Discover more from Contemplify
Contemplify NonRequired Reading List Email for December 17, 2018
The December NonRequired Reading List
Fifty years ago and a week, Thomas Merton stepped out of the shower and touched a poorly wired fan, was electrocuted and died. Being the ripe age of 38 I missed sharing the planet with him by over a decade. I grieve never having the chance to sip Kentucky bourbon with him on the front porch of his hermitage, inquire about the direct simplicity of Chuang Tzu, or hear him ruminate on the festering wounds of racism in America. Like so many other seekers bending towards the contemplative way, my friendship with Merton began with his writings. In reading Merton’s countless words and listening to those sharing personal memories of his generative spirit I can only begin to outline the shape of his presence.
And yet I often feel that I know Thomas Merton, the way I know my neighbor. And like my neighbor, I owe Merton a great deal. Merton has pulled me aside and offered a nudge or a friendly word of advice in nearly episode of my life. Why would it be any different with the birth of my second child? The following Merton quotes have been lighthouses safeguarding me from crashing during this new season.
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. 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 in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
- Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 81)
‘In order to be recollected in action I must not lose myself in action. And in order to keep acting, I must not lose myself in recollection. Hence recollected activity, in carrying out the will of God in the duties of my state of life, means a balance between interior purity and exterior attention. Both these are required.’
- Thomas Merton (No Man is an Island, 234)
This Advent season my exterior attention has a small square footage. I am focused on the well-being of my beloveds currently sleeping in the house. My interior grounding is found in a contemplative sit, wiping the lens clean so I can carry out the embodied intentions of my current state of life. Waiting in the darkness, without distraction or fear, I forego this frenzied violence of our times. There is so much work to be done in this world, but nearly all of it is not mine to do. The radicality of Thomas Merton has taught me a very important question - What is mine to do right now?
For me, wash the dishes with and in great love.
During this Advent season, may the recollections of my four favorite books I recommended in 2018 be of service to you. Here is the best of the 2018 NonRequired Reading List (in order of which they were read):
Here is the Top of 2018's NonRequired Reading List...
(From April's List) The Ashokan Way: Landscape’s Path into Consciousness by Gail Straub (Get it at the Public Library or Indiebound)
I am a torn lover between landscapes. My primary loves are the lakes and trees of Minnesota, but I have also deeply fallen for the desert mountains and mesas of New Mexico. And if I drift into memories, I recall other landscapes that pierced my heart. When it comes to landscapes, Gail Straub is my people. Her latest book, The Ashokan Way, shares her meditations on the dance of landscape and consciousness. Each reflective passage is only a couple pages, but exquisitely drops the reader in Ashokan Reservoir right next to Gail on her daily walks. The rhythm of the walk through the seasons of the year opens up the bending of the interior landscape towards the exterior (and at times, vice versa). One of my particularly favorite passages is Gali’s reflection on Zen Master Dogen lines, ‘The mountains, unchanged in body and mind, maintaining their own mountain countenance, have always been traveling about studying themselves.’, she writes,
“Maintaining their natural character, the mountains travel about studying themselves. If I can find my own true identity and then journey to understand and fulfill my calling, I will have lived well...Elegant and sustainable, there is absolutely no waste or distraction in this path of maintaining my own countenance. This is the way--constant, simple, and sustainable--that I long to live. This is why the ancients felt that we could most clearly understand the deep structure of things when in the presence of a mountain landscape.” (p. 88)
This book states its intention from the very first line of ink in the introduction, ‘Attention is a form of devotion and a pathway to intimacy.’ (p. xxvii). This is the contemplative gift of The Ashokan Way, a generative model of how to attune to a practice that requires your focused and embodied attention to develop an intimacy with something larger than yourself.
(From August's List) The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 by Robert Hudson (Get it at the Public Library or Indiebound)
Famed contemplative hermit Thomas Merton wrote in his journal in the mid 1960s, ‘Should a hermit like Bob Dylan? He means at least as much to me as some of the new liturgy, perhaps in some ways more. I want to know the guy. I want him to come here, and I want him to see one of my poems.’(p. 107) And after hearing Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde, Merton pronounced, “One does not get ‘curious’ about Dylan. You are either all in it or all out of it. I am in his new stuff.” (p.2)
Robert Hudson has written a book that seems tailor made to my interests. This book is for every Merton fanatic, Dylanphile, and those whose ears perk up at the calling of the artist as a contemplative vocation. A master wordsmith, a recognized Bob Dylan scholar and a member of the International Thomas Merton Society — Robert Hudson is the perfect person to have penned this book. I’ve been waiting for a book like this my whole life. Hudson breathes poetic life into the retelling of the intersection of Bob Dylan, Thomas Merton and the summer of 1966. Beware, this book is a page-turner of magnetic proportions on the themes of love, fame, solitude, death, vows, contemplation, art and justice. You can hear my conversation with Robert Hudson here.
There is also a lingering challenge that I hope another Merton scholar will take up. Hudson notes that right after the Dylan obsession, Merton became fixated with John Coltrane’s Ascension. This album was speaking at such mystical volumes to Merton that he shared its spiritual and social implications with the novices under his tutelage. I hope someone with the same skillful means as Robert Hudson is up to the task of weaving Coltrane’s prophetic mysticism with Merton’s.
(From September's List) Behind My Eyes by Li-Young Lee (Get it at the Public Library or Indiebound)
When a person I admire recommends a poet, I hop to it. Chad Wriglesworth, a recent guest on Contemplify, did just that when he spoke of the poet Li-Young Lee. I began reading a book of interviews with Lee, Breaking the Alabaster Jar. The depth of his being and the work flowing from his identity as an immigrant is so nuanced, vulnerable, and subtle in its particularity and yet connects universally. Li-Young Lee is a seer. He talks about not being a poet, but continually ‘becoming a poet’. The poem of his that most recently broke through for me was ‘Virtues of the Boring Husband’. It starts off with tender care and humor and then opens up into the mystical (if you want to hear him read it, go to this public reading and jump to minute 32).
Reading Behind My Eyes is akin to bearing witness to an ever ripening fruit tree whose bounty hangs heavy on the branches, all you dare to mutter after picking each piece is amen. Just this morning I was struck by ‘In His Own Shadow’ and ‘Immigrant Blues’ and oh yeah, don’t miss ‘Dying Stupid’. I could go on with a few more not to overlook, but the splendor is in its fullness. Li-Young Lee is the type of poet I imagine I’ll be walking alongside until my path hits the horizon.
(From November's List) Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation by Phileena Heuertz (Get it at the Public Library or Indiebound)
Eleven years ago I was a work intern at the Center for Action and Contemplation. A season of life that would unknowingly tether me to the contemplative journey. As an intern, I lived in community with 6 other interns. If that wasn't enough, we were also the guest house for retreatants. One evening as we were settling into our dinner, there was a knock on our door. I hustled over to welcome our unknown guest, who happened to be Phileena Heuertz. Over the course of the meal we would come to learn about Phileena’s work with folks living in poverty and on the margins. In the storytelling around the shared table that evening, I recognized a depth to Phileena’s being and presence. That depth soaks the pages of Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation.
There is a particular section of Mindful Silence that won’t leave me alone. Phileena shares her story of pilgrimage to Assisi and unexpected discovery of Clare of Assisi. ‘Unexpected discovery’ is a tame understatement...let me try that again. Phileena’s embodied response to her experience of Clare of Assisi is mysterious, illuminative and a remember that the incarnation is indeed good. Upon reflection of her experience, Phileena writes,
‘Contemplative spirituality assumes depth. It rises from the deep well of presence, perception, and personhood. When nurtured, it overflows into streams of living water for others...It is from these depths of presence, perception and personhood that I and countless others have been able to encounter her [Clare of Assisi] living presence today. Her bodily form has passed away, but her essence is still very palpable--so tangible that she is still healing and freeing the hearts and minds of people all these centuries later.’ (p 113 - 114).
Phileena has written a book that will surely find its place in the new contemplative canon. In Mindful Silence Phileena weaves her story, contemplative themes and teachers alongside practices, with the invitation always at hand to take another step into greater healing and wholeness by embodying the contemplative way. If that descriptions speaks to you, check out mindfulsilence.org.
Arts and Articles
‘Merry Christmas’ (Poem) by Langston Hughes: A poem holding the tension of suffering in the Christmas season
'Mehcinut' (Song) by Jeremy Dutcher: Jeremy Dutcher is a classically trained operatic tenor and composer who takes every opportunity to blend his Wolastoq First Nation roots into the music he creates (hat tip to Cliff).
‘Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Politics’ (Article) by Jeffrey Bilbro: A summary of Merton’s approach to coming at politics slant-wise (hat tip to Mark).
‘TU Dance & Bon Iver | Come Through, Naeem 2’ (Dance + Song) by MN Original: This is the only modern dance I’ve seen that has moved me to tears.
Three most recent episodes of Contemplify…
When the frenzied action surrounds you in the coming days, may your protest be an internal silent resilience opening up the way for the next most loving action. May the Advent and Christmas seasons draw you closer to the Mystery of the Incarnation in all of its incantations.
May you always have a pocketful of quarters for every juke joint you enter.
And may you taste the Mystery of life in every form, be it a fiber cereal or a lusty stout.
Listen Well & Read Often,
P.S. Babatunde Akinboboye has done the math, hip-hop + opera = Hip Hopera