by Lerita Coleman Brown, Spirituality Program Leader
February 2, 2017—I think I have Howard Thurmanitis. Yes, I have previously posted about him and I made up that name. But after giving two workshops on his writings in the span of three days, one at a conference devoted to his life and work, it fits. I love talking and writing about Howard Thurman, about his love for nature, stillness and silence. I resonate with the fact that as a young boy he was a contemplative and a mystic. He felt called to something deeper and he followed that call throughout his life. In some ways it feels like a betrayal of sorts, expressing love for a man other than my husband. Yet my guilt is lessened by the fact that Howard Thurman has been dead for more than three decades. He continues to speak to me, though, through his writings, his lectures, his sermons, his love for the Sacred everywhere. His quest for a profound experience of the Presence, of connection to all living things acts as a role model for me as a spiritual pilgrim stumbling along what sometimes feels like as an unknown path. On occasion I sense that I am wandering away from the Peace in my heart and at other times I march steadily toward it. Thurman’s writings, lectures and sermons feel like worthy companions to take along the way.
I remember wandering around in my mind pondering what I could write about. In order to complete my spiritual direction training at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation I needed a subject for my final project. Fulfilling the requirements could involve a creative work, like building a labyrinth, composing sacred poetry or planning a silent retreat. Another option was to write about someone, a mystic or spiritual person. I wanted to research and write about a specific person, someone I could get to know intimately, to learn about how his or her spirituality unfolded.
I enjoyed reading about many of the mystics especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but they felt so ancient and far away. I also knew there were more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill. Yet most mystics were typically nuns or monks, basically religious who lived in community. I was curious if there were “ordinary mystics” as Marsha Sinetar refers to them in her book, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness, regular people who communicated about their everyday mystical experiences. Was there anyone out there who wasn’t living in a religious community but seemed to have contact with a Presence they couldn’t logically explain? Were people having “peak experiences” as William Maslow labeled them? Was there anyone listening to or following his or her heart?
I frequently experience mystical moments in the quiet of the morning or when I awake from a nap. Sometimes a feeling of Oneness engulfs me when I view a gorgeous sunset or a vista of mountains. When I find myself in the “thin space” as it is sometimes referred to—that place where heaven and earth appear to merge if only for a moment—my connection to a larger whole is palpable. For a split second, I feel like the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once.
I continued to badger my spiritual comrades about ordinary mystics until a pastoral counselor friend asked if I had heard of Howard Thurman. Given all of the spiritual material I’d read over the years and for my spiritual guidance program I was embarrassed to discover that he was unknown to me. After perusing his autobiography, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, I learned he had written over 20 books, served as a spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr. and was a “godfather” of sorts to the Civil Rights movement. I was crestfallen to learned that he died in 1981. I could have met him several times had I known about his existence earlier.
As a boy, Howard Thurman lived near the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida and as he listened to it, he felt a Presence that held and embraced him. In addition he became attached to a tall, solid oak tree in his backyard. Thurman noticed that when the storms came off the ocean, while many trees toppled, the old oak tree stood firm. Like the tree, Thurman sensed there was something inside of him, strong as that oak tree that could withstand the tempest and storms of his life.
My favorite Thurman books besides his autobiography include Jesus and the Disinherited, Meditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment, and Deep is the Hunger. Clearly there are many more books, articles, lectures, and sermons on a variety of topics ranging from building and sustaining a beloved community to listening for the “genuine” in one’s self, in others, and in the world. I especially savor his meditations and work that emphasize the power of silence and stillness and the gift of pausing more frequently to obtain spiritual renewal. Here is one of his meditations:
How Good to Center Down!
How good it is to center down!
To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!
The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;
Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,
While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.
With full intensity we seek, ere thicket passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;
A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.
We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.
The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—what are the motives that order our days?
What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go? Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused? For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?
What do I hate most in life and to what am I true? Over and over the questions beat upon the waiting moment.
As we listen, floating up through all of the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—
A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.
It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered,
Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round
With the peace of the Eternal in our step. How good it is to center down!
(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)
Sometimes just reading one of Thurman’s meditations renews the Peace in my heart. Google him, view one of his videos and see if his commanding voice does the same for you.
Have you ever come away from a “mystical or peak experience” with a greater sense of Peace, a sense that Someone or Something loves and cares for you? Have you ever found yourself out in nature—listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks or the chirping birds in early morning or felt awe at the sight of the green leaves of tall trees against the backdrop of a blue sky? Just for a moment were you touched by a Oneness with everything that gave you a deep Peace and abiding Joy? Next time you have an opportunity to pause and be present— to feel that sense of unity with everyone and everything, grab it. See if it might lead you to uncovering more of the peace and joy in your heart.
About Lerita Coleman Brown: “A graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I serve as a *spiritual director/companion, create Friends of Silence groups, organize “listening prayer circles,” and encourage contemplative practices of all kinds. I seek to help individuals establish a regular spiritual practice, find their place on their spiritual journey and discover their purpose in life. Most of all I am called to assist all who are ready to uncover the Peace and Joy that lies buried in their hearts. Because in the end, it’s what’s in your heart that counts.” She blogs at Peace for Hearts. She is a spiritual director/companion, writer, speaker, workshop leader and Professor of Psychology Emerita at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA.
Lerita Coleman Brown will lead The Enduring Spirituality of Howard Thurman on March 4, 2017. This half-day (9 – 2) Spirituality Program workshop is open for registration now. Make plans to join us for this retreat, where will witness with silence, centering prayer, readings, journaling, and connecting with nature the contemplative practices Howard Thurman promoted.