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August NonRequired Reading List
Contemplify / NRR #81
“The hermit life is cool.”
- Thomas Merton
I have a thing for hermits. My wife is cool with it.
There is a God-given/blessed/rascally-ness to hermits that allures me. Sweeping statements about hermits is destined to give me lockjaw, so let me be reverently particular. The hermits I know are joyfully contrarian, by location and lifestyle, to the battiness of dominant culture. They choose a way of holy divergence.
Late last spring, I visited the urban hermitages of two of my favorites, Tessa Bielecki and Fr. David Denny. Near Saguaro National Park, their clean well-lit spaces were dusted with prayer. Icons, art, books, and memories reached out from their sacred dwellings to its inhabitants, and me, their sandaled visitor. This was not the sazerac talking. We shape our spaces and then our spaces shape us. Winston Churchill said that. Rooms drenched in prayers hydrate us. I said that. As Tessa was showing me around her hermitage she told me that it is a common practice among hermits to hang a crucifix on the wall opposite their bed. So that when the slumbering hermit wakes to the day, the first cast of their eyes is on the crucified Jesus. In the moment this tidbit didn’t spike inspiration, but as the following days and weeks wore out, the image kept returning as a question, how am I greeting the day?1
I shared a favorite Thoreauvian starburst in last month’s missive about “morning work”2. It pairs well with Tessa’s word about the first gaze of the morning. Like most western idiots, my first gaze used to be at my smartphone. The alarm on my phone would buzz and I would turn towards its sleek tones. My phone was only acting as an alarm clock, but still, it did not sit well with me. Waking up and immediately reaching for a device is the only thing I know for certain that is a sin. I started thinking of it as the day’s original sin. Lord, save me from these scapegrace ways. Here is what happened next. I reverted back to a battery powered alarm clock and then after weeks of waspish practice, I began waking up before my alarm. A twofold gift was unwrapped. My phone was no longer the first receiver of my attention. Secondly—brace for saccharine overload—upon waking, I turn towards my sleeping wife (and son if he has snuck into bed). Her open face, resting in the care of sleep and mystery. My son’s blonde locks spilling across my pillow, eyes closed and lips pursed as if deciding between a smile and kiss. The first look of the day is upon my beloveds. A charitable start to the day as I remind myself that it will not always be so.
This musing all started with Tessa’s comment on the purposeful location of a crucifix on a hermit’s bedroom wall. A comment that would inspire my alarm swap-out to its useless end and the sleepy-eyed praise for the woman I love. Surprisingly, this thought kept unspooling. Tugging on this fraying reflective thread, I meditated on how I engage with the spaces that shape me: material, communal, solitudinal, and intimate. What learnings might lighten into revelations with due attention? What mirrorings from these spaces might stretch me? Or offer a sense of belonging? All four spaces have thresholds that open up into each other, but looking upon the unique function of each is a useful starting place.
My pal Nick, an artist with an eye so sharp he cuts beauty with a glance, once asked a table of colleagues—how would you describe your design style? Not a question I field often. I finally responded with Hip Midwestern Grandad3. I love woodcuts, block prints, icons, small carvings, tabletop statues, children’s art, rocks, feathers, stacks of books, bones, and plants. My spaces are seasoned with these textured accouterments. Their presence is pleasing, and tingles at the touch. Placing a palm on a sacred text, inviting the metal of my singing bowl to ring, rubbing my thumb over a worn wood carving, or drawing a journal close to my chest—this is all kataphatic flirting. Don’t you agree that when a treasured book is neatly tucked underarm you feel the nearness of your own thrumming heart? Contemplative osmosis catches through proximity and materials matter a good deal in incarnational living.
Material substances coo, particularly in solitude. Solitude often gets hip checked into bruises nicked as loneliness and isolation. This is not true. Solitude is a generator of solace that centers down with undulating energy. Solitude is not the fortress that Superman thinks it is. It is an undisturbed desert. A shock of gray set against jet black hair. It is a stick of butter left out on the kitchen counter in the heat of an August afternoon. Meister Eckhart says, “One must learn an inner solitude, wherever one might be.”4 When I lose my inner solitude in a crowd, a meeting, or a party, I watch Overwhelm burst into my being. He mister rogers his shoes, rolls off his socks, and rubs his sweaty feet on my couch. That dirty dog. The contemplative pivot is to see this internal intruder picking his toes and reset to an inner solitude. Overwhelm may not leave immediately, but he notices the shift. He puts his socks back on (at least) and remembers this is not his home.
Spaces of solitude generate heat for me and demand its mirror community to stay cool. At its best, community is a library that offers more truth, beauty, and goodness than one can absorb. Rows of books, rich in history5, narrative, and poetry. Stacked and leaning against one another, the possibilities for connection and discovery are boundless. This is what makes a bona fide community forever risky and necessarily so. Community, like a library, has to be free to thrive but is also fueled by the high expectations of creativity, responsibility, and attention. All tender hearts are at stake here. Watch out if a library catches fire. If one book goes up in flames, every last thing could burn to the ground. Genres leap to conclusions and scapegoat one another; Literature blames Thrillers, Large-Print Biography blames Children’s, until all fingers point at Religion and History. The community becomes crispy mothballs. If you are immersed in inner solitude, worry not, you are nearly fireproof. And a community that protects and supports this inner solitude is able to assist when a tender tinder heart catches fire or is singed by a backdraft. If you can find a community that is this free and responsible, give yourself over to it. No matter how long or short it endures.
There is no protection from the fire of intimate spaces. A fire that burns but does not consume. A tremendous agony. An everlasting ache. Nuptial mystics, ecstatic love poetry, nature mysticism are all seducers of this blue flame of union. An amatory space so mysterious and vulnerable that all protective layers must be shed to engage. This kindles the fire that envelopes. Divine allurement and the human beloved both wear sensitive skin. Union awaits homecoming. Longing for One known and ceaselessly available. Making love only happens skin to skin. Attempting to speak further of this thin blue flame, I hear myself enunciate like driftwood. Unshored and without direction. Rather than chase what cannot be cornered by words, I let it stray away.
It all begins with the unshuttering of eyes from the night’s closure. Where do you set your first gaze of the day? A crucifix? A beloved? A “hang in there” cat poster? I still have much to learn about how spaces, material and immaterial, shape me. My own history and makeup provide some clues, but the Spirit blows kazoos where it will and has me turning my attention to the start of the day. Thanks to a couple of urban hermits, my eyes are turning towards love each morning. May the Spirit tug on your sheets and inspire you to tilt your gaze towards what you need most.
August NonRequired Reading List
Sun House by David James Duncan (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
While camping in the Pecos Mountains in northern New Mexico this past weekend I finished Sun House. After telling my son a bedtime story, I settled into my sleeping bag and flipped on my headlamp to read the last few chapters in our tent. Relishing the summation of nearly 800 pages of pristine reading I reached its benediction. I was pacing the final paragraphs with teary pauses until full-on crying jags released. Common tears misted, formed, and dropped under the revelry of eternal patterns. My daughter unzipped the tent door moments after I turned the last page. She slipped into her sleeping bag between her brother and me. My tears were unknown to her, but with her sensitive antennas tuned, she reached out her hand to be held. The immense beauty of Sun House washed back over me again. We held hands until sleep found us.
Sun House is my only recommendation for August. Not because of its muscular stature and weighty paper stock, but because it has called forth a devotion from me. I will try to explain by walking around this whyless why. The mystics who have most mesmerized my attention these past few years; Meister Eckhart, Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Eihei Dōgen, make multiple appearances by quote, reference, or inspiration. Chewing on their juicy roots and spitting out my excesses gets me nutritionally balanced. Truly, the deathless presence of these mystics are more present and conversant than most of the yahoos buzzing for my attention. Then you toss in lines from luminary poetic pals, Chris Dombrowski and Teddy Macker, legends like Gary Snyder, Jane Hirshfield, and James Baldwin, and I am unspun. And I am missing more heavyweights champions of the heart, but better to peel back the pages and take the punches yourself.
I make this lone recommendation because if you like the spirit of Contemplify, you will lap up Sun House. The sheer number of friends of Contemplify who have reached out about it is staggering. One past guest shared they are using it for lectio divina (applause break from me), another past guest gifted it to a mutual friend for their birthday earlier this month, another is writing a piece on the author. This synchronicity preaches.
David James Duncan breathes life into characters that evolve across pages, terrains, and seasons of life. They become so textured I can reach into my imagination and run my fingers through the thickness of one’s fur, see the glee gap between another’s teeth, and lean in close to hear the whispering rasp of the ocean. The characters in Sun House have been sucked up under my eyelids and sunk in opaque impressions on the wrinkles of my brain. No longer characters, but embedded friends playing etch-a-sketch with my dreams. Their stories bump into each other, exchanging and converging. My laughing heart welcomes the unabashed warmth they give me.
If you hadn’t guessed it, I am intentionally not saying a damn thing about the story. It should all be a surprise. When was the last time you read a book without knowing too much? Let your eyes and fingers walk the pages, breaking the ground for you to proclaim your own sighs and ahas! Let those foolish reviewers be; wreaking of jealousy, misunderstanding much, and giving away gold alongside their snark. Sun House should be approached like fresh bed sheets; gratitude for being wrapped up in a soft, tangible, sun-kissed mercy at the end of a long, wearisome day.
Sun House is for readers who bear their lives as an event; to be present to it, to weep over it, and be unpredictably healed by the relentless and Unseen Unborn Guileless Perfection.
Season Four is rolling on. A bunch of good eggs in riveting conversations. As always you can find the complete list of Contemplify episodes here and below are the episodes of Season Four so far. The most recent episode hatched yesterday, with Doug Christie, a mystic scholar with wit and presence in spades.
Douglas E. Christie on Depth Without Resolution (Season 4, Ep 6)
Carmen Acevedo Butcher Follows the Mystical Tugs on the Heart (Season 4, Ep 5)
Lisa Wells on Holding a Fierce and Loving Gaze (Season 4, Ep 4)
Scott Avett on Being Here for the Feast (Season 4, Ep 3)
Haleh Liza Gafori on Putting Mystery in the Middle (Season 4, Ep 2)
Belden Lane on the Unbroken Desert of God (Season 4, Ep 1)
Your Naked Freedom (Season 4 Trailer)
Arts & Articles
LOVE AS THE LEADING ETHIC FOR BLACK CONTEMPLATIVES by Guesnerth Josué Perea (Substack): This October, the Center of Spiritual Imagination will be offering an introductory series called "Black Lives and Contemplation." The series will explore the deep roots of Black contemplation and help participants gain a broader understanding of both Blackness and contemplation, and how this knowledge can be used to deepen their own contemplative lives. The course will suggest that we broaden our definition of contemplation, recognizing that “Poetry, music, and art all share something in common with the contemplative experience.” (Thomas Merton) (h/t to Center for Spiritual Imagination)
THE CONTEMPLATIVE POETICS OF FAITH DECONSTRUCTION by Paul Swanson (Spiritual Ministries Institute): Good people, the fine folks at the Spiritual Ministries Institute asked me lead a virtual workshop on faith deconstruction this November. I decline most invitations, my primary responsibilities demand it. But a poetic angle of approach struck me that I realized might be helpful. So I said yes. Here is the description: The unfolding path of faith is risky and unpredictable in its evolutions throughout life. At times faith can feel linear, clear, and light, only to lose its shine in the wreckage of unforeseen circumstances. Some outgrow the shell of their consummate sense of faith and feel a drizzle of hope call them onward and into the unknown. The complexity of faith is experienced across discovery, loss, stability, and mystery. In this workshop we will honor the poetic totality of faith experiences through opportunities to engage in contemplative practices, musings, storytelling, and personal reflection.
HAPPINESS by Steve Cutts (Vimeo): This animated short is worth 4 minutes of your time. It will jolt you asunder. (h/t to The Browser)
MONTANA KIDS WIN HISTORIC CLIMATE LAWSUIT – HERE’S WHY IT COULD SET A POWERFUL PRECEDENT by Amber Polk (The Conversation): Good news on the saving the planet front, or, right living in the distracted days as we drive headstrong towards doom. A small step in right-sizing policies to reflect the dire needs of our home. I celebrate this one. The article offers helpful background on how ‘green amendments’ could be helping pave the way for change. (h/t to Baratunde)
Crucifix and Beloved,
Am I suffering or being seduced?
Across the wild homeland I stray.
Blinking after the gaze,
P.S. A link to the Contemplify bookshop that holds books named or alluded to in this Non-Required Reading.
Thanks for reading Contemplify…if the Spirit blows its kazoo for you here. Subscribe for free below.
When it comes to starting the day, I have been taking the advice from the best of neuroscience, nutrition, and sleep studies, but also hermits.
Fun sidebar on morning work. To play the metaphor some more Carl Jung says that “one cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
“hip” might be questionable.
David James Duncan. Sun House (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2023). p.594.
Community does not have to be just those living presently