Last week, I listened to an episode of Krista Tippett’s series On Being that featured an interview with poet Marilyn Nelson. I am not very knowledgeable about the world of modern poetry, but I am familiar with Nelson’s work. A couple years ago, I wrote about Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, Nelson’s poetic composition about Fortune, an enslaved man whose owner rendered his body into a skeleton for medical training. Fortune’s identity and history had been erased across centuries as his remains were displayed. Community concerns eventually led to a multi-disciplinary academic, artistic, and community effort to honor the man and, in 2013, put his bones to rest. Isaye M. Barnwell, a musician formerly of Sweet Honey in the Rock, developed a cantata and choral work for Fortune’s Bones. These developed into a series of artistic performances and community events that demonstrate the power of art to speak through and for those who are marginalized—even in death. Disparate communities joined together to ponder Fortune’s life, and it was powerful.
In the On Being interview, Nelson spoke about “communal pondering,” and I’ve been repeating this phrase to myself since then. It identifies a form of creative activity and a spiritual way of being that I am deeply committed to, and have not been able to name. Communal pondering occurs when a group of people are listening together and are opening up new paths for discourse and action by the engaged reflection that takes place within that listening.
Nelson described the communal pondering that occurs in poetry readings and in contemplative teaching practices. She says there is a hunger within our society for silence and contemplation. I’ve been drawn to contemplative practices for the past 15 years or so, but have only known how to identify them as such for the past few years. Drawing from research on contemplative practices of the black church, scholar Barbara Holmes explains that contemplative practices are not only about “the individual experience of encountering the divine presence,” but also about a communal experience of the divine, or more particularly “a communal listening and entry into communion with the living God” (p. 43 in Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church).
Holmes does important work by exposing a connection between contemplation and African-American religious practices, because, as she notes, African-American religious experiences are too often caricatured as ecstatic, exuberant worship. And yet, sources as varied as the writings of Howard Thurman, the testimonies of women who pray in “war rooms” at home, and the accounts of hush harbors during an era of chattel slavery attest to a variety of individual and communally-shared spiritual practices that represent an inward journey to the divine in African-American life.
Communal pondering is both a feminist and Christian practice for me, although it unites me with those who do not claim either commitment. It is feminist in its invitation for equal participation of all who are present. Obviously, there are religious communities that do not welcome the spiritual contributions of all kinds of people; many exclude on the basis of gender. But I do not seek spiritual sustenance in those exclusionary communities even though I do periodically seek the company of women in separate spaces for my own well-being (see Alice Walker’s poetic definition of womanism in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, p. xii). I also find the insistence on relationality at the core of communal pondering to be compatible with feminism.
We do communal pondering here. Together, we not only reflect on the pain, joy, suffering, resistance, and triumphs of women and their communities with our intellectual skill. We also hold these things in our hearts, we share them with each other, and we use them as bridges to understand each other’s spiritual and religious traditions, other’s approaches to feminism, and, simply, the people we encounter.
My communal pondering is a Christian practice when it takes place in Christian communities or when it is centered on the person of Jesus. In a story of Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well, the Christian scriptures speak of Jesus as a source of living water that will quenches spiritual thirst. I interpret this passage as indicating that the teachings of Jesus, his ministry, his and very person have the ability to inspire and renew those who need refreshment in the midst of life weariness.
I’m in a dry season with my writing and creative work, although I most desperately need to be productive. Perhaps is it because my wellspring is found in communal pondering, and I have not done enough of it. I should be more precise: I’ve had moments of inspiration and creativity when I’ve gone to plays and other arts events, listened to lectures and sermons, read blogs, participated in a teach-in, and sung with my church choir. But these have been isolated experiences, events I have dropped in and out of without the continuity of a stable community to hold these things together or to hold me accountable to grow or change or do something about what I have come to know. I am a part of communities that offer this kind of continuity—my church, this FAR community, academic support circles, and close friendships/kinships—but I have been peripheral to their activity in recent months. I believe this new awareness of communal pondering is a divine hand guiding me from the shallow end of a community pool to the center where living water flows.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.