From Standing Rock to Kentucky’s Abbey of Gesthsemani: Prayer and Social Justice
I just returned from three days of silence in Trappist, Kentucky with the Trappist Monks at the Abbey of Gesthsemani. A week before that I was in North Dakota with Standing Rock.
In both of these places, prayer was/is central to everyday living.
In the last few years, I have become a praying person (again). I was raised conservative Catholic and rejected anything to do with church and organized religion, as soon as I was old enough to realize I could.
In my early years of yoga and meditaton practice, I tried to avoided all of the spiritual elements of the practices. However, as layers of my body opened up, my spirit also opened to traditional practices of mantra, chanting and prayerful movement.
I’ve also been working, living and organizing in the South for over a decade — faith is an important cornerstone for many communities here. Therefore, in my organizing work, I have developed a deeper understanding of the interconnectivity and vital role that spirituality often plays in our human lives and subsequently in my own life.
At Standing Rock, at the rise of the sun, elders would call us to the sacred fire. There, in a circle that grew, as the rosy sun filled the expanse of the open sky, we were asked to pray. Prayer in this circle was often about acknowledging the person next to you and across from you. Prayer happened in silence. Prayer happened in dance, in song and in poetry.
Prayer was how you blessed your thoughts and prepared your body to show up for the day. Prayer was central to every action, intention and thought. “Prayer is why we are here, pray for the water, which is life,” the leader of the women’s council, Melanie Stoneman reminded.
In the pulsing and beating circle, at the sacred fire, we would pray for hours with the cold biting at our toes and the helicopters buzzing overhead. Prayers occurred before every action and often were embedded into the protests that helped win a rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline away from the water and sacred burial grounds of the Sioux people.
“Prayer is for blessings to come.” The elders told us.
I was struck, by how little prayer, as a tactic and foundation of the #NoDALP protests was covered in the media. Because, it was central to every action. In fact, where prayer (practice) met action — is what sets apart this movement from so many others we have seen and participated in our lifetime.
A week after Standing Rock, I traveled to the Abbey of Gesthetamie, where prayer is also a central part of life. The monks, rise just before the sun and begin chanting at 5:45am. They return to prayer and chanting throughout the day, again and again. Much of their time is spent in silence. Nestled in the soft Kentucky hills, mist brushed the tops of winter bare trees around the monastery in the mornings.
Gestheamie is the abbey of radical mystic, Thomas Merton who matched practice (prayer) with action (his voice and prolific writing) to break down many religious and political barriers in the 1950s and 60s. One of the main values of the Abbey is silence. Silence invites visitors into reverence. On the retreat center’s doors, a simple invitation is posted, “Silence, is spoken here.”
I have participated in silence before and three days was relatively easy for me. I could tell my body, mind and spirit needed replenishing and silence fed it full. However, I was struck by how loud the silence was this time. As I walked the sodden hill paths, the cawing of a crow pierced the air, brown leaves rustled loudly in the wind and the sounds reverberated throughout me. These are the sounds that are hidden with our usual chatter.
Winding the faded golden grass walkways to the forest, a silver pond appeared, knitted through the branches — -my breath was caught in my body and I exhaled tears, a message came strongly to me: “What a gift is Earth.”
In silence, in the natural world — this is where I have always felt and heard God. It is why the Trappist monks cherish silence and prayer so devoutly.
At the peak of a hill, smoky clouds veiled the landscape ahead of me, and yet still, emerald green filtered through and I was returned to Wales, India, western North Carolina, North Dakota, Guatemala and East Tennessee. I had seen this landscape before, a reminder of our connection across geography, culture and distance.
Prayer and silence, these are practices that offer us the sustenance to show up for our work of changemaking. Without sustenance, how will we be able to show up at all? Or rather, what version of me/us will show up?
In practice, we are able to listen to the inner guidance within and experience intricate connectivity with each other. In practice, we begin to recognize our own divinity.
The natural world is a living example that we belong to something larger than our individual human form. Around the sacred fire, I felt the invisible link that tethers me to others. In the sodden Kentucky hills, I heard clearly the voice that affirms me and guides me forward — past fear and shame and systems of privilege and oppression that beg me not show up at all if I can’t do it perfectly.
Practice reminds me that imperfection is one of our linking identities to each other.
In practice we find the sacred and in action, we sew it into the fabric of our world. This has become ever the more clear from my time in Standing Rock and in my time with the monks in Kentucky.
And so, I/we…
Practice, to be able to show up for liberation.
Love, to connect deeper to a web of healing.
Rest, to revitalize.
Connect with the natural world, so that we can listen to the sound of spirit.
Pray, for blessings to come.