There is one lesson I continue to learn over and over again. Seeking answers to the mysteries of life does not have to be complicated or expensive. The great African American theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, writes about an oak tree that he turned to again and again for solace and strength. He said he would talk to the oak tree, sharing his triumphs and sorrows with it.
“I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I would hold my ground…I cultivated a unique relationship with the tree..I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that it understood. It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.”
Earlier, biographer, Elizabeth Yates wrote:
“He also learned from the oak tree that despite the tempest or storms, it stood stalwart. Somewhere in life, he reasoned to himself, there was a constancy that was not subject to tempests; but whatever it was, it would not be outside a man but with his spirit. He read that night to his grandmother from the Psalms about a godly man…he shall be like a tree..What was this soil wherein a man’s roots, as those of a tree, could find sure hold?”
As I began to reflect on my own contemplative spiritual journey, I thought about where and when I found renewal and guidance. For many years I chided myself for lacking the desire to take a pilgrimage, to walk the great El Camino, hike the Grand Canyon or walk the shores near Iona, Scotland. Sometimes I need not go any further than my own backyard or bedroom. Below is a description of my spiritual spot, my time and place that is equivalent to Dr. Thurman’s oak tree. It is my bed in the morning wherever I am.
I turned over in my bed just becoming aware of the early morning quiet. Awakening among tossed pillows, sheets, and lightweight blankets always offered a place of strength and solace for me. The tranquility of daybreak reminded me of the times as a child I spent sitting in the wind inhaling the deep peace within it. As, “Little Rita,” my childhood nickname, I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to serenity or that a bed and the daybreak hush would serve as my anchor for an unimaginable life journey.
From morning calm, I donned my uniform to march off to master the discipline of parochial school, and later arose to face a sea of white faces, as the lone brown one in my college classrooms. In the newness of morning, I jumped out of the bed to boldly defend my dissertation, and then later sobbed into its fitted sheets when I realized that my tenure denial wasn’t a dream but a real professional and public humiliation. Still the early morning calm gave birth to the strength and wisdom I needed as a professor to awaken students for more than 30 years. Virgin time and the caress of handmade quilts created a space where I summoned the courage to face a looming heart transplant, and ten years later accepted the diagnosis of renal failure knowing my recovery would require months of dialysis and another transplant. Opening my eyes in great joy, I awoke in the freshness of the day to see my wedding dress hanging across the hotel room, celebrating in my new heart my imminent marriage. After a restless night of grief, I grabbed my teddy bears and tissues, and wailed into the pillows as I felt the sting of being orphaned, now with both parents deceased. In all of these moments, I knew that the constancy of a sturdy bed whether in homes, college dorms, hotels or hospitals, and the Guidance revealed in a touch of morning stillness would steer me through anything.
Howard Thurman found peace and understanding from an old, sturdy oak tree near his home. Memories of times with that tree sustained him throughout his life. For me, I acquire wisdom and courage in bed in morning quiet to walk the spiritual path. Where do you go to refuel, to connect with inner wisdom? When do you pause to capture moments of calm and serenity, and to gather the strength to endure the vicissitudes of life? How can you experience the peace and joy in your heart?
Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981, p. 9.
Elizabeth Yates, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer. New York: The John Day Company, 1964, p. 30.