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African American Spirituality and Song

African American Spirituality and Song

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Week Six Summary and Practice

Sunday, February 7—Friday, February 12, 2021

Sunday
The legacy of the spirituals is worth our continued attention now, not only as “museum music” . . . but also as a broad-ranging cultural tradition that remains relevant to pressing present-day social realities. —Arthur C. Jones

Monday
Black sacred song has been at once a source and an expression of Black faith, spirituality and devotion. By song, our people have called the Spirit into our hearts, homes, churches, and communities. —Sister Thea Bowman

Tuesday
This is the contemplative moment, the recognition that each and every member of the congregation shares the same angst over the troubles of the world and the need for reunion. —Barbara Holmes

Wednesday
Whether you sang “freedom” during the sixties or the older traditional text with the word “Canaan,” in essence the song says, I must leave or change where I am, and I want you to go with me. —Bernice Johnson Reagon

Thursday
Jeremiah is saying actually, “There must be a balm in Gilead; it cannot be that there is no balm in Gilead.” The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end that he is brought face to face with the very ground and core of his own faith. —Howard Thurman

Friday
When we see contemplatively, we know that we live in a fully sacramental universe, where everything is a pointer and an epiphany.

 

A Plea for Divine Presence

Although I am always urging people to adopt and practice contemplative, wordless, or apophatic prayer, I also believe in the power of cataphatic prayer, full of words and images that express the longings of our hearts. As many of you know, we at the Center pray daily for the many petitions that readers share with us vulnerably and in great trust. I believe God hears and understands the prayers both from the silence of our hearts and the words of our mouths. Today I share a poetic prayer full of inclusive compassion from the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.

Older than the morning stars that twinkled in the blackness of night’s first birth, the rotation of the axis of time, bring us into the freshness of your mercy and the newness of your presence. We come to you today with heartfelt gratitude, not with mixing Judas paint with Judas praise in order to cover our hypocrisy. Some of us come to you with triumph over tragedy. Others of us come with enduring pain suffered from shameful defeat in an inescapable battle of life. Some of us feel like going on and others of us feel like giving up. But to you we come just as we are. Whether we are winners or losers, we know that you love us one and all. Greatest of the Greatest, you know just how much we can bear. We all come to commune with you:

The tireless champion;
The tired loser;
The retired forgotten ones;
We all come to be consistently corrected and comforted by you.
We come counting our lost.
We come confronting our crises.
We come as citizens of cities controlled by crime.
We come chilled by the cold of cowardice.
Great God Almighty:
Commune with us conscience clean.
Caress us with the cradle of compassion.
Consecrate us with outrageous convictions.
Control us with Christlike concerns.
Great Physician Powerful:
Pardon us with the conscience of peace.
Place us in paths of productivity.

Practice the perfection of healing upon those who are physically, emotionally, or spiritually sick.

This is our humble plea, we present in the precious Name of the prince of peace, Jesus Christ, our priceless priest. Amen.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
J. Alfred Smith, Sr., “A Plea for Divine Presence (1989),” in Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans, ed. James Melvin Washington (HarperCollins: 1994), 257.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
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African American Spirituality and Song

Awe and Joy
Friday, February 12, 2021

The spiritual journey is a constant interplay between moments of awe followed by a general process of surrender to that moment. We must first allow ourselves to be captured by the goodness, truth, or beauty of something beyond and outside ourselves. Then we universalize from that moment to the goodness, truth, and beauty of the rest of reality, until our realization eventually ricochets back to include ourselves! This is the great inner dialogue we call prayer. Yet we humans resist both the awe and, even more, the surrender. The ego resists the awe while the will resists the surrender. But both together are vital and necessary.

The way to any universal idea is to proceed through a concrete encounter. There are a number of ways to say the same thing: the one is the way to the many, the specific is the way to the spacious, the now is the way to the always, the here is the way to the everywhere, the material is the way to the spiritual, the visible is the way to the invisible. When we see contemplatively, we know that we live in a fully sacramental universe, where everything is a pointer and an epiphany.

To let the moment teach us, we must allow ourselves to be at least slightly stunned by it until it draws inward and upward, toward a subtle experience of wonder. We normally need a single moment of gratuitous awe to get us started—and such moments are the only solid foundation for the entire religious instinct and journey.  

As she often does, Barbara Holmes expands and strengthens my thinking. She names this moment of awe “Joy Unspeakable.” But awe is not always inspired by beauty and goodness. Truth sometimes comes in hard packages. It takes both great love and great suffering to stun us and bring us to our knees. God is there in all of it, using every circumstance of our life, to draw us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Barbara writes:

We are not headed toward a single goal: we are on a pilgrimage toward the center of our hearts. It is in this place of prayerful repose that joy unspeakable erupts.

Joy Unspeakable
erupts when you least expect it,
when the burden is greatest,
when the hope is gone
after bullets fly.
It rises
on the crest of impossibility,
it sways to the rhythm
of steadfast hearts,
and celebrates
what we cannot see.

This joy beckons us not as individual monastics but as a community. It is a joy that lives as comfortably in the shout as it does in silence. It is expressed in the diversity of personal spiritual disciplines and liturgical rituals. This joy is our strength, and we need strength because we are well into the twenty-first century, and we are not healed. How shall we negotiate postmodernity without inner strength? [1]

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 200.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Just This (CAC Publishing: 2017), 9–11.

Story from Our Community:
Every time I read a reflection by Richard Rohr, I have a sense of completeness that I have known in my heart, but has never been fully expressed within the church. Wherever I have worshipped, it seems that Christian life has been divided or diluted to suit the needs of a particular faith community. I want to thank the Center for Action and Contemplation for these meditations, which serve as a reminder of the Universal Christ, seeking to bring unity to each heart and soul that we might offer unity and healing to the world in which we live. —Judy C.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry

African American Spirituality and Song

A Balm in Gilead
Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Hebrew prophets deeply loved their tradition and profoundly criticized it at the same time. Such truthful love is a very rare art form and a hallmark of prophetic identity. The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time of deep grief and loss. Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians and his people had been exiled. He critiqued the false prophets of his day who denied such necessary suffering and pretended things were better than they were. He poured out his heart to God and famously asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). The hope for a healing “balm in Gilead” provided inspiration for the African American spiritual tradition and Civil Rights Movement. Today’s meditation is a reflection from the mystic and theologian Howard Thurman about the beloved spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”

There is a balm in Gilead,

To make the spirit whole.

There is a balm in Gilead,

To heal the sin-sick soul.

The peculiar genius of the Negro slave [song] is revealed here in much of its structural splendor. The setting is the book of Jeremiah. The prophet has come to a “Dead Sea” place in his life. Not only is he discouraged over the external events in the life of Israel, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. [Wounded,] he cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is no physician there?” It is not a question of fact that he is raising—it is not a question directed to any particular person for an answer. It is not addressed either to God or to Israel, but rather it is a question raised by Jeremiah’s entire life. He is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself, and is turned back on himself for an answer. Jeremiah is saying actually, “There must be a balm in Gilead; it cannot be that there is no balm in Gilead.” The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end that he is brought face to face with the very ground and core of his own faith.

The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: “There is a balm in Gilead!” Here is a note of creative triumph.

The melody itself is most suggestive. It hovers around the basic scale without any straying far afield. Only in one place is there a sharp lifting of a tonal eyebrow—a suggestion of escape; and then the melody swings back to work out its destiny within the zones of melodic agreement.

The basic insight here is one of optimism—an optimism that grows out of the pessimism of life and transcends it. It is an optimism that uses the pessimism of life as raw material out of which it creates its own strength.

Reference:
Howard Thurman, Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals (Harper and Brothers: ©1945, 1955), 55–56.

Story from Our Community:
Every time I read a reflection by Richard Rohr, I have a sense of completeness that I have known in my heart, but has never been fully expressed within the church. Wherever I have worshipped, it seems that Christian life has been divided or diluted to suit the needs of a particular faith community. I want to thank the Center for Action and Contemplation for these meditations, which serve as a reminder of the Universal Christ, seeking to bring unity to each heart and soul that we might offer unity and healing to the world in which we live. —Judy C.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry

African American Spirituality and Song

I’m On My Way
Wednesday, February 10, 2021

In prayer we trust / By hope we live / On truth we stand / From our heart we give / Love. —Sweet Honey in the Rock

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon founded the iconic African American a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, which has been performing for over forty years. In her book If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me, Dr. Reagon recounts how many of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement had their origins in the spirituals of the nineteenth century. The first verse of the title song of her book goes, “I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way to Canaan land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.” She writes:

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we sang this song but changed the word “Canaan” to freedom:

I’m on my way to freedom land / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

One word, “freedom,” documents the time period. One would not have been able to sing freedom during the time when slavery was an integral part of this country. By the twentieth century, the 1960s, we had cleared enough space with our living and struggling and dying and going on that, no matter what, we could say and sing: “I want my freedom now!” . . .

Whether you sang “freedom” during the sixties or the older traditional text with the word “Canaan,” in essence the song says, I must leave or change where I am, and I want you to go with me:

I asked my mother come and go with me / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

Brother, sister, pastor . . . I want you to go, but if you don’t go, get out of my way:

If you don’t go, going anyhow / I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way.

If you don’t go, don’t hinder me. . . .

During the nineteenth century, being on your way out of slavery usually meant leaving a place to go to another place, covering geographical territory. You actually had to put distance between where you were and where you were headed. During the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement, being on your way often meant staying where you were and wreaking havoc in your local community, insisting on its transformation so that a new construction could be possible. Black people were determined to rearrange space for themselves and their future. We knew that as tax-paying citizens we deserved access to opportunities and resources provided by our organized governing bodies. It really was well overdue, this standing up and taking up new space—we had to move! . . .

Richard again: This is the power of the spirituals! Such sacred songs transcend time, still bringing solidarity, hope, and freedom to people today.

Reference:
Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (University of Nebraska Press: 2001), 2, 3–4.

We invite you to experience the spiritual power of music through Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “I’m On My Way.”

Story from Our Community:
Slowly but surely, the loving and open-ended language of the Daily Meditations is replacing the rigid vocabulary that I so readily absorbed in the earlier days of my faith. In fact, I feel that I am finally beginning to experience faith instead of just a list of things I was taught to accept. What freedom there is in this! I also appreciate how much Fr. Richard ‘passes the mic’ to amplify other voices. I am grateful to have been introduced to Barbara Holmes, Cynthia Bourgeault and many others. These voices help me find my own. —Alison D.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry

African American Spirituality and Song

Contemplative Song
Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The things that help us discover and return to a place of integrated knowing are both obvious and not obvious at all. Silence is one of them, and probably the one I speak of most often. Yet music and art create valuable channels to God as well. It is a gift to our Christian contemplation tradition that CAC faculty member Barbara Holmes names and claims moments that lie beyond the traditional monastic framework of solitude, silence, and stillness as authentic experiences of contemplation. Here she reflects on how worship in the Black church can create a communal contemplative experience:

The soloist moves toward the center of the podium. The congregation of about 1,500 breathes with her as she moans “Oh . . . oh . . . oh, Jesus.” Those are the only words to the song. Unless you are sitting within the sound of her voice, it is difficult to imagine how a song of two words can be a cry of anguish, balm, and celebration. In each soaring note, we participate in the unutterable spectrum of human striving. In this world, you will have trouble, but “oh, oh, oh, Jesus.” The shouts of exaltation give no indication of what is happening. Although it appears to be the usual charismatic congregational fare, in fact we are riding the stanzas through time to the hush arbors and swamp meetings, over the dangerous waters to safety. In this ordinary Sunday service, something has happened and we are changed. The worldly resistance to transcendence that we wore into the sanctuary has cracked open, and the contemplative moment carries us toward the very source of our being.

Moments like this occur regularly in the black church, yet if you ask congregants about their “contemplative practices,” they would be confounded. . . . Despite numerous exceptions, black church worship is known for its heartfelt, rhythmic, and charismatic character. This depiction has become such an accepted view that contemplative practices remain a subliminal and unexamined aspect of black religious life. As a consequence, the practices are not nurtured, encouraged, or passed on to future generations. Yet when contemplative moments occur, worship experiences seem to deepen. . . .

In the midst of worship, an imperceptible shift occurred that moved the worshipping community from intentional liturgical action to transcendent indwelling. There is no way to describe this shift other than to say that “something happened.” During this sacred time, the perpetual restlessness of the human heart was stilled and transformed into abiding presence. Time shimmered and paused, slowing its relentless pace, and the order of worship no longer took precedence for those enthralled by a joy unspeakable. [1]

This is the contemplative moment, the recognition that each and every member of the congregation shares the same angst over the troubles of the world and the need for reunion. . . . Those who listen know the Holy Spirit is in control. [2]

References:
[1] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), xix–xx.

[2] Holmes, 84.

Story from Our Community:
Slowly but surely, the loving and open-ended language of the Daily Meditations is replacing the rigid vocabulary that I so readily absorbed in the earlier days of my faith. In fact, I feel that I am finally beginning to experience faith instead of just a list of things I was taught to accept. What freedom there is in this! I also appreciate how much Fr. Richard ‘passes the mic’ to amplify other voices. I am grateful to have been introduced to Barbara Holmes, Cynthia Bourgeault and many others. These voices help me find my own. —Alison D.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry

African American Spirituality and Song

Black Song Is Sacred Song
Monday, February 8, 2021

Thea Bowman (1937–1990), a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, was a powerful communicator, deeply passionate about Jesus, the Catholic Church, and her African American heritage. I begin today with her words on the history and significance of what she celebrates as Black sacred song. 

From the African Mother Continent, African men and women, through the Middle Passage, throughout the Diaspora, to the Americas, carried the African gift and treasure of sacred song. To the Americas, African men and women brought sacred songs and chants that reminded them of their homelands and that sustained them in separation and in captivity, song to respond to all life situations, and the ability to create new songs to answer new needs.

African Americans in sacred song preserved the memory of African religious rites and symbols, of a holistic African spirituality, of rhythms and tones and harmonics that communicated their deepest feelings across barriers of region and language.

African Americans in fields and quarters, at work, in secret meetings, in slave festivals, in churches, camp meets and revivals, wherever they met or congregated, consoled and strengthened themselves and one another with sacred song—moans, chants, shouts, psalms, hymns, and jubilees, first African songs, then African American songs. In the crucible of separation and suffering, African American sacred song was formed. . . .

As early as 1691, slaves in colonial homes, slave galleries or separate pews participated in worship services with white slave holders. They learned to sing the traditional European psalms and hymns . . . which they loved and adapted to their own style and use. . . .

Black sacred song is soulful song—

  1. holistic: challenging the full engagement of mind, imagination, memory, feeling, emotion, voice, and body;
  2. participatory: inviting the worshipping community to join in contemplation, in celebration and in prayer;
  3. real: celebrating the immediate concrete reality of the worshipping community—grief or separation, struggle or oppression, determination or joy—bringing that reality to prayer within the community of believers;
  4. spirit-filled: energetic, engrossing, intense;
  5. life-giving: refreshing, encouraging, consoling, invigorating, sustaining. . . .

Black sacred song celebrates our God, [God’s] goodness, [God’s] promise, our faith and hope, our journey toward the promise. Black sacred song carries melodies and tonalities, rhythms and harmonies; metaphors, symbols and stories of faith that speak to our hearts; words, phrases and images that touch and move us. . . .

Black sacred song has been at once a source and an expression of Black faith, spirituality and devotion. By song, our people have called the Spirit into our hearts, homes, churches, and communities.

The music Sister Thea describes is the gift of a deeply incarnate faith. The people who allowed the spirituals to sing through them knew the presence of a God who existed within themselves and in the difficult circumstances of their lives. In her final years, my [Richard Rohr’s] own mother listened to Thea preach and sing. She found immense comfort through witnessing Sister Thea’s love for God even while Thea journeyed with cancer.

Reference:
Thea Bowman, “The Gift of African American Sacred Song” in Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal (G.I.A. Publications: 1987), [iv, v, vi, viii].

Story from Our Community:
With the help of CAC and Fr. Richard, I am being guided toward loving not judging, including not excluding. I am so grateful to be growing in daily contemplative prayer, which increases my connection to God, self, and others. I am grateful for the wisdom I hear from all of my fellow travelers on this road to healing the hurting world. —Susan M.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry

African American Spirituality and Song

Christ Prays in Us and through Us
Sunday, February 7, 2021

Although most Sunday church services don’t foster it, the essential religious experience is that we are being “known through” more than knowing anything by ourselves. An authentic encounter with God will feel like true knowing, not just in our heads but in our hearts and bodies as well. I call this way of knowing contemplation, nondualistic thinking, or even “third-eye” seeing. It is quite unlike the intellectual “knowing” most of us have been taught to rely on. This kind of prayer and “seeing” takes away our anxiety about figuring it all out fully for ourselves or needing to be right about our formulations. At this point, God becomes more a verb than a noun, more a process than a conclusion, more an experience than a dogma, more a personal relationship than an idea. There is Someone dancing with us, and we are not afraid of making mistakes.

No wonder all of the great liturgical prayers of the churches end with the same phrase: “through Christ our Lord, Amen.” We do not pray to Christ; we pray through Christ. Or even more precisely, Christ prays through us. This is a very different experience! We are always and forever the conduits, the instruments, the tuning forks, the receiver stations (Romans 8:26–27). To live in such a way is to live inside of an unexplainable hope, because our lives will now feel much larger than our own. In fact, they are no longer merely our own lives and, yet, paradoxically, we are more ourselves than ever before. That is the constant and consistent experience of the mystics.

It is within this context that I offer this week’s Daily Meditations on the healing, liberating, and contemplative power embodied in the African American spirituals of the last three centuries.

One of our Living School alums, Arthur C. Jones, is a scholar and performer of African American spirituals. In his book Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, he observes that “There are many people today who have virtually no understanding of what the spirituals are and why they are important.” [1] He makes the case that:

the legacy of the spirituals is worth our continued attention now, not only as “museum music” (a phrase often used by the great jazz artist Miles Davis), but also as a broad-ranging cultural tradition that remains relevant to pressing present-day social realities, not just for African Americans, but for people everywhere who are concerned with issues of social justice, community bonding, deep spirituality and—most importantly—the healing of deep wounds surrounding the shameful history of American slavery. [2]

If you are concerned, as I am, with the issues that Arthur Jones mentions—social and racial justice, community bonding, and deep spirituality—I hope we can engage with this material with the “ears” of our hearts attuned to what the Spirit has to teach us.

References:
[1] Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, 3rd ed. (Leave A Little Room: 2005), xxiii.

[2] Jones, xv.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing: 2009), 23–24.

Story from Our Community:
With the help of CAC and Fr. Richard, I am being guided toward loving not judging, including not excluding. I am so grateful to be growing in daily contemplative prayer, which increases my connection to God, self, and others. I am grateful for the wisdom I hear from all of my fellow travelers on this road to healing the hurting world. —Susan M.

Image credit: Gjon Mili, Jamming at Gjon’s (detail), Photograph, copyright gettyimages.com, used with permission.
Image Inspiration: Jazz is many things: it is dance music, counter-cultural and a great connector of people. May we hear the Sacred lovingly woven into tone color, rhythmic pattern and collaborative improvisation.
Read Full Entry
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