All posts by Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

Paul Quenon, OCSO: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey (Episode 32)

Poet, photographer, and memoirist Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO sat down to chat with Cassidy Hall this past July when she was visiting Gethsemani Abbey.

Author of several volumes of poetry including Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, Br. Paul is also the author of a newly published autobiography, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. His memoir is a delightful and charming story of monastic life not only as a forum for deep spiritual exploration, but also as the foundation for a life devoted to music, art, and especially poetry.

Cassidy and Brother Paul

Brother Paul entered monastic life in 1958, when he was only 17 years old — back before the reforms of the Second Vatical Council, when the life of a Trappist was even more austere than it is today. His novice master turned out to be Thomas Merton, who eventually became an inspiration to Brother Paul not only as a monk, but as a writer.

In their conversation, Cassidy and Brother Paul discuss his life story, his experience as a monk, as a writer, and as a lover of nature. He enthuses on his special love for the poet Emily Dickinson, and shares the poem of hers which convinced him that she was a mystic (#315). He also offers a ‘sneak peek’ of his current writing, sharing some poems he is currently writing. Through it all, in the heart of his rich and cultured life, silence has been his constant companion.

There is a kind of silence which comes from stilling the mind, and you can develop that capacity, how to not fight thoughts so much as set them aside… if you want to be free, free your mind… instead of fighting the thoughts you just stand above them like on a bridge and watch the water flow by… but then there is a kind of silence that descends upon you, and it’s like the presence… it happens on its own, and that’s really special. You may get that, or you may not get it… it’s not a matter of looking for it, because if you’re looking for it, than you’re thinking of something, you have an expectation and you’re dealing with your expectation. — Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

The opposite of faith is indifference. — Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO

Filmmaker Patrick Shen, Brother Paul, and Cassidy Hall on the porch of Thomas Merton’s hermitage, on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey.

Episode 32: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey: A Conversation with Paul Quenon, OCSO
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Paul Quenon, OCSO
Date Recorded: July 4, 2018

Silence in the Summertime (Episode 31)

It’s summertime! How do you find silence amidst the droning of cicadas or locusts? What does it mean to be silent during the electric crackle of a late afternoon thunderstorm? How do we maintain our commitment to silence when we’re juggling family vacations, back to school to-do lists, or even more lasting and significant life transitions? We have this myth that summer is a laid-back time, but often we find it carries its own intensity. Where do we find silence then?

In the middle of this change… the silence really stirs up a lot. So it helps me to find a balance, a rhythm, but it also doesn’t allow me to run away from the fear, or the joy, or anything else. It’s right there in my face. — Kevin Johnson

Cassidy shares a provocative quote from an essay by Mary Oliver in which she talks about how poetry needs to “rest in intensity,” and uses this as her metaphor for navigating a very busy summer — a summer which she describes as being like a poem.

Kevin finds his summer to be both joyful and yet poignant, as one of his daughters prepares to go away to college for the first time. And yet this has been a time for him to find a new connection to his own practice of silence, and how an embodied sense of silence has felt like a friend reassuring him that everything is okay.

Carl, meanwhile explores how his relationship with silence this summer has been supported by two endeavors beyond his daily meditation practice: taking yoga classes with his wife, and writing poetry… just for joy.

I’m trying to look at my summer as a poem… just keep moving forward, just keep plugging away, but finding those pauses that often become shorter in times like this, that often become just the gaze out the window, or just the long stare into the coffee cup. — Cassidy Hall

We finish this episode with each member of the team briefly recounting the books we’ve been reading — and even share some insight into the t-shirts we were wearing the day we recorded this episode!

 

 

The silence is always there. And the question is, to what extent are we listening to it, or are we listening to whatever else is going on? — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Cassidy talks about fundraising for research to help fight the degenerative disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. To learn more about this disease and to contribute to the fight against it, visit the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance website, www.curefa.org.

And finally, here is a glimpse of some of the handpainted silk scarves created by Fran McColman. These aren’t for sale (yet) — but stay tuned!

Episode 31: Silence in the Summertime
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: August 9, 2018

Leah Weiss: Silence at Work (Episode 30)

Unless you work in a library or a monastery, you may not intuitively associate “silence” and “work.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, our working lives have everything to gain if the workplace could become more hospitable to silence — and related mindfulness practices. Leah Weiss, PhD integrates Buddhist wisdom, mindfulness practice, and holistic management principles to articulate a vision of how it is possible to cultivate a more “sane” workplace. Dr. Weiss is a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and is the author of the New York Times bestelling book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.

I think of silence in two ways. I think of it as the literal having periods in the day, intermittently, and sometimes they’re long, and sometimes they’re not, of having literal quiet. But I also think of it as inner silence that we can access (or not), and the world around us can be noisy, but if we have this ability to touch in with our own clarity and mental spaciousness… that’s another way to access silence, and you can do that no matter how loud it is on the city streets. — Leah Weiss, PhD

“Buddha” art by Leah’s son Caleb

Weiss talks about how Tibetan Buddhism provided the forum for her own journey with silence — and how the experience of having a family (three small children) has deepened and clarified her understanding of the power of silence in her life. Arising out of her work with persons who are trauma survivors, or who have experienced toxic forms of silence (such as their voice being silenced), she offers insights not only about the blessings of silence, but also the importance of addressing honestly problems related to how individuals and organizations use silence in unhealthy ways as well. She muses on how community and connection are important “adjuncts” to the exploration of silence: by being able to talk to others, we more efficiently facilitate healing in our lives.

There’s lots of people who are out there claiming all sorts of absurd stuff about how mindfulness is a silver bullet and if you teach people to meditate, all problems will be solved. I don’t believe that. — Leah Weiss, PhD

Leah Weiss’s book:

What does it mean to create an environment where we can skillfully build positive silence, along with connection, support and healing? Not all of us are survivors of intense trauma, but all of us have traumas in our lives, in places where there is pain that we don’t’ want to touch, that hurts, and we need to have ways to deal with it. — Leah Weiss, PhD

Episode 30: Silence and Mindfulness at Work: A Conversation with Leah Weiss
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Leah Weiss
Date Recorded: July 12, 2018

James Finley: Silence and Vulnerability (Episode 29)

Author, retreat leader, and psychologist James Finley brings his experience as a student and spiritual directee of Thomas Merton to his work guiding others into the mysteries of Christ and of silence. He is the author of Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of Godand The Contemplative Heart. He has also created audio learning series, including Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere and Meister Eckhart’s Living Wisdom.

“When we get involved in spirituality, we’re drawn to it, we tend to have a lot of questions, and that’s why we tend to read spiritual books or watch podcasts and well we should, and we should get spiritual guidance and so on. But then… we get a little deeper, here we realize that it’s not so much that we’re the ones asking the questions, but God’s asking the questions, God’s asking me a question… and I start to discover that not only do I not know the answer to God’s question, I don’t understand the question.” — James Finley

Cassidy met Jim through the International Thomas Merton Society, and discovering that they are neighbors in California, they made arrangements last month to get together to record this conversation. As they explore silence together, Jim tells Cassidy stories from his six years living as a Trappist novice (don’t miss the story of talking to Thomas Merton about the pigs!), and how his entry into the world of radical solitude and silence — under the guidance of one of the great spiritual writers of the past century — Finley learned to find his voice as a seeker of God, and eventually discovered his vocation even though it took him away from the cloister.

“We can’t with integrity claim to be on a spiritual path and turn our back on the suffering of this world.” — James Finley

He and Cassidy talk about the tragedy of how contemporary Christianity has abandoned its own mystical heritage, learning to discover the mystery of God beyond all “boxes” and definitions, the “infinity of the unexplainable,” learning to love the world as part of the contemplative project, the importance of paradox and perplexity, how language ought to be “in the service of the unsayable,” how the experience of trauma can impact our spiritual lives, and other topics along these lines.

“I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude-to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” — Thomas Merton

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Visit Jim Finley’s website at www.contemplativeway.org. His newsletter which includes his recommended reading list can be accessed here: “Reading List for Beginners”

“Lovers cannot force the oceanic oneness, but can assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to the gift of that … The poet cannot make the poem happen, but the poet can assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to the gift of the poem.” — James Finley

Episode 29: Silence and Vulnerability: A Conversation with James Finley
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Jim Finley
Date Recorded: June 7, 2018

Paula Pryce: Silence, Bodily Knowing and Ritual (Episode 28)

What happens when a friendly anthropologist conducts an ethnographic study of contemporary contemplative Christianity in America, looking at subjects both in monasteries and in secular life?

Paula Pryce does just this kind of work in her insightful book The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity. Spending several years of research with teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating, along with monasteries like the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts, Pryce offers a detailed exploration of how contemplative spirituality is making a profound transformation in our time. From previous days when such practice was almost exclusively found within cloistered walls, to the increasing (if still marginal) presence of contemplation  in churches, centering prayer groups, online forums, and educational offerings such as the Center for Action & Contemplation’s Living School or Bourgeault’s own Wisdom School, contemplative practice is a vibrant subculture within Christianity — and Pryce, to our knowledge, is the first ethnographer to write about contemplative Christianity in a scholarly, yet accessible, fashion.

I always meditated before I wrote… I go back in my mind, meditate, and then enter in through memory to those places where I was doing research, and that allowed me to give language to these non-verbal situations. — Paula Pryce

What emerges from her research is a recognition that contemplation (and, by implication, the practice of silence) invites the practitioner into a new way of knowing, that is marked by qualities such as embodiment, community, humility, and ritual.

I’m always after trying to understand the beauty of humankind. We have lots of messages about how awful we are! And we can’t ignore that and I wouldn’t want to. But I honestly think we need to embrace how wonderful humans are. — Paula Pryce

In this conversation, Paula joins the Encountering Silence team to explore not only her own relationship with silence, but also how her research deepened her knowledge of contemplation as a transformational practice. She movingly speaks of her Anglo-Indian father as her silence hero, and draw connections between his lifelong meditation practice and his commitment to social action. She reflects on the paradox of writing about silence (expressing a non-verbal phenomena through the verbal medium of language), and on how ethnography, as a discipline, can help us to understand silence better.

One can use anything as a contemplative practice. That’s the main point of this book: people are trying to train themselves in everyday life as contemplatives, in every action and every way of being. — Paula Pryce

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 27: Silence, Bodily Knowing, and Ritual: A Conversation with Paula Pryce
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Paula Pryce
Date Recorded: May 29, 2018

Kenneth S. Leong: Silence, Christianity and Zen (Episode 27)

How does silence impact spirituality at the level of interfaith or interreligious engagement? Our guest today, Kenneth Leong, wrote a seminal book on Christian-Buddhist interspirituality, and so we were eager to have him join the Encountering Silence conversation to reflect on how silence takes us to a place beyond the limitations or separations of doctrine, dogma, or religious culture.

Kenneth S. Leong is the author of The Zen Teachings of Jesus and a German-language book of Zen Stories, 100 Zen-Geschichten für das neue Jahrtausend: Anleitung zum GlücklichseinAfter working over twenty years in finance, he pursued a Master’s Degree in Teaching and devoted twelve years to teaching in a variety of education settings, primarily teaching mathematics but also finance, philosophy, and Zen.

Mr. Leong has been a speaker and lecturer on Buddhism and spirituality since the mid-1990s, having taught in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the New York Open Center, and other continuing education and adult learning venues. He is active on social media, moderating or contributing to groups devoted to topics such as Buddhism, Alan Watts, and Zen Christians.

Silence, to me, means right concentration. — Kenneth S. Leong

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 27: Encountering Silence in Christianity and Zen: A Conversation with Kenneth S. Leong
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Kevin Johnson, Cassidy Hall
Guest: Kenneth S. Leong
Date Recorded: May 25, 2018

Barbara A. Holmes: Silence as Unspeakable Joy (Episode 26)

How does the encounter with silence usher us into mystery? And how is our relationship with silence shaped by, or challenged by, the challenges and dynamics of social difference and privilege? What is the relationship between contemplation and community, and how is community actually essential to authentic contemplation? How are tears, and moaning, and dancing, and lament, essential to contemplation — especially among those persons and communities who experience oppression?

“Silence has power, positively, it’s life-giving… and it also can be a hiding place for people of the dominant culture.” — Dr. Barbara A. Holmes

These are just a few of the questions we explore in today’s episode, a conversation with scholar and contemplative the Reverend Dr. Barbara A. Holmes. Dr. Holmes is the author of Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, and has emerged as a leading voice calling for affirming and celebrating contemplation as it emerges in the lives of all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religious affiliation.

“The women in my family were the ones who really seeded contemplation into my very being. I watched them — I saw that mysticism didn’t have to be weird. It was very weird, but you could still make biscuits! You didn’t have to go berserk; you could do your normal life, be loving,  kind, help others, and still host these magical moments, wondrous moments, awe-inducing moments, and still do ordinary things like meet your kids at the stop on the school bus.” — Dr. Barbara A. Holmes

Her thoughtful and insightful reflection on silence and contemplation is grounded in her family of origin — coming from the Gullah people of the SC/GA low country — and her work which explores the intersection between spirituality, stillness, and social justice.

“Silence isn’t the word that I often use. Just simply because of the problem for people of color, and women, who have been silenced… I tend to use the language of stillness, of centering, and of embodied ineffability.” — Dr. Barbara A. Holmes

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

“The willingness to listen, on both sides, is the beginning of reconciliation.” — Dr. Barbara A. Holmes

Episode 26: Silence as Unspeakable Joy: A Conversation with Dr. Barbara A. Holmes
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Barbara Holmes
Date Recorded: May 24, 2018

Six Months of Encountering Silence! (Episode 25)

Hello friends!

Can you believe that the Encountering Silence Podcast released its first episode six months ago?!?

Yes — our “pilot episode” was released on December 6, 2017.

This week we’re celebrating our six-month-anniversary with a brief conversation in which we reflect on some of the insights and surprises that the last six months have yielded for us.

Silence includes everyone, silence levels the ground and flattens our egos, to recall that we’re all human and we all belong to one another. — Cassidy Hall

In the interest of full disclosure, let’s say it right up front: this is our “pledge drive” episode. One of the things we’ve learned over the last few months is that we had seriously under-estimated how much time it takes to plan, record, edit, release, and promote a podcast.

We love doing this, and so we’re not begrudging one second of our time. But since we are all self-employed, we also have to balance the joy we find in the podcast with the reality that we need to be earning a living.

Over a dozen listeners have made the commitment to support the podcast with a monthly pledge through Patreon. If you are one of those, please know how much we appreciate your support. Thank you!

If you haven’t made a pledge, then we humbly but sincerely ask you to consider doing so now.  Even $1 a month makes a difference. Frankly, we would be more excited to have one hundred people pledge a dollar a month than to have one person pledge $100. Why? Because it shows us that people want to be part of the Encountering Silence Circle.

Please visit our Patreon page at patreon.com/encounteringsilence

In this episode, we mention a wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called A Spirituality of Fundraising. We recommend it to anyone who is a fundraiser (or a donor!) as it beautifully expresses how giving money (and asking for support from current and future donors) can be an expression of community, of caring, and indeed of spirituality.

Episode 25: Six Months of Encountering Silence
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: May 21, 2018

 

Mirabai Starr: Silence, Stillness, Passion, and Embodiment (Episode 24)

“I’m rather obsessed with the mystics of all traditions,” enthuses Mirabai Starr, as she muses on the profound relationship between silence and stillness and passionate/ecstatic mystical love.

In a rich conversation that touches on the beauty of the high desert of the American Southwest, the earthy/embodied passion of the spirituality of wilderness, and the uniquely subversive wisdom of the feminine mystics, Mirabai deepens and expands our ongoing conversation on silence by inviting us into a place where the spirituality of stillness meets, and embraces, the erotic spirituality of ecstasy, joy, and love.

Most of the mystics, even though they’re these extravagant love poets, who are overflowing with passion, they all also are grounded in this sense of stillness. And they cultivate that stillness. — Mirabai Starr

Mirabai Starr is an author, translator, retreat leader, and leader in the contemplative interspiritual community. Born into a secular Jewish family, Mirabai describes herself as a “daughter of the counter-culture,” having spent part of her childhood at the Lama Foundation (an intentional spiritual community, famous as the home of Ram Dass). As an adult, she translated several of the Christian mystics, including John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and Julian of Norwich, into accessible and acclaimed contemporary English.

So all the mystics of all traditions, that I know and love anyway, speak to the transformational power of not knowing. I think that’s intimately connected with silence. There’s a higher truth that is only present, it seems, when we let all of the concepts go, and allow ourselves to know nothing. It’s a vulnerable state, it’s a state of spiritual nakedness, it’s not for the faint of heart. — Mirabai Starr

More recently she has written books that celebrate her spirituality (God of Love) and that recount her own challenging and at times heartbreaking life story (Caravan of No Despair).  A popular teacher both in person and online, Mirabai’s wisdom is anchored in her own deeply embodied spirituality, drawing on the insight of all the great spiritual traditions and particular on her intuitive celebration of the Divine Feminine.

The devotional impulse leads me into the presence of the Sacred, and then I am left with this kind of hush, that I drop into, and then that feeds back in again to that devotional impulse, because following those periods of deep stillness that just wash over my soul, I have that joyous urge to praise. So it’s this ever-flowing dance between devotion and nonduality, or between celebration and stillness. — Mirabai Starr

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

How, how can we step up and offer ourselves in service, to help in some way to alleviate some suffering in this world, unless we have taken that suffering into the cells of our own bodies? I feel like that’s what the feminine path is all about. We can not separate ourselves from the pain of the world, we have to take in the brokenness and feel it in the depths of our being, and then of course we will respond with the impulse to do something about it. — Mirabai Starr

Mirabai Starr (l), with Carl and Fran McColman, at the 2016 Wild Goose Festival.

Episode 24: Silence, Stillness, Passion, and Embodiment: A Conversation with Mirabai Starr
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: Mirabai Starr
Date Recorded: May 22, 2018

 

 

Jessica Mesman Griffith: The Silence of Missing Voices (Episode 23)

What is the relationship between silence, creativity, fear, doubt, death, and missing voices — especially in terms of art and literature?

To explore this provocative question, we turned to our mutual friend — and one of the most gifted and articulate writers of our time — Jessica Mesman Griffith.

It’s very difficult for me to be in any kind of silence.. I love being out in nature and not having the iPod. When I take my long walks every day, I don’t take my iPod, I don’t listen to music, I don’t have earbuds, but the sounds of nature are not the sounds of my own body. It’s the sounds of my own body I think that terrify me. — Jessica Mesman Griffith

Jessica Mesman Griffith is an award-winning essayist and memoirist who honestly and fearlessly explores the intersections between religion (especially Catholicism), art and creativity, mental health, and social justice.  She is the founder of the Sick Pilgrim blog (www.patheos.com/blogs/sickpilgrim), described as “a space for the spiritually sick, and their fellow travelers, to rest a while.” Her books include Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters (co-authored with Amy Andrews), A Book of Grace Filled Days: 2016, and Daily Inspiration for Women (co-authored with Ginny Kubitz Moyer, Vinita Hampton Wright, and Margaret Silf).

Jessica’s authenticity is revealed from the first minutes of our conversation, when she discusses how silence seemed unsettling to her as a child. Musing on the relationship between silence and the fear of death, or the link between happiness and conviviality, and even the anxiety that comes from the noises of her own body, she muses on how she has discovered different “types” of silence (the silence of nature seems different from the silence in a suburban home).

Good writing is having an ear… Having an ear for how something sounds on the page, for the rhythm of language… The best writers have an ear for where something falls flat or doesn’t sound true. — Jessica Mesman Griffith

The conversation goes on to explore the questions of the relationship between silence and creativity, privilege, and the body. Invoking poetry, horror movies, music, narrative nonfiction, we look at silence from many angles, acknowledging that the human experience of silence is messy and multivalent — pretty much like the human experience in general.

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

I think we’re certain that it [silence] means death and then we’re terrified that that’s what death is – that that’s all death is, the silent darkness. So in Christianity we revolt against that by making it as loud and hideously ugly apparently as we can, at all times… This is our ultimate fear–that there’s nothing. — Jessica Mesman Griffith

Goofing around in New York City. Left to Right: Cassidy Hall, Jessica Mesman Griffith, Fr. James Martin, Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman. Photo by Fran McColman.

Episode 23: The Silence of Missing Voices: A Conversation with Jessica Mesman Griffith
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Jessica Mesman Griffith
Date Recorded: May 18, 2018