Life is constantly showing interconnections, sometimes in unforeseen ways. During a zoom conversation with a doctoral student at Pacific School of Religion (PSR), I learned that his sermon this Sunday would focus on listening. I shared with him that listening was also an important emphasis of my sermon. After completing our conversation, I walked outside to retrieve something from my car. A neighbor approached and began to talk about a spiritual discipline she has undertaken. It is to still herself each morning to remove all the voices that pollute the mind so that she can hear the voice of God. That reminds me of Dr. Howard Thurman’s counsel to wait and listen for the sound of the genuine. "It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls. He also declares that if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born…"
While mulling over these thoughts, I remembered the deep conversation seminarians and I had experienced less than two weeks ago. We discussed the documentary film: For the Next Seven Generations. Thirteen indigenous grandmothers from the four directions of the earth hear the agonized cry of Mother Earth declaring that the time is now for them to come forth and heal of the earth and all its inhabitants. They responded by forming the International Council of Thirteen Grandmothers with the imperative to show the way for us. Below is the trailer for the film.
I was especially moved by the observation: There was a time in our life that the indigenous people, that we were walking on the earth. We didn’t have maps. We did not have road signs. Yet, we were able to journey. When we felt like we were lost, we would sit down, and we would say our prayers in front of this sacred fire. We would be shown the direction to go.
The indigenous people depended for direction on the sacred elements of life: fire, air, earth, and water. This “interbeingness” is beautifully articulated by the great Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hahn.
The sun has entered me. The sun has entered me together with the cloud and the river. I myself have entered the river, and I have entered the sun with the cloud and the river. There has not been a moment when we do not interpenetrate.
But before the sun entered me, the sun was in me — also the cloud and the river.
Before I entered the river, I was already in it. There has not been a moment when we have not inter-been.
Therefore, you know that as long as you continue to breathe, I continue to be in you.
- Thich Nhat Hahn
Similarly inspiring and mind-expanding have been the chapel services at PSR that have incorporated intimately meditations/insights from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ book: Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals.
Some of us may be familiar with the concept of echolocation known also as bio sonar. It is a method of communication, of sending and receiving messages used by marine animals. The animal emits a call to the environment and listens for a sound to return. Could this be the sound of the genuine for which the whale listens? The returned sound (echo) helps the animal to figure out where it is and what is in its environment. It is critical for keeping itself alive through navigation and hunting for nutrition.
Did you hear the human voice singing along with the voice of the whale?
Gumbs describes herself as "a Black woman ascending with and shaped by a whole group of people who were transubstantiated into property and kidnapped across an ocean. And, like many of us, I am simply attracted to the wonder of marine life."
Her understanding of “interbeingness’ is profound. Her exploration of it is extraordinary. She leaves no doubt that our understanding of human connection with marine animals is tied to our social order and future possibilities. Gumbs says:
"How can we listen across species, across extinction, across harm? How does echolocation, the practice many marine mammals use to navigate the world through bounding sounds, change our understandings of “vision” and visionary action? Is social media already a technology of bounce, of throwing something out there and seeing what comes back?
This is where we start our trans-species communion, opening a space to uplift the practice of listening even more than the practices of showing and proving and speaking up. Listening is not only about the normative ability to hear, it is a transformative and revolutionary resource that requires quieting down and tuning in.
“Once upon a time there was a giant sea mammal, who weighed up to twenty-three tons, swimming in the Bering Sea…. Within twenty-seven years, the entire species was extinct, killed on thousands of European voyages for fur and sealskin….
So, she knows what we know. It is dangerous to be discovered."
I certainly feel that the first inhabitants of this land can relate to this statement. They were discovered by European explorers and nearly wiped out in the process. Black Americans can certainly relate. The discovery that Africans were more reliable as slaves than Europeans and first nation peoples led to their legal entrenchment as slaves into the system of slavery and its aftermath spanning over 400 years. What does it mean to be discovered? It means that you are not hidden, not off the track, that you are visible, in sight, on the path, in the way. Is that why many of us like to stay hidden, our voices silent, our protest unheard, our vision unrevealed, our imagination null and void?
"She had blubber and was hunted for it. They say she couldn’t sing. The only sound was her breathing, but she could hear for miles and miles and miles. What a loss for listening. How can we honor it, the archive of your breathing? …
Some say your death was only incidental; you were so conveniently located on the favorite path of sealers and fur traders . . . They were on their way to get sealskin and fur. They would kill you and eat you during the journey there. Does that make anyone feel better? Keep anyone warm? That your extinction – the first known extinction of a marine mammal caused by humans - was collateral in the pursuit of other deaths?”
I think of the twenty-two human beings killed in Syria due to our nation’s recent bombing, Joe Biden’s first military act as President. Is this the way to peace? Does it honor interbeing that supports all of life, that heals Mother Earth and all her inhabitants?
"What can I do to honor you, now that it is too late?...
I will remember you. Not by the name (written in the possessive) of the one they say 'discovered' you after generation of Indigenous relationship.
I will say once upon a time there was a huge and quiet swimmer, a plant-based rough-skinned listener, a fat and graceful mammal. And then I will be quiet, so I can hear you breathing. And then I will be breathing and you’ll remind me, do not rush. And the time in me will hush. And then we will be listening for real.”
Thurman writes: "to be alive is to participate responsibly in the experiences of life. Men say grace at meals not only because they feel a sense of gratitude to God for a sustaining providence, but out of a deep sense of responsibility to the life that has been yielded in order that they may be sustained for one more day. . . . The bacon that a man ate for breakfast, at some moment in the past, was alive with vibrant, elemental health and vigor. . . Because of what he yielded and because of the myriad yieldings of many forms of life, we are able to live and carry on. This means that our life is not our own. Every minute of life we are faced with the relentless urgency to make good in our own lives for the lives that are lost for us. Quite consciously then I see my responsibility to all that has gone into the making of me – not only in terms of food but also in terms of the total contribution that has been made to my life both by the past and the present. I must live my life responsibly or lose my right to self-respect and to integrity."
In his biography, With Head and Heart, Dr. Thurman talks at length about his companionship with our other than human kindred. He draws the reader into a world of intimacy with the dark nights, the storms, the heaving of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. He states that these were his earliest companions in life. They held him. They affirmed him, gave his strength. He was in community/communion with them and therefore free.
Thurman had a special relationship with an oak tree in his back yard. He stated that he could lean his back against that tree and pour out the little hurts of his day, knowing that the tree was listening, absorbing the sorrow, the pain. Nikki Giovanni wrote a poem in which she queried: "if trees could talk, wonder what they’d say?" I believe that Thurman’s oak tree not only listened but talked back. Speaking in cosmic language, it said to the boy: “I’ve got your back.”