May NonRequired Reading List
Contemplify / NRR #78
“Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before ever they existed.”
- Meister Eckhart
In the dark, dark, dark, I get up early to drive home. A weekend retreat of poetry and saguaro speak has brushed the crumbs off my feather heart. Now I must put my shoulder to the wheel. My daughter’s birthday party is nine hours away and I promised I would be home in time to set up. A real desert and an imaginal border are mine to cross to celebrate her life. Hot tea, no coffee yet, and the low rumble of Greg Brown companion me. Turning onto the country highway, I spook, then chase a mule deer with my headlights curving. His safety is found in disappearing into the darkness. I howl at the fat moon. Air rushes in the open window and wipes the sleep off my eyes. Tactics to stay awake in early morning desert driving. The moon dozes, but not the border patrol. At the checkpoint I am quickly waved through and told to have a good night. The contrarian in me takes this as my cue to wake the morning up, but I cannot stomach yanking the night blankets off the ancient dawn yet, so I nudge her gently, and keep driving east. The sleepy moon fades as the sun rises over the Chihuahuan desert. Both orbs hang in the sky like a pair of mismatched eyes, one heavy from the night’s watch and the other reddened from waking. Under these peeled eyes, prayers are offered for all those seeking refuge and avoiding spotlights on borders. How does one abide in the harsh desert?
The word “abide” shows up a number of times in the latter half of John’s Gospel. It is a word that tastes like wild rosemary. Abide can mean a mutual making of a home, being at home with and in. Abide connotes sharing presence. There is no border between subjects within this abiding, the circle is drawn around the abiding itself. I like to pair “abide” with this saying by Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before ever they existed.”
Meister Eckhart tells us that before we were created into being with God, we were without separation in God. Abiding is our pre-birth right. After God has spoken us into existence in the here and now, we are still one with God in our origin, but our creatureliness gives us the illusion of separateness even though we carry the stink of God’s morning breath on us. We have gone nowhere because we still exist as we always did in God, but we have gone somewhere because we are now manifested as these glorious smelly bipeds who pay taxes, eat Fruit Loops, start wars, and cross checkpoints. The contemplative task at hand now is to learn to abide in God as a return to what is our original arrangement while simultaneously welcoming God to abide in us in this created state. Abiding in the here and now is an effort to make a mobile home together. It is an empty pocketed road trip of return. So how do we do that?
God has fashioned a home in each of us. A home of interior vastness, desert, emptiness, nothingness. The key to this home is releasing everything that is not God and everything that we think is God. One might call this house key the practice of kenosis, detachment, or releasement. This key can easily be misplaced in the clutter of knick knacks and prayer candles. And to make matters worse, the problem is not only the tchotchkes, but also clutching the key while waxing on about the desert, emptiness, and vastness which all negates the very no-thing-ness of God’s abiding by filling it up with weighty words. So, we must all laugh at our inability to abide through effort alone to avoid becoming a fruit loop ourselves. We are creatures fickle by nature, but steadfast by grace. I’ve come to believe that our efforts in abiding should humbly lead us to a mix of laughter and silence. Laughter at the illusionary ways we attempt to vacuum this desert and adorn it with decorations. Silence strikes when we unclasp the blinders to absorb the desert’s presence-less presence. Perhaps that is enlightenment, when you are free enough to abide in laughter, in silence, and everything in between.
Driving the desert roads of the American Southwest to get home to my little girl’s party, I am stirred. The language of abiding I find in Jesus and Eckhart reverberates off these reddish beige mountains that transition into mauve when lit by the sun’s horizontal rays. Abiding in the desert is the song of my heart. I find it is necessary for awakening love’s call to enter and release all. The beautiful desert is also a brutal landscape and an unconscious bully for empire. Real men, women, and children risk their lives crossing real deserts and invisible borders in hope, under a harsh set of eyes; the blistering sun and the moon’s freezing chills. Refuge is not easily found. If they survive, they are met by the unknown. Or by border patrol. I pull off to the side of the road to gaze over the vastness. I taste rosemary in the air. I wonder about all of those fleeing across this desert who act and abide in the words of Eckhart from an angle unimaginable to me, “Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before ever they existed.”
May NonRequired Reading List
Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine by Randy S. Woodley (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
It can be difficult to follow Jesus and be a Christian writes Dr. Randy S. Woodley. Not just fun wordplay, that statement slaps with truth. Bucking the norm of theological discourse in western circles, Woodley artfully draws from Indigenous stories and theological insights in a series of conversations that became Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine.
Dr. Randy S. Woodley is a Cherokee teacher, former pastor, professor, and historian who creates conversational spaces for Indigenous theology to dialogue with Western theological approaches. The critique of western approaches is opened by an expansive looks at the narrowness of tired presuppositions that have propagated in western Christianity. And this work is flush with humor. Something most theologians are not known for it. Dr. Woodley engages humor as perhaps the most underutilized learning tool.
The final section of the book was most elucidating for me. Woodley focuses on decolonizing western Christian theology through appreciation of “The Harmony Way”. This highlights Dr. Woodley’s research on the diversity of North American Indigenous cultures with the intent of locating what virtues, values, and perspective were shared in the commons without reducing distinctive cultures into a monolith. This wisdom and history demonstrates a needed challenge to the dominant norms of western theological education and practice.
Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview is for any reader who has been mired in western theology and is open to seeing the cracks in the foundation, and the theological flowers who have always been sprouting through that concrete towards the light.
Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks-and What It Can Teach Us by Kim Haines-Eitzen (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
I am a lake guy. The scent of Minnesota lakes is still on my skin. My veins run with the Boundary Waters. I have been drying off the last decade and a half in the high desert of New Mexico. The desert sand has gotten got in my underwear, under my nails, and in my teeth. I am desert guy. How both remain true is a paradox that I get to live. We are all shaped by the land we live on. Dr. Kim Haines-Eitzen digs into this in her book, Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks-and What It Can Teach Us.
What sounds does an early Christian monk hear? What brings comfort as the wind of the Spirit, and, what leaves one trembling in their tunic? The epigraph of Sonorous Desert quotes John Luther Adams, and the book holds it as its through line to the end, “Listening is a primary mode of understanding. As we listen to the world around us, we come to understand more deeply our place within it. Our listening animates the world. And the world listens back.”
The ways in which the early Christians monks participated in an ensouled sonorous world is enchanting; chanting Psalms, St. Antony hearing a voice calling him home, discerning between silence and noise, demonic voices, the semantron, and so on. Haines-Eitzen also brings the desert sounds to life in Sonorous Desert by providing readers with links of her field recordings of deserts around the world. Listening to those recordings you are awash with the sounds of bird cries, canyon echoes, and the whistling wind of the supposedly quiet desert.
The Sonorous Desert is for any reader who can nerd out with me on the desert, early Christian monks, or deep listening. Together, they sound out how listening to our world shapes our spirituality, and how the world listens back to us,
The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
I did not want to like this book. It all came to pass because I stumbled upon it after listening to Benjamin Zander conducts Beethoven Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’.Then I serendipitously found out Zander had given a TED talk. This led me to reading The Art of Possibility that he co-authored with his wife, the psychologist Rosamund Stone Zander. Benjamin Zander was the flair to Rosamund Stone Zander’s steadiness. The match of art and psychological acumen works (I recommend listening to this book because of the way the music laces through the teachings).
I did not want to like this book because it felt like a self-help book from Harvard Business School. It felt like that because that is exactly what it was. The chapters are titled with catchy phrases that instill the meaning found in the chapters, for example, “Leading from Any Chair” or “Rule Number 6”. The meaning is self-evident in some titles, while others play off expectations. A takeaway from this book that I think about daily was the phrase the “one-buttock pianist”. Benjamin Zander expounds on a pianist who is fervently participating in the magic of his music that he is only able to keep one butt cheek on the piano bench on while playing. This got me thinking and asking myself and others, what in your life are you one-buttocked about?
The Art of Possibility is for a reader who finds that nutrient rich aphorisms whet the appetite for self-examination in service to their potential.
Season Three is complete, with bonus episode rolling out still. A bonus episode with contemplative teacher James Finley is available. Jim’s words are a salve on soul. You can find the complete list of Contemplify episodes here and below are the three most recent episodes. Season Four is getting a haircut and getting ready to make his debut.
Spare Me Nothing (Bonus Episode / Season 3, Ep 14)
James Finley on The Healing Path (Bonus Episode / Season 3, Ep 13)
It’s Not About the Beer, It’s About the Beer (Bonus Musing / Season 3, Ep 12)
Arts & Articles
WHY UNIVERSITIES SHOULD BE MORE LIKE MONASTERIES by Molly Worthen (NYT): The title and premise of this article is worth experimenting with in higher education. The classes mentioned sound necessary for kindling the examined life. The article focuses on two courses; “Living Deliberately” which introduces students to monkish practices (and the adoption of a few) and “Existential Despair” in which students hop on a sofa once a week and read a book in its entirety. Both courses require you to turn in your phone, Living Deliberately for the bulk of the semester and Existential Despair for the period of each class (5pm – 12am). If I was a college student, these would be no brainers for me. These type of courses are considered fringe these days. My one critique is the overemphasis on individual choice. Not enough credit is given to the communal aspect of monasticism and the creeping global normalcy of invasive tech. My goodness though, I hope this type of experimental education catches fire. (h/t to Poff)
TURN EVERY PAGE: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB directed by Lizzie Gottlieb (YouTube): I have never read Robert Caro’s work, but I will. This documentary showcases the pleasure of the craft by two masters. Here is the description of the film, “Turn Every Page explores the remarkable fifty-year relationship between two literary legends, writer Robert Caro and his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb. Now 86, Caro is working to complete the final volume of his masterwork, The Years of Lyndon Johnson; Gottlieb, 91, waits to edit it. The task of finishing their life’s work looms before them. With humor and insight, this unique double portrait reveals the work habits, peculiarities and professional joys of these two ferocious intellects at the culmination of a journey that has consumed both their lives and impacted generations of politicians, activists, writers, and readers.”
AFTER SHE TRADED ONE PATAGONIA FOR ANOTHER, TRAGEDY COULDN’T KEEP HER AWAY (National Geographic): I have been inspired by Kristine Tompkins ever since I first learned of her conservation work in the documentary 180 South (you can hear Jeff Johnson and I talk about that film here). Insightful and rooted, read about Kristine’s life and work here and watch the trailer for Wild Life, a new documentary about her life. In theaters now, hopefully coming to your town and mine.
THE FALL by Gregory Alan Isakov (YouTube): Gregory Alan Isakov is a gift. Looking forward to this whole album.
Brushing crumbs off
my feather heart,
the desert tears up
as it was before,
or so it seemed,
Listening to Saguaros,
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Di, Gabriele. Divine Intimacy : Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year. Oil City, Pa.?, Baronius Press, 2021. p. 851
Haines-Eitzen, Kim. 2022. Sonorous Desert : What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks-and What It Can Teach Us. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. vii
Listening to classical music is new for me, but it snaps my suspenders.