Stillness and Silence as An African American Contemplative


The 2022 lecturer for the Gerald May Seminar was the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry who leads the U.S.-based Episcopal Church as Presiding Bishop. As the 27th Presiding Bishop, he is the first person of color – and African American – to serve in this role.

During the seminar, Curry said more than once, “I am not a contemplative.” Yet, there was a moment when he broke out in song with “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” a traditional African American hymn. Without hesitation, those of us who were in the audience began to join in, our eyes closing and our bodies swaying.

That was a contemplative moment.

For so many, contemplation brings up images of the desert mothers and fathers who intentionally lived in solitude in order to commune with the Holy One; or perhaps others think of classical authors who described contemplative spiritualty as a particular experience. Spiritual writer and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr reminds us that “Contemplation is simply openness to God’s loving presence in ‘what is’ right in front of you…This presence to Presence can be cultivated in many ways that don’t require sitting on a mat for twenty minutes” (“Many Paths to Contemplation,” June 25, 2019).

As an adult contemplative, I often hear the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross quote: “God’s first language is silence.” But one of the first Bible verses that I learned in Sunday School was “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). And might we also consider Howard Thurman, the African American theologian and scholar, who so eloquently wrote about “how good it is to center down,” an expansive invitation to stillness that may or may not include silence?

For contemplatives, there are many different ways to experience an interior life with God. I believe that there is no hierarchy in how one centers down; no preferred way over another. One can experience centering down through both silence and through stillness. As Joan Chittister reminds us: “Contemplation breaks us open to ourselves” (Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, 2000). It is in that breaking open to ourselves to be present in the presence of God that I, as a contemplative, seek. Yet, as an African American, I sometimes feel constrained to more traditional contemplative practices that do not come out of my own faith walk which, in turn, creates a resistance deep within my soul to the very holy listening that I am seeking.

My father was an A.M.E. minister and my mother was raised Baptist. Music was an important way that we experienced centering down. In Daddy’s church, no hymnals nor sheet music were on display; the choir and parishioners followed the choir director seamlessly in the call and response. All that was required was a piano and an organ, and maybe a tambourine. We intuitively knew how to clap on the 2 & 4 or to do the double-single hand clap, sometimes even clapping between beats. The organist seemed to know when to speed up playing, as people jumped into the aisles and began to dance, filled with the Holy Spirit.

I remember asking Daddy why some people seemed to get “happy” in church (that’s what we called it) waving their hands in the air, shouting and crying, sometimes falling out, clearly overcome with emotion. Church fans made of hard stock paper with a wooden handle provided by the local funeral (with a family pictured on the front of the fan, all decked out in their Sunday best seated in a pew) were used to cool down the parishioners who were stretched out in the aisles. A large, white, freshly-pressed cloth was thrown over the legs of the women to preserve modesty while hats and pocketbooks — and even wigs — were safely retrieved.

My father patiently explained that not everybody shouts and dances. His mother, Grandma Matthews, would just stay seated, taking her cane and pounding it on the floor, eyes closed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Sometimes life is so hard during the week that the only release is in church on Sunday where they can be one with God.” In my mind, they were all finding their respective pathways to centering down and I was witnessing a contemplative experience.

As an African American, I draw upon my own worship experience to find ways to center down. It may mean taking walks while listening to soothing music, journaling, long bike rides as I commune with nature, silent retreats, wisdom circles, prayer vigils, or contemplative prayer. Today, I am a faithful Episcopalian (part of the worldwide Anglican communion) and I consider myself to be what one might think of as a non-traditional contemplative. For on occasion, I’ve been known to slip into a Black church of any denomination on a Sunday morning to get my gospel fix, closing my eyes as I sway in the pew, raising my right hand, mouthing the refrain, interspersed with a whispered “Yes, Lord.” It is in those moments that I especially feel that I am being still and feeling God’s loving presence.

Releasing, centering down, becoming one with God. The 13th-century poet Rumi wrote: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” In our increasingly diverse world, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of ways to be a contemplative. Let us open our hearts to make a place for this rich diversity of experiencing stillness… which may or may not include silence… as we seek to become a welcoming Beloved Community where all can feel a sense of belonging.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, in the Fall of 2023 Shalem will be releasing a book Soul Food: Nourishing Contemplative Living and Leadership, edited by Westina Matthews (Shalem Board Member), Margaret Benefiel (Shalem Executive Director) and Jackson Droney (Shalem Director of Operations and Online Learning). Click here to learn more about the call for submissions, eligibility, and guidelines.

September 09, 2022 by Westina Matthews 4 Comments
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Anne Reed
Anne Reed
11 days ago

Thank you, Westina! This reflection is very timely for me!

Anita Davidson
Anita Davidson
11 days ago

So beautiful, Westina! I so appreciate learning another way of being contemplative and it frees me to be my own kind of contemplative! Thank you!

Phillip Stephens
Phillip Stephens
11 days ago

Yes indeed! Thank you Westina!

Patience L Robbins
Patience L Robbins
11 days ago

Very well stated, Westina. A lovely reminder that there are many ways of being contemplative.

Mission

Our mission is to nurture contemplative living and leadership.

Vision

Grounded in our understanding of God’s desire for peace, wholeness and well-being, we envision a world transformed by contemplative living and leadership in which all people honor one another and creation, recognize their unity and interconnectedness, and courageously seek to live out of this reality.

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