The scholarship featured continues to influence and inform the ways I encounter contemplative life and mystical experience/expression. In the thesis I consider the ways social action/activism and mysticism intersect. A brief excerpt:
“At this point one might question what the mystic and the activist have in common. Is it possible social justice activism could be itself considered a marker of mystical encounter? While one could easily deem the mystic as innately religious (or spiritual) and the activist as innately active, where do these roles intersect, if at all? In response to this question, one might consider the historical ways in which both the mystic and the activist have sought to subvert empire, disrupt the status quo, and pursue the common good. Both the mystic and the activist pursue lives disentangled from institutions, lives which pursue communal well-being, that great marker of mysticism: charity, previously mentioned as a marker of mysticism’s authenticity. An additional voice in this conversation comes from German Theologian Dorothee Sölle whose words on mysticism could be interchanged with the work of the activist when she writes, “Mutual dependence is the fundamental model that mysticism has put in place of domination.”
Cole Arthur Riley: Contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life and the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds. At least that’s how I think about it.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast focused on the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spiritualties 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.
Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space for black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage, and rest. Black Liturgies is a project of the Center for Dignity and Contemplation, where she serves as the executive curator. Born and for the most part raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the recently published book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us .
Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Your new book is absolutely incredible and your work is so important. Thank you so much for being here.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you, and thanks for having me.
Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is just kind of a way to orient our conversation. I’m wondering how you personally define the words contemplation and mysticism, and maybe also how you see them lived out in the world today.
Cole Arthur Riley: I would say contemplation for me is a certain commitment to paying attention to the Divine in all things. So in one’s interior world, as well as the conditions of life in the world around us. Mysticism, I think it’s kind of a fidelity to magic and mystery in our interpretation of those worlds, at least that’s how I think about it. How I see them in the world today, I mean, it’s hard. It’s hard to–I think, especially in western contexts to have it show up, particularly mysticism, with any kind of clarity. It’s hard to see in other people. There are certainly these kinds of spaces where it’s safe to talk about one’s kind of exploration of mystical things, and mysticism, but I don’t find myself always in those spaces. I’ve lived a life kind of tangential to the academy, to college settings and worked with academics for many years and talking about their kind of connection to spirituality and what they do in their work or their research. And I found that was all very exciting. But when it came to talking about kind of element of mystery and the unknown, and in terms of engaging that spirituality, it was a little more difficult to do it felt like more is at stake almost.
Cassidy Hall: I love that fidelity to mystery or fidelity to magic. When I hear that, when I think about that, I also think of things like transcendence. And I’m wondering if you see any association with Reverend Dr. Holmes, Barbara Holmes, who talks about this notion of public mysticism. And I wonder if you see that fidelity to magic is also existent in activist movements?
Cole Arthur Riley: Absolutely. I think, that there’s something there. When you think about what activism requires, the kind of belief activism requires, the kind of moral imagination, just general imagination, it requires for you to kind of protest. You’re protesting, which shouldn’t be, but to do that it requires you have some kind of concept of what should be and I think that takes a lot of kind of contemplation and mystical work to, to dream up a different way, almost. But I think that there is a very credible tension, I would say between the life of a contemplative and the life of an activist. I talked about this in the book, briefly, that I had a boss and a mentor who said, right before I began writing This Here Flesh, she said, if there’s anyone that I’ve met who’s both contemplative and activist, they’ve never been able to do both well. If they’re out there, I haven’t met them. And I mean, immediately, I thought, that’s what I want. Challenge accepted. That’s who I want to be in the world. But also, I do think there’s something really credible about that tension that he was articulating. The kind of urgency I think that activism can seem to require and does require, at times can seem in conflict with the contemplative, but I don’t think it needs to be. I love what Barbara Holmes says about the contemplative life. I’m also thinking of this really brief article that Christian Wiman wrote for the Christian Century actually, a while ago, I think it was like a decade ago, he wrote about this tension of the contemplative in him and this kind of desire for action. Anyways, it’s a really beautiful remarks on what I’m describing about that tension.
Cassidy Hall: It’s kind of going back to a previous thing you said, where essentially, this idea that academics have a harder time hosting that ambiguity, hosting that space, you think it’s just this determination to put language to things or, what do you think that is?
Cole Arthur Riley: Well, I can see some of it in myself. I’m not an academic. I’ve worked closely with them and I’m not an academic… I think I was just kind of born a mystic and it was like, worked out in me. So when I was little, my sister and I–I’ve only just recently been reflecting on these weird stories, but my sister and I, we would like literally mix potions out of expired condiments and give each other these signs. Like you’re the sun sign today or you’re the moon sign. And in the book, I talk about this friendship, one of my earliest kind of friendships with this girl, and we would have like ceremonies in the field at recess before, I think we even understood what a ceremony was, we would like call them, this is our ceremony, and like eat chocolate icing and talk to clouds. And so I had something in me that, I think, as I grew up, became more and more legible. And what became more pronounced was like this hyper rationalism. It became serious and dare I say, rational. And when we speak of, I think, the mysterious and the miraculous, I do sometimes find it difficult to believe. I think maybe academics have had some of that childlike wonder and mischief worked out at them as well, drilled out of them. So it requires a resistance in me. This like resistance to the formation that says, clarity and like you were saying, articulation: “Clarity and articulation are the most important things.” I’m very suspicious of that. But I’ve been formed to think that that’s the most important thing. So anyway, I’m constantly trying to travel back and revisit my child self and her wisdom, kind of homecoming, really,
Cassidy Hall: And that fidelity to magic is also kind of like you’re saying this fidelity to play, to pleasure, to joy, to engaging with the natural world as your child self even and, of course, our adult selves. I’m thinking if I were to go make potions in the yard right now, which sounds like a great idea, and talk to the clouds which are pouring down rain right now. But my adult mind would so much say, oh, but rationalize this. You look crazy, or all these things that kind of hinder our fidelity to play or hinder our fidelity to this magic.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yes. It’s so true. It’s difficult. I’m not mixing potions in the basement anymore sadly, but I’m trying to learn how to just be open to mystery. But even mystery in the mundane I think. So I was watching the barn swallows. We have a barn on our property and the barn swallows are returning and just watching them fly earlier this afternoon and watching them kind of swoop and dance and make the wildest shapes in flight and somehow communicate. I start thinking how do birds do that? How do they know? And even just to kind of pause and let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit in that very mundane observation. It’s not quite the magic of the like recess ceremonies but there’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: I love that. Let the mystery and miracle breathe a little bit. It’s beautiful. And your work with Black Liturgies is a work of artistry, poetry, therapy, activism. What’s the origin story of creating Black Liturgies?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes. So I started Black Liturgies in the summer of 2020 July, I believe, and what a summer that was. I feel like that’s forever going to be kind of etched into everyone’s consciousness. It was in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. And we had these resurfacing accounts of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. And I’d been in liturgical spaces for a handful of years by that point, and found a lot of rest, I think, rest and beauty and liturgy and I’ve always written and so it’s been a kind of natural way for me to connect with God. But I found myself so hungry, like so desperate for a spiritual space that was capable of holding my Blackness, the grief of the moment and the anger, my rage. I wanted a space that could hold that. And so I started Black Liturgies, kind of hoping to find some like-minded people.
Cassidy Hall: And within that work, do you continue to get in touch with kind of that that space of tension? I think my question is, is contemplation a part of your writing process and how do you maybe hold the tension in those moments when you write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah.. definitely… Black Liturgies is definitely developed and it’s continued to contain that the anger, the grief, but I think it’s expanded into other emotional expressions. I’m really interested in just connecting the body and embodiment and emotional experience… in my writing, I think I absolutely need contemplation and mysticism. I use this language, I made it up of contemplative storytelling in the book. So it was kind of important for me to put language to that, so it feels a little bit distinct. I’m really disinterested in contemplation, purely as a mental experiment. I think more and more people are. I’m interested in embodied contemplation and emotional contemplation, and I’m trying to nurture and preserve stories in the book that are so important to me. And I think they kind of demand a contemplation. If you want to use the language of attention, they demand a kind of sacred attention to ensure that I’m most honest, and a good steward of the stories. So one way that looks, I mean, I wrote my book in about three months. Of that time, around 15 – 17 days were actually spent writing, the other days were spent in listening, and in thought, and embodiment. Being attentive to the stories of my grandma and father, and resting in them as I sat in bed, or I sat in the shade of the oak tree next to my house. And an embodied contemplation as well. I very rarely will relay a movement or motion and a story without practicing them. I don’t describe a person folding a piece of paper without mimicking that in the air with my hands. And so it’s an embodied contemplation as a part of the writing process as well.
Cassidy Hall: That’s such a deep, deep commitment to the work. Like you’re saying, even folding the piece of paper in taking the time to really let the fullness of yourself engage and tell the story.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, seeing writing is just a small, small part of that.
Cassidy Hall: You also in the book, as you’re saying, you write so much about the mind, body, spirit connections, and the importance of embodiment and spirituality. And similarly to me, you write about the importance of undoing the whiteness of God. Do you think these things are connected and that as we move towards undoing the whiteness of God, we might also move towards a deeper embodiment of spirit as a closer enmeshment with the truth and the valuing expanse and have movement towards liberation from those hindrances of those false images?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, beautiful question. Yeah, I do I think the more we undo the whiteness of God, absolutely. I think we experience a kind of deeper and closer connection with the divine, I think, whiteness loves disembodiment. I’ve started to ask this question recently of like, when I’m disembodied, or when I’m kind of find myself really out of sync with my physical self. I’ve been asking my question, if you weren’t in your body today, who was? And the answer to that question has so often been like, white capitalism? The kind of threat of productivity and I think whiteness loves disembodied people because it makes those bodies more easy to colonize, and to take control over ultimately. And I think if you think about whiteness as a force, I mean, how does integrate it? Does have to be to commit the tears that I think whiteness is committed. You have to be a pretty disintegrated person, if you want to talk about what your body is doing. If you want to talk about the hand that holds the whip, and the chains, and then the person with the heart and an emotional experience, I think man has, emotional restriction that absolutely nurtured through the hand of whiteness, this emotional restrictions, detachment from one’s physical self and the acts you’re committing, and one’s emotional, self and empathy. So I think whiteness is absolutely a tool for disintegration–loves it, continues to nurture it. And the more we undo the kind of the force of whiteness in our spiritual imaginations, I think the more the divine, at least for me kind of expands, it opens up, it becomes less about narrowing in on exactly what one thinks about any given topic. And it becomes much more about this kind of play and curiosity and, mystery even and, you know, my thought doesn’t need to be supreme. My experience of God doesn’t need to be supreme in order for it to matter and have value to me. I think that’s kind of the shift you see? I mean, you’ve thought about this as well is that how you’ve experienced it in your own work?
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. The more undoing I experience and the more embodied I am, the more there is to the mystery, to the expanse, to God, God’s Self. I mean, it’s like a deeper pool. But instead of this being a terrifying space where I need to cling and name, it’s a space of freedom and a space of embracing the vastness of God and in myself and in other people, and in nature, and in the squirrel outside my window.
What you said earlier was a form of movement away from that sense of productivity and capitalism and whatnot, even the way you chose to write this book, the way you sat in story, the way you committed to having your body be in touch with story before you put pen to paper it sounds like. Was that like a conscious thing before you started doing that as practice? Or was that something that you kind of just knew you needed to do and it happened?
Cole Arthur Riley: Honestly, it wasn’t a conscious decision at all. I think I was changed in the process of writing this book. Some of the stories, some of the familial stories I’d heard before. I’d heard fragments of them. But to become a kind of care caretaker of them in a new way, to have the responsibility of translating them to strangers, I think I felt a different kind of responsibility to their stories. And even now, my grandma passed while I was in the final stages of editing the book. And what that does to you in terms of wondering if you’ve done the stories justice. So as you know, as I was listening I’d call them pretty much on a weekly basis and I would have a series of questions for them and have them retell portions of stories or describe certain things. And sometimes I would video chat them or I have lots of videos from before I started writing the book that I would go through, and something about those moments felt so sacred and distinct that I couldn’t just rush to the page. If I would have rushed to the page, I probably would have brought all of me and very little of them ultimately, because I was so in my own experience of their stories, as a daughter, as a granddaughter. And so required some time and space and rest from the like, impulse of productivity, use these stories. How are you going to use these stories? I had to think how are you going to rest in them and honor them? And so that looked a lot like sitting around and staring at a wall or staring at a tree, for me to really be present. Toni Morrison, oh, she has these beautiful words in the sight of memory, where she talks about this practice of imagination for the interior worlds of the people that made her. She was talking specifically about her ancestors who were enslaved. But I think it definitely transcends that. What does it mean to have this really true and honest practice of imagination for my father’s world, for my grandma’s world, that requires time? And I love that she uses the language practice, because it is. And I think that’s really compatible with contemplation and what we’re talking about.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that practice is also a form of healing, and a form of finding your connectivity to the story and your movement into your truest self from those stories? Do you find that as a form of, maybe healing is the wrong word?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, it’s funny that you asked that because Morrison she talks about that practice of imagination. And then she says, they are my entrance. The people you are kind of cultivating this imagination for, they are my entrance into my own interior world. Which I think is really beautiful, and really profound. And I’m 31 and I think I’ll probably understand the depth of that as I age. But there’s something in that, that in encountering my father and my grandma’s stories, and resting in their interior worlds, their lived experiences, I become closer to myself. And there’s something really mysterious in it. Like I have a hard time articulating it if I’m honest, but I feel so close to myself, especially after writing the book, I felt nearer to my own soul than I ever felt. Because I think the honesty in their stories demanded an honesty in me. And so it brought me closer to what I think what I believe and what I’ve lived in my own body.
Cassidy Hall: I just want to name that you also have like this energy of utter groundedness that’s really centered. I experienced that in you, that you are close to yourself.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you.
Cassidy Hall: So I want to ask, and you can choose to answer both or neither of these, of course. I want to ask what was the hardest part of the book to write and what was the easiest part of the book to write?
Cole Arthur Riley: Storytelling really comes pretty easy, easily to me. In writing, I’ve realized very early on that my kind of strength as a writer is in storytelling and kind of play. But listening to the stories were, of course, difficult and costly, and going to the places that most parents and grandparents don’t want to take their children and granddaughters that was hard. But in the writing of it, it felt strangely natural. The contemplative kind of reflections throughout the book. Now those were more difficult for me because I have a really difficult time, pinning down what I want to say with any kind of certainty. So my editors will tell you that my earliest drafts were just like riddled with maybes and perhapses and I don’t know, could be. Because that’s just what contemplation is brought out and ultimately is more uncertainty. I think it’s a editors nightmare to make sense of that on page. What do you think? And my answer is like, well maybe, maybe not. That is really hard to communicate without sounding weak to have a kind of mystery and uncertainty in your contemplation that still feels like it has a depth, I think I learned it’s really difficult, because sometimes uncertainty can sound really shallow. And so it’s really afraid. If I don’t have a clear belief on this, well, it seemed like I haven’t thought deeply about it. And in paradox, I think the deeper you think about things, as most contemporaries will tell you, the more kind of curious and unsure you become. So I realized just how little I have a firm grasp on so the contemplative reflections were really difficult. I think when I’m 50, I’ll probably look back and just laugh at some of the things I’ve said, but at least I know I’ve told the truth, as best as I can tell it for who I am in this moment, but whooo it was difficult.
Cassidy Hall: Maybe some of those contemplative reflections are more expressed in like bodily knowing rather than language. So right, it was maybe just kind of what do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, yeah. Yeah, there’s definitely that as well. This kind of, how do you communicate the embodied knowledge, the intuition, the kind of, I mean, I tell the story of a very significant dream in my grandmother’s life. She was a dreamer. And I’m a person of just a lot of skepticism and doubt, but I believe her. I don’t believe most things people tell me but I believe my grandma. I’ve never wavered in that. But it was really difficult to communicate for example, that dream. It’s a very mysterious dream of an encounter with her ancestors and her father, her father’s father, and uncles and aunts and all these people kind of surrounding her in a dream. Anyways… it’s really hard to communicate what I cognitively think about that experience versus like this embodied intuition I have when my grandma would tell the story. Things like that are really hard to think to translate into pages.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Another thing you talk about in the book is, you kind of push us away from this binary of right and wrong work. And you hone in on expressing the importance of instead focusing on work with integrity and protecting dignity. And in our society, so focused on individualism and productivity. What is your hopes that someone might take away from, from understanding this difference among the other binaries you point us away from?
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, I think that society kind of has a vested interest in us making this big deal, this big theater of choosing what work we’ll do and what career we’ll have. I mean, especially if you’re privileged enough to attend college, it’s this very elaborate, vocational discernment. What are you going to do? What work are you going to choose? And that’s how we think about vocation. Man, I’m more and more suspicious of that. And like, oh, okay, when you have that sense of connection, that sense of I was meant to do this, how much easier is it then for a society and like a capitalist driven society to use that and say, like, do, do, do. you know, God’s going to use you? Or, I mean, even if that’s your kind of spiritual formation, how is God going to use you think society and that spiritual formation work in tandem to really get the most out of our bodies that they can possibly get. How exhausting. Now, if you have an idea of vocation, and that discernment is like, how will I do my work, becomes a little more difficult to exploit. If you think it’s about how am I going to do this work with integrity? How am I going to protect dignity and my work? It has a way of disarming I think, the powers that be, the systems that are more concerned with using you because it de-centers a product and it centers like a connection and an honoring. That’s one example as you said. I think I was more and more when I thought about communicating a liberating spirituality in the book. I did want to dismantle these binaries of like, this is the right kind of way and this is the wrong way and more so have us think about the why and the how and the lived experience of a thing as opposed to this definitive choice. Anyways, I think for me at least, the more I experience kind of contemplation as well as the divine God, as a with a fluidity, I think just the more free and like playful and curious I am in my daily life. It feels very liberating to me to not know or to not choose the right way or the wrong way and instead just ask why to convey a human experience. So anyways, people ask me what I want people to take away from this book. And I say in the book, I don’t really want people to come away thinking what I think. I think that would be a real failure on my part. As a contemplative, I would be really proud if people put the book down and were closer to themselves in some way, and closer to their, their own kind of interior world closer to the lives they occupy, and that they feel more free to explore what they think and believe.
Cassidy Hall: That reminds me of a quote from your book, where you write “protect the truest things about you, and it will become easier to hear the truth everyplace else.” Which is incredibly powerful, and goes back to what we’re talking about earlier about the true self and finding the true self. And it seems to me that a lot of true self theology, for lack of better expression, has kind of got that wrong, because it seems to me a lot of true self theology actually hosts some of those binaries and capitalistic and white supremacist values that are guised as your true self is within those. And it seems to me that you’re pointing us to a true self in a in a really new way.
Cole Arthur Riley: You know, I haven’t thought about it the way you’ve put it. But yeah, I hope I’m doing that I think there can be a kind of like, true self theology that becomes about pinpointing. The journey to your true self is about pinpointing these very clear things about yourself. I’m an introvert or I’m this or that, and it becomes this kind of process of narrowing. I’m really interested in expert exploration of my true self is, again, an expanding. So instead of narrowing in on this is, what that means you are these qualities I’m trying to travel into stories that have formed me. I’m trying to, I think encountering my true self, for me means just, you know, even just the practice of going back to six year old Cole and, you know, resting in a memory or these fragments, and not necessarily always needing to make a clear judgment about that, but there’s value in the encounter itself, the nearness itself with that story or that that experience.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. Who are some people today that you might name as mystics or contemplatives in our midst?
Cole Arthur Riley: Ocean Vuong certainly comes to mind. A poet and writer who I really admire. Rita Dove, she’s a poet. She has that very famous phrase, if you can’t be free be a mystery. Who else? John O’Donohue, I would say Christian Wiman, who I mentioned earlier. As I’m saying this, what all these people have in common that I that really excites me is that they’re all poets, maybe even primarily poets. And I think that probably reveals a kind of innate trust I have in poets. James Baldwin, I mean, he talks a lot about the artists and the role of the artists. But at one point, he says that only poets, I’m paraphrasing, only poets can be trusted to tell the truth. I’ve just revealed that in myself, you know, there’s something about the heart of a poet, I think, that allows, you know, poetry, it’s not really about communicating a clear idea. It’s these images, it’s these fragments, often it’s the impressions that one is left with after they encounter a poem. And so I think, I have to think about this more, but now I’m getting really energized by the idea of like, what do poets know that we don’t know about contemplation and mysticism. There’s something there.
Cassidy Hall: So Cole another question I want to ask you is, what is your hope for the future of Black Liturgies and for your book?
Cole Arthur Riley: I mean, Black Liturgies I hope it continues to be this kind of harbor. I mean, it’s hard. It’s a public harbor. So you always have to ask yourself how safe is the space if you can’t control who’s was in it? Who comes and who goes so? Yeah, but I hope to kind of find ways to continue to protect people in that space protect black people in that space and kind of have it be, a kind of harbor for black emotion, the black body, black literature, and yeah, kind of spirituality that just feels safe and restful and nuanced, I hope. And I mean… I’m just trying to become more and more honest. You know, in my writing. I mentioned, I’m 31. I think that the art and the literature that I’m most drawn to, it’s the people who have been able to find some connection with this deeply honest self. It even at cost and risk. I think I took some of those risks, and this year, but I hope to do that more and more, as my writing develops, to have more of a more of a closeness to, like an honesty and me.
Cassidy Hall: I’m so grateful for your work and I really look forward to continuing to hear more from you, Thank you for the beautiful things you shared today, even the very beginning when you talked about contemplation as a certain commitment to paying attention and mysticism, as a fidelity to magic. And the way you talked about your writing practice. The way that almost gave me a sense of permission. Anytime I go into a writing space, the world tells us we’re supposed to write the whole time and we’re supposed to sit and write even if it’s garbage that comes out you’re supposed to sit and write, but the permission you gave me today to let my body know more about what I’m doing and what I’m saying was just really encouraging to me. So thank you.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you and thanks for having me. It’s been a really very good and peaceful conversation. So I’m grateful that you have trusted me with your space that you’re creating with your podcast. So thanks again. Yeah,
Cassidy Hall: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
Dr. Kimberly D. Russaw: …here I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements. For me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern context is most of our mystics go unnamed?
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
CASSIDY HALL: Well Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I am pleased as punch to share virtual space with you. It’s been a minute.
CASSIDY HALL: It has, it has. So one of the ways I love to begin the conversation, so that we’re kind of on the same page is asking you how you define words like contemplation, and mysticism, and maybe also what they mean to you, and how you see them lived out in the world today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So this is pretty interesting because I often do not think about contemplation and mysticism, pun intended. But in anticipation of my Cassidy time, I said, well, as I think about or the way I like to frame or image contemplation and mysticism, because I do think they’re different. I think they probably rub up against each other, but I do think they’re different. To me, contemplation is a much more deliberate activity, a person decides to engage in this work. They both can have an aspect of spirituality to them, the contemplation is much more about the intentional thought and reflection. And to me, mysticism is much more involuntary. The moments of mysticism, if you will, you don’t plan for them, you don’t decide or make it part of your regular routine, it just happens to you. So perhaps, one way to think about it is a person is in the subject position when it comes to contemplation, but in the object position when it comes to mysticism. To me, mysticism carries with it much more of a sense of engagement or connection to the divine. But in a way that seems first of all, very special to you. Everybody does not have mystical experience but everybody could decide to be contemplative. Also, there seems to be this element of privacy or singularity when it comes to mysticism or mystic acts; at least when I think about them in the Hebrew Bible, they most often seem to occur when nobody else is around. So I think about not just Moses experience with the burning bush, but I also think about his experience on Mount Sinai. He’s the only one there to have this encounter and there’s something different about him when the encounter is over. For the most part, the mystic that seems to happen one-on-one. I do say for the most part, because I think that what we see over in one of the Samuels, where they Saul is with the prophets, he has this frenzied engagement, and he’s with a group of prophets. So it’s more it’s not a singular or a one off or solo experience, but it is a group. Those are my thoughts.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. And I wonder because when we look at the Hebrew Bible those words aren’t used. So I wonder, the way we talk about things like contemplation and mysticism today makes them seem inaccessible, even by the way that we frame them with those words. Does that make sense?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I agree with you. I think there may be something to this notion of language that in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps what we are seeing termed as visions are mystic experiences. So then when we see young Samuel and Eli, and Samuel, he is supposed to be asleep, and he hears his name called and he goes to Eli and Eli says, I’m not calling your name. That, to me is a mystic experience, but the text will refer to it as a vision. We see it all the time in the prophets. Everybody’s walking around either having a vision, or talking about a vision, that may really have been a mystic experience. Even Abraham, you don’t wait to the prophets to got them over in Genesis.
CASSIDY HALL: And I was lucky enough to take Hebrew Bible class from you and it was truly the first time I experience and was open to the Hebrew Bible and graspable way. I honestly avoided it, until your class. So it seems to me that a major part of your work and what womanist work does is it contextualizes and rebirths connecting us to our everyday lives, which is what I experienced in that class. And you wrote in Wisdom in the Garden, that “Womanist ways of reading the biblical texts are subversive, and that by and large they disrupt tightly held images of God and God’s relationship to humanity.” So my question off this is, this is really sacred work, when did you realize that this was a part of your vocation and your call?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Cassidy, I think I’m still realizing. I can tell you for sure that when I understood I had a call to ministry, and then when I understood that call was something different from traditional pulpit ministry, it never dawned on me, oh, you’re going to be doing some subversive work, and this is going to be how you going to contribute to the larger world–not really, never thought of it that way. I now understand that at the core of what I think I’m doing is I am providing people with the tools and the permission to see others differently. We start by seeing others in the text or seeing the text differently. And my hope in especially overlooked characters or over-read characters––I know what’s happening in Rahab, I’ve read that story, I’ve heard that story, I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it. That when we do that, then my hope is that, then we turn and we can see and engage others in real life that we may have read or that we may have missed or misread all along. And in that respect, that energy should create some different sort of change in the world and to the extent that it does, and yeah, that’s part of my calling.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Yeah. The tools and the permission that really resonates with me. And when I took from you later, African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation class, I again, was just given the tools and permission and also able to see biblical scholarship as a form of activism; kind of this disruption, and this offering of the tools and permission to myself and to others as a faith leader, to again, yes, see that in real time and see the work of biblical scholarship as a form of activism. Do you experience your work as a form of activism?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I don’t think about it as that but I absolutely have colleagues who I would classify as scholar activists. Absolutely. I’m not going to call names, they know who they are. I also have a scholar buddies, who are activist-adjacent, that they know that the work that they do is in service to those who are actively engaged in activism. I’m thinking about one who takes seriously the life-giving work of yoga, and movement and breathing. And they have decided that they’re going to dedicate some of their time to helping those who classify themselves as activists, who are actively engaged in these movements, and are burdened some if you will, that they decided that they’re going to offer their knowledge that was some of their time to sit with people and guiding them through the movement and the breathing as a way to help them go out and be better and stronger in their work of activist. Now, how do I see my work as activist? To the extent that it encourages somebody to go do that work, I’m an activist. When you read my Veils and Lap Cloths: The Great Cover Up of Bynum and the Bible in Black Churches, and you start to question well wait, how have we thought about maybe how have we been complicit in the oppression of women in the church by doing engaging in certain practices? And then you decide, I’m not going to do that anymore. And when I get the chance, I’m going to tell the people in leadership, yes, why I’m not doing it and I think we shouldn’t do it either. Then I’ve aided in the work of activism by way of myself.
CASSIDY HALL: That truth telling, tools and permission.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: And I think what makes it challenging or subversive, or risky, in some instances, is because I deal with a text that so many consider to be safe. And so many come, like you said for yourself to the work of studying or engaging this text with some real commitment one way or the other. And so part of what we do is challenge those commitments, or offer you a different way to think about the thing you’re so committed to.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Which makes me so curious as to why did you decide for the Hebrew Bible to be your area of expertise? What was the revelation for you?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I like the story. It’s just that simple. I can’t say I had a mystic moment. I can’t say in a moment of contemplation, I realized, all worked out in my head, hey, this is where you can really make it happen. No, I was a seminarian and I was taking all of my classes, and I knew that within the disciplines of Religious Studies, or religious education, the other stuff really appealed to me. So Bible seem to make sense for me. And I came to seminary by way of corporate. So in many respects, I think that what I am doing now is very similar to what I did as a brand manager. Part of what I did as a brand manager was take all of this disparate information, whether it’s consumer trends, whether it’s consumer feedback, it’s what the people down in distribution are telling me, it’s what my finance guy is telling me, it’s what my sales person is telling me, and the people over in legal are telling me, and I weave a story that compels my audience to take some sort of action. In the same way I take this disparate information because the Bronze Age first century, Mediterranean culture is disparate information for people living in the 20th century… And I try to weave a story that compels my audience to add in the classroom, my greatest not written in the syllabus objective is that the students will walk away wanting to know more.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and this love of story for you, was that inspired by anyone in particular? Or was that just something that maybe was Spirit driven?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah, it probably is some combination, because I always want to leave room for the Holy Ghost. So I don’t want to foreclose on any spiritual move that may be at play. But I think that I come from a family and from a people of storytellers. My paternal grandmother used to write poems, I met her and she was like a million years old. So here’s this little old lady, who clearly did not go to school, she would write–when we were little, she lived with us six months out of the year, and with my cousins in Alabama the other six months out of the year. We come home from school, and she will spend much of her day writing a poem and she would write on the brown paper bag. She was a quilter–this actually is my Big Mama’s quilt that I had framed. She was a quilter but she would stand up at church, she would recite her poems, her cousins and stuff would come to visit and they would still tell stories and giggle, and laugh and have a good time. So I think now that I’m sitting on the Cassidy couch, part of my love of stories comes from my early years of watching story, the life-giving story, the communal, and story be positive. Yeah.
CASSIDY HALL: That’s beautiful. I love that you had that framed too, it’s gorgeous. In your most recent book, Revisiting Rahab, you write about Rahab as a complex character, who upends patriarchal ecosystems and disrupts. Do you think there’s a mystical nature or a kind of transcendence, perhaps?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I cannot say for sure. And here’s why I can’t say with any assurity or I can’t speak to that responsibly. And that is because the biblical writers do not provide us with any of her internal dialogue. I think that I could make that claim if there was something in the text that said, and she thought to herself, I’m going to negotiate with these fellows because I had a vision that the Israelites were coming. We don’t have anything like that. To me, Rahab is much more in the moment, in her actions, than a mystic would be.
CASSIDY HALL: And in your experience of your writing, and your scholarly work and research, what does that look like for you? Does that require a sense of contemplation or pausing or making a sacred space in order to reflect and think?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think part of my part of my process, first of all, journaling is a spiritual discipline for me. But it also, as it relates to my scholarship, sometimes I will use journaling to get me back in it, if you will. So in that way, it’s deliberate. I’m not just doing laundry and all of a sudden something comes upon me and I have an experience. No, I sit, I realize you’re not even close to what you’re supposed to be doing right now. Hold on, let me re-center. And one way I do that is by journaling. So that’s the way contemplation shows up for me. And it’s not that I end up writing a wonderful book, or wonderful article or essay in that contemplative moment, but that contemplative moment clears me, or frees me up, or clears a pathway, so that I can see clearly what I should be doing in my writing.
CASSIDY HALL: You named some earlier, but are there any other Hebrew Bible characters that you might suggest are mystics or contemplatives?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So we talked about the prophets, we talked about Abraham, absolutely people like Jacob, Israel, whatever stage of his life, we want to reference him. Either when it’s the engagement with the ladder going up to the vision, going up to heaven, or what happened. Nathan and King David story, absolutely, I think we’ve got visions going on here. So I would classify him as a mystic. Isaiah, Ezekiel, half of what they are doing––they’re saying I saw it in a vision, this came to me in a vision. Daniel and Joseph, we got to think about those two. Even in the Minor Prophets, I think we see it with Obadiah––probably my favorite minor prophet, because it’s the shortest book we’ve got going on out there. I don’t think we see much contemplative work in the Hebrew Bible, because the work of the Hebrew Bible turns on action. And the writers would not have said, oh yeah, Job sits around, and every morning Job gets up and thinks… The closest you might get is Job providing sacrifice on behalf of his children every day in the first part of the Book of Job. That’s a slippery slope. But I think that the deliberate nature of the contemplative act is antithetical to what the biblical writers were probably trying to do. There might be a way for us to say that what we see in the book of Psalms, what we see in the poetic stuff, may be a product of contemplation. But we don’t see a character contemplating. I think that music may play an important role in mysticism. This whole idea of when, and I think if you speak to musicians, and ethnomusicologists and people who teach this stuff, and research this stuff––they can talk about there’s this moment in the musical experience that could be otherworldly, transcendent, and can have this sense that you are no longer just here. It’s more than just when they say I was in the pocket––No, no. But I think when you talk to some of those people, because I think about like a Yo-Yo-Ma, I think about absolutely some of the early classical composers, when they were in it they were outside of themselves. And so I think about the work that musicians do in the biblical text, as well as in our modern context and say, there’s probably an element of mysticism there, so to that point, that may have been part of Young David and his heart that had a mystical property associated.
CASSIDY HALL: Look at you still teaching me. What are you teaching at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary? And another question I want to ask is, are you teaching again African American Biblical Hermeneutics Womanist Biblical Interpretation, because that class was the most transformative class.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Amen. There was some mystical moments or transcendent moments even in that class now that I think about it. At the heels of a conversation we had with a particular scholar, that triggered a lot of things for people that put them in a mystical place. That was fun. I am teaching a foundational Bible course there, they divide up Hebrew Bible between Genesis to Esther, I’ll teach that in the fall. And then my colleague will teach the rest of the cannon in the spring. I’m teaching two semesters of Hebrew and then I’m teaching Women in the Pentateuch. So we’ll do like a feminist spin on Genesis through Deuteronomy. And then here’s my shameless plug for the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Women’s Leadership, I will be teaching the intensive course on Womanist Biblical Interpretation for them in January.
CASSIDY HALL: You know, one of the other things that the last class that really made the Hebrew Bible come alive for me again, and African American Biblical Hermeneutics and Womanist Biblical Interpretation, the elevation that we really focused on of intersectionality, and intersectionality’s presence in the Hebrew Bible. Do you feel like the intersectionality of the Hebrew Bible is in part what allows us to connect to modern day story?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: So I think a couple of things. I think that one of the reasons why the Bible, whether you understand it to be sacred text or not, is so popular, is because people are able to either find something of themselves in the text, or find something of the self or the community they want to be. And so to that extent there’s some intersectionality going on. So the world in front of the text, the reader is intersectional whether they want to admit it, or are aware of it or not. And so that when they’re looking for themselves, whether they can name it or not, they’re looking for some things that are intersectional. Most often, I think that people read very flat, but with a twist. So I’m always amazed that people read with the hero, when you know good and well, you’re part of a community that is not the hero. So everybody wants to be David, everybody, but nobody wants to be Goliath. Nobody wants to be a Philistine. Or everybody wants to be an Israelite and nobody wants to pay attention to the Canaanite. All of a sudden, everybody wants to be Rahab, but only because she ends up the hero of this. Nobody wants to be a bumbling spy, everybody reads with Rahab and wants to be this one woman in the whole city who saves her family and gets a cape because she’s a hero. And so to that extent, I think people read very flat, but really what’s going on behind there is some combination of gender going on, some combination of difference or other, some sort of community identification going on. Which when you broaden it and think about it that way, now you can bring in other groups of people who identify as something other than the normative gaze. If we say that the normative gaze is a male, cisgendered, male, hetero normative, probably elite–nobody aspires to be among the poor, everybody aspires to be among the rich, anything other than that would be considered other. There are so many people living in the year 2022, who fall into the other, more people fall into the other category than fall into the normative gaze. So I think when we give people permission, or even point them in the direction to say, have you considered this by way of Biblical studies. We also need to be honest and say that there’s elements of this step that are not life giving–I’m dealing with Judges 19–where is there something good about that? These are the stories we read over but I think it does us well, to sit with those in the same way we sit with the Deborah’s of the world, or Solomon’s of the world. We need to sit with the unnamed.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, this theme of permission and tools, it’s just so life giving.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Permission, tools and responsibility. Give people are tool and they’ll go out there and make a mess. But we also need to create some understanding of is that really responsible–Can you really get there? I like how Dr. Renita J. Weems used to say when she was at Vanderbilt: Is that what God said or is that what they say God said? I’m teaching a Bible study for a consortium of churches in Chicago now, and we’re reading Rahab. And so I was asked, we opened zoom and so one of the lady is like “yeah, she heard God speak, she heard God speak and that’s why she did so and so.” I said “ma’am, where? We all have our Bibles open, can you point us to that particular verse?” My point here is, so often we’ve read over, we’ve embellished upon, we’ve made the stories work for us, when often times, that’s not really what’s on the page. And that’s without doing any language translation, we’re just dealing with English.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that aspect of responsibility. And I think, to your point earlier about addressing the stories of the marginalized and the non-marginalized, addressing both aspects.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: We like to get excited about King David but nobody wants to take responsibility for — Hey! that’s the dude who basically stole Uriah’s wife. But no, we got to talk about that too.
CASSIDY HALL: We might cancel or write it off today…
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Absolutely.
CASSIDY HALL: One more question is, are there any contemplatives or mystics, maybe in modern day or in our midst that you would name? Whether they’re scholars or activists, or the grocery store clerk?
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Yeah. So I think I have to go down the road of history. My list is not exhaustive. And here, I’m even thinking about people who could have been part of important movements in our history. So for me, whether it’s the suffrage movement, whether it’s the civil rights movement, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Say Her Name, Me Too, all of that. And I definitely think, let’s start with the big one. Let’s get Howard Thurman off the table. Everybody, we admit, there’s no kind of debate, he absolutely is on the list. The other person I will put on the list would be Harriet Tubman. I think about the work of Reverend James Lawson, who was the guy who taught the college students civil disobedience during the civil rights movement in Nashville. So I’m thinking about Lawson. And there may have been some moments where some of those young people whose names we’ll never know, got themselves into such or had to get themselves into such and other worldly space in order to sit in that space. That may have been part of what Lawson was up to when he was teaching. I think about the names we know in the civil rights movement. But more importantly, the ones we don’t know. All the pastors whose churches were used as staging grounds, and the prayer meetings, that they would have, all of the people, here we go, who would spontaneously lift up a hymn or a song that became part of the fuel that drove the activity. Whether it was the actual march or just the commitment to do the work behind the scenes that showed up in what we understand as the Civil Rights Movement. I think about that, the women behind the BlackLivesMatter movement. So here’s the thing. What if what we’re dealing with here in our modern times, is most of our mystics go unnamed? Because in some ways, I think about Howard Thurman, had he not had a stage like Boston? He was a professor, so he was teaching all over the place. Had he not had the stage of the professor would we have even known what he was up to? What about all the people who don’t have a stage who absolutely engage in mystical work? I wonder about artists. And here I’m thinking about the stories we hear about when Denzel Washington played Malcolm X and he tells the story about how he had the sense that Malcolm’s presence was there. So I wonder if a Spike Lee and Denzel may have a little bit of mystical to them and Ava DuVernay, all these people who have to invoke something in order to get the product out?
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, yeah, there’s so many mystics that go unnamed and yet the live on because they’re work was focused on common good or mutual well-being or betterment of life. Yeah, to another extent, I like to think that the Spirit maybe takes over in those situations and helps to guide that prophetic call,
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Or even think about when you get together with extended family, and you hear the stories of the great, great, great, great uncle/aunt or whatever that you never knew. Some elder tells the part of the story that makes you go, you say your aunt Isabelle had dreams? And she would wake up and she would write them on sheets of paper, and then she would put those sheets of paper in your shoe for when you went to school. Wait a minute. Wait a minute, maybe? Oh.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah. Well, Dr. Russaw, thank you so much for joining me today.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: I think that your work is important. I think that I would encourage you to keep at it. And to find ways to little by little, this is not going to be — I doubt Oprah is going to come calling. But somebody is going to sit around and go, now I get it. And it’s that one spark that can change your life that could change the world.
CASSIDY HALL: Amen. Amen. And I know and I experienced you giving that spark to so many, so I’m really grateful our paths have crossed. Thank you.
DR. KIMBERLY RUSSAW: Thank you friend.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
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.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Love is the call on our lives. And it’s a fierce call, a fierce love. And I believe that if we could speak more about that we could build a revolution that included people of faith and people of no faith.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
The Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis is an author, activist and public theologian. She is the first female and first Black senior minister to serve in the progressive Collegiate Church, which dates back to 1628. She’s a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Lewis and her activism work, have been featured by the Today Show, MSNBC, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. She’s the creator of the MSNBC online show, Just Faith and a PBS show Faith and Justice, in which she has led important conversations about culture and current events. Her new podcast Love Period. It’s produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation. Her most recent book, Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World, was just released this month, November 2021. Raised mostly in Chicago, she now lives with her husband in Manhattan.
Reverend Dr. Jacqui, thank you so much for joining me today.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Cassidy, it’s my honor to be here.
Cassidy Hall: So one of the ways I love to begin is asking for your definition of the words contemplation or mysticism. What they mean to you and how you see them lived out in the world today.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, thank you so much. I think I’m a new convert to contemplation and mysticism. I have said so many times in my sermons, Cassidy, that I’m not the girl of mindfulness, or I’m not the girl sitting on a mat. But I think my work with Father Richard Rohr, and with the Center for Action and Contemplation, has just really helped me to broaden my definition of what that means. To be mindful of what it’s like to have a grape break in your mouth, you know, to be mindful of the feel of your granddaughter’s weight on your lap or on your belly, which she likes to climb on. That’s your favorite thing to do. Or to be mindful of the way that air feels on your body and sort of in this non-dualistic way I was thinking, I’m an extrovert, out loud, worshipping person, therefore I’m not contemplative. But actually, I am contemplative. And I think my definition would be the slowing down of our mind and our heart and our breath, to be in touch with the ineffable to encounter the things that we would rush through and to turn our awareness to them. And let that guide not only the way we, you know, meditate, pray, get on a yoga mat, but the way we encounter our relationships, the way we encounter the world.
Cassidy Hall: I’m so amazed at how much I felt myself slow down in my head and my body when you said, “the way of grape breaks in your mouth.” That one in particular really got me.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: I am a woman of a certain age, I’m 60-ish and I’ve lived my whole life sprinting. I’m honest to say, I’ve sprint through my life. And just these days of feel, touch, smell, being, honestly it’s urgent for me to downshift and so I’m really working on it. And that grape, those big, black seedless grapes… When your teeth pierce that grape you feel like there is a God. It’s so delicious. Yeah, I’m glad that one slowed you down.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I needed that, I needed that. And in your work as a public theologian, and this going, going, going, do you find that this slowing down this contemplation this mindfulness, informs or enhances your work in activism and your work as a public theologian?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It does. And I’m an extrovert, off the charts, ENFJ. Everyone is a big letter, it’s not like little… And yet, what I’m noticing is, I’m a little slower to jump into the Twitter world right now, a little slower to make my comments about a world event, or a little slower in the way I write, to allow myself to be with the thing, with the words, with the thought. And this conversation is helping me too, Cassidy, just to think like: so what’s shifted? And I think, writing the book last year, was such a slow contemplative meditative process, even though we had deadlines, every day to set an intention, write outside as often as I could, or sit in my really big chair… So there is a new awareness of how much the Spirit is moving in the slower space. Does that make sense, what I’m saying there? So it’s not hurry up, it’s what is the insight? What is the inspiration? What is the breath saying? And it’s changing the way I feel like I need to be first out.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. How have you found yourself holding that in this world full of urgency, in this world full of injustices at every turn? And this deep desire to speak to it now, to show up to it now, to do something now? How do we hold that tension of urgency and there’s also that care of self, and there’s also that care of community… it’s tension. How do you hold that?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It is it is tension. And I think just being honest about it, you know, being honest with yourself about the tension. And even I think, Cassidy, I feel like the word vocation is coming in my brain more. What am I called to do? To say? My friend, who media trained me a million times before I ever got it , is always asking, like, his prompt for me is what’s your core message? So I’m asking, what do I uniquely have to offer into the conversation right now. And in a way, if somebody already said that, I could just park that, I could just love that, I could just kind of thank them for that. I don’t have to have a comment for everything. But I’m asking myself, how do I talk about love in relation to that? And honestly, Cassidy a year ago, maybe even six months ago, I felt very much called to sort of them, around the people, the anti-vaxxers, the insurrectionists on the sixth. And in fact, my therapist one time said something to me, like, has that got to do with the love you’re preaching? I was like oh my goodness, that’s a really good question. So is there a loving way to describe the vision of a preferred reality? Is there a loving way to call people in not out? Is there a loving way to say, we can do better, we can do better? And just that question makes me go slower. Not be as tangy, not be as — you might get more retweets or something if you’re tangy, but I really am asking what does love have to do with it? Still progressive, still thinking these are injustices, still thinking that we need to do better, still disagreeing with all of that over there, racism and heterosexism and sexism and transphobia… All of that. No, I’m not that girl. But can I talk about it in the context of the frame of love, a love revolution, fierce love. That slows down what I write because I’m committed to write it through the lens of love.
Cassidy Hall: So I’m really struck by the fact and the way in which this focus on love has such a enduring quality to it, and really, like love is the urgent thing.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Isn’t it? It’s the most important thing.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, thank you, Cassidy. Honestly, I’ve been working on this book for nine years. It came to me the other day that it’s been a nine year gestation. And then a nine year write, you know, and nine years to write. No, nine months I’m sorry, Cassidy. Nine years to gestate, nine months to write. My first questions were, I think, you know, as an African American woman living in this country and just watching the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandy Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, that whole trajectory of not new behaviors, but the ability to see Freddie Gray encounter. To see, just right, the seeing of it just, I think, traumatized, so many of us, and my brain is always connecting dots. So it’s like the violence here that’s around race is the same kind of violence in Palestine, Israel, around religion and ethnicity, the same kind of violence in Ethiopia. All of these things are connected to something and that they were also based on religion just broke my heart wide open. How does religion which we litigate to bind us together to connect us, how does religion become such a weapon? Causing, you know other things? So I started asking: What would it look like to have a grown up God? Grown up faith and grown up God? And I did a lot of writing on that, I did a lot of work on that, I went down that path. And what I realized was that my ambition was beyond God to love. Like, if you’re not religious, can you do love? If you are agnostic, can you do love? No matter what your faith is can we talk about love as the ground of our being? Not namby-pamby love, not co-dependent love, not love songs, rom-coms love, like really the kind of love that made Harriet Tubman go back and forth to free people, that made Frederick Douglass a liberator, that made abolition movements happen, the kind of love that made those South African women sit in the street … The kind of love that made Jonathan jump in front of Ruby Sales and save her life. This is fierce love, right? It’s courageous love. It’s bold love, it’s risk taking love. And I think it’s at the heart of all the world’s major religions. And that’s what I want to convert people to, love. Fierce love as a way to order our lives. I’m convinced that this fierce call to love and Ubuntu, this Zulu concept: I am who I am, because you are who you are. Almost like that’s our natural religion, we know that. We crawled out of the cave knowing that we had to make a fire together, we had to raise the kids together, we had a hunt and gather together, we had to stand for our tribe together. So can we increase our tribe, can we increase our feeling of connection? Can we understand that is not just my kin, you’re my kin, we’re all kin… that’s the key to a kind of solidarity that can make a difference.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And in that book, you speak into the ways that that stories shaped us. The stories were told by others, including our nation, and you write the birth order, gender, religion, sexuality, racial identity, these are just some of the stories that are woven together to make itself. And you know that sometimes these stories are inaccurate or incongruent with our inner lives. And this deep self-love that we also need in order to move through the stories towards the truth. And with what you just said, I’m thinking about how, you know, one of the stories we’re often told the beginning of our lives is that we’re on our own, and that this individualistic society that we live in tells us that we don’t need each other and we don’t, we don’t need in community or communal care and how that really moves us away from what love really is.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yes. Yeah Cassie, that’s right. And, you know, that’s a predominant story in our culture. But it’s not the predominant story in lots of cultures. So I think about Nelson Mandela, 28 years in prison, and he leaned on Ubuntu and says, I came to understand the humanity of my captors. I came to understand the humanity of the jailers. And if he didn’t have that, I mean, he was a lion, right? If he had this kind of re-connection with that origin story and was able to grow a movement that led to the end of apartheid, which required black and white people and colored people and Indian people to collaborate to break down those walls. Dr. King would say we’re bound together woven together in a garment of humanity and that’s kind of got bought Gandhi at base. So I’m just thinking about how basic it is this reliance upon each other’s story. And then, you know, Western thought European thought comes to America thought and we suddenly think of success is how fast can you go up and move away from your house? My friend Shanta is a South Indian woman. And like her family of you know, I don’t know, 90 people, I’m exaggerating slightly, but when they come visit her New York, everybody camps out in the same place on the couch. There’ll be offended if they were all staying in hotels. So in that culture, community. Think about Vietnamese families who immigrated to America. And then I bought a store, and then you bought a store, we all lived in the apartment and we spread out. Hispanic cultures, African cultures, so we could unlearn that individual story. And be thinking instead about who are my people and how can we together heal the world. Womanists, Alice Walker, my cousins are yellow and pink and black and brown, and we are all each other’s people Cassie.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. And in that way, do you see I mean, this fierce love, you know, while it’s a returning and uncovering to the truth of who we are into what we already know, what’s in us, do you also see it in a way that it’s kind of cultural in some aspects? Now, do you also see it as a form of activism?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Absolutely. I think this fierce love, this new story is activism, and can see proof of that. We all watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered. And that critical mass of people around the globe spawned it. Because we understood that George’s death is our death, his baby’s grief is our grief. And we also understood that we weren’t going to get to the promised land of a peaceful nation, without each other. So is it is perhaps evolution, maybe, in the human spirit, to lean back into what we knew as infants, that we need each other, we need somebody to raise to raise a world together.
Cassidy Hall: And how do you see or experience… You know, I like the way that you’re using love as this clear connecting point, because oftentimes, it seems like when we get into religious jargon and language, whether it’s of any religion, it seems like we can lose a lot of people, we can lose touch with what connects us, it can really turn off people. And so wonder how have you found a way to talk about this as a connecting piece rather than a separation piece, when obviously, you experience God in this kind of love that you speak of?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: If I’m honest, I would say that I’ve been on that journey, that grownup God journey for a long time, almost 10 years. My faith community demands, insists, allows depending on what it is that I speak about God in ways that are Universalist. There’s Jews that join the church, Buddhists in the church, so I’ve had to translate a lot for a long time. You better translate. There are young people who care less about some of these stories, especially when they’re saying you can’t be part of my family, you can’t be on my team. And so love, agape, we would say, you and I. Agape, this ubiquitous, powerful, unconditional love, directed at ourselves, directed at our people, our neighbors, our strangers, directed to the origin, especially the holy is committed by Jesus for us Christians. He tells a story of a Samaritan who’s outsider, when he’s trying to say this is what love looks like. So he’s kind of breaking the code, breaking the rules, breaking the norms. The outsider is in. The first is last. Young people count women count. Actors can come in here and kick it. You know, love is the call on our lives. And it’s a fierce call, a fierce love. And I believe that if we could speak more about that, we could build a revolution that included people of faith and people of no faith.
Cassidy Hall: You reminded me of this in with head and heart when Howard Thurman talks about his vision for the church. And he says it was my conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists. To me, it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage, and the spiritual resources of the church, there must be provided a place, a moment, when a person could declare, I choose. And I love the way he’s talking about community. It’s not about Jesus specific language or anything like that.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: It’s just about community. And, you know, Jesus was not a Christian, let’s all take a breath on that. He was not a Christian, he wasn’t trying to start a new religion called Christian. He just was trying to invite people on a path. And so as my job as a pastor is to invite people on a path where Jesus is a rabbi, or itinerant rabbi. And also, Cassie, there are other teachings that augment that from Alice Walker’s 0 The Color Purple, which I think should be in the cannon, to Let it have a Birmingham Jail, to some Octavia Butler, story, to James Baldwin to the — so many good words about how to be good in the world that are not explicitly Christian, but that I think, belong in the canon called love.
Cassidy Hall: The Canon called Love, I like that. Another important thing that I really love that you spoke into, in your book, Fierce Love, is the importance of space, what’s in a space, what’s of a space, and I appreciate the way you pointed to this and all areas of life when you wrote, if we don’t take care of the space, we all share, if we allow it to be filled with the objects of violence and hatred. There will be millions of human beings who don’t love themselves sitting together in classrooms or board meetings, standing in line at the grocery store, or competing with one another a job interviews. So how does this notion of space impact the way that we pursue change or engage in these movements, maybe now outside of church walls as community?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: That’s a good passage you picked there Cassie, thank you. The space there is both, you know, physical space because that matters. And also container or world. So there psychologically I’m talking about object relations. I’m talking about the school of object relations. Donald Winnicott being my favorite, but the idea that we are raised in a container, the first container is the womb, your mother’s arms, the playpen, the classroom, the church, but also the streets. What are the ingredients? What is the characteristic? What’s the nature of that space? Children grow in the context of loving space where if you cry, someone’s going to come and feed you. If you’re wet, someone’s going to come and change you. And that almost leads to a sense of magic. I look at me, I’m crying about the battle. Whoo! This is great, you know, and you wish every child would have that sense of magic and omnipotence. Like I can conjure up food when I’m hungry. I can conjure up comfort. So that space is transitional space, that space is a space of growing and development. And I’m saying in the streets, police officers and community members and parents and teachers could create a safe space for children and adults to play and go. Zechariah in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, in the city, they were old people hanging out with canes and they were children, shooting hoops. I’m paraphrasing, but like the streets are safe. Jon’s vision, at Patmos, the streets are so safe you don’t even need streetlights. Because we make it that way. We are responsible, we can do that. We can make it that all the children have enough food. All the adults don’t have to choose medication or rent. Everyone has enough. We can make it so that waste is a pastime paradigm and all of our children grow to love each other. That’s what I mean by space. And I mean, you and I, and all the people listening, have a contribution to make to make good enough space for all of us. Classrooms, streets, subways, you know, highways, good enough space that all of us can thrive.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. As you were writing this book, and you were in those contemplative moments, writing and thinking and creating this work, what was the hardest part to write? What were the parts of you that stuck maybe in that contemplative space and really had to, you know, push something out, I guess, which is appropriate, given the timeline, I guess, the nine months.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah, I had to push it out I really did. I think it was the hardest chapter to write, was the Chapter on truth. Like to tell the truth on truth. My mom’s death is prominently in that chapter. And I felt like she was with me as I was writing. She’s been gone for four years, but I felt she visited by, but it was hard. Like, I was sad, you know, it was hard to write, to take myself back to the hospital room, to take myself back to blue lights, you know, the blue cast on her face at night and the [inaudible 26:26] hey, what are you staring at mom? I’m looking at you. You’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful. I love you. I love you more, you know, like, those were both beautiful memories, but also, you know, teary making memories. And how hard it was sometimes Cassidy to believe what I’m supposed to believe in preach. The truth I didn’t have a resurrection sermon that year. It was hard to get that out. But my congregation really responded to my wrestling. Which just proof texts for me how much people yearn for the truth. Not the platitudes, but the truth. I’m struggling [inaudible 27:12] our time, people yearn for that.
Cassidy Hall: You remind me of this story, I don’t know if it’s marked eight or nine, when Jesus asked the father to believe to heal his son, and the father says, I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief. And the ways in which God honors honesty, and that we can honor each other’s honesty too that we’re actually closer to the truth through our honesty.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: And just imagine the world we make if we do not have to mobilize all the false self, all the persona, all the pretend, it’s risky, to be honest, but it’s so right and good to be honest, feels good to get the truth told in love, you know? Yeah.
Cassidy Hall: Do you experience or do you see anyone today in your life as a mystic, whether it’s a public mystic or someone who is a contemplative mystic that’s kind of under girding a movement or something like this? Do you experience mysticism in the world today?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yeah. I think Richard Rohr, Father Rohr is really and I’m going to say, you know, the new school and… helping with that, and two young women I know and love Ashley and Lauren, you know, who did the new school and then to this thing called widen, so there’s like a pulse of beautiful CAC folks who I find to be Barbara Holmes, you know, find to be doing a really great piece of work. And then somebody like Angel Kyodo Williams, she’s so deeply connected to source and her radical Dharma deeply moves me. And I think she’s just a unique voice, an African American, Buddhist sensei voice in the world of contemplation and mysticism. Those are two places that come to mind right away.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. And you are the first African American and first woman to serve a senior minister in the Collegiate Church, which was founded in New York City in 1628.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: That’s right. That was a long time to break that ceiling.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah, yeah. What is your hope for the next 100, next 500 years? I wouldn’t say of the Collegiate Church, but really the church at large.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: Yep. That the church would really get back to Jesus. Not to white blond created European Jesus, not to Constantine Jesus, but to from that to Empire Jesus, but to Mary’s boy, Joseph’s child, marginalized person, poor, itinerant handyman, Jesus who had the most incredible sermons from which we can learn. And to get to that. I know the Red Letter Christians kind of get to that, But like all of us to get to what did Jesus say? What did Jesus do? What would Jesus have me do? WWJD. What would Jesus do? And to be like liberated to do that? Which would be less about the institution of church, less about the boundaries, and the rules, and the who can’t, and the don’t know no mores. Oh we’ve been transformed. We don’t smoke no more, we don’t cuss no more. Just what is it? Love your neighbor as you love yourself, love you God with everything you have. Now, what love period, let’s get to that, and see what kind of world we can build and who could be included in that? That’s my hope. Yeah.
Cassidy Hall: And what advice would you give to people who feel like they’re in that mode of love, and yet, are tired, because not everyone else is there yet?
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: I’d say tired is a part of our journey. I write this, I write one chapter about joy. And that really quote, right, if you do something from your soul, it’s a river. It’s a joy. So in that chapter I’m saying, you get to tag out, I’m tired, I need a break, I need a rest. I need some Sabbath. And let somebody else do it. We can do it, Cassidy, and I got you, we’ll do it. We’ll do this. Then you come back in and I get to take a break. And there’s just breathing in and out. We’re not going to get to the promised land tomorrow, it’s going to take time for us to make the world better. Our faith is about both our individual transformation and the healing of the world. We have what C.S. Lewis would call “God’s unbounded now.” God’s unbounded now to do it. It Kairos time, so take a breath.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. We need each other.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: And we got all day. We have all day to recreate the world.
Cassidy Hall: Well, thank you so much. I’m so glad you’re able to make the time and and be able to join me.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis: yeah, thank you so much. I hope to see you soon. Thank you, Cassidy, for great questions and great conversation.
CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
“How can we be sure younger generations learn about Thomas Merton?”
Every time I show Day of a Stranger, the documentary film I made about the Trappist monk, I’m asked some form of this question. Viewers find Merton’s words—which I excerpted from a set of stream-of-consciousness recordings made during his years as a hermit on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky—eerily prescient, and, like me, they want to share them with others.
This anxiety about Merton being forgotten has come up at every single Merton talk or panel I’ve been part of since 2011. That was when I quit my job as a counselor to travel to all 17 Trappist monasteries in the United States and began to work on my writing, films, and podcasts about contemplative life. Though I, a queer, young, non-Catholic woman, was an unlikely Merton ambassador, I was often invited to be a part of presentations and celebrations of Merton’s legacy. Every time, people would look around the room, take note of their mostly White, mostly grey-haired neighbors, and wonder how that legacy can last, whether his wisdom will be forgotten.
Typically I have responded with encouragement, mentioning Merton’s interfaith dialogue, his modeling of friendship, or the expansiveness of his correspondence as the ways his legacy might endure. But at my last film screening, after much self-reflection on the question, I answered with my own question: “What’s wrong with Merton disappearing?”
This month marks 53 years since Merton died in Bangkok after giving a lecture on Marxism and monastic perspectives. At the end of the lecture, he said, “We are going to have the questions tonight. . . . Now, I will disappear.” It was only a silly little line at the end of a heavy and controversial talk, but perhaps it was also prophetic.
The desire to disappear is a well-known tension at the heart of Merton’s work and his spiritual life, a desire that was often in conflict with his vocation as a writer. In 1946, 20 years prior to his death, he wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” In Thoughts in Solitude, written from his first hermitage, St. Anne’s Toolshed, on the monastic property, and published in 1958: “As soon as you are really alone you are with God.” In 1964, while attending mass after meeting with Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki, he wrote in his journal with apparent satisfaction, “No one recognized me or discovered who I was. At least I think not.” In a 1967 recording, he says, “I am struck today I think, more and more, by the fundamental dishonesty about a lot of my clamor.”
Merton was indeed controversial in his time, and his words remain relevant and often helpful. His correspondence and work explored and elevated other religious perspectives and experiences. He often seems to speak prophetically to the situations we find ourselves in today.
But Merton’s most recent work is now more than half a century old. And while his conversations spanned gender (Dorothy Day, for example), sexuality (James Baldwin, though it’s said he never replied to Merton, and I can’t say I blame him), religion (Thich Nhat Hanh, Abraham Joshua Heschel, D. T. Suzuki), racial justice (Martin Luther King Jr.), and environmental justice (Rachel Carson), Merton, as a White cis man and vowed monastic in a patriarchal church, perpetuates damaging exclusivity alongside his wisdom.
In truth, his prescience and ecumenism seem rare only if we’re looking at White spiritual writers or reading exclusively Catholic work from the 1940s–1960s. Does this context make his views appear more radical than they really were? I have to ask myself, before picking up yet another work by or about Merton, Who am I listening to who may be prophetically controversial today? What words am I reading now, by those whose experience is tethered to the present moment in the fullness of their lives? What marginalized voices of experience am I listening to? Am I going to the source on these topics?
I’ve learned from womanist scholars that as long as I perpetuate the domination of only a few voices in spiritual leadership, I hinder movement toward liberation for all voices. I cannot learn from Merton what it’s like to be a queer woman, or to be an LGBTQ person who is rejected by one’s church, or to be Black in America, or to be a refugee. Merton can provide historical perspective and observations, but he simply cannot speak into an oppressive situation separate from his identity and experience.
Merton himself was often reminding us to go deeper, look harder, be willing to take the effort and time to seek out, read, and listen to the wisdom of voices missing from our libraries and bookshelves. I wonder if this is his true legacy—urging us to transcend his own contributions. To challenge the status quo, go beyond the comfortable, and heed the wisdom of the marginalized who have been too often overlooked.
Merton has words for those experiencing anxiety in the midst of change. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he writes of a crisis in the church in the 12th century, but he could have been writing about today:
In a time of drastic change one can be too preoccupied with what is ending or too obsessed with what seems to be beginning. In either case one loses touch with the present and with its obscure but dynamic possibilities. What really matters is openness, readiness, attention, courage to face risk. You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love.
“What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges of the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.” I wonder if this is how Merton might have answered the question of how his legacy can endure.
On my way home from my last film screening, I went out of my way to stop by Gethsemani Abbey. After a rain-soaked hike, I paused at Merton’s grave, marked by a simple white cross engraved with “Father Louis,” as he was known there. “They can have Thomas Merton,” he wrote in The Sign of Jonas of those who assumed they knew all about him solely based on his writing, “He’s dead. Father Louis—he’s half dead, too.”
What would happen if I let Thomas Merton die?
As I walked back to my car, I remembered the words from his essay “Integrity,” which had inspired my monastic travels in 2011: “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves.” Maybe it is time to acknowledge that my long obsession with the words and wisdom of Thomas Merton did crowd out other voices and other perspectives, preventing me from hearing them fully—including my own.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Now, I will disappear.”
“Understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.”
In 2016, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows was elected the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, making her the first Black woman to be elected diocesan bishop. She holds a B.A. in architecture with a minor in urban studies from Smith College, an M.A. in historic preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP). Before coming to Indianapolis, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, Central New York, and Chicago. Her expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [00:04]: I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, of the episcopal diocese of Indianapolis is from New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture with a minor in Urban Studies from Smith College, an M.A. in Historic Preservation planning from Cornell University, and an M.Div. degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in 1997. Before being elected bishop in 2016, she served in the Dioceses of Newark, and Chicago. She is the first Black woman to be elected a diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Jennifer’s expertise includes historic preservation of religious buildings, stewardship and development, race and class reconciliation, and spiritual direction. Well, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:25]: I’m delighted to be here and looking forward to it.
Cassidy Hall [01:27]: So one of the things I like to begin with is just kind of defining the terms that we’re going into for yourself and for our audience. How might you define words like “contemplation” and/or “mysticism,” and along with that, maybe how do you see them in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [01:42]: I tend to think about those as two distinct things, contemplation and mysticism. And as we were preparing for our time today, I thought, oh, why is that? And I think it’s because the practice of contemplation as a spiritual discipline has been a part of my formation as a layperson. I mean, I was baptized as an adult and then went off to seminary not long after that. So learned pretty quickly on as I delved into the daily spiritual practices of our traditional Episcopal church, a lot of which is things like the daily office morning prayer, evening prayer, compline, but also wanting to explore other practices that were less vocal or verbal and was introduced in seminary to the contemplative tradition. So taking time for silence, for a kind of meditation practice that focuses on a word or a mantra or an object, has been a part of my discipline on-and-off for 30 years or so. When I think about the mystic tradition and mysticism, and I’m thinking you know I should know from the dictionary, like what are the differences? But to me, that’s more about how we experience and the movement of the spirit in moments or experiences that seem, at least I think of is more supernatural. You can’t explain them, you can’t conjure them up. You know, I can choose to enter a contemplative moment, but the experience of the mystic Christ or having an experience of mysticism is something that’s beyond my ability or desire to plan it; it kind of just happens. And I will admit to having had experiences that I would classify as mystical in my lifetime, they’re memorable, but I couldn’t say that I could have recreated them if I wanted to, it just happened.
Cassidy Hall [03:21]: The distinction of contemplative life or contemplative practices as like a rhythm and a ritual, something that we create and that we engage with, but yet the mystical is boundless, it’s not tethered to rhythm or ritual and I love that. Would you be willing to share one of your mystical experiences?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [03:42]: Sure, I would say, you know, it’s interesting because I’ve not had a compare and contrast kind of conversation about mystical experiences, really. So I am wondering with a new hunger about what that’s like for the people. But there’s an experience I had that falls on the mysticism spectrum. I remember I was in a church as a teenager, doing a sleepover with the youth group for a period of time in the years when I was a seeker, I attended an AME Zion church. The African Methodist Episcopal church, Zion Church that was across the street from me and all my friends went. So I remember though, being at this church and everyone was downstairs doing whatever activity they were making cookies or something. And I went up into the sanctuary that was darkened and just, there’s no sanctuary lamp, it wasn’t that kind of space, it was just the worship space. And I remember just getting in a pew, off the pew, sort of on the floor and feeling like the embrace of what I would say, like God’s embrace. I could feel it palpably like my body being hugged an embrace that was letting me know that things were okay. And it was a, you know, a fraught time, I’ve always had a robust prayer life before I never attended church I was taught to pray at home. And so have this long, like I’ve never known a time when I didn’t talk to God, so this was just a part of that conversation, but I think I’d gone up to the sanctuary for quiet and prayer and felt God’s presence in a physical way.
Cassidy Hall [05:13]: That’s beautiful, thank you for sharing that. And in the Episcopal tradition, you were elected and then consecrated as the 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis in 2017, making you also the first Black woman to be elected Diocesan Bishop. And in an interview with Sally Hicks just recently in February of 2021, you said, “I just think racial justice is the work that has to be done 24 hours a day all the time, every place.” So along with that, I mean, that’s a pretty clear statement, there’s not really much to unpack there, that’s pretty clear. And in talking about things like the rhythm we create with contemplative life, and then this meeting place of mysticism with God, I wonder what your vision for the church and racial justice work is? And do you see it as connected to the practices that we engage with or do you see it as disconnected and maybe this more mystical thing that happens when we begin doing the work?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [06:08]: Well, let me describe it this way, you know, I feel like I’ve been on a journey in many ways of understanding the depth of need to be attending to dismantling racism and all the other isms. I mean, I just, have always been passionate about it, but in these current moments just feel like we all need to lean into it. It’s like, there’s no escaping it. Whereas I used to think, well, you know, we can take a break and there are lots of things that are critical. Except that as the more I’ve dived into the work of actively trying to be intentionally anti-racist as an institution of the church, it makes me understand that whether we’re talking about climate change, whether we’re talking about how we follow Christ in our tradition, which is about understanding that all are beloved. So at the very basic nature of who we say we are as Christians, where the Episcopal Church, the mission is to reconcile all people to God in one another in Christ and to be about recognizing the full dignity of every human being, then there’s no way for me to be a Christian and not to be attending to this work of dismantling racism all the time. And because it’s so pernicious and so everywhere, at least in this country, I mean, it’s different than other places, but this is the country I know. I feel like there are always opportunities and understanding how racism really, really works, and seeing it as not just a social justice issue, but a theological imperative, means that we have to talk about it and work on it all the time.
Cassidy Hall [07:34]: Yeah, I appreciate you talking about it as a theological imperative and, you know, anything from our God images and our icons, you know, and the way they depict whiteness predominantly, you know, our stained glass in our old church buildings, those kinds of things. And I guess my question for you along with that would be how important is the work of recognizing the past missteps in our particular settings? How important is that to the fullness of the anti-racist work we need to do?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [08:05]: Well, you know, if you’re thinking about what does it mean to be a beloved community where we’re reflecting everyone? And all of the richness that all of the cultures that we might be in any particular place have to bear, means that we have to make space. And so I’m all for trying to figure out how do we actually just share all of that richness on a rotating basis, knowing that instead of assuming that there’s only one way, only primacy of one culture––set of images, and everything else has to be fit in amongst the edges––to think about how do we actually honor all of them? This means some things need to be off-center so that, you know, you hear the word de-centering whiteness a lot, right, and I’m thinking well I guess that’s the term. Because there is a way in which we just, without with reflection automatically center whiteness in this country, what does it mean to actually, to be sharing that space? And as a leader in the church, I’m grateful for congregations and leaders who are asking the questions: “why are all the stained glass windows only white people?” Now I will say I was Rector of a church in Syracuse, which was very, very integrated racially, Black, white, almost 50/50, and the first Native American to be ordained Deacon in the Episcopal tradition was ordained in that building. And there had been a storm that had happened in 1998 that took out a set of windows and so, as I was coming in as Rector in 2004, they were installing newly designed windows in the place of where this glass used to be. And I will say it’s a different thing to worship in the space where you have Native American images and faces in the stained glass, as well as the white Jesus that was over the altar, right? Like you can’t help, but pray and think differently because we were formed so much by those visuals. We have congregations here in the Diocese of Indianapolis who was saying, “why is the only Black image on the wall the Bishop’s picture?” Like maybe we need to do something about that and ask the question because there were other images we can choose. And of course, Jesus was not white. Just to have that conversation about how we center some images and ideas about things more than others means that we can get to some real change that reinforces the work we’re doing outside the church, you know? So we’ve been having this disjointed experience of like, we’re all about dismantling racism on the streets of the cities we live on, but then we come back in the churches, you know, pre-pandemic come in the buildings and it’s like white, white, white, white, white. We are waking up all of us and going, yeah, that doesn’t make sense anymore. It was okay for a while, but how about we enrich the imagery here?
Cassidy Hall [10:29]: There are a couple of things you said in that that was really striking to me. And one was, I’m thinking of, you know, the writings on the Black Christ: Kelly Brown Douglas, Albert Cleage, Jr., Deotis Roberts, and of course, James Cone. The way that, that was a way to center Blackness; yeah, in a way that was honoring and elevating, I don’t know where I’m going with that, but…
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [10:51]: Yeah, no, just, I mean, I’m just thinking in my personal story, not having grown up, going to church much. I had two years in this AME Zion Church and then joined the Episcopal Church, sitting in the pews when I was in college, and then was baptized the year after I graduated college. I’m grateful that my understanding of what it means to be a Christian was in the context where we were talking about the images of how Black people are portrayed in the news. Like, you know, there was an anti-racism committee that was really active in my church in the late eighties. And then Kelly Brown Douglas was being published and she was in New York City and a church. And now she’s a dear friend and mentor, she’s now at Episcopal Divinity School at Union. But my understanding of what Christianity is based on hearing her preach as amongst the first people I ever heard preach in person. I don’t know-how; so when you know, it’s very much intertwined that experience of understanding this particular way of seeing liberation theology; the Black liberation theology movement. It’s really been formative for me, not that my experience needs to be everyone’s experience. But it would be my hope that we are now being formed in this more expansive way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus. One, that’s not new, it’s been around for a very long time, but the voices are now coming to the fore in a way that is really important for this time.
Cassidy Hall [12:07]: Yeah; yeah, and I appreciate you sharing about your church experience. Also while I was preparing to interview you, I noticed you have a degree in architecture along with a minor in urban studies and a master’s in historic preservation. So putting on maybe your architect hat and your historic preservation, hat of buildings and structures in the context of social justice, and I know this is a big question, how do we navigate when it’s time to quote-unquote, burn it all down or to dig through the rebel, navigate the history, learn it, own it and rebuild with what’s left.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [13:10]: I wanted to study architecture because I loved beautiful buildings and having lived in places that were not always beautiful, you know, housing projects are not beautiful places, but they’re typically surrounded by beautiful places. And as a child, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 28. So I walked everywhere, I took the subways everywhere and explored New York City. And that formed me because one of the things that I would say is that as a child, I knew that the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, so you can hear my Brooklyn accent, because I can’t say those words without betraying my accent! But the BQE runs alongside people’s apartments, such as you could see them cooking dinner in their kitchens, they just cut through neighborhoods. The way they were building the highway systems didn’t really care about who was living there, right? So urban renewal came and did a lot of damage, but I knew that as a six-year-old because I could see it and wondered why that was okay as a child. So, you know, here we are, generations have passed since then just 40 years, 50 years outside of that urban renewal. And people know that that was wrong and we have opportunities to repair it because a lot of those highways are past their lifespan, right? They need to be somehow dealt with and what are the opportunities we have? And so I’m saying all that to say is that we can’t pretend to not know the damage that some of those projects have had. The damage that redlining has meant for people’s access to the quote-unquote American dream and wherever we are and understanding that reality, gives us an opportunity to choose differently. And this particular point in history means we actually can do a lot of change to rectify some of the damages of the past. And if we cannot be wallowing in the, do I feel guilt or shame about it like feel the feelings and let’s get to work to make the world better. I don’t know if that gets there, but I just think, you know, there’s history, there’s baggage, it’s always been thus, but if we’re alive today, we have an opportunity to kind of figure out how to band together to make things different. And that being said the last year of our history has shown us that we struggled with caring enough about how to make lives better for other people. So there’s the opportunity and there’s also I think the need for us as a country, particularly to learn that it’s really about everybody and not just what is going to get me through the day and my family alone, like we really have to care about other people.
Cassidy Hall [15:37]: Yeah and to your point, we have such a tendency to talk things to death or feel things to death before we actually begin just doing the things and showing up. And I think that’s a huge part of the work; what does it look like to show up and just start cleaning up the rubble and then deciding what to do together.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [15:56]: Right, you know, there’s one example, I’ve been in touch still with the folks in Syracuse where the church I served had been integrated because the Black congregation that they had birthed in was reunited with was needing to leave its building because the highway was going to come right through. While they built a highway across the street, but they demolished the building anyway and now it’s just like an empty corner. And like this horrible sort of scar on the environment and on people’s hearts, because that didn’t need to happen. But the folks didn’t have agency or power to make it different, right. So now that highway needs to come down and people are like, well, but the thing is having the highway cut through this neighborhood and makes it easier for people to get to the suburbs and they don’t have to go through the city. And there they’ve been fighting about this since 2006, and it’s still up for conversation, I check in on it every few weeks. And I’m going, why is it so hard to actually say to the people who are living with the effects of this highway, in the midst of their neighborhoods, to say, we’re going to ask you to do this thing for these people. And not worry about what happens to the suburban commute, because actually there are other ways to get to the suburbs faster, so let’s just do this, but it’s just complicated, doing hard projects like that, where you’re trying to actually take into account people’s concerns. But overwhelmingly it’s those who’ve got resources in power who get privileged over those who don’t. And if we can begin to put ourselves in different places of empathy, for the sake of healthy change, be willing to give up some things, you know. Eric Law, a priest who does a lot of the work around the Kaleidoscope Institute that he created anti-racism, he wrote in one of his early books that we believe, you know, that Jesus hung on the cross and we’ve constructed a world, this is paraphrasing, in which there are some people who are hanging on the cross like for eternity, you know even Jesus came off the cross eventually. How about we like, take some people off the cross for a minute and do something for the sake of those who don’t ever get a break.
Cassidy Hall [17:56]: Yeah, do you see a way in which contemplation––that practice, feeds our action in terms of our activist work in the world?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [18:05]: Yeah, I mean, so those two through the tradition and certainly my experience has been that when I give myself a time to be restored and to have my brain synapses just rest so that they can be rebuilt, be wired, like that’s when new creativity comes and energy comes for the long haul. And I’m really clear about all of this, that the work of building the beloved community of dismantling the systems that oppress people is a long-term work. And I hope for a little progress in my lifetime, I don’t expect that it will be done in my lifetime, because it’s a huge human project, right. And, we do with divine help and inspiration. And, so we’ve got to pace ourselves in the work, meaning, you know, I run, so I like the running metaphors. I love it in a track race, when you have a pacer; the pacer is setting the pace, so that the runners who are competing can actually hit their splits towards whatever record they’re trying to break. And at some point, you know, the pacer can run faster than the racers to keep ahead of them, but then the pacer drops off because they can’t keep that up forever, so they might drop off and maybe another pacer comes in. So, you know, this is a long, long lifetime work and if we don’t step off the track to rest, to renew, to take our nutrition, to pray, to see what the Spirit’s going to open up to us if we are able to quiet our minds and our hearts for a bit. Then, you know, in doing that, we get renewed to be able to get back into it. But, you know, I chased rest, my Jesus chased rest, it’s hard, it’s because our inclination is to feel productive by doing all the time. And even when you stop, there’s always another thing, but human bodies are not constructed to do that, to go without stopping and resting and being renewed. And renewal and growth happen in the time of rest, this was a scientific fact. So why fight it?
Cassidy Hall [20:08]: And maybe even we’ll find ourselves in a mystical encounter with God feeling a sense of a hug.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:13]: Yeah.
Cassidy Hall [20:14]: So something else I read, which I found really interesting was a defining experience you had, when you found yourself near the World Trade Center, the morning of September 11th, 2001, would you mind sharing that?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [20:27]: Sure, I think about it all the time. It was such a moment for our whole country and just we’re living with the ramifications of that day in so many ways right now. But I had gone to the church where I was baptized, Trinity Church Wall Street to be a part of a consultation with the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams was convening folks who do spiritual work and leadership across the church and I was privileged to be invited and we were supposed to assemble for 8:45 that Tuesday morning. I remember arriving early and going to the bathroom and the bathroom of the parish house, which is no longer there, they’ve demolished it and built a new building in the last couple of years. But this was an old cranky building from the 1920s and I remember going this bathroom is still noisy, these pipes are as loud and, you know, and, but I was listening to actually was the first plane hitting the building, the South tower. Because we could feel the building shake and I thought it was just the old building. And then when we went out to the parish one of the classroom buildings where we were going to have our session, we thought there was a confetti festival of some kind because all this paper was flying. And then we began to hear the news and so, you know, here, I was with all of these people, some of whom I was meeting for the first time, but the majority of whom I’ve known since I became a Christian. And as the morning wore on just found ourselves kind of huddled in a staircase. And so the piece that is always with me is staying in this staircase of this parish house building and not knowing if we were going to get out. And hearing reports that we thought might be of bombings happening across the country. We thought the space needle in Seattle had been hit, we didn’t know. But how old was I, this was 2001, so like 35 and thinking that you know, I hadn’t done all the things I didn’t want to do, but if I had to die that day, then I was at peace with it because I was at the place where I’d kind of had a second life, you know, being baptized and having this new life in Christ. And I thought, well, I’m going to die anywhere, and then I will die with the man who baptized me, who was up the stairs, a few steps. And then, you know, that didn’t happen, we escaped as the North tower was falling. And I was living in New Jersey at the time, but I had lived in; I grew up in Staten Island, and could walk blindfolded the way from the Staten Island ferry terminal to Trinity Wall Street because I was there every day for meetings, choir, rehearsals, church. And I grabbed a hand of a woman I met that day and ran blind all the way to the ferry terminal, I don’t know how many blocks, it’s a 10-minute walk, and got ourselves in the last boat to Staten Island, went back to the old department I lived in before grad school and rang bells until someone I knew could answer and kind of waited it out until my mom came home and was able to be reunited with me, so that was the day. And there are very few days now that, I mean, I don’t think about it every single day, but there was a time when it was just all I could think about because of the losses and the grief and the survivor’s guilt and all of that. But it’s one of the few times where I felt fearless about death. Death in me is not; like, I want to be here as long as I can, God willing, right. But that’s the moment where I thought, well, this is what faith is about, right, like if this is it, okay, God. And I pray that when it is my time to die, that I have that sense of ease about it.
Cassidy Hall [23:50]: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. There’s something that’s clarifying, it seems about moments in life when our backs are up against the wall and there’s just no option. And we have to give ourselves to the mystery that is if you’re willing to share, have you ever experienced that feeling outside of that day?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [24:11]: I have not. And it’s, you know, it’s just interesting to me, when that happened, I was ordained maybe five years. I was ordained in 97, so not ordained very long, not even long enough to have actually been with someone as they died at that point. And so a couple of years after that, being able; you know, we had people who died on that day, but I wasn’t with them at the point of death. But having that experience taught me something about how to be with people as they die, which, you know, I’ve counted as a gift.
Cassidy Hall [24:41]: So a little bit of a shift here back into yeah, social justice activism. I wonder if you could speak to maybe how important it is to work on these issues? Not just in our heads, but in our hearts and bodies and maybe how yeah, like the prophetic imagination or prophetic preaching is a way to kind of guide us there and the importance of that.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [25:19]: Yeah, I think it’s all, I mean, it’s; we’re not going ever to think ourselves–– if we could think ourselves out of this situation, I think we probably could have managed that already.But it’s about changing hearts, which means changing daily decisions. And so, there are people who are much smarter about this than I am and the kind of field about anti-racism work is shifting and growing. And it’s almost, you know, it’s becoming a discipline in some ways, right, because of the scholarship that people are bringing to it and so I’m learning all the time. So the one thing I would say is that there’s always more to learn and you can’t just read your way out of it.I think it really boils down to some simple things like place and relationship. So when this pandemic; one of the things I’ve been really attentional about while we are not traveling in the ways we’ve been used to, is that instead of driving through the neighborhoods, then I would just drive through to get from point A to point B. I drive to those places and walk the neighborhoods because I want to walk every day. And so for the first few months of the pandemic and I still do this, I have mostly had the same routes that allow me to walk out my front door and walk. But now I’m choosing different directions, I’m going to neighborhoods where people say, “Oh, that’s a problem neighborhood.” And I’m like, “well, have you walked around the neighborhood? Do you know that neighborhood?” Or do you see it as a problem because of your distance from it, from a comfortable place, and only know what you read in the news? I think there’s a lot of heart work that can be done by putting ourselves in those places where we feel like the other exists or wherever you might be afraid to go. It could begin by just flocking and being comfortable in different spaces. Which grows a piece of our capacity to encounter and be willing to be transformed by difference, maybe letting go of presuppositions, because we now have new facts literally on the ground. And then it’s about whom are we in relationship with? And I know that there are those who disagree, but I know I’ve been profoundly changed by having friends of different cultural and racial backgrounds. And, you know, I’m an African-American, Native American person who is in the minority in this country historically by numbers. So I have to; actually, I don’t have to have friends of different races, I’m choosing to do that because I find that enriches my life, and my particular experience of childhood has assumed that kind of diversity. And if you didn’t grow up with that kind of diversity, I don’t think it’s too late ever to find ourselves in different spaces where we can grow our friendship circles. And so I always ask people, tell me about the people who regularly get invited to your dinner table, remember not in the pandemic, right? Or folks will say, well, you know, I go to this club, I’m like, well, why don’t you go to this other club? Think about the places where you choose to put yourself. I play tennis here, but why don’t you play tennis in the park where everyone is mixing it up? Those are the kinds of a heart choices, I mean, there are technical choices, there are logistical choices, but we go out of our way to have experiences that are meaningful to us in all kinds of ways, except for the ones where we have to encounter different people of different races and classes, but we can do that. We just have to decide today, I’m going to do that.
Cassidy Hall [28:23]: And what you’re saying too, I mean that’s kind of practice too. I see my morning walk as a contemplative practice. And it happens to be, you know, in my neighborhood park where I see my neighbors and, you know, we all wave and kind of holler good morning at each other. But that idea of yeah, that the practices of our spirituality can more deeply engage us with all of humanity.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [28:57]: Yeah, I really think that’s a part of the journey, you know, I just think there’s probably more scriptural warrant for it. We haven’t thought about it that way, but there are stories of Jesus on the borderlines; the borderlands. You know, the Good Samaritan story that we love so much happened on the borderlands. And yet we don’t often willingly take ourselves there to hear, but other stories are playing out that way on those places. And you know, life is hard and it’s busy and it’s hard to be challenged by things; because life is already hard enough and yet, you know, racial oppression is harder. Like, why don’t we just take it; we could actually make life a little easier if we’re doing some of this heart work. And in the aggregate, then I think we begin to think about who we vote for differently. Our policies look different and we get to decide what impacts on our civic life are influenced by the kinds of things we think about and encounter in the world. But it won’t happen if we’re doing the same old, same old, get the same old stuff from the beginning, and no one’s happy. Well except for, one-percenters, probably. There there’s a segment of people for which this is working right, but the rest of us, the majority of us, this is not working.
Cassidy Hall [30:03]: So I want to flip a question backward a little bit as we come to the end of our time together. And you’ve kind of answered this, but I wonder if we could kind of reframe it. So let’s take a movement like Black Lives Matter and ask what can Black Lives Matter teach us about God and spirituality or contemplation?
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [30:53]: Voices that have been intentionally silenced will not be silent forever. And I think the thing about Black Lives Matter is that it’s this new iteration of the voices of those who have been oppressed, silenced, forgotten, and left out that are not going to be kept down for long. And the tradition over and over again tells us that there will be prophets who will speak on behalf of those who are the oppressed. Because as it happens, God actually has a preferential option for God’s oppressed people, right? And so I believe that there’s a continuum in that movement, that’s saying in this particular moment, this is how we need to express I think from a spirituality point of view Black lives not to be oppressed destroyed, left out, and that there are lots of other voices that also need to be raised up. And it’s not a zero-sum game if there was some reading in that movement at the moment, but I’ve watched Black Lives Matter become a chant to become a really controversial thing.
And I’m like; I don’t understand what’s so controversial about letting Black people not die at the hands of the police. Or lifting up the values of the extended family instead of just, I’m going to go it alone with my nuclear family, which is, I hear that a lot. You know the anti-family and I’m going, let’s just think about what we are saying when we talk about family and how there are other ways to do it that are actually more scriptural and biblical than the way we tend to do it in this country. So anyway, it’s a complicated thing, I do think those who are leading in BLM are doing us all the good service in many ways. From having us look at how we dispense our resources in service of our communities, from policing all the way to mental health issues and everything in between to asking the question, why do we even need this movement? You know, I long for the day, maybe we don’t need food pantries and we don’t need Black Lives Matter protest to state the obvious. Black Lives Matter and people should be fed and not hungry in the richest country in the world.
Cassidy Hall [32:52]: Yeah, Bishop Jennifer, thank you so much for joining today and for taking the time to speak with me and sharing your stories. I really appreciate it.
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows [33:01]: Well, it’s been a delight to think through some of these important questions. So thank you so much, Cassidy, it’s been a real joy.
Cassidy Hall [33:11]: 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.
In May of 2019, I took a lovely monastic stroll with Brother Paul Quenon at Gethsemani Abbey, the monastic home of Thomas Merton. We walked to a toolshed on the monastic property where Merton had sought permission to for more solitude beginning in January of 1953, years before his hermitage days. From this shed in 53-54, during a few hours each day, he wrote Thoughts In Solitude (published in 1958) (which hosted the original title of Thirty-Seven Meditations), the book in which we find what is often referenced as “The Merton Prayer” (which you can find at the end of this post).
Upon approval from the Abbot (Dom James), he named the toolshed “St. Anne’s” and declared in his journal, “It is the first time in my life—37 years—that I have had a real conviction of doing what I am really called by God to do. It is the first time I have ‘arrived’—like a river that has a been running through a deep canyon and now has come out in the plains—and is within sight of the ocean.”
While many assume the shed’s name to be after the mother of Mary, and thus the ultimate wisdom, it also seemed to be a name which followed Merton, including the fact that his father and mother were married in St. Anne’s Church in Soho, London.
He wrote about the surrounding landscape of St. Anne’s and how it reminded him of his walks as a youth in Sussex England: “I recognize in myself the child who walked all over Sussex. (I did not know I was looking for this shanty or that I would one day find it.) All the countries of the world are one under this sky: I no longer need to travel… The quiet landscape of St. Anne’s speaks of no other country.”
On February 9th, 1953, amid the feast of St. Scholastica, Merton spent the evening in St. Anne’s writing, “It is a tremendous thing no longer to have to debate in my mind about ‘being a hermit,’ even though I am not one. At least now solitude is something concrete–it is ‘St. Anne’s’–the long view of hills, the empty cornfields in the bottoms, the crows in the trees, and the cedars bunched together on the hillside. And when I am here there is always lots of sky and lots of peace and I don’t have any distraction and everything is serene–except for the rats in the wall. They are my distraction and they are sometimes obstreperous… St. Anne’s is like a rampart between two existences. On one side I know the community to which I must return. And I can return to it with love. But to return seems like a waste. It is a waste I offer to God. On the other side is the great wilderness of silence in which, perhaps, I might never speak to anyone but God again, as long as I live.”
A few days later Merton wrote, “The landscape of St. Anne’s speaks the word ‘longanimity’: going on and on and on: and having nothing.”
Although the hunt for more solitude was a pattern in Merton’s life, the sense of “arrival” was palpable for him in rat-infested toolshed: “It seems to me that St. Anne’s is what I have been waiting for and looking for all my life and now I have stumbled into it quite by accident. Now for the first time, I am aware of what happens to a man who has really found his place in the scheme of things. With tremendous relief I have discovered that I no longer need to pretend. Because when you have not found what you are looking for, you pretend in your eagerness to have found it. You act as if you had found it. You spend your time telling yourself what you have found and yet do not want. I do not have to buy St. Anne’s. I do not have to sell myself to myself here. Everything that was ever real in me has come back to life in this doorway wide open to the sky! I no longer have to trample myself down, cut myself in half, throw part of me out the window, and keep pushing the rest of myself away.In the silence of St. Anne’s everything has come together in unity” (February 16, 1953).
Interestingly, some of these phrases about home and belonging Merton would continue to untangle, writing after lighting the first fire in the hermitage’s hearth in December 1960, “Haec requies mea in saeculum saeculi [This is my resting place forever] – the sense of a journey ended, of wandering at an end. The first time in my life I ever really felt I had come home and that my waiting and looking were ended.”
The Journals of Thomas Merton. A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk’s True Life (Volume 3), 1952-1960
The Journals of Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Years (Volume 4), 1960-1963
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is a Carmelite nun in Baltimore, where she’s been a Catholic sister since 1972. Previously, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun working in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. She was also a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference and was active in the civil rights movement during the height of the race riots in 1968. She’s been a spiritual director since 1982.
Sister Barbara told the Washington Post, “There comes a point when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands. Through prayer, I feel I can touch the world.”
In this interview I ask Sister Barbara about mysticism’s role in activism, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, the insurrection of January 6th, and more. She defines a mystic as “someone that observes mysteries or experiences but their intuition is held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Because, Black Lives Matter. I mean, none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now, and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patience endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer.
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I am your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster pastor, and student, and I am here to learn with you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester is an 88-year-old Carmelite Nun in Baltimore where she has been a sister since 1972. Prior to her arrival, she spent 17 years in Philadelphia as an active nun in a Catholic hospital and teaching on the weekends. According to the New York Times as a board member of the National Black Sisters Conference in 1968, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the height of the race riots. She has been a spiritual director since 1982. In a Washington Post Article sister Barbara Jean is quoted as saying, “there comes a time when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands through prayer I feel I can touch the world.”
So when we talked on the phone about a month ago you had told me, “everything that happens in the world happens in here.” When you were referencing the cloistered life. Can you tell me more about how cloistered life exposes all of what happens outside?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, first of all, we are all human beings. That is the number one, that’s the commonality. We are all human beings and whatever happens outside of the monastery, people get angry, people get upset, people want to fight, people don’t like what so-and-so said, my sister did this and if I get them I am going to do the same thing. Happens the same thing in that monastery, we are 16 here; two of our sisters, well three were away––one passed in October from COVID, but we are still 16, and we have two young women who are coming to live with us to see if this is what they really want, in their twenties, they are going to have the same thing. I get angry sometimes, but it’s a matter of not putting that anger out on another person. But the same thing that happens outside of the monastery happens within the monastery because we are all human beings and we are human beings in here and actions speak louder than words.
Cassidy Hall: And I love your writing, your writing is just wonderful and so important. And in piece that you wrote titled “Black and gifted our ministry the spiritual direction,” you write, “if there is one gift which stands out more than other in the journey of Black folks, it is the gift of patient endurance.” So my question with that is how have you seen that patient endurance exist for you and contemplative life and how have you seen it in our world today?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : In religious life today, some communities still have, unfortunately, some communities still do not have African-American sisters, and if they do they accept them. But they are still Hedgy about that. I think it’s going to continue because, maybe it will I should say, and maybe it won’t. I know for myself, I am the only one here, the African-American here, but I was brought up in a home where my mother had, it was two colors and she was like white when she died. Brown and white, well I had spots on my legs. I said thank God they are on my legs and not on my face. While growing up with her being in a home, orphanage, she was a nurse anesthetist and I saw all these things, you don’t say much but you can observe, you see what people see people, white people, look we get on the bus before we had cars and there were three of us, I was the oldest, and she made sure that we had seats together. She would stand up and I would watch look around. And the people would be looking at her, looking at us, looking at her, looking at us. Talk about patient endurance, I think it’s the actions that happen. And it still goes on today. It still goes on today and see even worse today. I think because Black Lives Matter, I mean none of this was out in the open when I was growing up. This is just now and I can’t be out there now. So what happens with me is the pain that I feel that’s the patient endurance for me. And that becomes a prayer: God, I can’t be out there to walk, I can’t be there to express what I would like to say even to help. But I ask you to use the pain that I’m feeling. Patient and endurance is individual, it’s communal, and the people that are going through this, they are out there, but they are doing this every day, whatever happens to them. I am the same way but I am inside and I am going through it with them. They were on the front lines and I feel the pain. I said this as soon as it was over, the first day that this happened at the Capital, if that had been African-Americans, they would have been shot dead. They would––nothing asked, they would have been gone. There weren’t––I mean, there were individuals, yes––but as a group, there wasn’t. And I think that’s the biggest gift that was given to us because of the patient endurance that’s there. That was there, but that’s what it is for me.
Cassidy Hall: Yeah. It reminds me, some of the writings I have read of Howard Thurman and the writings about him and his writings about his contemplative practice and how people have pointed to his contemplative practice, kind of being this undergirding to the Civil Rights Movement and this kind of support that’s not just solidarity, but like you are saying it is “IT.”
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : This is it. It is. I mean we are enduring what they are going through out there, but we are enduring it in here, and it’s just as painful as could be. And the tears were just coming to my eyes. I mean, we were all sitting in a group, so I was by the window and I had my water or whatever there, and I just could not believe it. I said out loud, “if this had been African-Americans, we would have been shot dead,” they wouldn’t have even asked. The tears just –– it was unbelievable. And I still feel inside what people are going through. It is very hard––patient endurance goes on every minute of every day with someone that we don’t even know, we don’t even know, and it’s even with children, it’s even with children. Because my mom said, this is how we were brought up, we are to respect everybody, everybody, regardless of how they act. You can always tell that to whoever is in charge––but you can’t––And my two brothers, one brother was close to me, the other one was two years younger than me. And I am the only one left in my family now because he died last January. But she would say, “what you do makes a difference, how you do it makes a difference, and remember that. I may not be here with you all the time. But if something happens to you, you have to respect yourself and no you can’t mouth it or hit somebody,” or whatever because everything makes a difference.
Cassidy Hal: about spiritual direction and talking about contemplative life, and you mentioning that you are the only African-American sister at your monastery, just the importance of representation and the importance of, I mean, I mentioned Howard Thurman, but very few people even know of Thurman’s work as a Black mystic, as a Black contemplative. And I wonder if you could just speak into the importance of that––representation.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I was docket here three times, Cassidy, for leadership in the community, and I didn’t get it. And that, well I mean, I didn’t think I was going to get anyway, but the last time there were two of us––between myself and another person, and the sister that died in October. And this was in, I am not sure whether it was the late eighties, beginning of the nineties, I am not sure. But anyway, we had the meeting and then the name surfaced and they brought it down to the two of us. And that evening she came into my office, knocked on my door, she said, “Barbara Jean, I’m taking my name off the list, I cannot do this.” The Bishop was supposed to come the next morning at 10. And I said, “are you sure?” She said, “I am sure,” she went to bed, this was like nine o’clock. I said, fine, I went to bed and I’m thinking, oh my God, what is this? What does this mean? So I went to bed went to sleep, got up the next morning, and I was in the office in my office here, the Bishop was supposed to come at 10. So they usually come about 10 of 10, whatever. And [knock, knock, knock], she walks in again. She says, “I know I told you last night, that I was taking my name off the list.” She said, “but I was told to leave my name on and whatever I needed, they would help me.” I had never, ever said that to anyone, yet, but it’s in my archive. It’s written in my book. I was so shocked. She didn’t say who, but I can surmise. I mean and sure enough, she got elected after that. I took my name off of everything, never again. For me that was blatant but that’s what happens.
Cassidy Hall [10:07]: It reminds me of the thing that we began this conversation with that everything that happens in the world happened there.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Exactly, exactly, and if I were to say that now, I don’t know that they would even own it. I don’t know if they would, or they wouldn’t but it’s finished––as said, at that point, this is going down in my––I’m writing it down exactly the way it happened, and God rest her soul, she’s gone, she died in October, but they will have my archives.
Cassidy Hall: And your story is a testament to that patient endurance we were just talking about. You also write about, I think this kind of goes along with this, you also write about questioning our institutions for authentic living. And I think, you know, you kind of just described that by telling that story. I guess my question is as a contemplative, what does it look like to question institutions? Because a lot of people have the misunderstanding that being contemplative is being passive.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I don’t think so. It’s not being passive, no way, it’s not being passive at all. What we do, how we act, that’s very active. Even in here, you don’t have to go around doing whatever, no; it could be just going to prayer where you are quiet, where you can sit, where you can bring someone else’s problem to the Lord and talk. So it’s, it’s not passive at all. I don’t think so.
Cassidy Hall: Well, even, you know, the story you just told about writing down your story is an act of resistance.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Where you wouldn’t think, you know that’s my way of saying who I am, and being true to me.
Cassidy Hall: And that’s truth-telling, I mean you writing down your story is truth-telling
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Whether anyone believes it or not. And that’s what my mom used to say, “be true to who you are.” And that has resonated. I see this, I hear this all the time. It’s hard because you don’t know, just to even see her, she would always call, “how are you doing? You need anything?” you know, that kind of stuff, you know, have you heard from your brothers and this and that and you know, she was good.
Cassidy Hall: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about contemplation’s role in mysticism and or what mysticism means to you.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester: Mysticism is a particular gift of God, that God gives to people. And the combination of mysticism with contemplative life, with contemplative prayer, is that people are sometimes going into prayer and they can come out with a prescription or a solution that they know is from God––and this is good, and we should do it this way, whatever. That it’ll take maybe two or three of us who rely on God, and we just don’t see or feel that, or even add that, to be able to jot it down. It comes more, it’s a little bit more work for us, as opposed to a mystic that can see and really be in touch with on a deep level of prayer. And that’s a grace that’s given to few people, but that’s how the two work together.
Cassidy Hall: Do you think it’s possible to see or experience mysticism in everyday life, everyday people so to speak?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Yes. Well, people or some people know they can pick them out. They get a feeling, you wonder why, how did they know? And that’s just a grace. Mystic is someone that observes mysteries or experiences, but their intuition is, it’s held by God. And so they’re able to understand beyond the human understanding, beyond it, and with an intuition that’s beyond, almost, the possibility of trying to figure something out that you can’t, and that’s what it is. Harriet Tubman, she was a mystic. She knew, I mean, with her going from the South to the North, to the South, I mean, who would do that with nothing that she had really, you know. She was the ideal woman. She was a mystic. Everything was down to earth for her, but she had that, I don’t know what you call it, where God was, she didn’t do this only by herself–she relied on a higher power than herself, and it always worked for me.
Cassidy Hall: That again goes to the point we were discussing earlier about how a lot of people think things like contemplation is passive. Similarly, I think people think mysticism is this naval gazing, absence going inside oneself when really, I mean a case in point Harriet Tubman.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : [15:04]: Exactly. Who else did I put down? Thea Bowman. I have known her since the 60s, when we started the National Black Sisters conference. The first day we went down, we had the first conference, and then we had a break like in the afternoon for maybe a half-hour or so. I wanted to walk, take a walk outside because it was nice. So I walked down this hill, I mean the open wide, green on either side, but down the whole road. And then I hear this singing, what the heck is that? I haven’t heard or seen anybody who was that. And so I stopped where I heard it, and I am looking around and I did not see anything. Finally, I see someone sitting on the ground, it was there on the ground, sitting down under the tree singing. That’s how we met in 1964. And I sat down with her, “I’m Sister Thea, who are you?” “I’m Sister Barbara.” And we became friends like I don’t know what, after that.
Cassidy Hall: What a perfect way to meet.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester Yes, but she was, talk about mystic? She and her work, her preaching, it was unbelievable. And the song she came out with–– she was another one, African-American––the only one in her community. So many people don’t even know some of the stories, she said when they would leave the convent to go the sisters to work, whatever, there maybe four or five, four in the car, I guess, but she was always in the back, she didn’t drive, but if they stopped at a red light and there were people waiting for the bus there, she’d always have to bend down in the car so that they wouldn’t see her––that they would only see the white sisters there. So we all have, every one of us has something about, she loved her community. I love my community too, but we are not perfect, but we still live. And I believe everybody is God-oriented. I don’t want to be a mystic, I don’t see, I don’t get answers like they do, you know, I just live my life day to day and give it the best I can. That’s all God wants.
Cassidy Hall: Another thing you wrote in “Black and Gifted,” you talked about liberation as a “willingness to walk through the deserts of one’s own internal fears to liberate and free the spirit for holistic integrated living.” And I am particularly struck by the willingness to walk through the deserts for liberation to move towards liberation. Again, that patient endurance that those desert experiences require.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Right, it’s a willingness to walk in through the desert of our fear, internal fear, to walk through our fear, to be free and to free the spirit for holistic integrated living. In direction, sometimes, when they ask what to do, I don’t know, I do not have an answer, really: lay it at the feet of God, and the term metanoia, anybody that’s Catholic has grown up with a totally different idea of metanoia than it’s looked at today. That’s what it’s calling us to: There is life, even in the midst of what we perceive or what we see as non-life.
Cassidy Hall: Amid that patient endurance. What are the glimpses of liberation or the glimpses of holistic integrated living? What gives you hope?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : The fact that even within the race that I am in, we can treat our brother and sister as human beings and this purports and helps us to see others as human beings, also. The fact that we can accept to a point what we have and what we’ve been given and work diligently at that to make ourselves better and to lift someone who is younger than we to be in a place where they can spread their wings and, and do something better and more than we did, this is what I see. And this is what I hope for all the children that I have taught. It’s amazing that they still remember me. My name was Robert, then, a couple of them have come for my Jubilees and they tell stories about what I used to do, what I would tell them and all that. But they are nurses, some of them have gone up in their own companies, people that you didn’t even think of what they would do because they were so small, but it’s piercing it onto another generation or even generations below that. I really believe I am a firm, firm beeliver that what we do, what we say, how we act has an effect on people, whether you know them or not. And when you are the only one in all whiteness, everybody looks at you, never mind them not saying anything, you know what is going on in their mind: What is she doing here? I wonder what she is up to. Some of them may come and talk even, but this is what I believe that actions speak louder than words. And that’s what people see.
Cassidy Hall: One of the things we kind of addressed earlier, but I wonder if you might have anything else to say to the question of, do you think there is anything contemplation can teach protests and movements? Do you think there’s anything that contemplative of life can learn from protest and movements?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : There is always change going on in the world. We don’t even know about it. As a human being who is part of this world, the same thing happens to us individually. I am contemplative, yes, but there are other movements of religion in the world besides myself. They don’t pray the way I do, but they do pray. I don’t pray the way they do. They don’t pray the way I do, but they still pray to a person that they, a God that they believe in. And I believe that God made all of us and God has given each of us gifts and graces to use. So I think people can become mystics, which means they go deeper into God. However it fits them––however, they feel called or drawn. They can touch the God that they believe in and God can touch their hearts. And this is prayer and it doesn’t have a name. It’s God, they are in touch with their God. And I am in touch with my God, but its God. This is really something because we don’t talk about this all the time. I went last night; I was up to 10:30 going through that. I said, “oh my God, I hope I remember what to say.” I didn’t know what was going to be, but you know sometimes even like we will have a dialogue homily at our communion service and we have communion service every day. So you read the scripture for the day and something might pop into my head as I am reading it, whatever the reflections and all of that. And I say, but when it gets down to it, I know what I want is, but the words don’t come out anymore like they used to.
Cassidy Hall: Do you find that aging makes us even more contemplative?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, if we look at it like that, yes. You say because there is a lot of loss in aging, but the other side of that is aging is a gift. Everybody doesn’t get to age, that’s what I’ve come to myself.
Cassidy Hall: And you had mentioned that you are, are you writing kind of like a memoir type thing about your life or?
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : I do a lot of poetry off and on. I wouldn’t say every single day, I barely write, but things that are important, yes, I do. So I’m making sure that one person that if anything ever happens to me, they know I have archives. Yes, it’s important.
Cassidy Hall: Well, Sister Barbara Jean, it has been amazing to speak with you. Listen to your stories and your patient endurance. And listen to just everything that you have been through. Everything that you do and continue to do is just amazing.
Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester : Well, God bless you and your work that you are doing. This is something, really, kudos, really. I hope your life goes the way you want it. God bless. Bye-bye.
Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes, join me over at patreon.com/Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song, “Trapezoid Instrumental,” by EmmoLei Sankofa, which has generously allowed us to use it. Please find the song and more from EmmoLei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting e- sankofa.com. The podcast is created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with Enfleshed; an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical resources and tools, head over to enfleshed.com.
“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…”
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.”