves and our inner being.

[00:10:38] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah. I remember once. I was in a conversation about therapy, about why people go to therapy and on a certain level, being in therapy helps people bring to the surface things that they already know we’re there. But they’re not addressing, it’s been stuffed down or it’s been avoided or it’s been not addressed. And that is something, we all know what is within us. We know something of where we come from and what we’re thinking. So if we’re willing to pay attention and to say, “Wow, yeah, I did that,” or “this is something odd about the way I think,” you know. Not only can it not be addressed, but but it gives us an opportunity to say “Okay, I’m okay anyway,” right? By the grace of God, I’m this egotistical or whatever you wanna call it self centered person. But by the grace of God, I am here, and I recognize this, and I’m gonna try today to be a better person. It may not work out today. But I’m gonna try to be different. I’m going to try to think differently, right. So that’s what contemplation gives us. How can I reach for that dream that God has of me, for me, in any given challenging moment?

[00:11:49] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. One thing I loved in your chapter on race and racism and having a conversation with Merton about that. You mentioned many names in your book, including Walter Scott, who was murdered by the police in 2015. And you write, “What really leaves our souls scorched and grieving is the casual behavior of the police officer who fires the weapon. It’s as though this event were not extraordinary for him.” And I wonder, as we talk about these things like non-violence and our relational meeting place and our true togetherness, what might you say it looks like––what does it mean to be a contemplative activist, and especially as it relates to police violence.

[00:12:28] Sophfronia Scott: I think it means finding some way to address that nonchalance, right? Um, it was the same thing with George Floyd, right? That’s one of the things people talked about, like how calm that guy was, that officer was. Again, there’s something wrong there. There’s something wrong with that person’s humanity, right? And is it going to get solved by adding hate on top of that? No, it’s not. So how is it going to be addressed? How do we come to bring this person to see that this is a life? This is a life, right? There’s something wrong there. There’s something hugely wrong. And contemplation is to me, the constant considering of how how do we come to bring an understanding to that person –– it’s not like I can fix him, right? Can’t fix people. But there must be a way to help bring about understanding. And I may not come to an answer of that. But just being to understand that and to come from that point of of awareness, and if enough people are coming from that point, we’re walking on down the road that may eventually get us there. Police officers are acting out of fear, right, so they are in highly dangerous situations. But maybe there’s something about them that they need to be contemplative themselves, right? How can they better address or assess, I should say, assess a situation, right? Because that is the thing, right? They overdo it. What is going on here? Does this and I know they say, Oh, but it’s a split second moment. No, that guy was kneeling on that guy’s neck almost nine minutes. He did not have to do that. There were people pleading with him not to do that. Something inside you has to say, “Okay, I need to do something different here.” So what was it in that awareness that that that didn’t happen? And it’s not like diversity training is necessarily going to get you there. But to be in an ongoing conversation. Yeah, the training happens, and then you go your way and you forget about it. How can you be in constant conversation with police officers to help them think about what they’re seeing in any given instance? And can we help them see it in a different way, to come from a point of humanity and not just thinking “threat”? They protect and serve. That’s on a lot of police cars: “protect and serve.” So how do you How do you help them come to that mindset first? I have no answers, Cassidy, but this is where I think contemplation plays a role.

[00:14:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and it also reminds me of the connecting about earlier regarding truth-telling. And I think one thing I’m learning as a white person is about how there’s a lot of conversations that need to be had between white people and to navigate these things and even the recognition right that the police is relationship to systems, systems of oppression and the systems that was built upon and systems of racism. And yeah, I mean, there’s just so many, so many layers, and I’m really struck by kind of going back to that thought of truth telling. What can we do? We can tell the truth and peel back, clench fists and be present to what we know is true and speak to that

[00:15:36] Sophfronia Scott: Because otherwise, and this is my concern about the current social justice movement, is that it’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that, right? You mentioned Walter Scott, and that happened in 2015, right? And so five years later, we have George Floyd. And suddenly it’s like something people are acting like something woke up like – wait, what happened with Ferguson? What? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then? I’m sorry, Dylann Roof walked into a church and killed a whole room of black people, so why didn’t that wake us up? Right. So this is this is where I have to protect my heart and and see it as an ongoing journey and that this is this is like a wave that’s going to disappear, the problem is still going to be here. So I could get really resentful about that and cynical and say, “here we go again.” Or else I can be the truth-teller and say exactly what I just said and say, “Look, this is this is not a new thing.” So if we keep discovering this, obviously there’s something wrong with the way we think we’re solving this. So how do we need to look at this differently, right?

[00:16:38] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, we could list names back to Emmett Till and even still, that wasn’t the beginning. That wasn’t the beginning at all.

[00:16:47] Sophfronia Scott: We have to come at this from each person’s experience and their own humanity, right? I just told you about how I want to teach my son how to behave when a police car stops him. But you also have to know that my son my son’s experience of police is very different. He does not fear the police. And we’ve had discussions. We looked at the George Floyd video. We talk about this all the time and he said to me, Um and this is just a few months ago, he said, “But Mama, you have to remember that my experience with the police is different.” I hope I don’t cry here. And I don’t know if you know this Cassidy, but I you know, we live in Sandy Hook. My son was in third grade. He was He was in the Sandy Hook school during those shootings. A dear friend of ours, his godbrother died. He has lived with police outside his school for years. They shake his hand, he knows the police intimately, we have police who lived down the street. So to him, the police are there to protect the police are his friends, right? and I’m not going to take that away from him. I’m not going to say yeah, but But police can do this. No, because that has not been his experience. And I said to him even when he said that, that that brought to a realization to me. And I said to him, You know, Tain, that could be your experience could be the source of your non-violence that if you are in an experience like with your friends and and there’s some sort of encounter with the police, you may be the truth-teller that helps deescalate a situation because you don’t come from a point of fear where the police are concerned, right? So how do I help him use that as a as a power? And this is also like a kind of thing where contemplation comes in action. He has to be aware of that, right, to know that that is in him and he already for him to bring it up to me, he’s obviously already aware of it. So it’s up to me to say “Okay, here’s That’s a superpower. Here’s how to use that superpower Tain,” right?

[00:18:45] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. So you also write about white friends being stunned by the continued racism in America. And you speak of this as a “betrayal in which there continues to be a lack of fruitful conversation,” commenting that “many white folks begin to sound like the trope, ‘I have black friends'” and it’s here in the book when you turn to Merton’s readings of James Baldwin. I was aware of Merton reading The Fire Next Time, and he did write a letter to James, didn’t he? And I want to share a little bit more about what Merton said about Baldwin.

[00:19:18] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, so I’m going to read from you. This is what he wrote in his journal. He said,

“He [Baldwin] seems to know exactly what he is talking about, and his statements are terribly urgent. One of the things that makes most sense—an application of the ideas behind non-violence, but I think it is absolutely true: that the sit-in movement is not just to get the negroes a few hamburgers, it is for the sake of the white people, and for the country. He is one of the few genuinely concerned Americans, one whose concern I can really believe. The liberation of the Negroes is necessary for the liberation of the whites and for their recovery of a minimum of self-respect, and reality. Above all he makes very shrewd and pointed statements about the futility and helplessness of white liberals who sympathize but never do anything. Well, a few have got beat up on freedom rides, this is true. But really the whole picture is pitiful. A scene of helplessness, inertia, stupidity, erosion.”

So I think it’s interesting how he brings up that we all have something at stake here, right? This isn’t just being allowed to sit in a restaurant, right? This is about how all of us address our our own humanity, right? And if we can’t get this right, you know, Where are we? Where are we, as a people? And he was noticing that that James Baldwin, you know, is expressing this concern. And it’s even amazing, you know, knowing how fiery James Baldwin could be, that as Merton points out, he is still coming from a place of non-violence. He is being a truth-teller, right? And he’s also coming from a point of compassion.

[00:21:07] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, Yeah. I wonder if we could shift a little bit to the mystical conversation. You know, hearing some of these stories. It’s almost like you stumbled upon Merton. You said you didn’t choose him and then uncovered some of these really powerful relationships and and thoughts that he had on on various issues. And I wonder if you consider meeting Merton in that way and coming across his writings and whatnot, you consider that in and of itself a mystical experience?

[00:21:35] Sophfronia Scott: I think coming across his writings, I said earlier, I think contemplation leads to the mystical. So he has been part of my contemplation. When I went to his monastery in Kentucky, I felt I had a mystical experience there, and it was totally unexpected. And and it wasn’t until I was standing at his grave weeping that I realized that there was a closeness that I felt that I was missing him and experiencing him all at once during my time there. So I feel that–and it’s the same thing with any connection that that if we steep ourselves in it enough, we can we can touch the divine right. Isn’t that what we want? We want to have some sacramental experience of God in our lives, right? And and maybe it’s easier to do that through, you know, people who have been flesh and blood, right? Wasn’t the point of Christ, right to give us a way to reach for such connection. To understand how to do that, I don’t want to get in trouble, [laughs] I don’t know if what I’m saying is theologically sound. But I can only share what what I experience, and there is something all around us that sustains us. And the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil. That’s what I think of the mystical. And I think that’s what the Mystics were able to do. That they were so steeped in their study and reflection and in their prayer that they were able to able to feel the sense of God and to feel God at work in their lives. So the mystics aren’t necessarily like special people. I think it’s something that’s available to all of us, but do we take the time to come away from the noise to, to hear, to hear anyone. I think that the people have left us are still around, but they also leave, they leave clues, and when you connect with something that they’ve left behind. This may sound like a really silly tangent, but I recently kind of rediscovered the music of the Bee Gees, and I’ve just been absolutely fascinated by their music by some of the things that Robin Gibb himself has said and written. And at first I thought, you know, I’m hearing this with different ears for some reason, and I’m thinking about that song, To Love Somebody, right? You know: “There’s a light, A certain kind of light, That never shone on me. I want my life to be lived with you, Lived with you…” And there’s something about the sound of that song. And then I did hear an interview where I think there’s someone from Rolling Stone who said, “this music does have a spiritual aspect” and it touched people in ways that they didn’t realize, and I realized, Okay, that’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing that now at a different level than when I was, what, 12 and first heard that music. And so it’s it’s making me go back and look at their thinking to look at their experiences and to see that these were deeply spiritual guides, but not in the way that you expect. Robin Gibb was in a deadly train accident when he was 19, and he said, as that train is rolling over and over that that crash killed 50 people. In an interview later, he said, “I thought about God,” and he’s like, I’m not a church going person but in that moment I thought about God. It brought him to a place – that feeling brought him to a place that when that train stopped rolling, he was able to then function. He got his girlfriend. out of that train, he got a bunch of people out of that train that day and I recognized it. I recognized what he was talking about. That sense of being in a traumatic situation and recognizing feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I’m going to be okay, and since I’m okay, then I can function. I need to see how I can help people out of this thing. Cassidy, sometimes I think about that, and I’m like, ‘man, why is Robin Gibb dead?’ Because I want to talk to him about that, here I’ve discovered these words of someone who’s experienced God in a certain way, and it’s like, Oh, my gosh, but he’s not here anymore, right?

[00:25:37] Cassidy Hall: Next book, Next book. [laughs]

[00:25:38] Sophfronia Scott: [laughs] my gosh, no. But you see, I mean, there are connections out there, right? We have to just understand what’s going on within ourselves so that we can reach out and find it elsewhere out there with other people.

[00:25:52] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, you said you talked earlier about contemplation leading to mysticism or mystical encounter. And then I love hearing this story about the Bee Gees and you almost recognizing the truth teller in the song and creating like a mystical encounter between his output connecting with your almost your work and your output, right? Like there’s this beautiful encounter that takes place when we’re able to recognize the mystical in each other, recognize, you know, the Imago dei and each other.

[00:26:20] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly what is that song from Saturday Night Fever, “When I see your eyes in the morning light,” How Deep Is Your Love. The word “savior” isn’t that song, “You come to me in the deepest, darkest time You’re my savior, when I call,” you don’t just use that word lightly. They use that word with an understanding. So, yeah, to recognize that we are all speaking a certain language. Merton talks about that about finding a spiritual companions that we don’t have. You don’t make friends just, yes, you have friends. But then there were friends who truly understand the journey you’re on and who have that same type of connection. And it’s fantastic when you can find them and they’re alive. But for some reason, I keep coming across these ones who are dead.

[00:27:03] Cassidy Hall: And I also love that it was a piece of music. I’m really struck by this. I love this piece of music because I’m really interested right now, in yeah, sounds and vibrational things that kind of take us elsewhere, that enliven our body and help us to go to like an embodied space, I wonder if you experienced that––you talk about your time at the monastery, if you experienced any kind of like a vibrational encounter. I know you mentioned the silence of the monastery.

[00:27:28] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, you and I talking about music and I was, you know, in the church and praying, but it was the silence that struck me when I went for a hike and standing by a lake a deep, deep silence. I was just absolutely mesmerized by it. It felt like I could step inside it and put it on like, wrap it around me. And I just felt like Okay, this is this is the silence that Merton heard. Like I could see why he wanted to be out here all the time. It just It feels like, you know, the voice of God is out of here, right? That God speaks in silence. I was just absolutely enthralled with it.

[00:28:06] Cassidy Hall: That’s another thing about about those mystical encounters, mystical experiences. We also go to this wordless place, this place where you know you want to tell your friends or you want to explain it to somebody, and it’s just like nobody had that, but you, nobody gets that, but you. It’s such a beautiful gift when were given gifts that are wordless because we go to that mind-boggling place that almost makes us become a child again.

[00:28:29] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, but I’m a writer so that it can be crazy to not have the words right. And really, that’s what this book is about. You know, people expressed interest in how I talk about Merton. And so really, this book is about me trying to explain that it’s like, Okay, well, here’s how I engage with this person and not on the theological or not on an academic level. But personally, this is what it means to have words move me to the point of letting it affect and influence my life. I can learn, I can change, and I can find a deeper way into connection with my Alpha and my Omega through someone who did it himself.

[00:29:07] Cassidy Hall: So, going back to the conversation we were having earlier about social justice issues, we talked a little bit about how contemplation can maybe inform protests and movements. Do you think mysticism also plays a role or can play a role in informing or undergirding movements of social justice?

[00:29:27] Sophfronia Scott: Maybe, especially if you get to a place of how do I think like that person, right? What would Martin Luther King Jr. have done how How would Gandhi approach this right? People who thought very deeply about Nonviolence. Even looking back at how how they did things. So, for example, the people who protested with Martin Luther King Jr had had to prepare, right? They were taught to prepare for their protests. They had to read, they had to study scripture. They really had to grasp the non-violence within themselves and to know that they were not going to respond in hatred and violence, no matter what happened at that protest site. So if we go back to that place now to really think about okay, what was it like for them? What can we take and and learn from someone like John Lewis, right. How do I channel John Lewis as I’m standing here across from this police line, right. It may be easier to do than we realized if we think about it exactly in that way, I’m wondering if we slip in and out of personalities. You know, My friend Jenny once said she she would go shopping and sometimes she would bring back something for me and she said, “You know, I think I was being you when I bought this.” This isn’t these earrings are more you than they are me. But I was I was in a you know, there’s in your frame of mind, right?

[00:30:53] Cassidy Hall: I love these themes of contemplative space being a place of truth telling and invigorating us to tell the truth. And mysticism being kind of this place of, you know, namaste, seeing the God and you and recognizing the God and you and the God and myself. And I love the way you yeah, call to us to you consider those who have died and consider what they might do in given situations and what they have done in given situations. I think one of the things I’m trying to ask is related to: You know, sometimes we can’t get to that place of mysticism of recognizing that God and each other when both people aren’t telling the truth. Right? Like I can’t fully honor you unless you’re bringing your true self to me in this place, right in our togetherness. And I think that can really complicate things

[00:31:51] Sophfronia Scott: if you have to inauthentic people like what is actually isn’t that what we’re seeing get played out in politics right now, right, that we’re coming to the table inauthentically, right, expressing that they know not to be true. And you kind of have a stalemate there because they are invested in these untruths, that that is bewildering. So something has to shift there, something has to shift, and maybe it’s something in at the core of us, right? My son once said when I was doing a diversity training for my job, right, and it was via Zoom. And so he, you know, was waiting for me in my office, and he was listening to some of it and he said to me, “Mama, that’s that stuff they’re telling you, that sounds like stuff people should have learned at home when they were kids.” I said, yeah Tain, you know, but they didn’t and and so sometimes it’s like recognizing something as basic like, wow, what we’re learning here is common sense. Well, why is this not, you know, automatic, right? I don’t know. Cassidy.

[00:33:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think I do think it’s possible, and correct me if you disagree, I think it’s possible to be, you know, maybe we don’t know the full truth of ourselves, but if we’re still willing to come with honesty and vulnerability, I think we can still meet each other in that place of mystical encounter.

[00:33:19] Sophfronia Scott: I agree. Is it Rumi, the mystic poet, that says, out there’s an open field, I’ll meet you there. Because we “have to know” simply, for example, me sitting here telling you I don’t know, right? So I could be in a place of thinking, ‘I can’t I can’t say to Cassidy. I don’t know because I’m being interviewed. I’m supposed to know something. I wrote a book.’ No, it’s starting from that place that I don’t know and being open to the fact that we are not complete and we are we are ever-changing. But to me, that’s also hope that’s a possibility. If we can come to the table with what’s missing, only then can we find the possibility of completion.

[00:34:02] Cassidy Hall: Beautifully stated. Is there someone or some people that embody mysticism to you or for you?

[00:34:09] Sophfronia Scott: I mentioned Robert Vivian. You know Robert Vivian, he was actually the one who read the passage of Merton that that brought me to Merton in the first place. Robert Vivian is a talented writer, and he’s in the English department at Alma College, which is where I now run the MFA program, I’m the director of the MFA. But Robert Vivian writes these prose poems called Dervish Essays, and they’re very full of of the ecstatic. And he is someone who is constantly, I can’t, I’m not sure if I can describe it. You can tell that he has taking in like a sponge, absorbing constantly every single moment what is going on around. But when you read his work and his latest book is called, All I Feel Is Rivers, it just came out. You you get the sense that this is a person who through that contemplation has touched on something mystical, that he is communicating with a higher power and recognizing there will be a moment, and there’s a line where he hasn’t said something like that, that he will put everything that is that is him, he will put it all down and stand there naked before that power. And in that place of vulnerability, I I just feel like you can’t write something like that unless you know what it is to encounter that great love and your great source.

[00:35:31] Cassidy Hall: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time today, and you know, as soon as we get off here, I’m about to go listen to the BeeGees.

[00:35:41] Sophfronia Scott: Yay! Thank you for having me.

[00:35:45] 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 Emmolei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei 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.

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A Monkish Friendship: Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO (1940-2020)

“The monastic night watch is good practice in the art of waiting, as we patiently look for the coming of dawn. Monks and nuns wait in the dark, longing for the light of dawn but unable to hasten its coming. No one can force the dawn or bring it about in any way. It dawns in its own good time on those who wait for it. The ability to wait is characteristic of those who have learned to slow down and live in the fullness of the present moment. By quietly watching and praying through the night, I learn to live with the slow process of my own spiritual growth. I have no control over the future and I do not know exactly what will happen. I am asked only to stay awake and be ready because the light will surely come and will claim its victory over every form of darkness, despair, suffering, and death.”

–Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, who died on January 15, 2020.

I first met Fr. Charles in Huntsville, Utah during my 2013 visit to the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Trinity (now closed). I would visit and get to see him several more times before he left to live and work with the sisters of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia. Over the years we kept in touch via mail and email and I last heard from him on my birthday in November of 2019 (he never forgot!). The last line of that final email read, “All things pass.”

When I interviewed him in 2013, I was struck by his dedication to prayer and his longing to pray more. Despite having been a monk for over 50 years, he deeply desired more silence, solitude, and prayer in his life. While discussing why he initially decided to enter the monastery he told me, “When I was 20 I wanted to pray, I felt that the world needs prayer and I wanted to go to a group that was dedicated to the same ideal––that’s the way I felt I could make the best contribution to the world…”

We explored the topics of contemplation, silence, community life, solitude, prayer, and why he decided to be a monk. On the topic of contemplative prayer, Fr. Charles shared that although silence and solitude were ideal characteristics of contemplative prayer, he deeply believed in the monastic ideal of continual prayer: “it’s like carrying our contemplative prayer over into the rest of the day so we’re always trying to be in tune with God. The idea of contemplative prayer in itself is like a resting, silent, loving, attentiveness or attention, to the divine presence. In a relaxed and restful way––not a compulsive way. To relax in the divine presence, and to be attentive to it…”

Father Charles was visiting the Trappist Abbey in Vina, California (The Abbey of New Clairvaux) when he died after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke. At 80 years old, with 57 years of monastic vows under his belt, he was planning to transfer his vow of stability to The Abbey of New Clairvaux.

“All things pass.” And still I wonder if our paths might cross on that great infinite river of continual prayer.

Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO, Felicis Memoriae (Happy Memory). Requiescat in pace (Rest in Peace). 

CharlesAndBill
Photo of Fr. Charles Cummings, OCSO who died on January 15, 2020, and my friend, Bill Rice who died on December 17th, 2014 (Father Charles sent me this photo from one of Bill’s final visits to Holy Trinity Abbey)

Father Charles was the author of a number of books including Monastic Practices, Spirituality and the Desert Experience, Eco-Spirituality: Toward a Reverent Life, and more. 
Some excellent stories about Fr. Charles can be found on Mike O’Brien’s Blog, including a story about Father Charles sharing with a journalist “I’m glad there’s such a thing as monks. I’m no good at anything else.”

 

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Holy Cross Abbey • Berryhill, VA

The first blatant difference I noticed coming into Berryhill was the weather. It was the my first run in with the lovely winter, and I’m happy to report I was not only safe, but I also gazed in wonder like a child at the delicate snowfall (perhaps it helped that it still wasn’t as cold as Iowa).

I came to Holy Cross Abbey on a very busy weekend – there was a full guesthouse and the expectation of even more guests the following day as there was a funeral taking place. All guests were welcome to attend, so I respectfully attended the funeral proceedings.

Many assume there is pure rigidity in the monastic life. This is one of the things I beg to differ on. I have found and felt more freedom in the lives of these monks and nuns than I have found inflexibility. It’s important to note that any one of these monks or nuns can leave at any time – no one is being held captive or hindered from doing so. This is what makes these places so remarkable – each person chooses to be a part of their community, each monk or nun chooses to go to prayer, chooses to do their job, chooses to pray or not pray, chooses to live in harmony or not with their brothers or sisters, etc. Absolutely nothing in the monastic life is forced, for if that were the case, it would very clearly take away from the beauty of the community, the place, their adoration of God.

One of the main of many topics that came up here was the topic of freedom in commitment. I was able to discuss this concept with a monk who described coming to and going through thresholds in his life offering a grand sense of freedom. He talked about how he came to a point where he knew that if he dug deep into what was before him, he would find something valuable.

For some, this may be where fight/flight/freeze comes into play – for others, this may be where gut instinct kicks in – and for others, this may be where there is no stutter step or tango with a question (ahhh, wouldn’t that be nice). One of the things this makes me think of is the wall, I kept thinking ‘what do I do when I hit the wall?’ Some strictly refer to the wall as that point during participation in endurance sports where fatigue and exhaustion have the potential to take over (mind you, there’s some serious science here we’re not discussing regarding glycogen depletion). However, I’m discussing the wall as more of a metaphoric stance on when difficulties and/or challenges arise. I think it’s possible that our society has made it easier and easier to avoid, disregard, evade, be indifferent to, or even completely run from these things. I also think it’s a lot easier for me to blame society and have some avoidant conversation about what’s wrong with our world, than it is for me to look inward and question not ‘what’s wrong with me,’ but instead ‘what is this asking of me?’ or ‘what can I say about myself right now?’ More than that, I’ve found that the ‘walls’ in my life are often the points of breakthrough – whether they be via the course of heartache or elation. These ‘walls’ shape who I am and give me the opportunity to be more of who I am, be more true to who I am.

I recognize this is no new concept and all of us face these experiences regularly, for some maybe even daily. I’m just trying to face these walls in a new light – that they’re not about what’s wrong with the world or someone else, but rather an opportunity to create me AND have an increasing say in who I am/who I want to be – whether that be taking an adventurous turn down an unknown road (despite my being tired) to explore, or quitting my job to pursue a passion. I think it’s also important to note that when faced with the same ‘wall’ I may choose something different – possibly because I’ve changed, possibly because last time felt ‘wrong,’ or maybe for another reason. I don’t think this necessarily changes the core of someone, instead, I think it demonstrates growth and/or fluidity in one’s self discovery.

“Freedom of choice is not, itself, the perfection of liberty. But it helps us take our first step toward freedom or slavery, spontaneity or compulsion. The free man is the one whose choices have given him the power to stand on his own feet and determine his own life according to the higher light and spirit that are in him. The slave, in the spiritual order, is the man whose choices have destroyed all spontaneity in him and have delivered him over, bound hand and foot, to his own compulsions, idiosyncrasies and illusions, so that he never does what he really wants to do, but only what he has to do.” Thomas Merton, The New Man