Crisis Contemplation

Stages of Spiritual Development

Sometimes it’s the actions of others, and not our own yearning and brokenness, that awaken us to the Wound of Divine Love. Years ago, a friend’s husband suddenly left her. As she struggled through the pain of abandonment, she began to experience powerful moments of otherworldly love and reassurance. Until that point, she hadn’t been particularly religious, nor particularly exposed to the world’s pain. The pain her husband caused her was sudden, not something that had been building over time. He imposed a moment of crisis on her, and it lead to her awakening.

Barbara Holmes calls this awakening crisis contemplation, a term redolent with the pain and suffering of the stolen Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves. Holmes points out that

“centering moments accessed in safety are an expected luxury in our era. During slavery, however, crisis contemplation became a refuge, a wellspring of discernment in a suddenly disordered life space, and a geo-spiritual anvil for forging a new identity.”

To use the language of story world, these traumatized people were violently ripped from the stories, customs, dances, birth rites, ancestral narratives, food ways, hierarchies, games, funeral rites, and even languages of their homes. In the holds of the slave ships, surrounded by strangers from different tribes and cultures, they had to try to become a new people, with new stories that could give them a new sense of self. As Holmes writes:

Together they wept and moaned in a forced community that cut across tribal and cultural lines. They were a people who had not been a people, even though they shared similar cosmologies. On the continent, they revered ancestors who were born and reborn into the lives of future generations. Spirits, good and bad, permeated the everyday world and opened the vistas of the natural world in ways that sensitized them to the life energy in the entire universe. These life forces were necessary for daily sustenance and spiritual well-being…Now each chained African wondered whether he or she had fallen through the spiritual safety net provided by spirits and ancestors into the stifling ship’s hold.

One of the great cruelties of their capture and exile was that awakening to a Revelation of Divine Beauty became exponentially harder for them. In Africa, they had related to natural beauty through their understanding of the spirit world. To be removed from their homeland and the cosmologies of the spirit world was to see the natural world go gray, no longer inhabited by the sense of being that their understanding of the spirits had given them. There, in the holds of the slave ships, and later on the auction blocks and in the cruel fields where they labored, they had to come to a new understanding of the divine, and a new way to worship the divine in community.

Holmes writes that these new understandings and communities began with a moan. As the slaves lay bound together, their moans had to serve as a prayer, a description of their predicament, and a common language. But there was power in those moans — they gave voice to woundedness and joined the slaves’ voices with the chorus of woundedness that resounds around the world. More than that, their moans began to create a new world for them.

The moan as it emerges during the Middle Passage is also a generative sound. One imagines the Spirit moaning as it hovered over the deep during the Genesis account of creation. Here, the moan stitches horror and survival instincts into a creation narrative, a tapestry of historical memory that marks the creation of community. On the slave ships, the moan became the language of stolen strangers, the sound of unspeakable fears, the percursor to joy yet unknown. The moan is a birthing sound, the first movement toward a creative response to oppression, the entry into the heart of contemplation through the crucible of crisis.

Holmes, Barbara A. 2017. Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church – Second Edition. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press.

Can this even be called an awakening to the Wound of Divine Love? Stripped of everything but a moan, the souls on the slave ships didn’t have a context, an ideology, a story world that could help inform their awakening. Some were Muslims, many belonged to various tribal religions, but together they were without context. God’s love for them, so horrifically dissonant with their suffering, couldn’t be conveyed to them through the understanding of a faith. Yet, eventually, after years of tortured meaning-making, they came to a faith that could explain their own experiences, and those of their ancestors.

Given the tragedy and cruelty of the slave trade and its aftermath, it’s amazing that Homes titled her book Joy Unspeakable. When I mentioned this to my friend Cherie, she said, “Yes, but that’s because we know what it’s like to rely only on God, and when you do that you know that you’re loved completely.” Howard Thurman said something similar in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman, one of the 20th century’s greatest mystics, was partially raised by his grandmother, who was born a slave and told him stories of the men and women who became prophets and ministers among the slave communities, and who assured those communities that, despite what the white ministers said, they were beloved children of God. When he grew up, Thurman was ordained as a Baptist minister and became the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and part of the faculty there. He mentored many of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. 

He wrote Jesus and the Disinherited after falling into conversation with the principal of the Law College of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. The principal was a Hindu, and he couldn’t understand why Thurman, an African-American, had chosen to become a Christian. “More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the Western coat of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians…The name of one of the famous British slave vessels was ‘Jesus.’ The men who bought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery.” Thurman was deeply moved by these questions, he pondered them in his heart, and then he answered them in his book.

Jesus and the Disinherited is more than willing to criticize the story world of Christianity. In a way, Thurman says, large parts of the Christian story world got Jesus deeply wrong. The forces of empire were able to subvert the stories, to distort them so that they could be used by the powerful in a way that made a mockery of the life of Jesus and the call to the spirit that is present in the Gospels. But when the disinherited read scripture, Thurman says, they were able to recover the original story, and then build their own Christian story world from it. This was an act of profound resistance. And it came out of the awakening of crisis contemplation, out of the moans uttered in the holds of the slave ships, out of dancing and praying in secret places on the plantation, out of the way that enslaved ministers insisted that they and their church were loved by God. The corrupted story world of white power, which still tries to subvert Christianity today, and is just as powerful now as it was during slavery, reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement, cannot silence the story world of resistance and hope that belongs to the disinherited. It fails, because it has not awoken to the Wound of Divine Love. It fails because it is uninterested in spirituality, in mysticism, in truly growing close to God. Thurman writes:

“The awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy…Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly survive. It is true that a man cannot be serene unless he possesses something about which to be serene. Here we reach the high-water mark of prophetic religion, and it is of the essence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence — yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without.

Thurman, H. (1984). Jesus and the disinherited. Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press.

The Christian mystical life is about coming to truly know this. In it, God leads us, slowly, and with many pauses to allow us to rebel, adjust, and delight, into union with the perfect love that casts out all fear. Awakening is merely the first step along this path.

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