Listen to the song. The first one, as the beginning. Simple truth. Nothing could be farther from “metaphor” or “symbol.” Go in the Wilderness. Leaning on the Lord.
If I had known this song, the morning of August 14. 1962, it might have staved off or at least diminished the occupying enemy that was the migraine that grew and grew, from 8:20 in the morning, when I boarded the train in Beloit, until 7:10 that evening when Fr. Bill Wrenn met me at the Minneapolis train station, so that he could drive me the 30 miles to St. Bonifacius, Minnesota. The land was reclaimed swamp – or wetlands, today? – and the building whose door we faced sprawled across the land like a true fortress, built of bright stones quarried from the region. It struck me as humorous, even with the migraine, that we arrived just about 9 pm, when the bells rang out “De Profoundis” – “Out of the depths I call to you, LORD; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” While I had to have explained to me the monastic significance of the tolling, and the prayer that was to be said during that period, it soon made much sense, that I should hear those bells that night.
Over the next four years the signal for night prayer would be a constant for all of us; and the sentiments of Psalm 130 could very easily have summed up my most constant prayer for those same years.
Fifty-four years ago, this night, I began my journey into the wilderness.
No one provided cross-cultural competency training for the priests and brothers who staffed the house, nor for the other young men who had arrived much earlier that day and with a sense of entitlement bolstering them on this new adventure. No one said much of anything to me when I left my family, except my mother’s embracing last directive, “Pray for your brother.” The previous six years of my life – which I still cannot write down in any detail – was an intensive immersion in cultural dislocation and re-assemblage. My younger sister and I probably survived the experience of desegregating a school system by being somewhat innocent of what covert racism was. Only the largest insults were dealt with. The small harms were accepted as something to which we adjusted. Each instructive episode about how easily privilege can be wielded to inflict a thousand tiny wounds into an adolescent’s mind heart and spirit was nevertheless packed into my consciousness; but not as neatly as all the clothes that were packed into my one suitcase.
I walked into a dark and silent building, wishing only to lie still and alone.
And Jesus was waiting to meet me, in the wilderness.
Much earlier in these reflections the gifts from my father and mother have been lifted up. The books. The phonograph records. The letters. The one visit every year that must have cost them so much more than they would have ever said. How did Jesus touch me, then? Protecting me with art. The language of Baldwin and King, the sounds of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. The music that I fearlessly and calmly claimed as my therapy – practicing the flute every day, for only 30 minutes gave me, me. “I will practice. Because I must.” And so the house rules were changed. The poetry that had already been my way to hear myself dream was also there, a covenant with my imagination that promised me flight from the meanest times and the most wounding words of the mostly ignorant and sometimes thoughtless men who surrounded me.
But any of those who remain from that time who will read this will most likely say, “But we had so much joy and we learned so much and we bonded so deeply and forever.” Yes. That is true. Not all the “Sorrow Songs” were sad. And not every blues song is filled with existential despair. Being in the wilderness was the great endeavor in which I forged the armor of my faith. Persistence in the face of the shadows taught me steadfastness and resilience. And most of all, at least as I see and feel this memory this night, I learned to listen, to deeply listen, much like any creature dropped into a wilderness that could either sustain or utterly devour.
I learned to listen. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois elevates the folk belief that some special ones are “born with a sort of a veil, and are gifted with second sight.” This folk belief stems from some babies being born with part of the placenta still covering their heads – the “veil” that bestowed a “double vision” on the fortunate few. And that gift, like all gifts articulated in African culture, was given for the benefit of all the community. Prophecy is not the vision; it is the articulation of the vision once the vessel of the word of power has returned to tell “what has been seen and heard.” In that same way, I had to learn to listen on several simultaneous frequencies. Otherwise, the unfortunate, ignorant and utterly misspoken remarks would have been fatal – to me, if not to the speaker. I had to learn to hear beyond the depression, the confusion, and the loneliness that rolled into my horizon and often brought me low. I had to learn to hear my grandmothers say, “You gonna be all right, baby. You gonna be just fine.”
But the formation of my spirit, the forging of my armor of resistance, the cultivation of my “dogged strength...which alone kept me from being torn asunder” (again, the words of Du Bois, early in Souls), were my private schooling, done in addition to learning the history, traditions and excesses of community that were the laboratory of assimilation in which we were being reassembled. “Learning to be a Jesuit” meant in the deepest sense possible, that I had to learn what it would mean to be “a Black Jesuit.” No one was there to teach that syllabus. Not until one someone too many asked me if I knew Ted Cunningham. Finding out that there was one other Black man in the Society of Jesus, Wisconsin Province, triggered my by-now legendary decisiveness. I wrote to him. He came to visit, along with his other classmates, at the time of their ordination to the sub-deaconate. We walked. We talked. We laughed. We shared silence.
“And if Jesus Himself shall be our leader, we shall walk through the valley of peace.”
And now I wonder, fifty-four years later: did anyone else ever learn to listen, as I was forced to do? The half-century of my surviving with my first vision still intact has made me ask that question, more and more. Did any of them, of you, ever learn that my gift to this brotherhood was the fact that I did not assimilate into a culture that was designed to grind me and those like me (including Ted Cunningham a few years after we met) into a fine dust that the slightest breeze would scatter into oblivion. And a further wonder, to be played as the second drumming of this dance of remembrance: Have those who claim a ministry of service of faith through justice been willing to spend the needed time in the wilderness that is this country’s culture of forced inequality, violence, and degradation toward the automatically inferior “other”?
In order to both survive the wilderness and to grow strong enough to be a wilderness guide for others, I had to learn to listen. The question for the Church of the United States, for the Society of Jesus in the United States, for every institution of higher learning; for every government agency; every social work office, every police department; every hospital emergency room – the question is this: Have you learned to listen, to be conscious, to know that what seems like howling threats in the wilderness around you just might be the sound of the whirlwind that precedes the stillness that is the voice of God?
This question is now being shouted with urgency all over the land. But each one must journey to the wilderness, one fearful step after another. And then each will learn the glorious secret in the only way any of us can learn. Step into whatever death you most fear. And choose to live.
Can you listen to me, so that you can learn to hear the deepest truth inside your deepest self? Can any and all who believe that their obligation is to keep the wilderness at bay, at all costs, ever hear the whispering in the darkness: “Know this: the wilderness is already within you.” The prayer is always “Out of the depths, I call to you O Lord. May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”
Young men and young women from beyond the walls of cultural sameness will never enter in the gates fashioned to keep them in the wilderness of another’s devising. These young women and men will not hear the bell calling them, will perhaps never understand that the net being cast to draw them in is firmly in the hands of their ancestors. We need to tell them what only Jesus was there to tell me, all those many years ago: “You are already a Child of God, formed before you were born. Don’t let nobody turn you ‘round. You are just who we need you to be.”
In the wilderness I learned it: may my ears be attentive to my own cry for mercy.
How did you feel when you come out the wilderness?