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.”
In this episode, author Sophfronia Scott and I discuss the power of truth-telling, encounters with mysticism, and the ways in which contemplation can lead to mystical encounter. Of mysticism she says, “There is something all around us that sustains us and the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil.”
[00:00:03] Sophfronia Scott: It’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that. You mentioned Walter Scott and that happened in 2015, 5 years later, we have George Floyd, and suddenly it’s like something––people are acting like something woke up––it’s like wait, wasn’t this––what happened with Ferguson? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then?
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor and student, and I’m here to learn with you. For early access to episodes, go to patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall.
Sophfronia Scott grew up in Lorraine, Ohio, hometown she shares with author Toni Morrison. She holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she began her career as an award winning magazine journalist for both Time and People. When her first novel, All I Need to Get By, was published in 2004 Sophfronia was nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Awards. Her other books include the novel is Unforgivable Love, an essay collection titled Love’s Long Line, and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, co-written with her son. Her most recent book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton, was published just this year in March of 2021. And in that book, on a chapter about resisting racism, she writes, If we don’t become the truth tellers than a different kind of erosion can happen, in which resentment breeds a resentment that would threaten the wholeness of my heart and soul. If nothing else, I must be whole and respond to racism in a way that is true to the depths of my being. So Sophfronia, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining me.
[00:01:57] Sophfronia Scott: I am happy to be here. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
[00:02:01] Cassidy Hall: So I want to begin by asking you, what does the word “contemplative” mean to you and how do you see it lived out in our world today?
[00:02:09] Sophfronia Scott: Now that that second part, how do I see it lived out? You know, that’s a difficult one. Because to me, contemplation is an inner journey. It involves solitude and it involves a reflection on what God has given that particular individual and how you’re taking that in and walking through the world with that grace. So how do you see that? You know, how would I observe that? How would I know, the world in general, I can see it in certain people. But the world in general, it’s like we’re coming out of a year of being–of forced contemplation, right, at this point, the pandemic, right? So, it’s like that was a period where people suddenly did have to take stock and really look at the way they were living their lives. So I would have to say that maybe it wasn’t present in the world before in the way that it could be now.
[00:02:58] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, just we navigate that differently based on the language that we use to maybe define it, but either way, we’ve all kind of become contemplatives. So being that we all kind of went to that meeting place together over the last year. I know in my experience, right, it created a kind of the sense of deeper connectivity or deeper solidarity and connection to each other, right? Also seeing the things played out on the news, between disparities of the issues related to covid and racial injustice–George Floyd, Breonna Taylor. So do you see or sense that our togetherness in that contemplation created a connection with social action or social justice?
[00:03:37] Sophfronia Scott: You used the word together, Cassidy. Actually, I think all of that happened because we had assumed early on that we were doing that together, right? It looked like we had gone into this pandemic, and there was a spirit of togetherness. But it became apparent right away that we were not together in this, right, that people did not, we’re not experiencing this pandemic in the same way. Then what happened with George Floyd put a very specific face on the whole thing, right? And and then the people who realized that, Okay, we are not together on this, then we need to do something about it, that’s when the action came about. You know, Cassidy, it’s a very subtle type of thinking, we often don’t know we’re doing it. Last night I was in a group of people, a large group, it was a zoom group, and there was like a survey. One of the questions had been “Have you ever tested positive for Covid 19?” Almost 90% of the group said “no,” and someone responded, “Well, isn’t that you know–That’s great, we were safe, we took good care of ourselves.” But then someone else said “No, that just means we were privileged.” We don’t notice. We don’t realize. We just think Okay, we did it. But, no, there was a reason why this may have been easier for you to be this way than for somebody else. So not together, we were not together.
[00:04:50] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, I appreciate that reflection and that togetherness is definitely not not a word that works there. And I think maybe it’s more about the ways it was revealing and opened up the truth to us more clearly. And this kind of reminds me of a story from your book, although it relates to a story from 1963, it’s again, this opening this peeling back the curtains of the truth of what’s happening. In your book, The Seeker and the Monk: Everyday Conversations with Thomas Merton –– Hold on before we go to this story, I just want to ask why talk to a dead white guy?
[00:05:26] Sophfronia Scott: [Laughs] I think it connects to the other word. You and I we’re going to talk about, which is “mysticism.” I think that if you contemplate on a certain level, it rises to connection, it rises to an experience of something. So this person, my experience in reading and engaging with the work of Thomas Merton was just a part of me so much that I was able to experience them on a different level. It was not my choice, right? It’s not like I get to choose who I’m going to connect with. You know, I heard his words first, right? He could have been a black person, I had no idea. I only heard the words and the words are what drew me to him.
[00:06:11] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Yeah. So going back to this 1963 story, you share a story about Thomas Merton responding to a young black priest named Father August Thompson. And Father Thompson, like other black priests and parishioners, could only receive communion after white people. He was prohibited from saying mass and Catholics refused to call him, “father.” I wonder if you could share a little bit more about how Merton responded to Father August’s letter and more importantly, how this led to your own personal reflection of taking care of your heart first.
[00:06:41] Sophfronia Scott: Merton told him to consider, and father August was specifically also complaining about his Bishop at the time, and Merton told him, ‘Okay, you have to understand where he is coming from.’ It begins there. It begins with how you think about this person, seeing that person’s humanity. That was striking to me, seeing how this man probably doesn’t know how to think any other way than his white racist way, right? And that you have to start from that point, and when you do that, you are protecting your own heart, you are protecting your own soul because you are not going to that place of antagonism. You’re not going to that place of hatred, right? This is really what he was trying to teach him was really the source of Nonviolence, because non violence is not just about not fighting with the police, it is about being nonviolent within within your thoughts within your heart and to come at it from a holistic perspective with the feeling that we are all humans in this. It is not me against you, it’s we are all in this together. This is truly the unity you’re talking about: We are in this together. And how can we come to accept our humanity, our shared humanity? How can you bring him away from that thought? And he brings in the word faith which I thought was absolutely interesting. Okay, because faith means that there can be conversion, that means there is hope, that means this person’s way of thinking can be changed. But you have to be in a place of your own faith and non-violence to help bring that about. And
[00:08:08] Cassidy Hall: I think that relates to another part in your book where you write “if we don’t become the truth-tellers than a different kind of erosion happens in which resentment breeds.” And I think along with that, I’m wondering, What do you think it means to be–– How do we hold the tension, rather, of being truth-tellers and contemplatives? What does that look like to embody truth telling alongside a contemplative life.
[00:08:30] Sophfronia Scott: When you’re a contemplative, you come to see things a certain way and you can either share that or it stays within you. And when I say, resentment, I think about you know there are so many relationships, marriages, friendships that go bad because there was something wrong going on there that wasn’t spoken about: you didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to get in a fight, and you don’t say anything and everything looks great. But there is resentment because that thing has not been addressed that that changes you, right? That’s again where your non-violence is going to be hurt. You have to be in the space of being able to say your truth. But how do you do it? How do you do it so that it is from a place of love and innocence, like the child who said, “Well, the emperor has no clothes on,” right? He was stating it, there is a fact he wasn’t saying it to to shame the emperor or anything, he was just stating this fact. So how do you come at this, to be able to say in a way that people can hear, “You are devaluing my humanity. You’re devaluing my humanity, and that is what this is about. I am not angry with you, but you must see that there’s something wrong here and in order for us to heal––for you to heal because it’s not right that you feel this way too, this is hurting you, too. How are we going to work together to bring this about?”
[00:09:49] Cassidy Hall: It reminds me of. I think it’s June Jordan that talks about telling the truth is being a political act. And I love that a political act can even take place. in these just relational one-on-one times when we tell the truth to each other.
[00:10:01] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly. And it allows you, and it’s not necessarily a truth that has to bring you down and feel like you’re being blamed. It could be a truth that shines a light that allows you to see yourself in a different way and become something better, to bring you to the fullness of who you really are.
[00:10:18] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, definitely. You’re having my mind to go to so many different, beautiful places, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how contemplative life and contemplation, when we go to really kind of meet ourselves in that inward place is another form of truth-telling and truth meeting, maybe, of ourselves and our inner being.
[00:10:38] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah. I remember once. I was in a conversation about therapy, about why people go to therapy and on a certain level, being in therapy helps people bring to the surface things that they already know we’re there. But they’re not addressing, it’s been stuffed down or it’s been avoided or it’s been not addressed. And that is something, we all know what is within us. We know something of where we come from and what we’re thinking. So if we’re willing to pay attention and to say, “Wow, yeah, I did that,” or “this is something odd about the way I think,” you know. Not only can it not be addressed, but but it gives us an opportunity to say “Okay, I’m okay anyway,” right? By the grace of God, I’m this egotistical or whatever you wanna call it self centered person. But by the grace of God, I am here, and I recognize this, and I’m gonna try today to be a better person. It may not work out today. But I’m gonna try to be different. I’m going to try to think differently, right. So that’s what contemplation gives us. How can I reach for that dream that God has of me, for me, in any given challenging moment?
[00:11:49] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. One thing I loved in your chapter on race and racism and having a conversation with Merton about that. You mentioned many names in your book, including Walter Scott, who was murdered by the police in 2015. And you write, “What really leaves our souls scorched and grieving is the casual behavior of the police officer who fires the weapon. It’s as though this event were not extraordinary for him.” And I wonder, as we talk about these things like non-violence and our relational meeting place and our true togetherness, what might you say it looks like––what does it mean to be a contemplative activist, and especially as it relates to police violence.
[00:12:28] Sophfronia Scott: I think it means finding some way to address that nonchalance, right? Um, it was the same thing with George Floyd, right? That’s one of the things people talked about, like how calm that guy was, that officer was. Again, there’s something wrong there. There’s something wrong with that person’s humanity, right? And is it going to get solved by adding hate on top of that? No, it’s not. So how is it going to be addressed? How do we come to bring this person to see that this is a life? This is a life, right? There’s something wrong there. There’s something hugely wrong. And contemplation is to me, the constant considering of how how do we come to bring an understandingto that person –– it’s not like I can fix him, right? Can’t fix people. But there must be a way to help bring about understanding. And I may not come to an answer of that. But just being to understand that and to come from that point of of awareness, and if enough people are coming from that point, we’re walking on down the road that may eventually get us there. Police officers are acting out of fear, right, so they are in highly dangerous situations. But maybe there’s something about them that they need to be contemplative themselves, right? How can they better address or assess, I should say, assess a situation, right? Because that is the thing, right? They overdo it. What is going on here? Does this and I know they say, Oh, but it’s a split second moment. No, that guy was kneeling on that guy’s neck almost nine minutes. He did not have to do that. There were people pleading with him not to do that. Something inside you has to say, “Okay, I need to do something different here.” So what was it in that awareness that that that didn’t happen? And it’s not like diversity training is necessarily going to get you there. But to be in an ongoing conversation. Yeah, the training happens, and then you go your way and you forget about it. How can you be in constant conversation with police officers to help them think about what they’re seeing in any given instance? And can we help them see it in a different way, to come from a point of humanity and not just thinking “threat”? They protect and serve. That’s on a lot of police cars: “protect and serve.” So how do you How do you help them come to that mindset first? I have no answers, Cassidy, but this is where I think contemplation plays a role.
[00:14:55] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and it also reminds me of the connecting about earlier regarding truth-telling. And I think one thing I’m learning as a white person is about how there’s a lot of conversations that need to be had between white people and to navigate these things and even the recognition right that the police is relationship to systems, systems of oppression and the systems that was built upon and systems of racism. And yeah, I mean, there’s just so many, so many layers, and I’m really struck by kind of going back to that thought of truth telling. What can we do? We can tell the truth and peel back, clench fists and be present to what we know is true and speak to that
[00:15:36] Sophfronia Scott: Because otherwise, and this is my concern about the current social justice movement, is that it’s ongoing, but we don’t treat it as that, right? You mentioned Walter Scott, and that happened in 2015, right? And so five years later, we have George Floyd. And suddenly it’s like something people are acting like something woke up like – wait, what happened with Ferguson? What? Weren’t we supposed to have woken up then? I’m sorry, Dylann Roof walked into a church and killed a whole room of black people, so why didn’t that wake us up? Right. So this is this is where I have to protect my heart and and see it as an ongoing journey and that this is this is like a wave that’s going to disappear, the problem is still going to be here. So I could get really resentful about that and cynical and say, “here we go again.” Or else I can be the truth-teller and say exactly what I just said and say, “Look, this is this is not a new thing.” So if we keep discovering this, obviously there’s something wrong with the way we think we’re solving this. So how do we need to look at this differently, right?
[00:16:38] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, we could list names back to Emmett Till and even still, that wasn’t the beginning. That wasn’t the beginning at all.
[00:16:47] Sophfronia Scott: We have to come at this from each person’s experience and their own humanity, right? I just told you about how I want to teach my son how to behave when a police car stops him. But you also have to know that my son my son’s experience of police is very different. He does not fear the police. And we’ve had discussions. We looked at the George Floyd video. We talk about this all the time and he said to me, Um and this is just a few months ago, he said, “But Mama, you have to remember that my experience with the police is different.” I hope I don’t cry here. And I don’t know if you know this Cassidy, but I you know, we live in Sandy Hook. My son was in third grade. He was He was in the Sandy Hook school during those shootings. A dear friend of ours, his godbrother died. He has lived with police outside his school for years. They shake his hand, he knows the police intimately, we have police who lived down the street. So to him, the police are there to protect the police are his friends, right? and I’m not going to take that away from him. I’m not going to say yeah, but But police can do this. No, because that has not been his experience. And I said to him even when he said that, that that brought to a realization to me. And I said to him, You know, Tain, that could be your experience could be the source of your non-violence that if you are in an experience like with your friends and and there’s some sort of encounter with the police, you may be the truth-teller that helps deescalate a situation because you don’t come from a point of fear where the police are concerned, right? So how do I help him use that as a as a power? And this is also like a kind of thing where contemplation comes in action. He has to be aware of that, right, to know that that is in him and he already for him to bring it up to me, he’s obviously already aware of it. So it’s up to me to say “Okay, here’s That’s a superpower. Here’s how to use that superpower Tain,” right?
[00:18:45] Cassidy Hall: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. So you also write about white friends being stunned by the continued racism in America. And you speak of this as a “betrayal in which there continues to be a lack of fruitful conversation,” commenting that “many white folks begin to sound like the trope, ‘I have black friends'” and it’s here in the book when you turn to Merton’s readings of James Baldwin. I was aware of Merton reading The Fire Next Time, and he did write a letter to James, didn’t he? And I want to share a little bit more about what Merton said about Baldwin.
[00:19:18] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, so I’m going to read from you. This is what he wrote in his journal. He said,
“He [Baldwin] seems to know exactly what he is talking about, and his statements are terribly urgent. One of the things that makes most sense—an application of the ideas behind non-violence, but I think it is absolutely true: that the sit-in movement is not just to get the negroes a few hamburgers, it is for the sake of the white people, and for the country. He is one of the few genuinely concerned Americans, one whose concern I can really believe. The liberation of the Negroes is necessary for the liberation of the whites and for their recovery of a minimum of self-respect, and reality. Above all he makes very shrewd and pointed statements about the futility and helplessness of white liberals who sympathize but never do anything. Well, a few have got beat up on freedom rides, this is true. But really the whole picture is pitiful. A scene of helplessness, inertia, stupidity, erosion.”
So I think it’s interesting how he brings up that we all have something at stake here, right? This isn’t just being allowed to sit in a restaurant, right? This is about how all of us address our our own humanity, right? And if we can’t get this right, you know, Where are we? Where are we, as a people? And he was noticing that that James Baldwin, you know, is expressing this concern. And it’s even amazing, you know, knowing how fiery James Baldwin could be, that as Merton points out, he is still coming from a place of non-violence. He is being a truth-teller, right? And he’s also coming from a point of compassion.
[00:21:07] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, Yeah. I wonder if we could shift a little bit to the mystical conversation. You know, hearing some of these stories. It’s almost like you stumbled upon Merton. You said you didn’t choose him and then uncovered some of these really powerful relationships and and thoughts that he had on on various issues. And I wonder if you consider meeting Merton in that way and coming across his writings and whatnot, you consider that in and of itself a mystical experience?
[00:21:35] Sophfronia Scott: I think coming across his writings, I said earlier, I think contemplation leads to the mystical. So he has been part of my contemplation. When I went to his monastery in Kentucky, I felt I had a mystical experience there, and it was totally unexpected. And and it wasn’t until I was standing at his grave weeping that I realized that there was a closeness that I felt that I was missing him and experiencing him all at once during my time there. So I feel that–and it’s the same thing with any connection that that if we steep ourselves in it enough, we can we can touch the divine right. Isn’t that what we want? We want to have some sacramental experience of God in our lives, right? And and maybe it’s easier to do that through, you know, people who have been flesh and blood, right? Wasn’t the point of Christ, right to give us a way to reach for such connection. To understand how to do that, I don’t want to get in trouble, [laughs] I don’t know if what I’m saying is theologically sound. But I can only share what what I experience, and there is something all around us that sustains us. And the mystical is when we can reach for that and to know that there is something beyond the veil. That’s what I think of the mystical. And I think that’s what the Mystics were able to do. That they were so steeped in their study and reflection and in their prayer that they were able to able to feel the sense of God and to feel God at work in their lives. So the mystics aren’t necessarily like special people. I think it’s something that’s available to all of us, but do we take the time to come away from the noise to, to hear, to hear anyone. I think that the people have left us are still around, but they also leave, they leave clues, and when you connect with something that they’ve left behind. This may sound like a really silly tangent, but I recently kind of rediscovered the music of the Bee Gees, and I’ve just been absolutely fascinated by their music by some of the things that Robin Gibb himself has said and written. And at first I thought, you know, I’m hearing this with different ears for some reason, and I’m thinking about that song, To Love Somebody, right? You know: “There’s a light, A certain kind of light, That never shone on me. I want my life to be lived with you, Lived with you…” And there’s something about the sound of that song. And then I did hear an interview where I think there’s someone from Rolling Stone who said, “this music does have a spiritual aspect” and it touched people in ways that they didn’t realize, and I realized, Okay, that’s what I’m hearing. I’m hearing that now at a different level than when I was, what, 12 and first heard that music. And so it’s it’s making me go back and look at their thinking to look at their experiences and to see that these were deeply spiritual guides, but not in the way that you expect. Robin Gibb was in a deadly train accident when he was 19, and he said, as that train is rolling over and over that that crash killed 50 people. In an interview later, he said, “I thought about God,” and he’s like, I’m not a church going person but in that moment I thought about God. It brought him to a place – that feeling brought him to a place that when that train stopped rolling, he was able to then function. He got his girlfriend. out of that train, he got a bunch of people out of that train that day and I recognized it. I recognized what he was talking about. That sense of being in a traumatic situation and recognizing feeling that I wasn’t alone, that I’m going to be okay, and since I’m okay, then I can function. I need to see how I can help people out of this thing. Cassidy, sometimes I think about that, and I’m like, ‘man, why is Robin Gibb dead?’ Because I want to talk to him about that, here I’ve discovered these words of someone who’s experienced God in a certain way, and it’s like, Oh, my gosh, but he’s not here anymore, right?
[00:25:37] Cassidy Hall: Next book, Next book. [laughs]
[00:25:38] Sophfronia Scott: [laughs] my gosh, no. But you see, I mean, there are connections out there, right? We have to just understand what’s going on within ourselves so that we can reach out and find it elsewhere out there with other people.
[00:25:52] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, you said you talked earlier about contemplation leading to mysticism or mystical encounter. And then I love hearing this story about the Bee Geesand you almost recognizing the truth teller in the song and creating like a mystical encounter between his output connecting with your almost your work and your output, right? Like there’s this beautiful encounter that takes place when we’re able to recognize the mystical in each other, recognize, you know, the Imago dei and each other.
[00:26:20] Sophfronia Scott: Yeah, exactly what is that song from Saturday Night Fever, “When I see your eyes in the morning light,” How Deep Is Your Love. The word “savior” isn’t that song, “You come to me in the deepest, darkest time You’re my savior, when I call,” you don’t just use that word lightly. They use that word with an understanding. So, yeah, to recognize that we are all speaking a certain language. Merton talks about that about finding a spiritual companions that we don’t have. You don’t make friends just, yes, you have friends. But then there were friends who truly understand the journey you’re on and who have that same type of connection. And it’s fantastic when you can find them and they’re alive. But for some reason, I keep coming across these ones who are dead.
[00:27:03] Cassidy Hall: And I also love that it was a piece of music. I’m really struck by this. I love this piece of music because I’m really interested right now, in yeah, sounds and vibrational things that kind of take us elsewhere, that enliven our body and help us to go to like an embodied space, I wonder if you experienced that––you talk about your time at the monastery, if you experienced any kind of like a vibrational encounter. I know you mentioned the silence of the monastery.
[00:27:28] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, you and I talking about music and I was, you know, in the church and praying, but it was the silence that struck me when I went for a hike and standing by a lake a deep, deep silence. I was just absolutely mesmerized by it. It felt like I could step inside it and put it on like, wrap it around me. And I just felt like Okay, this is this is the silence that Merton heard. Like I could see why he wanted to be out here all the time. It just It feels like, you know, the voice of God is out of here, right? That God speaks in silence. I was just absolutely enthralled with it.
[00:28:06] Cassidy Hall: That’s another thing about about those mystical encounters, mystical experiences. We also go to this wordless place, this place where you know you want to tell your friends or you want to explain it to somebody, and it’s just like nobody had that, but you, nobody gets that, but you. It’s such a beautiful gift when were given gifts that are wordless because we go to that mind-boggling place that almost makes us become a child again.
[00:28:29] Sophfronia Scott: Yes, but I’m a writer so that it can be crazy to not have the words right. And really, that’s what this book is about. You know, people expressed interest in how I talk about Merton. And so really, this book is about me trying to explain that it’s like, Okay, well, here’s how I engage with this person and not on the theological or not on an academic level. But personally, this is what it means to have words move me to the point of letting it affect and influence my life. I can learn, I can change, and I can find a deeper way into connection with my Alpha and my Omega through someone who did it himself.
[00:29:07] Cassidy Hall: So, going back to the conversation we were having earlier about social justice issues, we talked a little bit about how contemplation can maybe inform protests and movements. Do you think mysticism also plays a role or can play a role in informing or undergirding movements of social justice?
[00:29:27] Sophfronia Scott: Maybe, especially if you get to a place of how do I think like that person, right? What would Martin Luther King Jr. have done how How would Gandhi approach this right? People who thought very deeply about Nonviolence. Even looking back at how how they did things. So, for example, the people who protested with Martin Luther King Jr had had to prepare, right? They were taught to prepare for their protests. They had to read, they had to study scripture. They really had to grasp the non-violence within themselves and to know that they were not going to respond in hatred and violence, no matter what happened at that protest site. So if we go back to that place now to really think about okay, what was it like for them? What can we take and and learn from someone like John Lewis, right. How do I channel John Lewis as I’m standing here across from this police line, right. It may be easier to do than we realized if we think about it exactly in that way, I’m wondering if we slip in and out of personalities. You know, My friend Jenny once said she she would go shopping and sometimes she would bring back something for me and she said, “You know, I think I was being you when I bought this.” This isn’t these earrings are more you than they are me. But I was I was in a you know, there’s in your frame of mind, right?
[00:30:53] Cassidy Hall: I love these themes of contemplative space being a place of truth telling and invigorating us to tell the truth. And mysticism being kind of this place of, you know, namaste, seeing the God and you and recognizing the God and you and the God and myself. And I love the way you yeah, call to us to you consider those who have died and consider what they might do in given situations and what they have done in given situations. I think one of the things I’m trying to ask is related to: You know, sometimes we can’t get to that place of mysticism of recognizing that God and each other when both people aren’t telling the truth. Right? Like I can’t fully honor you unless you’re bringing your true self to me in this place, right in our togetherness. And I think that can really complicate things
[00:31:51] Sophfronia Scott: if you have to inauthentic people like what is actually isn’t that what we’re seeing get played out in politics right now, right, that we’re coming to the table inauthentically, right, expressing that they know not to be true. And you kind of have a stalemate there because they are invested in these untruths, that that is bewildering. So something has to shift there, something has to shift, and maybe it’s something in at the core of us, right? My son once said when I was doing a diversity training for my job, right, and it was via Zoom. And so he, you know, was waiting for me in my office, and he was listening to some of it and he said to me, “Mama, that’s that stuff they’re telling you, that sounds like stuff people should have learned at home when they were kids.” I said, yeah Tain, you know, but they didn’t and and so sometimes it’s like recognizing something as basic like, wow, what we’re learning here is common sense. Well, why is this not, you know, automatic, right? I don’t know. Cassidy.
[00:33:01] Cassidy Hall: Yeah, and I think I do think it’s possible, and correct me if you disagree, I think it’s possible to be, you know, maybe we don’t know the full truth of ourselves, but if we’re still willing to come with honesty and vulnerability, I think we can still meet each other in that place of mystical encounter.
[00:33:19] Sophfronia Scott: I agree. Is it Rumi, the mystic poet, that says, out there’s an open field, I’ll meet you there. Because we “have to know” simply, for example, me sitting here telling you I don’t know, right? So I could be in a place of thinking, ‘I can’t I can’t say to Cassidy. I don’t know because I’m being interviewed. I’m supposed to know something. I wrote a book.’ No, it’s starting from that place that I don’t know and being open to the fact that we are not complete and we are we are ever-changing. But to me, that’s also hope that’s a possibility. If we can come to the table with what’s missing, only then can we find the possibility of completion.
[00:34:02] Cassidy Hall: Beautifully stated. Is there someone or some people that embody mysticism to you or for you?
[00:34:09] Sophfronia Scott: I mentioned Robert Vivian. You know Robert Vivian, he was actually the one who read the passage of Merton that that brought me to Merton in the first place. Robert Vivian is a talented writer, and he’s in the English department at Alma College, which is where I now run the MFA program, I’m the director of the MFA. But Robert Vivian writes these prose poems called Dervish Essays, and they’re very full of of the ecstatic. And he is someone who is constantly, I can’t, I’m not sure if I can describe it. You can tell that he has taking in like a sponge, absorbing constantly every single moment what is going on around. But when you read his work and his latest book is called, All I Feel Is Rivers, it just came out. You you get the sense that this is a person who through that contemplation has touched on something mystical, that he is communicating with a higher power and recognizing there will be a moment, and there’s a line where he hasn’t said something like that, that he will put everything that is that is him, he will put it all down and stand there naked before that power. And in that place of vulnerability, I I just feel like you can’t write something like that unless you know what it is to encounter that great love and your great source.
[00:35:31] Cassidy Hall: Well, I want to thank you so much for your time today, and you know, as soon as we get off here, I’m about to go listen to the BeeGees.
[00:35:41] Sophfronia Scott: Yay! Thank you for having me.
[00:35:45] Cassidy Hall: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of contemplating now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emmolei Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emmolei Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in Partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in Partnership With enfleshed. An organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.
“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.”
How did you get inspired to create a film about Thomas Merton and his hermitage?
“We live in an age where men manufacture their own truth.” — Thomas Merton, Sermon on The Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Recorded 12/8/1962)
Even aside from politics, our days host an array of their own problems. Many have viewed the life of a monk or hermit to be a departure from the world and its many problems. But I’ve come to see this going away from the world as a way to love it—and its humans—more deeply.
I began reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation sometime back in 2011. This evolved into a Gethsemani Abbey pilgrimage which led to me traveling to the seventeen Trappist/Cistercian monasteries of the US to talk to monks and nuns about silence, solitude, and contemplative life. Somewhere along the way I became more and more interested in Thomas Merton’s work and hermitage years—why would such a brilliant person who has so much to offer the world go away from the world. The joke was on me until I began to read further into his desires for solitude and how this tension and paradox was another way of expression, another way of showing solidarity with the suffering of the world.
There’s a tension in the contemplative life—a tension that holds a paradox. This tension is intertwined with the pain of the world while meeting said pain in the silence and solitudes of our everyday lives (a paradox to many). This doesn’t make sense to everyone and the contemplative path is certainly not for everyone, but I do sincerely believe aspects of it can benefit the whole world.
Day of a Stranger is a title taken from one of Thomas Merton’s most beloved essays (May 1965). The essay was published in Latin America as a response to a journalist’s question about what a typical day in the life was like for Merton in his new hermitage home. Unbeknownst to Merton or the journalist that this would be his final home and “Dia de un Extrano,” (Day of a Stranger) was published in Papeles, a journal from Caracas, Venezuela in July of 1966 (also published in The Hudson Review in the summer of 1967).
Other questions answered:
What has surprised you the most about listening to Merton’s old tape recordings?
You were a co-producer of In Pursuit of Silence. How did working on that film help to shape your creative process for Day of a Stranger?
Why, a half century after he died, does Thomas Merton remain so popular? What do you think is at the heart of his appeal?
“My dishonesty with myself and others hinders the honesty of all humanity, hinders the progress of all people.” Journal entry on 2/12/12
In 2012 I made the decision to let go of some certainty in my life for the sake of exploring something unknown. I quit my job. I quit my salary-paying, insurance-giving job full of security and certainty so I could travel to the seventeen Cistercian monasteries of the United States. As someone who isn’t Catholic, this was a surprise to everyone I knew. I would say that this decision surprised me too, but as I went on doing what I was supposed to do each day, I only felt myself dying a million deaths. It doesn’t surprise me I took on such a drastic measure to keep on living.
So much of my life at the time was wrapped up in what other people thought of me and meeting the expectations meant sticking to the script. Quitting a secure job with a salary and benefits wasn’t just an unwelcome improvisation—it was dangerous one. And thrill seeking was absolutely not a part of those predictable characters’ make up.
Yes, I was open about my sexuality, but only quietly, only where I felt safe. Sure, I was open about my spirituality, but only to the degree that it blended in a room. Yes, I loved my job and the amazing people who crossed my path while working it, but it became mostly an uncomplicated way to pay the bills.
I thought I was “doing all the right things”, but as I did them, I couldn’t shake the nagging; the blatant certainty that there was more to this life and that it wasn’t reserved for the few, and that it might even extend to me. Fitting everywhere but belonging nowhere—it was no longer enough, and something inside me sensed my restlessness could only be calmed by letting go.
Quitting my job to pursue that which was pulling me from the center of my heart made me feel exhilarated in a way that I hadn’t experienced since the beginning of these piling expectations. The monasteries, their silence, their mystery, their unique provision of solitude felt like they could be an exception to the lack of belonging I sensed at every turn. As I gave more and more thought to this longing within me, the unknown abundance of mystery that was before me, a unique way of exploring my interior spaciousness, I knew I had to go.
And when I stepped inside these sacred places, overcome with a sense of belonging, I knew instantly I had not made a mistake. It was in these moments away that the focus sharpened and I could sense my place in the world more clearly. It was a space where the noise of any perceived audience’s approval or disapproval literally and metaphorically cleared from my life and I could hear the voice of my heart instead.
So, I poked my head into seventeen spaces bathed in prayer and talked with monks and nuns about silence, solitude and contemplative life. I didn’t realize until the pilgrimage began that part of this expression of my true-self was bound up in my existential and spiritual curiosity that had been a part of my meandering thoughts since childhood. We further explored topics related to social justice, the true-self, acedia, mental health, and community. My joy and curiosity could not be contained.
This strange pilgrimage was spurred on and then validated by Thomas Merton’s words in New Seeds of Contemplation, “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves… They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. …They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else’s experiences or write somebody else’s poems.”
This idea of spending my life on the things that aren’t of me is something I have had to navigate in my own way. It’s a lesson that is never over once it is over. It certainly isn’t easy for me to be true to myself. I have to learn and then relearn nearly every single day.
I know, for example, that in my writing life there are many topics I’ve avoided for reasons I’d rather not admit. Reasons that ultimately declare the comfort of others and myself as more important than the truth and freedom of all humanity. Reasons that shun my inner spirit and remove dignity from my identity. I learned long ago on my pilgrimage that the danger in not being my true-self had a ripple-effect that was larger than just me. My self-expression, being true to who I was, affected other’s ability to do the same. After all, we belong to each other. I knew then it was time for a change. It was time to let go of the world’s agenda for my life. And, it’s just as true now as it was then.
“Trust is very much about going beyond the guarantees; engaging into the future that is beyond what is known and seen.” A Monk of Mepkin Abbey
When I arrived home after nearly a half year on the road, I had no extreme revelations or clear-cut certainties to reveal. I only emerged with a new sense of listening to the heart of who I am and an openness to the silences and the stillnesses that speak into that true identity. I began to let go of those preconceived notions the world had seared into me for years, I began to let myself unfold and go off script.
“I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” Rainer Maria Rilke
All of life is loving as much as it is a constant letting go. Sometimes that letting go is an initial step away from the noisy world into finding out more of who we are. And, sometimes this requires a grieving. A grieving of a narrative we’ve clung to or been told, or grieving a sense of certainty or ownership. But we cannot begin to meet ourselves without this letting go. We cannot begin to reunite with the wholeness of who we are until we strip ourselves of assumptions, predictions, and expectations. We cannot hold on until we truly let go.
“There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism” in Love and Living
“A cricket chirped in the monastery’s library. That and the swish of a turned page, Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation,” was about it for sound.
Cassidy Hall stopped on page 81. Merton did not write on the absence of sound on that page but the abyss of solitude in the soul: “You do not find it by traveling but by standing still.”
Hall scrambled to write it down, as if it was a new line she had overlooked while reading the book three years ago when the direction of her life changed, when she took off around the country to seek silence in her soul. She would, in fact, travel great distances to learn how to be still.
Hall, 31, quit her job as a therapist in Ames not long after reading the book. She called the New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, where monks have lived in the Trappist monastery since 1849 in long periods of silence and contemplative prayer. She met Father Alberic Farbolin there and spent long periods talking with him about the infinite possibilities in stillness…”
Listening to the voice of my heart has never come easy for me. I’m usually quick to assume a present feeling is final, an agony is forever, or that all of my questions should have answers and answers NOW. Yet, I know better. And, the more I grow through those fleeting assumptions–the more I find myself truly pausing and listening to the utterances of my heart–the more I’m truly in touch with those parts of myself that so softly speak my own truth.
“…Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final…” Rilke, Book of Hours I, 59
I’ve found sacred pauses to buoy up my ability to hear those quiet whispers of myself: from going to monasteries, to turning off my car radio, and even truly sitting still in order to tend to “nothing”. Most recently, I returned from my second visit to Snowmass Monastery in Colorado where through the solitude and silence I was once again brought face to face with that interior whisper of who I am. Though the clarity is never striking or certain, it seems to offer a meeting place with the great unknowns and mysteries that somehow always know more, if even unspoken.
On this occasion to Snowmass Monastery, I arrived for more than just a notation on pilgrimage or for space and time away. I was attending the solemn profession of monastic vows that my friend, Brother Aaron, was about to take. He’d been a monk now for nearly eight years and was ready to make his vows of stability, obedience, and conversion of manners (Trappist/Cistercian Monastic vows*). Though I hadn’t seen him for nearly three and a half years, we’d been in touch via letters nearly every week since our initial meeting in 2013.
Much like all of my monastic trips, I settled in and rested for a moment before taking a familiar saunter into the church and meander around the accessible monastic grounds. Snowmass Monastery’s bookstore was a special stop for me to make, as it was where I’d met Brother Aaron nearly three and a half years ago. There, I sat on a bench, admired the new collection of poetry, and breathed in the beginning of a precious friendship, a sacred space of growth, and a familiarity with knowing I’m right where I should be in this very moment.
Just as I began making my way out of the store, a strangely familiar yet unrecognizable voice called out from the lawn near the bookstore, “Cassidy?” It could only be one person, someone that could know me so well to know my demeanor and recognize me by way of just that. Sure enough, it was Brother Aaron, and I finally received the true to word sign-off on each of his letters, “Big Hug”.
As we made our way back towards the guesthouse, we talked about all the friends and family pouring in from all over the map to see him on his special day. He spoke about how he was deeply moved by this and joyfully overwhelmed with all the love he was encountering. He explored with me the meaning of his choice in vocation, his decision to move forward with vows, and his sense of overflowing love with all those from his life who had come together for this important day. He told me that it seemed, “the closer I get to love in my own heart, the closer love comes to me.” That as he continued to be true and loving towards himself and love in his own life: his calling, his vocation, his personal truth–the overwhelming way in which love came to him left him speechless.
These profound words fastened to my attention throughout my time there and beyond – two weeks later they’re still searing into my being in a way that elevates my curiosity of what it really means to be true to oneself and one’s calling or vocation in life. How can one listen and be true to the heart’s quiet breathings, loud speakings, and miscellaneous messages in-between?
This dear monk has taught me time and time again of the great love we’re all capable of giving and receiving in our own unique ways and through our own unique vocations, but coming around to what that means for me certainly continues to evolve, as it does for each individual. Seeing his world come together in a way that renewed and fortified his own view on this was wondrous. As he was following his truth, listening to his call, exploring his heart – love flowed in from around the world for him, literally and figuratively.
Needless to say, I won’t soon forget seeing the solemn profession of monastic vows by my dear friend Brother Aaron. I can only hope to continue to strive towards those sacred pauses that continue to be a meeting place with the voice of my heart.
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving.” Bell Hooks
This time, after jumping in my car, no maps were necessary as I navigated my way towards New Mellerary Abbey for the 10th time since 2011. Maybe I had gone enough times to know my way, maybe something beyond myself was helping to guide me, or maybe there was nothing mystical to the experience other than the way I chose to view it.
As soon as I arrived and settled in my room, that familiar piercing silence rang in my ears. I slowly meandered to the guest library to borrow 10 books: a handful of familiar authors, half of which I’d read, half I hadn’t. I skimmed through the pamphlet the monastery gives you upon your arrival – scanning for any new rules or suggestions for my time there, nothing new. I busied myself seeing if there might be wifi, navigating where I might have cell service and doing everything but precisely what I came there for.
This is nothing new. I go to get away from everything I chase as soon as I arrive because I live in a society that tells me I should never be alone. I live in a society that tells me I should always be connected, I should always be doing something, and even in being there for a retreat – I should have something to “show” for my time there. Alas, I know better. Every second of my aimless searching and grasping only reiterates to me just how ingrained these societal shoulds are. And, as we all know, when we finally come to terms with being in our solitude the guilt piles up of everything we should and could be doing.
“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.” Pico Iyer
Solitude’s paradox comes in to play when we realize that, despite what others may say, silence and solitude are some of the most productive things we can give ourselves. Studies* demonstrate just how far we’ve gotten from true productivity (a relative statement as we all define productivity differently). Our fear of boredom (a root of creativity and imagination) has hypnotized us into screen hungry zombies. We wake up and check our emails, our social media, the news, and everything BUT checking in with ourselves; we’ve lost touch with what it means to know who we are. And in this convoluted state, we continue to reach for the quick fixes: the retreats or trips we can’t afford, the social media fast or cleanse, the “less screen time,” a cut back on work, and so on. Then as we emerge once again to be bombarded by society’s expectations alongside the needs of friends and family, we’re left confused. Almost as if an addict fresh off of rehab, our ensuing relapse only deepens us further into our modern day addiction.
“The inner fire is the most important thing humankind possesses.” Edith Sodergran
We’re tired. And the cycle continues as we try to figure out how to marry what we feel is best to what the world seems to need and expect of us: in what situations do we bargain it all and dive in, what places do we let go for good, in what realms can we stick to a practice that allows us to truly and regularly hear ourselves? In the same breath, we’re so concerned that if we let go anywhere we’ll miss something – we won’t have enough money to pay rent, we’ll lose our friends, we can’t go to all the activities, we won’t make enough money to feel okay, or we’ll be off everyone’s radar because we’re no longer “involved enough.” Then, we once again come to the end of our days and moments struck with the reminder that we’ve lost touch with who we are, what we want, and what we’re doing.
“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” Oscar Wilde
We’ve become so busy that our days are mapped out to the second, our sleep is forced off rhythm by lack of time, our solitude is planned out to the minute, and we’re expecting ourselves to do it all. Another paradox to explore is that solitude was birthed in community; as we cannot know summer without winter, we lose sight of solitude when we isolate ourselves from community. Do the people around me truly know my needs in and out of solitude? How can we encourage one another to find those crevices of ourselves to love and explore more. How can we truly go away from commitments and people to come back more full of love, understanding, and compassion towards ourselves and others.
“The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared.” Henri Nouwen
Once I finally settled into the rhythms of the monastery, I was able to let go of some of these things society has poisoned me with. I breathed into my time alone – allowing my thoughts, both negative and positive, to arise, listening to the silence, and grappling with those challenges and fears we all face in our silences. I was again reawakened and reopened to my vulnerabilities, my aimless clinging, and my continued awe for the mysteries of life.
I needed no map to navigate my way home, I needed no radio for company. The peace of knowing I at least spent half of my time basking in the solitude reassured me that I was in touch with the natural rhythms of my life, if only just a little. Perhaps there’s something different this time and I’m more open to listening to the solitude; allowing it to speak silence, truth, and rest into my life. Those moments I can finally say okay to letting go of the world in order to deepen my awareness. Those moments I reach for nothing and engage with who I really am. Those moments, I listen.
Studies and articles on silence, boredom, solitude, etc. Many thanks to these authors for their inspiration and dedication to the topic:
“You can’t anticipate a garden. Stuff won’t grow until it’s time to grow and when the season’s finished, it’s all over.” -Father Anthony, OCSO
My friend Dave told me once that to be ok with loneliness, you have to be ok with the blank page. Most of us can’t stop thinking or doing when we finally sit with our blank page; we just have to fill in the blanks spaces, the silences, and the quiet moments – covering their richness.
While looking back recently at how I ended up living in Los Angeles and working as an Associate Producer of the documentary film, In Pursuit of Silence, I’m able to see how I listened to myself in the quiet moments that I sat with the blank page.
In the midst of my career as a therapist in 2012, much of my time was spent talking to my clients about goals in their lives, encouraging them in their passions, learning what makes them come alive – while I sat on my own passions.
During that time I developed a growing fascination of monasteries, the lives of monks and nuns, and the words of various authors including Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Little did I know I was beginning to not only sit with my blank page, but also engage with it’s vast and often undisclosed mysteries. Less than a month after quitting my job in 2012 I set out to all of the Trappist Monasteries of the United States from the Nuns in the Redwoods of California to the beer-brewing Monks of Spencer, Massachusetts.
The loneliness and aloneness while traveling alone were some of the hardest and most rewarding mysteries of this journey. It’s the blank page I found and still often find myself running from in order to do as opposed to be. It takes enormous practice and courage to be able to sit in front of that page and rewrite oneself, listen to the often terrifying truths of oneself and strip away the layers the world places on our senses.
My restlessness in these quiet and often silent monasteries was something I knew I needed to sit with and learn from. During these moments, I encountered many negative thoughts and feelings of which I had no desire to see, hear, or listen to. I once asked a nun if the inner noise ever goes away in these quiet times alone, and her response was that perhaps the more important question is why do I want to get rid of the noise in the first place? Even though they’re dark and often gross parts of me, they are parts of me. Living in total hatred of these dark parts of me only creates an unnecessary act of self-violence, just as potentially getting rid of it or hating it might create an unnecessary form of violence in a direction away from myself.
There was nothing pleasurable about thoughts of hatred and sadness within myself, but it was still an opportunity for greater love of myself and ultimately others. There was nothing joyful about sitting through dreadful emotions of the finality of life, the certainty of death, the unattained dreams, the wars of all forms of violence in the world and within myself, my weaknesses in loving others, the forgetfulness of kindness, the inconvenience of gentleness and generosity. Yet, selfishly, as I grew to know more of myself and came to greater self-acceptance, my love for others was deepened alongside my deepening understanding of others.
I once viewed the monastery as a museum – an aesthetic location of a tradition that’s been upheld for nearly thousands of years; a place where people can go to see monks or nuns as if they’re some sort of monument to religion or life. I began all of this with that view in part but certainly ended with a great reverence of not only tradition but more importantly, relationship. Each person I spoke with seemed to provide a pure and humble space where the ground was level, a place where I was truly present with someone, a place where despite our differences we could speak of our darkness and understand one another’s pains.
I used to just see silence as a place of recharging, breathing room, a quiet away from the noise, or even just a peaceful place. Silence has always served one of such feelings to me until I eventually end up getting to the anxieties of my every day life: the unending to do lists, the racing feelings of being unproductive, the worries and concerns of all I cannot control, etc. From my experiences at these various monasteries, I found that it wasn’t until I sat through these things in silence and space that I could reach a much deeper and often darker place of self-discovery, which led and still leads me to more of my true self.
There are no resounding truths or revelations to my pilgrimage in 2012. There are no seeable results or clear-cut facts, and no healed anxieties or depressive states. Instead, I returned in 2012 and still sit in 2014 with more beautifully unanswered questions, more curiosities of mysteries and more reverence for this life that I am able to live.
Now, I no longer have to look friends, family, or clients in the face and encourage them to pursue their dreams and passions while sitting on my own. Now, I can sit with a blank page and be ok.
“…The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful….” Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
Guadalupe Abbey is amid the valleys of wine country in Oregon, just southwest of Portland and inland from the brilliant Oregon coastline. Appropriately so, the abbey grounds were in full bloom for Easter weekend, and the forest that rested in the background was aglow. I wasn’t sure what to expect at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, but I was certain it would feel like home just as every other Abbey has.
Part of me has been avoiding writing this for numerous reasons: 1. It reiterates that this journey is complete. 2. It heightens my awareness of the false need of the next step. 3. As if the world wasn’t loud enough, it reminds me I’m back ‘in’ and ‘a part’ of it – which results in the only thing heard is ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’
“Sometimes you just have to stop and look. Then you can see the mystery.”
This was said to me numerous times over the course of Easter weekend as I grappled with knowing this was my final stop on the pilgrimage and was bouncing between anxiety and peace over this precise thing.
It’s always been interesting to me that somehow some of the most clear things in ones life are filled with those precise contradictions: anxiety (for others maybe fear) alongside an extreme peace and sense of knowing. While it’s obvious that these things are born of the risk typically involved in such events – if it’s clear, why do we hesitate, stutter step, and practically lead ourselves stumbling towards what we know? What is it about arriving at our goal on the floor that reassures it as the right thing – or what is it about the process to arrive that makes us unnecessarily bask in the pain?
There’s something about challenge that I wallow in, as if it’s a safe space. I’ve often seen myself as someone that starts numerous things and doesn’t finish anything, or someone that runs with things get hard, or someone that turns at the slightest glimpse of difficulty. This pilgrimage showed me both that I can finish things, and I can stick to things when they get hard. I’m still approached and asked how my ‘vacation’ was – the true work of the heart is the hardest of all – there are no breaks or pauses when one is working through and discovering who they really are (which we all know is also a never ending job each of us can choose to avoid or work through on any given day).
So, I’m sure we’re all wondering what this means: what I learned, what’s the outcome, where are the results, who am I, how did I grow, … now what?
I can only say with great confidence and slight ease – I don’t know. While all of this resulted in more questions than answers, it also showed me more of who I am – both the good and the bad. The things that come up in my heart and mind when all else is silent, the noise of who I am and the whispers of who I long to be.
“Sometimes you have to stop and look. Then you can see the mystery.”
By definition, mystery remains unknown – impossible to understand or explain, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be seen, felt, heard, tasted, touched, or seen. With that being said, I’ve unveiled nothing but I’ve finally sensed the most true and pure mysteries this world has to offer. Not because these things can only be sensed in silence or at monasteries – but because that is what I needed in order to sense these things.
“We are so impressed by scientific clank that we feel we ought not to say that the sunflower turns because it knows where the sun is. It is almost second nature to us to prefer explanations . . . with a large vocabulary. We are much more comfortable when we are assured that the sunflower turns because it is heliotropic. The trouble with that kind of talk is that it tempts us to think that we know what the sunflower is up to. But we don’t. The sunflower is a mystery, just as every single thing in the universe is.” Robert Farrer Capon
“All is mystery; but he is a slave who will not struggle to penetrate the dark veil.” Benjamin Disraeli
“No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” Annie Dillard