Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States. I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform. I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either. But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.
Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime. Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities. He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room. Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead. I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited. This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.
In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter. 2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism. 3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts. He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.
Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God. He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in. Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.
If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation. I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still. Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart. Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.
Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature. Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace. Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything. This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.
Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority. Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence. Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.” It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed. By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.* Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.
The Inward Sea
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that
sea there is an island and on that island there is an
altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel
with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that
angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the
mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes “the
angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your
altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”
This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)
In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted. Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion. He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.
Howard Thurman would also remind me
to be still and listen each day for what my role is
in the change I wish to see in the world.
I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening
brings more peace and joy to the heart.
If you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website, shalem.org.
*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman. Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.