Jim Forest was an activist and author, but more than anything he was a man of relationship and ritual. To know Jim was to know his family, his partner Nancy Forest-Flier, to feel his friendship, and to see the countless ways he saw and loved the world with great wonder.
Jim looked and listened with great attentiveness everywhere he went. On his daily walks, his museum visits, his time with new friends, and the vigor with which he reminded so many of us to pray.
His work was continually centered by his heart and faith. He worked with Dorothy Day as the managing editor at The Catholic Worker, he was a part of the Milwaukee Fourteen (a group of peace activists who burned draft cards during the Vietnam war), he corresponded and was friends with Thomas Merton, he was friends with at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh, he co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, he named Henri Nouwen his “spiritual father” amid a difficult time in his life, he was longtime friends with Dan Berrigan, and more. But somehow, even amid this list of spiritual giants–including Jim, it was impossible to not count yourself among his friends immediately after meeting him.
Writing this now, after the death of Jim and Thich Nhat Hanh only days apart, I think about these two friends reconnecting in the infinite mystery. One of my favorite stories of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jim Forest’s friendship comes from The Miracle of Mindfulness (1975), by Thich Nhat Hanh:
In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes. From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.
Jim and I last connected via email in December of 2021. I had the pleasure of spending time with Jim in-person on two occasions, first with friends at a Peace Conference in Toronto called Voices for Peace, and last at his home in the Netherlands in 2018. I joined he and Nancy in their evening prayers by the icons, walks, we spent time looking through stacks of books and papers, we climbed to the top of their local cathedral, and we navigated digitizing his tape cassette recordings of his friends including Thay and Joan Baez. At that time, Jim was compiling and working on his book about Thich Nhat Hanh: Eyes of Compassion: Living with Thich Nhat Hanh
The deep legacy of Jim’s life lives in personal relationship and the ways he taught so many of us to see. “What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives,” he shared. “Shape your life on truth,” he shared, “live it as courageously as you can, as joyfully as you can. And count on God making some good use of it — what you do is not wasted. But you may not have the satisfaction of seeing the kind of results that you’re hoping for. Maybe you will, maybe you’ll be lucky but you can’t count on it.”
Memory Eternal. Rest in peace, Beloved Jim. Your memory and your light live on in the way we see, the way we pursue peace, and especially the way we love.
If you’re new to Jim and his work, I encourage you to take a look at Jim and Nancy’s site: https://jimandnancyforest.com/ where you can learn more about their writing and books.
Content warning: In this episode, we briefly mention suicide in the context of dealing with rage and racial injustice.
In this episode, we explore the ways mysticism cannot be embodied, the importance of cultural sanctuary as a place of safety, and the value of rage: “That is not the purpose of any spiritual practice, to wipe away what you have,but to take what you have,” said Sensei Zenju. “And rage is what we have.”
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [00:03]: Because that’s what happens contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat, I say “no, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest.”
Cassidy Hall [00:22]: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel Osho is an ordained Zen Priest and the Dharma heir of Buddha and the Suzuki Roshi lineage through the San Francisco Zen Center. Zenju’s practice is influenced by Native American and African indigenous traditions.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [01:48]: Thank you, thank you for having me and inviting me.
Cassidy Hall [01:51]: It’s really good to be with you. I got to speak with you on the Encountering Silence podcast. For this conversation, I’m wondering if you could tell us how you define “contemplation,” and how you define “mysticism” also?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [02:05]: First of all, the word “contemplation” is rarely used in Zen Buddhist tradition, maybe in other Buddhist traditions, but I don’t know. But in Zen, it’s not really used. So when I used it in my book I was really kind of jumping out the box in some way, not on purpose. It just felt like that’s what I was doing. So contemplation, if you were to contemplate in the Zen tradition, then you’re not really doing––you’re not doing meditation, and you’re not doing Zazen, which we call meditation. To contemplate means you’re thinking, a pondering, wondering, so we don’t use it, because in our practice, we’re not pondering, and we’re not thinking upon something like when people say I’m going to go meditate on it, we don’t go meditate on it, although some people might but that’s not the point.
Zazen is a ritual up opening through the silence, and to see where you’re going to land, you don’t never know when you’re going to land. There’s no guided meditation either. So a lot of people have asked me to do guided meditations constantly they asked me that. And I understand that they don’t understand Zen, they know nothing about Zen when they ask me to do a guided meditation. Because a guided meditation is not allowing that open field, you know, that open way of allowing silence to speak through you in the stillness to activate the activated and to bring something different to you that you don’t know that you have never thought about. So I think it’s a ritual in that sense. So, contemplation to me, when I use it is I’m kind of combining Zazen, my meditation Zen practice, with once what comes through, then I contemplate on it.
I may contemplate on it, but then I’m not I’m outside of the practice in that way, when I do that. Because I love to contemplate I used to be a daydreamer as a child. I love thinking on things. I do feel that I contemplate as a Zen priest but it’s not the practice itself that contemplation arises out of the Zazen, out of the stillness and meditation and silence then I may contemplate.
So “mysticism” is to me Zazen, you know, because Zazen is very mystical in the sense that you don’t know what is going to happen. There’s the unknown, there’s a discovery, and that’s the hard part about it because you know, everyone’s like, why I’m sitting here, you know, tell me what to do. You don’t fill in the space, you just allow whatever is going to come up for you to come up. And what you’re doing, which many mystics and all mystics I’m sure did and do, is taking that time to just be, period. Just be, and then see what you sense into, you know, what’s happening and what’s around you. So just developing that kind of silence and stillness helps to navigate the world navigate life, you’re actually honing and cultivating a way of walking in the jungle of life. And so this to me, Zazen is most close to me to what may be a medicine man or woman in indigenous cultures––many, many, many, way before Buddha––because meditation is way before Buddha, did in order to hear and see and be able to create the medicine that’s needed for the people for themselves, and so Zazen is like that. And that’s the mysticism for me. It’s definitely steeped in what I already am practicing and probably was practicing before I even, you know, became ordained, or before I even walked into the gateway of Zen. I think I was already doing such.
Cassidy Hall [05:46]: Yeah, in that way do you see a connection between contemplation as you’ve described it as thinking on the things, right or…
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [05:56]: Pondering, yeah.
Cassidy Hall [05:57]: Yeah, pondering. Do you see that as connected to ways that can form our role in social justice in the world? I’m thinking of something from your book, The Way of Tenderness you write about interconnected intimacy and you write that, “Interconnected intimacy that is messy, uncomfortable, and difficult but worthy and liberating to attend to.” And I think, you know, in my experience, when I do a sit, I never quite know what to name it. I just, you know, go there, right in the silence and stillness. And it always seems to be kind of a grounded, rooted meeting place for everyone else. And it reminds me of this interconnected intimacy, but I love also what you’re saying about, but if you go there to meet it, that’s not the way to meet it, so.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:40]: Right so you’re asking whether activism, social activism, or social justice work, is there contemplation in it?
Cassidy Hall [06:48]: Does a contemplative practice help or undergird movements or activism and vice-versa?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [06:56]: When you said in my mind went way out, like, “no!” because I feel that we have not been able to integrate contemplation or meditation with social justice. So we’re either doing one or the other. Okay, so they’re still quite separate, even if, in our minds, we think, ‘Oh, I’m an activist, I’m going to go out and do this and then I’ll go sit, well, that is what that is.’ You’re going out to, you know, activate, and you’re going to sit, they’re separate walks. It’s a good question because I’m very nervous about it in the sense of a person who’s been an activist and still considers myself that but I wouldn’t probably go out and do some of the things many activists do today for many reasons, not because I don’t think what they’re doing is profound, or needed.
But I feel that people do not have a good ground and foundation and understanding of contemplation in order to be able to bring it to the movement, it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean you act differently, like okay, when we get there, we’re going to meditate and that shows that we got it. No, this is not true. What is true for me, and not just true for me, in my experience, and having been a very strong activist and organizing in my life, and then going completely into spirituality and coming out with both of them integrated, has been a profound experience for me. Because I am able to articulate the social issues and the way we are as human beings because of the contemplation that is influencing and our foundation to my activist work. Or if I were to speak, even in politics, that even if I speak politically, which I do, I’m speaking from that place. I’m not just speaking politics, and then I go rest because that’s what happens.
Contemplation becomes that place of rest when that’s not really what it is. Contemplation is very active and takes a lot of energy and a lot of work. If someone feels tired and exhausted and they want to go do a retreat I say, “No, don’t do the retreat. You need to go and sleep and get rest because you need that energy to do this work.” This inner work is not, this is not the place you come. I have seen people come to retreats, and they think they’re going to get relaxed and then they get all upset, especially in Zen. Where you have to work, work, work, work, work, boom, you know, go to sleep and they’re like well, “This is worse than what I was doing when I was in the world. I’m working more than ever before.” It’s a different kind of work. You learn it that later but it’s a different kind of work. But if you are not prepared to sit because people think you don’t have to prepare to do it’s too easy.
You just sit down, but you have to be prepared, your body has to be prepared to do it. If your body can’t do it, then the sitting practice is not for you. It really isn’t. There are other things maybe you could drum, paint, or something you know that has meditation within it you know, but to do to actually come to the ceremony ill-equipped is only going to make you suffer more. I did. I was suffering more because I didn’t understand I was coming in ceremony and meditation or you know anything. So practicing to be a contemplative, you’re practicing in that way you’re learning to have an embodiment, to be embodied, and to be boundless, okay, at the same time. But you can’t learn that with your mind, and you can’t talk yourself into it, although we do. Do I look like I’m, you know, balanced or whatever, empty? You know.
So we try to talk ourselves into those places, and you can’t, you must go through the practice through the path in order to bring that to your political or activist movement, or actions. I would like to see more people speak on the integration of it, especially those who are going to teach both contemplation meditation and activism, if you’re going to teach all of that, then you must see it as an integration. So what I find in here is people either talk completely on the justice side or completely on still on the religious side, despite ethnicity, race, sex, anything, it doesn’t matter. I just hear it being still split. I might do it myself at times, but inside I don’t feel that you know, and there are some other people that I’m sure you know, have that ability, but I think it’s very few. It’s very… It’s a rare thing because it takes so much time for you to embody that sense of being, like here and not right here and not here being part of everything in the world. That’s pretty tough. We’re not ready to be part of everything and everyone we talk about… sounds so beautiful, so romantic. But as soon as someone climbs the Capitol wall, we’re like, “Ah, you know, we’re not with them.” I’m going to separate myself from that, and we can’t, unfortunately, or fortunately. We cannot separate ourselves from that, because we’re human beings.
Cassidy Hall [11:57]: I appreciate you distinguishing contemplation, contemplative practices, meditation from rest. Because when we do begin to think about integrating contemplative life for contemplative practice and activism, those integrated without rest is bound for failure, right? I mean…
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [12:14]: Well, we get exhausted, you know, and depressed and hopeless and helpless, all these kinds of things will come up, and then you’re like, well, this is not going to change and then your rage is intensified, because, oh, we’re really not changing white supremacy it’s getting worse. And there’s a reason for that, too. We won’t go into that. But you know, right now, but there is a reason for that, and one of the reasons is simply is we keep invoking it. And so once we invoke it, and continue to invoke it, it will be it. It will be in the world. And we do have to look at it. I’m not saying we need to be silent on it. Because there’s white supremacy can the contemplation and meditation, allow you to talk about it in a different way so that we can land in a different place on the path.
Landing on anti-blackness, or landing on white supremacy is just one place on the path. And we know that we’ve been knowing that can we shift that a bit to say, that’s what I was trying to do with The Way of Tenderness to shift that language to talking about superiority and inferiority and how it gets systematized. That’s good, but it doesn’t invoke just the whiteness, it also invokes class, you know, rich and poor, it invokes all that is superior and dominant in a more integrative way than just this one thing because if we just work on this one thing, we forget that there is all the other things. So then we have to go, Well, I’m not going to do race, I’m going to do class. And then everybody says, “Well they’re together” when we know this.
And I think contemplation for me, and meditation has taught me how to do this, you know. How to view the truth or view the nature of life, which means to view the nature of humanity, because that’s all I know. I don’t know how to be alive in any other way. And the interrelationship of that, and I push my students that way, too. So they really can’t talk about whiteness, we’re all black our Sangha. We don’t talk, I don’t want to, because it just keeps invoking, and centering whiteness. And so when they get upset, then what is that and what can we talk about so that when we come back to that place on the path or go, oh, okay, I’m going to do something different right here, and I’m going to do something, whatever I’m going to do is going to not only not center whiteness, it’s going to center wellness and transformation and movement for me, and for my people, my community, and my family.
Cassidy Hall [14:35]: Yeah. In your book, The Deepest Peace you beautifully write about rage and making room for rage, you write, “I don’t quiet the rage for peace. Peace is not superior. Peace is persistent. Rage is persistent as well. I meditate while trembling with rage. Rage is here because love is needed.” Wondering if you could speak to the importance of not ignoring rage and how it can be this valued aspect of, yeah, peace, love, justice-centric emotion.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [15:07]: Yeah, rage is that for me is accumulated anger over many, many decades, right. And I think generation I really think it’s just passed on it’s imprinted on the bone. You know, what you do is that when you come in, I don’t know. I didn’t come in interested, I didn’t come to contemplation interested in removing all emotions. I remember a teacher pointing out a student once he said, “I like that student.” And I said, “Mm her?” and I was wondering what it was and he said the way she is the way she moves and I saw her as kind of lost her personality in the practice like I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between her and a chair. There was just nothing there––wake up, what are you doing? And that is not the purpose of the practice or any, I think any spiritual practice is to wipe away what you have but to take what you have.
And rage is what we have. And I take rage, and I have sat with it as sacred fire. I used to just let it go, flame, poof, and burn people up and everything. And then I started, like I said, this can’t continue, you know, otherwise, I’m not going to be in relationship and engaged in the world. And so when it would start, the next step for me was to take the rage and just hold it as sacred. In that, I don’t share it, you know, unnecessarily but I do use it. I think most of my writing comes from rage, even The Deepest Peace, can you imagine? That’s when contemplation is working. And you can deliver the message in which you want to deliver without burning people or burning places or burning ideas or just losing your own mind, you know.
Cassidy Hall [16:52]: And burning yourself down, right?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [16:53]: Burning yourself. Yeah. So it’s just like killing, I mean, rage can kill you. And literally, it is and has taken years off my life. I got a diagnosis that says, you know, I’m more like an 80-year-old, and I’m not nowhere near 80. That’s rage, that’s racism. That’s this life. And that’s why so many people have hypertension, African Americans have hypertension because, and that’s a killer. You know, we’re walking around like ticking bombs, you know. And so it was important for me to stretch that out my life out as much as I can, still is, given there’s this rage, so when I took it in as sacred, it allowed me to use that fire. To use that fire for my own healing and transformation because even when I did throw it out there, it was just like a mess.
When you know, when you burn something down, it’s a mess. And so then you have to work on the mess. And that’s too much work or you need to go tell somebody, look, this needs to go this way. And if you do it this way, it’ll make it better for us. Now that can be said and told, but I find that exhausting too because then the person or people, institution, they’ll do it and it’s still embedded in all that you’re trying to break down, break away. All the oppression is still there, even in that work. So if rage is going to be there, if oppression is going to be there, then I say use it, use it, don’t fight it. Don’t fight with it, fight with it, fight it, but use it to come to the wisdom that these wisdom practices are offering.
So a lot of people come they’re not looking for the wisdom. They… ‘I already have wisdom. I don’t need the wisdom of contemplation and meditation. I’m coming with wisdom.’ You know, like, let me tell you that’s wrong what you’re doing. That’s the wisdom I have. That’s not wisdom. We think we have wisdom. And I always ask people, “what wisdom are you relying on when you feel you’re being compassionate or loving and kind? What wisdom are you relying on, your grandmother’s? Some teacher? Some book? What insight yourself? What experience have you had of any of that? And how did you get there?” Other than that, then, you know, most of us need to be just pretty much silent. Even myself, I feel that, I do. You know, just keep your mouth closed because we’re all in progress and we don’t know, we’re always discovering ourselves and discovering life.
That’s why homage is paid to the ancestors who have gone through it, you know. And in most traditions, people who say ‘oh no, my sister or my brother is an ancestor the day they die’ –– well, no, not in most spiritual paths. That person who has just died is learning how to be wherever that is. If there is anything, they’re not capable yet. And so some African tribes, they don’t even listen to elders, they listen to ancestors only. Elders is like, eh, because they’re still in the learning process, the living process.
Cassidy Hall [19:49]: So I recently attended a conference titled Holy Rage, Holy Hope. And it was the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference and I was one of a handful of white people that attended. And in learning how to most deeply respect and revere the prophetic spaces, the prophetic nature of Black spaces, I’m reminded of your words in, The Way of Tenderness when you talk about, you write, “Creating and entering sanctuaries allows us as people of color to address the circumstances that are specific to who we have been born as, on our own terms, without interference. The desire of those who are not people of color to enter the spaces where people of color face these issues betrays a disregard for the uniqueness of the work that must be done within these cultural sanctuaries. It indicates an unjust sense of entitlement on their part.” And I wonder if you just could maybe speak to the importance of those sanctuaries?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [20:40]: Yes. Maybe, should have written more in that area of that part of the book, because I’ve gotten that question many times. A spiritual path requires when you enter to strip down to be exposed to be seen, and all these kinds of things. It requires a place in which you can do that and feel free. It’s kind of like if you go to the doctor’s, there are some doctors you would not undress with, some you will, you know, you can feel whether or not this is going to be safe for you to do this, while you’re taking care of the things that are bothering you. You’re suffering, you know, do I want this doctor to touch that, where… this? Well, that’s the same thing. So I feel that we need places to do that, just to do the stripped-down, and then be able to walk the path we’re in.
We’re understanding more about internalized oppression and walking that path so that when we’re in situations of racism, we’re also understanding the internalize oppression part of it not just blanket racism, or white supremacy or anti-blackness or any of these things–– it’s all there not just that piece that’s out. There’s the in and the out. What I’ve seen in some cultural sanctuaries, when I say cultural a lot of people think I mean Black or people of color, but anything, it’s of the culture. So I’ve heard of lawyer Sangha’s, women Sangha’s, all kinds of Sangha’s, right, or gatherings based on various aspects of culture –– artists. I feel that there’s always this truncation, you know, like, Oh, we need a special place, because we’re so in BIPOC, Black, Indigenous People of Color, need a special place because we’re so weak and vulnerable. And that’s not really true. It may be true, but that’s not everything. You know, or we’re wounded and I think that that’s a misperception of cultural. And so, one Sangha member did a Dharma talk at a Sangha. And the guy says, “I think we need to start a cultural sanctuary,” because he had read the book, right? That same part you’re reading, you know, he was a white male. He says I think, you know, from his heart, I knew it was coming from his heart, “We need to start a cultural sanctuary.” And I said, “Why you have one, you’re in it. It’s your Sangha. Right here, this Zen Center is the Cultural Center, the culture is Zen and it’s what it is, and you work within that culture.” Because not every person of color wants that either, too, that’s an assumption, you know. I feel that that’s the truncation and the lumping.
But I feel that we do need spaces, I needed it when I went into Zen, I was fortunate enough to enter a people of color group. I didn’t know what it was, what people of color was, at the time, I didn’t know what people were talking about because that language came from academia world, and I wasn’t in academia, in that sense of the word. You know, like I had already done, I had my Ph.D. So I was like, what’s this people of color? You know, I went to one Zen Center in Berkeley, and they said, “Well, they have a people of color group over at San Francisco Zen Center,” and I go, “Okay,” and then we would come to Berkeley Zen Center, me and my partner, we come to Berkeley Zen Center, and they said, “Oh, well, you know, there’s a people color group.” So I said, “What is this thing about the people of color group?” And so finally, we just left Berkeley Zen Center and went to the people color group. And it was great. It was perfect. It was what I needed.
But it was interesting what they thought I needed. And when I thought I needed it, and that I understood something about what they were saying. So I think that is important. What I find too, is that and what can happen, I would say is that cultural groups, when they get together can be embedded in their own culture. And I remember when I was in the people of color group, I asked the teacher, I said, “Are we not reifying our wounds here,” because that’s all I’m hearing is the wounding stories. I really wasn’t interested in hearing the wounding stories, I wanted to transform and get well, you know. I wanted to do the practice. And so it was okay to tell those stories. That’s the stripping down and but I wondered, you know, were we reifying something because Zen especially, is the ceremony and there’s rituals. So if you’re in there reifying what makes you suffer in the ceremony in a ritual you will continue to suffer, you will just continue this it will just be invoked, invoked, invoke just suffering. And so I just feel for people to be careful around that. What is the purpose of the cultural sanctuary in relationship to the path, the spiritual path? And I have to always constantly tell students, “this is not a social club.” You know, can we just like, just hang out, I mean, I went somewhere and then came back and they had gone to a concert together, I said, “That’s not the purpose,” because something’s going to happen out there, you’re going to bring it to the Sangha. And it will have nothing to do with doing practicing Zen. Now in other traditions, maybe that works, I don’t know.
But I feel that if we’re in there just to come together just to talk about the wounding, talk just about whiteness, you know when my students get on that I get, stop, you know, we’re not doing that. So, you know, I want to hear about Blackness. You know, one student said, “Well, I think this is when the kind of neo-KKK,” I don’t know, “were walking down the street with the torches,” the tiki torches and everything walking into parks that time, and one of the students says, “I want to go down and sit in the park and meditate.” And I said, “I won’t be with you.” “Why?” I said, “I’m not going but you can do that. But we’re not going as a Sangha either. We’re not going to have our little banner saying, Still breathing is out here. No. But you can go there if you want. And he’s like, “Why?” I said, “Because when that Black boy died, Tamir Rice, you didn’t say, let’s go anywhere. Why didn’t we get our banner and go there?”
So I’m just trying to… just so that people can see where the attention is. And we all know where the attention goes, that’s what happens. That’s what life is. I think we have to have attention. I’m not saying, you know, turn our back. But I think we have to have a broader picture. I don’t care if all Zen Centers were diverse, or all white people, suddenly were not racist. What is that going to do for me? What do we think that’s going to do for us? I don’t know what we’re thinking. That’s like, if my partner could do it this way, we have a good life. And you know what that kind of partnership is, pretty bad right? Suffering. So it has to be more rounded. And I think contemplation and meditation can bring that other aspect, if we’re interested in it, which I call a spiritual justice. And I talk about that in the book, too, to create a spiritual justice. I’m not the first to talk about it. I mean, Martin Luther King, Jr. that was his whole sermon in one big sermon, really, you can just say, this was one big sermon, spiritual justice, you know. The spirituality part is if we can consider each other interrelated as humans, and as of God, then we would have justice, you know, so that’s why I do believe in justice work. Because in that day and that view justice work in trying to change somebody’s minds and attitudes is hard work. And I’ve tried it, I’ve done it, I’ve done diversity work. And I told somebody, I can’t do it. And they say, “You can’t, we’re making $10,000 a month, come on, make the money.” I said, “I can’t, I’d be spending all that money in therapy,” because they’re going to… that’s like a wall. That’s like walking into the brick wall going ‘bunk.’ And they said, “Well, you don’t have to do it with any results.” And I said, “Oh, well, okay, that’s interesting.” Then why should I use my entire life? Why should I sacrifice myself for absolutely nothing, for the money? That’s not enough.
Cassidy Hall [27:56]: The way you’re talking about this feels like when I imagine you know, the conflicts of our world, our country today, it’s almost like this really strong binary energy. And you’re talking about the work that’s much bigger, much more below?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [28:12]: Yeah, because it’s on the ground, it’s at the ground at the base, where Thich Nhat Hanh called transformation at the base, and I’m teaching that right now with my students and what that means, you know. And how that affects what we manifest are what comes into being because what comes into being comes from the base comes from our perceptions come from, you know, our mental formations, and all these kinds of things we learn in our practice. It comes from that so we can know the list, but if you don’t understand how perception or mental formation or being embodied affects what you do in the world, helps you understand what’s happening in the world, there’s going to be something missing.
And I don’t say you have to do Buddhism, either, or meditation because they…or contemplate, I think those are for particular kinds of people who have that nature. Most people do not, they have another kind of temperament and you have to find what works for you. What would be that place in which you would awaken to everything, despite the horror in the world, despite or because of the horror in the world? What would you be doing? What would you do? What do you do? You know, I have people that come, “oh, you know, stuff, I can’t meditate. Every time I sit down, I just suffering, I’m just suffering.” And I was at a meditation center when I was teaching and I said, “Well, I think you need to stop meditating.” I said, “You can just like, go on home right now and rest. This is not for you, not now.”
And I don’t know why folks think it’s for everyone because it’s not. It’s only for those who are interested in going into this kind of deep nothingness this deep unknowing, this way of discovering those who want to walk out on the metal and not really know what’s going to happen out there. But the practice is teaching you so you keep running into it–the racism, then, now it’s time to use this and to be with it, not to still be back when I was first discovered that my skin was not welcome, the color of my skin was not welcome. If I lived there, I think I’d have been dead by now, I would have committed suicide, I would have. It is just too deep and too heavy, to not feel you belong on the planet. Or that you can never have a full life because of the color of your skin, or because you don’t have any money or all these things they say you have to have in order to have life.
So if you don’t discover life, then you’re going to think you need all those things to have life and you’re going to just suffer. We’re just going to suffer anyway, without all of that. And then we suffer the suffering, which I did. I did… All the things I speak on are my experiences, not necessarily something I just read, but the experience of being in practice and the experience of being in life coming together, because I wanted to see, why bother?
Cassidy Hall [30:58]: In your work, you also write a lot about the connectivity with nature and the earth. And I love what you wrote about this death of an oak tree, in your book, The Way of Tenderness you wrote, ‘The sudden death of oak trees, where I live in Oakland is like a clear cry naturally emerging from nature, just as cries emerged from groups of people when they are ignored or mistreated.” And I love that being able to see the fullness of life in nature.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [31:26]: Yeah, that piece is interesting to hear that again, because these things repeat. And so I don’t know the repeating till I hear it sometimes come back to me. We are the earth. And we know that, we are of the earth, we are the earth. And anything that’s happening in the earth is happening to us, all living beings. So like when that tree fell, I just… it was me falling off that cliff too, and how old that was and how unstable and unpredictable life is. And I’m writing right now I wasn’t going to write another book. But it looks like it might be one I was hoping it was just going to be an essay, but it keeps going. And I’m doing basically an account of our kind of daily life, our daily embodiment of earth. The daily and how to bring again, integrating so it’s not earth, and how beautiful it is, is earth in us, us as earth. There’s this mystical place of life, that is us as earth, you know. And when you contemplate and meditate, that gets… become so clear. If you’re not meditating and contemplating your partnership, or your job or your whatever, you’re not reifying the things that are hurting you, you’re just allowing yourself to be open to receive, which is what Buddha did, which is what Jesus did any, Sojourner Truth, you know. Harriet Tubman, name any of these people, and that’s what they were doing. That’s what they had to do in order to enhance their sense of the world, and their understanding and the nature of life. So that they could do the work that they were doing––fear or not, with fear and without fear with both.
So, I feel that looking at the earth and embodying the earth is important to understanding who we are, you know, you can understand transformation by just being in nature, right? You understand it completely. And so you can take that understanding because the reason why I understand it is because it’s you. When you look at the tree dying, you know that as you. A tree falling off a cliff, if you don’t feel that I don’t know, something needs to stimulate you to feel that interconnection, of all that’s around you.
Cassidy Hall [33:46]: Yeah. Yeah. Sensei Zenju, one question I want to end on, I’m actually going to change based on our conversation. And that question is who is, someone and I’m going to say someone or something that embodies mysticism for you?
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [34:01]: First it’s very hard to embody mysticism. I don’t really think it can be embodied. I think it comes through some people at particular times, for those who are open and ready for that, like Buddha was. He was just a person that had a mystical experience. Now did he embody them, maybe later but I don’t think so in the beginning. So when I think of people who I feel live in that realm, I think of diviners. You know, people who do divinations, those who have been trained to be seers, that’s another word. I see seers, I see myself in there too, as seers so when I think what comes to mind are the people I know who are seers, who work with the earth, they work with the unknown, they work with the dark on to bring forth any kind of medicines be that messages or whatever they worked in that realm. And some are still in some indigenous parts of the world living and some are not.
I actually met a whole… I didn’t know they were diviners till 20 years later, a whole group of diviners from Africa. And I think about them all the time, and they were Dahomeyan, and how they were and how I felt to be a part of them and I didn’t know them, the whole community, I don’t even know them, I didn’t even know their names because it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know the mystics’ name, or where the mystic live, or who the mystic’s mother was. Those are all irrelevant to a mystic because it’s not of the body. It comes through it, the conduit so many conduits have come.
Ramana Maharshi I feel is a mystic and his presence spoke. I think that that’s a mystic. That’s very powerful to me, that one’s presence speaks. I know my teacher transmitted to me, but I couldn’t tell till years later. Because I remember I chose her because she was so joyful in ceremony and ritual, I said, “she really loves Zen and I’m really having a hard time here. So I’ll just choose her,” and I did Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who has passed. And then after all the years, 20 years, I could hear myself sounding like her talking to my students about, oh, you know, so excited about this ceremony and that ceremony and this ritual and that ritual. And I just get so excited when it’s time for us to [unknown] and retreat. And they’re like, “What is wrong with her,” you know, like, “These things are not fun. That’s not fun.” That’s how I knew that that got transmitted without her telling me. I was walking with that, the joy of that and how I was able to stay in a place that where people didn’t look like me, mostly, were… have a different culture. It was a cultural sanctuary, in which I was not from. What saved me was that mysticism is not embodied.
Cassidy Hall [36:52]: Well, thank you, Sensei, for this beautiful conversation and for taking the time to be with me today. I really, really appreciate it.
Sensei Zenju Earthlyn Manuel [36:58]: All right, thank you.
Cassidy Hall [37:03]: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of contemplating now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
It is alive in the aura of death that now more visibly hangs over us like an irreversible fog. And, for me, in this white body of mine, mysticism has come alive in the protesting, rioting, and looting in the streets of cities across America. This simultaneous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic alongside the awakening to countless injustices and oppressions, has revealed our bodies’ collective navigation of the inherence of death and the inescapability of our common humanity.
Amid this thickening fog of death, oppressions, and injustices in our lives and our consciousness––transcendence is required so that clarity might prevail. But the transcendence of going beyond what is is not simple nor easy––transcendence is struggle itself. It is the day-to-day inner and outer work alongside our fellow humans in pursuit of truth, justice, love, and freedom.
Mysticism is a riot.
In Albert Cleage Jr.’s seminal work, The Black Messiah, he describes looting as a “mystical kind of thing,” saying “People loot stuff they don’t event want… but there was a sense of defiance in the very nature of the retaliation.” Meanwhile, many white people are so desperately clinging to the disruption of looting that we fail to see the mystical nature it contains. We fail to recognize that disruption and revolt is not only mystical in the way it interrupts an unjust status quo (amid the additional injustices found in capitalism), but also in the way it transcends the reality of things. Cleage writes, “Perhaps those who loot and burn don’t have any real revolutionary philosophy, but they do know one simple thing: tear up the white man’s property, and you hurt him where it hurts the most.” In a culture built upon capitalism and white supremacy, looting quickly becomes a mystical kind of thing.
The mysticism of a riot is found in its people’s presence. A people, more specifically, who have transcended above the fog in their collective struggle and clearly recognize the injustices at hand. And, the mysticism of a riot, is in the riot itself––the choice to go beyond behavioral expectations and societal norms.
Mysticism breeds revolution.
Today, mysticism demands a riot, requires a revolution, and upends our everyday lives. Mysticism is the beginning of a new way, a reinvention of unjust institutions. “So many institutions of our society need reinventing,” says Activist Grace Lee Boggs, “The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is.”
Mysticism is a protest.
Far too many of us, including myself at one time, associated mysticism with a hunkered down way of being––silently immersed in daily contemplation. But true mysticism, true union and absorption with the infinite also requires the self-surrender of speaking up for the injustices which are so clearly against a loving Deity. True mysticism is not only an individual encounter but also a collective movement.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers were Black and Brown mystics who led a collective protest by moving to the desert in order to leave the corruption of The Roman Empire and its control of Christianity. These mystics transcended what was for what could be, by choosing to go communally live in the desert to be absorbed in solitude, prayer, community, and remove themselves from the oppression of empire.
Some people find it is easier to see mystical existence in desert living, but it was not lost on these mystics that the great protest of life could be led wherever one finds themselves: Amma Syncletica once wrote, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.”
Mysticism is on the streets.
So, one must wonder, “What does it mean,” Barbara A. Holmes writes, “to be a public mystic, a leader whose interiority and communal reference points must intersect?” In Holmes’ book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, she writes of a few public mystics like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Sue Bailey, Howard Thurman, and Malcolm X. Holmes writes that these public mystics are found in the seemingly mundane and “transcendent in the midst of pragmatic justice-seeking acts.”
Of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, Holmes writes, “Hamer was cloistered in an activist movement, finding her focus, restoration, and life in God in the mist of the beloved community already here and yet coming.”
For today’s contemplative, looking only to the Desert Mothers and Fathers for examples of contemplation and mysticism is to dismiss half of what these things are. We must not fail to also look to yesterday and today’s Black and Brown contemplatives who have “turned the ‘inward journey’ into a communal experience.”
Mysticism is now.
If mysticism as total absorption in God and is not a movement towards a more loving and just world, then there is no such thing as a loving and just God and/or no such thing as mysticism––for to be absorbed requires one to become of that which one is absorbed into.
Mysticism is alive. Mysticism is a protest. Mysticism is a riot. Mysticism is resistance. Mysticism breeds revolution. Mysticism is on the streets. Mysticism is now.
Islamophobia is not just a problem for Muslims, it is a problem for all of us.
It is not the “job” of the marginalized, persecuted, or attacked group to solve the problem. To ask the even more deeply grieving “what do you need,” or “what can I do,” puts even more agony upon them. This is my problem, this is ourproblem, this is not the problem of my Muslim brothers and sisters.
An injustice that happens outside one’s country and one’s space of worship does not diminish the injustice. Instead, it is an opportunity to say more, to do more, to decrease hate and eliminate discrimination. A blind eye does nothing. A turned cheek only hides from the truth of hatred embedded in one’s own life. Speaking up against one injustice is not speaking up against all injustices. When we see wrong, we must say so. When we see pain, we must be present. When we see wounds, we must learn how to move the wounded towards healing.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (16 April 1963), he unequivocally points to the error of the “white moderate,” amid injustices writing,
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection… I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom… I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action… Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions…”
The timetable for another person’s freedom is always now.
The season for justice is always now.
There is no preparation needed for more love, more truth, more justice… It must be now lest we fail to see the humanity of our fellow human, the desperation of our beloved earth… There is no middle ground.
The only question is, “What is my ‘now’?” What is the urgency of this present moment that beckons me to speak, move, change, go, grow. It won’t be convenient, it won’t feel comfortable, it will make me tired and weary—but it is right. It is truth. It is love. It is justice. And it must be listened to.
There is no middle ground.
“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” (MLK, Jr.)
In Parker J. Palmer’s On The Brink of Everything, he writes, “I no longer ask what do I want to let go of and what do I want to hang on to… Instead I ask what do I want to let go of and what do I want to give myself to.”
For me (like most of us), this has been a year of massive changes: moving across the country, beginning seminary (and finishing my first semester), navigating family illnesses, surgeries, and deaths, deepening friendships, continuing my own internal growth, beginning work on my directorial debut, finishing a book, interviewing and meeting some of my heroes on the podcast, continuing to release my clinging hands from all that isn’t mine, and learning about what I want to give myself to.
Our time and attention is a treasure––a rare commodity that we delegate among the needs before and within us. Simone Weil says “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity…. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” This sentiment has brought me a lot of of comfort and consideration this year. The idea that our attention is an offering of prayer is a delightful way to remind oneself to be present but also a reminder of the eternal value of said presence. How has my drifting mind pulled me away from this prayerful attention in these days of technology and endless to-do lists? How have I missed the ability to give of myself in a way that cultivates love for the beloved human or moment before me?
Whether we like it or not, most of us find ourselves reflecting when we approach the New Year. We consider changes we’d like to make, we plan ahead for what’s to come, we consider letting go of what weighs us down… In doing so, I dare to think we create fertile ground for openness. And I often wonder how I can carry around this invisible fecundity with me throughout the year. There is an awe to the newness of a shiny new year––how can I give myself in openness to the awe instead of holding on to the hope of goals, changes, or desires?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with carrying around hope, but it isn’t easy. In her OnBeing interview, author Rebecca Solnit shared, “hope is tough. It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe. And so hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities.”
Perhaps there’s a place here where we can find ourselves in the middle of these things, after all, there’s nothing wrong with goals, changes, or desires (assuming they are hosting a means for greater love or deeper peace). Maybe, just maybe, there’s room for all of my wayward longings this year––if I can be in open-handed awe of their presence (or lack thereof) instead of being the clinging one breathless for control (I admit I’m much more prone to the latter!).
So, friends, as we all reflect on 2018 and the empty pages that rest before us in 2019, may we explore what is right for our own individual lives. I, for one, will try to boldly consider these things: Where do I need to let go? What do I want to give myself to? Where can I offer more unmixed attention? How can I remain open to the ever-present newness of each and every day? How can I live each day in greater wonder?
Wishing everyone deep love, bright light, vulnerable hope, unfathomable peace, and the courage for new beginnings in the new year. For a New Beginning, By John O’Donohue
In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
The most obvious characteristic of our age is its destructiveness. This can hardly be doubted. We have developed an enormous capacity to build and to change our world, but far more enormous are our capacities for destruction.
Thomas Merton, “Theology of Creativity,” 1960
Many of us sense an aura of doom when we wake up to the day. Destruction consumes our news feed as we scroll past the dead, the hate, and the eerie joy of our friends’ and families’ photos as though nothing were going awry. While we know our looking away doesn’t make things go away, we try and try, and try again.
We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.
Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 12/8/62, audio recording
There is an unfading relevance to the words written nearly 60 year ago by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Many of us are rereading his books and essays with bewilderment, assuming they must have been written in and for this very time. Alas, we know that this beloved monk, said to be one of the most influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century, rests in that place of mystery beyond death while his body lies underground at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Why does it matter?
What difference does it make if the words of this monk remain true for centuries?
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1966
It matters precisely because it testifies to the need for love and truth in an age of unending destruction, perpetual ignorance (largely a deeply ingrained desire to not know the other), and endless falsities that lead us into a place where love is forgotten and our fellow human is dismissed. Merton, on the other hand, seemed to point to a way out—a better way of moving in these times.
…Let us then recognize ourselves for who we are: dervishes mad with secret therapeutic love which cannot be bought or sold, and which the politician fears more than violent revolution, for violence changes nothing. But love changes everything. We are stronger than the bomb….
Thomas Merton, “Message to Poets,” 1964
Just the other day, CNN’s Chris Cuomo mentioned a passage from Thomas Merton’s 1960 essay, “Christianity and Totalitarianism” (found in his book, Disputed Questions, pp. 133-134). During his prime-time show, he shared some of these words from 60 years ago:
…for hatred is always easier and less subtle than love. It does not have to take account of individual cases. Its solutions are simple and easy. It makes its decisions by a simple glance at a face, a colored skin, a uniform. It identifies the enemy by an accent, an unfamiliar turn of speech, an appeal to concepts that are difficult to understand… Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice, and hate which flows from the crippled nature of man who is afraid of love and does not dare to be a person. It is against this temptation most of all that the Christian must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, wherever he can, and first of all in himself, the capacity of love and understanding which makes man the living image of God.
Many of us assume we’re incapable of such an extent of love because we fear. We fear walking forward with open arms because we’ve been taught to trust no one. We fear the other because they’re different.
Yet the day after Cuomo quoted Merton, something else caught my eye. The nurse on duty at the Pittsburgh hospital when the gunman of the Synagogue shooting was brought in for treatment spoke out about being the murderer’s nurse:
…Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings….
Ari Mahler, RN
In a world of destruction, ignorance, and falsities—there is not only a place for love, but love is the only answer. Love is the way out—a better way of moving in these times. Love is the only way we can begin to clean up the messes before us. This love cannot hesitate. It cannot stutter-step its way to the other when such a pause can cause death. It is only by bringing our love back to a place of innocence—a place where it is free to grow and give of itself, a place where it no longer fears—that we can emerge with the ability and the desire to love.
Currently, I’m working on a documentary film about Thomas Merton’s final years in the hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Entitled Day of a Stranger, the film pieces together some never-before heard audio that he recorded of himself alongside meditative images of the hermitage property. Taking the walk that Merton took to and from the Abbey, listening to his late-night jazz meditations as the fireflies roll by the oil lamp, looking into the letters and essays that he wrote and the work that he edited—there is no doubt that this cinder block building was the home of some of Thomas Merton’s most important work.
My hope for the film is not for it to be a place of romanticizing the monastic life, Thomas Merton, or his words. Instead, my hope is that it becomes a place of interior recognition for the viewer: a place that points to the infinite possibilities of love we’re all capable of, a place that reminds us that—no matter how simple—our lives, our work, and our love matter.
You will answer: “Waiting is not inertia. To be quiet and bide one’s time is to resist. Passive resistance is a form of action.”
That is true when one is waiting for something, and knows for what he is waiting. That is true when one is resisting, and knows why, and to what end, he is resisting, and whose he must resist. Unless our waiting implies knowledge and action, we will find ourselves waiting for our own destruction and nothing more. A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.
Are we waiting for anything? Do we stand for anything? Do we know what we want?
Here we stand, in a state of diffuse irruption and doubt, while ‘they’ fight one another for power over the whole world. It is our confusion that enables ‘them’ to use us, and to pit us against one another, for their own purposes….
Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, pp. 55-56
Looking up, I knew this was a moment to behold. Across the living room from me sat Jim Forest, laughing among friends while in Toronto for the first annual Voices For Peace conference. The 76-year-old peace-activist, author, storyteller, and lover of humanity was frozen in a moment of pure joy. I grabbed my camera to capture the glance of a life dedicated to peace, love, and a deeply rooted adoration of God.
Many know Jim by way of his friends: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Henri Nouwen –– to name a few. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list. His humility and sincerity pointed time and time again to a new way of listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human.
Throughout the week I had the honor of sitting down with Jim for meals, conversations, and laughter. We arrived in Toronto amid the backdrop of the van massacre that killed ten people just a day prior. Diving head-first into a pre-planned peace conference felt like apostolic work in a city mourning such a tragedy, but questions kept pressing me. How is the accumulation of information truly accompanying my neighbor? How is knowing the immorality of the weapons economy disarming my nation? How am I really helping the kids in my life and the land I stand on to see another day?
“Who is a peacemaker?” Jim asked in his keynote address, “Anyone who is acting peaceably to protect life and the environment… Peacemakers are engaged in a war against war, with the goal not that war should be made less frequent or less murderous or more humane but that war should be eliminated. War should be made unthinkable. Otherwise all of us are losers. As Merton put it, ‘There is only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.’”
Jim was editor of the Catholic Worker and co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. He was arrested numerous times while protesting war and jailed for burning draft cards. He’s an award-winning author. But a list of achievements isn’t what Jim is about. His passion for peace is entirely rooted in relationship. His centeredness goes beyond those friends in the living room. Jim has created a lifetime around loving all people, enemies included:
“Love doesn’t exclude outrage. Love and outrage are sometimes as woven together as a strand of DNA. Dan’s [Berrigan] many acts of civil disobedience were animated by, as he put it ‘outraged love.’ For Dan ‘outrage’ was an adjective; the key word was ‘love.’ Love opens the way for conversion. But outrage without love is a blind alley.”
The days we live in are bleak and barren without love. Every news feed, each source of media, and conversations that surround us — are drenched in outrage untethered to love. Why is it that as soon as we can reconnect our outrage to love we see another headline that tears them apart again? “Fear is the great force that restrains us from acts of love,” Jim said in his second keynote address. “Fear is useful only when it serves as an alarm clock, a device that wakes us up by briefly ringing… When fear takes over, it tends to rob us creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom.”
As fear engulfs us, I wonder, are we debilitating ourselves from action that could better serve the world? The way of peace is as urgent as my next breath, and this is a literal statement for many, so why is it not for me? How can we navigate peace in the spirit of urgency? Is the response of a peacemaker not more important than the springboard of reaction born of urgency and conceived in the bowels of fear? How can I transform my fear-riddled flailing into a life of protest that is steeped in outrage and love?
“That’s the message we’re supposed to receive,” he told me, “’What you’re doing is a waste of time.’ But the truth of the matter is, it does make a difference. It doesn’t happen fast, and it sometimes doesn’t even happen in our lifetime. Sometimes it’s so slow, the iceberg is so big, so much of it is so hidden, so much of it is beneath the water line, watching it shrink is not easy for us. We live 60, 70, 80, even 90-100 years, but you know pick up a pebble on the beach, it’s 100s of millions of years old, it’s a different time scale.”
I was particularly struck by Jim’s tirelessness in these efforts of peace. At the age of 76, he’s flying six time-zones to share these messages with generations of activists. He’s zealously waking up to speak at a nearby church (Church of The Redeemer, Toronto) the day after offering two keynote addresses and countless interactions with strangers the day before. I quoted some of Jim’s own poignant words back to him amid asking for some advice for those of us navigating the ever present waters of activism today: “In your book, The Root of War is Fear, you said, ‘At the core of what is sane in our society I think you will find the pacifist movement, constantly reminding the populace that life is sacred, that justice–not vengeance–is our job.’ How would you advise the wearied activist among us today?”
“Shape your life on truth,” he told me, “live it as courageously as you can, as joyfully as you can. And count on God making some good use of it — what you do is not wasted. But you may not have the satisfaction of seeing the kind of results that you’re hoping for. Maybe you will, maybe you’ll be lucky but you can’t count on it.”
Or, as his friend Thomas Merton once wrote to him in February of 1966:
“…Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, as you yourself mention in passing, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
Today I set out walking to walk. Visiting a new city fills me with childlike wonder and awe—each nook a new treasure to behold, every turn an adventure. I’m in Toronto, Canada just two days after a terrible tragedy that took the lives of ten fellow humans. And while wandering in the wet morning, the rain poured down like holy water attempting to wash away the pain so many are feeling. As my eyes looked up on Bloor street I couldn’t help but be captivated by a local bookstore begging for my attention, despite the 100s of books resting unread on my bookshelf at home.
Much like my routine at any bookstore, I navigate the poetry, hunt for the Thomas Merton books, and explore the sections where my friends’ books might be. This time, a particular Merton book caught my eye: Road to Joy: The Letters of Thomas Merton To New and Old friends. With just having had the pleasure of dinner with Merton’s friend Jim Forest, the night before, I promptly picked the book up and hunted for Jim’s name in the index. Instead — homosexuality pg. 344 — stuck out as if it was written in bold red among the black and white I was holding. Homosexuality, I thought, but Merton never really wrote about that. Though I’d heard my friend, Dr. Christopher Pramuk discuss this in the past, I wasn’t prepared for the violent language I was about to encounter. I took a deep breath while considering what I might read on the page the reference linked to and was sure enough not shocked but painfully disappointed with the words that corresponded. Words that continue to deeply wound and haunt LGBTQ+ Christians everywhere. Among these words in a note titled “Letter to an Unknown Friend”:
“…In other words, the pitch is this. Homosexuality is not a more “unforgivable” sin than any other than the rules are the same. You do the best you can, you honestly try to fight it, be sorry, try to avoid occasions, all the usual things… Maybe psychiatric help would be of use.”
Though reading nothing surprising, my body tensed up and shuddered with the deep despair I once felt about my own personhood because of such lies being told to me that there was something innately wrong with me, there was something “sinful.” To compare homosexuality with sin is not unlike telling me being a woman in sinful. It is of one’s personhood. One’s very being. In the bowels of that bookstore, I took a moment to thank God I no longer have this way of thinking and resolved to buy the book so no one else would read these wounding words that, to me, are incredibly theologically unsound.
In this city of great acceptance, I was flanked on either side by rainbow flags at every turn. Despite that, this small moment stirred up years in which I sat in self-hatred because I was told a part of my precise personhood was a sin. Looking back, I can still easily weep for my younger self and those who might still be thinking like this, speaking like this or receiving such hateful words. Knowing how deeply that struck felt like a bolt energy to share my truth, my love, my personhood with those that think theirs is somehow damaged.
LGBTQ+ friends, listen to me: There is nothing wrong with you.
Parents, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ child.
Church, there is nothing wrong with your LGBTQ+ parishioners.
The damage we do when we insinuate one’s loving personhood is sinful or faulty is nothing short of hateful, dismissive, and ignorant thinking.
“Peacemaking begins with seeing, seeing what is really going on around us, seeing ourselves in relation to the world we are part of… What we see and what we fail to see defines who we are and how we live our lives…”Jim Forest, The Root of War is Fear
Of course, I don’t agree entirely with Fr. Jim Martin on a number of things. But that didn’t prevent us from having a loving conversation, it didn’t stop us from both discussing the LGBTQ+ community in a way that elevates its ability to be seen and loved. And, although conversion begins with conversation––conversation with the intention of conversion is a limited space to come from. In a Message to Poets essay Merton said, “We believe that our future will be made by love and hope, not by violence or calculation…a hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.” With this in mind, I speak to my fellow human in a way that is true to love itself for that is all I can do, that is all I can bring. And for my fellow LGBTQ+ friends who may not be able to have such conversations because of the pain it brings—I will continue to speak. I will continue to have these hard conversations that point to the destruction and violence this kind of language creates, the ways in which we’re limiting the spirit’s flow within people because we name their personhood as sinful instead of seeing the beauty, joy, and spirit’s flow within their lives.
There is a penalty in admiration when we only seek how it serves us. As much as I admire Thomas Merton and Fr. Jim Martin, I cannot agree with them on everything and certainly have never claimed to. Though people change and thoughts evolve in their own ways in accordance with their own personhood—who am I to say that a given stance is more evolved, lest for the these kinds of stances that directly point to lack of equal humanity, as the aforementioned rhetoric suggests. Merton’s untimely death (1968) will leave any of his current thought on this as a mystery. But, I must interject my own assumption based on the fact that most of Merton’s life was based upon love.
In 1966, Thomas Merton wrote young peace activist Jim Forest a letter that has since become referenced as the Letter to a Young Activist.In it, Merton addresses Jim’s frustrations with his work in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. Jim was working tirelessly at the Catholic Worker house after having left the Navy. He co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship in 1964, and served countless conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war era. Both Forest and Merton were doing unequivocally important work, despite just how different the work was. These words that he wrote to Jim wouldn’t have been written without Jim’s initial letter of frustration and agony. In fact, many of Jim’s letters allowed Merton’s own thoughts on things like war and pacifism to change, grow, expand, and evolve (see The Root of War is Fear).
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
Whether or not one chooses to see the LGBTQ+ community does not eliminate its existence. But it is not until we truly open our eyes to one another that we can begin to stop diminishing one’s personhood as sinful. And the LGBTQ+ community will go on loving. After all, it is the centerpiece to our personhood. It must become the centerpiece to everyone’s personhood. And it’s a beautiful centerpiece to sit at the table of. To have a conversation around. To create a personal relationship over.
It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.
I could have let these few words I read today ruin my day. I could have chalked them up to Thomas Merton not being admirable. I could have minimized his words as a sign of the times. But that’s not what any of this was about. I set out walking to walk. And, I believe that when we set out loving to love, miracles can happen. We can begin to see one another. Truly see.
Toronto is assuredly not the same after this terrible tragedy. Beyond the rain, there is a dreariness that sits over the city as people discuss just what happened and how it could possibly happen here. But people are going on talking, they are going on being kind, saying sorry, greeting and smiling at one another. This city is truly a space of personal relationship.
And, now, as I sit across the table from my new dear friend Jim Forest, I realize the deep legacy of his life pouring forth in personal relationship and loving to love. Many know Jim by way of his friends including but not limited to Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan, Thich Nhat Hanh, and so on. But having spent a few days with Jim, it’s hard to not count yourself among the list—his deep humility and sincere way of being has already taught me so much about listening, truly seeing, and deeply caring for my fellow human. Tomorrow, Jim will speak at a conference in Toronto titled Voices For Peace.
Between Toronto and Jim, I think I’m finally starting to truly grasp what Thomas Merton meant when he said to Jim in that 1966 letter: It is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.