November NonRequired Reading List
Contemplify / NRR #72
Chris Dombrowski, author of The River You Touch, shared a line from the 17th Century haiku master Matsuo Bashō in our recent conversation. I slapped it to the bumper of the October NonRequired Reading and I’ve been driving around with it since.
Stay in the world to transcend it.
Ah Bashō. Like a flushed whisper, you line my ear with incarnational shivers. Stay in the crucible, it transforms you. Walk through the swamp, you’ll reach dry land. Feel the heat. Be chilled to the bone. Stay in the world.
There is a cultural temptation to take flight from this present world, this present suffering. Culture slyly instructs its subjects on how to approach suffering, survival, support, and so forth. Culture as a set of invisible assumptions and expectations becomes visible in daily life and practice, and it has an insatiable appetite. Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is not to mistake culture as accidental or reactionary, quite the opposite, culture is both the reaping of the unconscious and the efforts of conscious action. In healthy cultures the intentional becomes a conscious inhale followed by a measured exhale that expands boundaries for interconnected thriving.
An overly permissive culture encourages easy routes to the summit, to connection, but in reality only delivers on the promise of microwave dinners. And when a culture is heavy on permissivenessas a virtue, the world becomes flat. Taste and texture get lost. Generosity is overlooked. Character falls off the edge. Then we are left with a loudmouthed, malnourished culture dressed in beige taking centerstage. Lord, have mercy.
The beauty of American culture is hidden behind the spectacle and the flagrant confusion of everyday suffering. In my town, I see the physical destitution of people who find themselves evicted, lost, and wandering without shelter. Bloodshot eyes begging for more than change. I also see those who live in the ruin of needs met; stomachs full, hands employed, but hearts drained empty. Shells of humans running a race that rats find offensive.We the masses are glazed donuts before entertaining screens that blur the lines of rest and escape. Everyday folks caught in their suffering try to remedy massive hemorrhages with princess bandaids. We are a confused culture looking for transcendence and for groundedness, but not typically one and the same.
I imagine if we were to circle up in the town square and share the everyday happenings of our lives we would find that each one of us is occupied, and probably perplexed, by suffering. Great, small, or enduring we taste its metal in the air. It colors the perspective of what one can see and embrace.
If only we could culturally learn to hold our personal suffering as a threshold to the collective healing of the world. When we walk with our personal suffering, really walk with it, a collective doorway opens and we find we are moving in the way of compassion towards the hearth of the Beloved. This is not always an easy door to open, but the warmth of the fire calls us on. Contemplative practice, posture, and perspective ballast the foundation and frame this door. They connect a person to the universal spark. We start to “move from action to passivity and abandon ourselves into God’s hands. Like wood prepared for its task in the fire.”This act of releasement sets the conditions for contemplation to unlock this door, unbind the wood from our backs, and tend to the fire.
If we are bold enough we say this is the Body of Christ. And this Body needs a nap by the fire, quickly followed up by a bear hug and a mug of piping hot tea. We are a tired Body groaning about the joint pains of awakening. We stretch out as the Body of Christ, and, as St. Symeon the New Theologian says, “We awaken in Christ’s body just as Christ awakens our bodies.”As one part of this awakening Body, I want to tend to what ails the whole.
It is at this moment that my dearest question enters stage left, how then shall we live? The rhythms of work and play of each person, community, and institutions bends the vector of culture’s flourishing. I believe how you show up with your suffering matters as much as how you show up on your meditation cushion. How you engage in daily life in this world matters. It changes you and it changes the communities and institutions you touch. The salt of your skin seasons the culture at hand. You are a part of the Body that is awakening. Stay in it.
Suffering connects us to the whole. Practice connects us to the whole. Releasing it connects us to the whole. Spiritual practice does not negate our suffering, it creates room for us to bring it with us in communion with a permissively free God. We wipe each other’s tears—you, me, and God—with rags rent by suffering.
Stay in the suffering to transcend it. Stay in your practice to transcend it. Stay present to transcend it. Or as dear uncle Bashō said, “Stay in the world to transcend it.”
November NonRequired Reading List
Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation by Adam Bucko (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide snuck up on me. There is a momentum to reading this book. In three movements, author Adam Bucko invites the reader to listen to their own life, touch the world around them, and welcome the interruptions of reality as the embodiment of an engaged contemplative in the world. It is sneaky in its effectiveness of enfleshing a holistic shape on a contemplative in the world.
These movements of engaged contemplation are cloaked in vivid stories. They stem from Bucko’s life and experiences; growing up in Poland, working with LGBTQ and homeless youth in New York City, as a priest, as a new monastic leader, and always drawing upon the mystical traditions that shape him. It is the type of book you want to speak aloud, to feel the stories come alive as they pass over your tongue. As I read Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide aloud to myself, some of these stories cut my teeth, others stuck to the roof of my mouth, some were hard to swallow, and yet all of them left the sweet residue of grace on my lips.
This is a book that comes out of practice and speaks to the disarming way of love. I can vouch for it. I am a part of the Community of the Incarnation that Bucko co-founded. There is a contagious beauty to what is unfolding out of this community of engaged contemplatives. The stories, practices, and perspectives found within Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide are exemplars of that. They honor the call and integrity of the Christian contemplative traditions. Adam Bucko is one of the leaders marking the way.
Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide is for contemplatives who seek the grainy fullness of life pouring forth out of a connection with “God who is always accompanying us and guiding us. God who is suffering with us. God who is moving us towards healing and liberation. God whose life giving love and justice will one day be “all in all”.” (p.132)
Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain by Roger Deakin (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
In the summer of 2021, while my son napped in my arms I read the article “Writ in Water” while my feet were in the Middle Popo Agie River. A summer moment that I kiss in my memories. In the aforementioned article Leanne Shapton reviews Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog, how rare that a review matches the lush tone of the book.
Deakin’s book is a beautiful journalistic prose on the aquatic world of Britain from within the waterways themselves. Deakin travels the lore and history of Britain by way of rivers, moats, creeks, lakes, seas, and pools. Aided by a sharp wit and bantering courage, he dips into water to learn its quality and pass through its glistening joy. Each body of water is highlighted by squirrelly stories of unknown locals or legendary figures who took dips in the same healing waters as Deakin. Imagine being tucked in the corner of a pub huddled over drinks listening to a raconteur of wild, overgrown, and ultimately sacramental stories of swimming. Best to keep you swimsuit handy. A few pages in you will be darting to the nearest swimming hole.
Waterlog is a book for those who have an inkling that immersing yourself in water is more mysterious, healing, and necessary than we can articulate. Yet we try anyway.
Season of Glad Songs: A Christmas Anthology by Tessa Bielecki & David Denny (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
This is a first at the Contemplify basecamp. I have not yet read Season of Glad Songs. Let me explain. I share it now because it will be my devotional reading during the Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and Candlemas winter season. And to share a liturgical recommendation after the season seems absurd, and, so too does waiting another year. Like a teapot after a pleasant steeping, I am eager to pour a round and taste it together.
Season of Glad Songs is set up in such a way that one can draw upon the meditations, poems, and practices that call to them. I am a big fan of Tessa Bielecki & David Denny (you can hear my conversations with them here and here). They draw upon the contemplative traditions that mothers them as they lean into the intimacy of the liturgical season. From the introduction,
“When we prepare well with stillness and simplicity during Advent, we are ready to celebrate the full Twelve Days of Christmas, walking through a doorway on New Year’s as a symbol of our new beginning, blessing gold, frankincense, and myrrh and marking the lintels of our front doors on Epiphany, blessing our homes and who enter them in the coming year.’ (p.iv)
Season of Glad Songs is for any contemplative who wants to join me in reading these dancing poems, musings, and meditations for the upcoming liturgical season from wise contemplative friends.
Heathen (Season 3, Ep 8)
Vitality Out of Emptiness with Fr. David Denny (Season 3, Ep 7)
The River You Touch with Chris Dombrowski (Season 3, Ep 6)
Arts & Articles
REBECCA SOLNIT: WHY CLIMATE DESPAIR IS A LUXURY (The New Statesman): “To hope is to risk. It’s to take a chance on losing. It’s also to take a chance on winning, and you can’t win if you don’t try (even though the campaign may be won without you). We who have materially safe and comfortable lives, and who are part of societies that contribute the lion’s share of greenhouse gases, do not have the right to surrender on behalf of others. We have the obligation to act in solidarity with them. This begins by recognising that the future has not yet been decided, because we are deciding it now.” Read the whole thing. You gotta create a free account to do so, but I think it is worth it.
‘JUST A BUM’ BY GREG BROWN / PERFORMED BY SETH AVETT (YouTube): Greg Brown is the songwriter who has shaped my life. Songs of new love, old love, walking in the woods after a party, loss, renewal, regrets, fishing, and coffee. All of the important themes of life. Seth Avett of The Avett Brothers serves Greg’s songs to a new audience by living inside of them and slinging them out with a spin of his own.
be your compass,
the liturgy your terrain,
and the water your refuge.
No matter what anyone
you are just a bum,
on the Body of Christ.
With a Nine Day Beard,
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Beauty is inherent, and built. You got to build beauty into culture too.
To me, permissive culture is a “do whatever feels good to you” mantra. This is a reaction to the rigid culture of old. Neither seems a healthy stride in its extremes.
Rats are seriously considering litigation for the historical slander of their good rodent name.
In my mind, you are “everyday folks” unless your pockets are lined with cash so you can build rockets to colonize other planets. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.
As quoted in Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation. Orbis Books, 112. 2022.