A weekend online retreat
March 18-19, 2022
Please see information below for details.
A weekend online retreat
March 18-19, 2022
Please see information below for details.
Recently I led a Quiet Day at a local retreat center on Howard Thurman who was mentor and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What is a Quiet Day you might ask? I describe it as a weekend silent retreat packed into a single day. It provides each person in attendance an opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, power down the electronic devices and get off the grid. A Quiet Day allows for calming the inner chatter and just basking in the stillness that lies below it in our minds. Actually I’ve noticed that most environments especially natural settings possess quiet, stillness, and serenity until we introduce noise into them. A certain joy always emanates from the peace nestling in such places.
In preparation for the Quiet Day, I learned some new things about Howard Thurman and what brought peace and joy to his heart. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Thurman was an extraordinary mystic, theologian and preacher and his life and writings offer a number of suggestions about how to live in a world of turmoil yet keep a certain awe, peace and hope in one’s heart. I want to share a few examples from his life here.
Howard Thurman found great peace outside in nature. He grew up in Daytona Beach so as a young boy he often heard the rush of the ocean, the tides washing against the rocks as well as the sea gulls adding a song each morning. There was something calming in the sound of the sea and he felt a certain serenity as he gazed at and rowed across the Halifax River near his childhood home.
Thurman also spoke of a favorite oak tree. He gained great wisdom from just observing the tree. He noticed that when big wind and rain storms came off the ocean, the tree limbs and branches would swing and sway in the storm, but the tree never toppled over. There was something about having a strong foundation and deep roots that kept it upright even though tossed and turned in a storm. Thurman knew the tree represented something about his center, a sense he possessed that as external events might appear chaotic, he could remain rooted and not be subject to the whims of life. Thurman also talked to the oak tree. He felt like the tree somehow listened deeply and carried some of his burdens for him. Sometimes he felt if he sat below the tree in quiet, he heard an answer to some burning question or issue he lay before it.
Thurman’s experiences remind me of my own many years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA as a college student. I moved into a duplex my senior year that was located not far from the ocean. I too, could hear the ocean at night and there was a definite calmness that was brought on by listening to the ocean. In addition, I found a special large rock that I sat on and gazed out into the sea. I would go there and share my joys, sorrows and even ask some questions of the vast ocean. It’s the one thing I missed most after I graduated and left California.
Thurman was a lover of silence and stillness. He observed that we need to stop the traffic in our minds sometimes just so we can get a grip on what is going in our lives, to better understand the people that we are, and determine what we want. He advocated silence for everyone but especially for those who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. He felt that each one of us needs a sanctuary, a place to go where we could garner peace as well as inner strength. For Thurman taking some time for silence was the human equivalent of refueling ourselves. Thurman and Gandhi both (they met in 1936) felt that the vitality needed to change one’s circumstances whether they be personal or on a larger social scale came from feeding one’s spirit just like we drink and eat to feed our bodies. That nurturing of spirit comes through stopping and being quiet as often as we can. Some people might label this kind of lifestyle “contemplative living,” or a life of living in the present (practicing mindfulness ) and in the Presence.
Is there some aspect of nature that calms you? Perhaps it is the sound of running water or the birds singing or the tapping of a woodpecker. Maybe the wind gushing through the singing pine trees, or watching snowflakes gently kiss the ground gives you a sense of inner peace. How has nature befriended or nurtured you? Do you have a special tree, rock, lake, stream, park, garden, or place you can go to take your cares to? Could playing calm music while you complete daily chores like getting ready for school, cooking or cleaning or driving to work create a more serene atmosphere?
I am certain Howard Thurman would be delighted to know that a Quiet Day was held to listen to a few of his meditations, walk around in nature and have contact with the stillness in our minds. In fact, I am certain if he were still alive, the mere idea of a Quiet Day would make his heart sing. Perhaps in the midst of the political turmoil dancing all around or during the doldrums of February, the deep days of winter, you might create a “quiet day” in your own home, allowing the songs of the birds to be your music, a crackling fire to provide you with beauty and healthy snacks to nourish your body. I suspect like Howard Thurman, a day of quiet will kindle some deep peace and joy in your heart.
I think I have Howard Thurmanitis. Yes, my last post was 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.
Last summer in a meeting with some fellow Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation graduates in Atlanta, we prayed and pondered about ways to expose more people to the gifts of contemplative spirituality. Our prayer centered on the impression that most major spiritually oriented events, whether speakers, workshops or retreats, are expensive. Hence, many everyday people whose yearnings for spiritual deepening echo our own simply cannot afford to participate. How could we share the gifts of contemplative spirituality we’d received from programs like Shalem with more people, our congregations, our worship services and bible studies or even our workplaces? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and offices created more opportunities to pause and bask in the loving Presence of our Creator?
I turned to my spiritual and ancestral mentor, Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared this same sentiment. He wanted to introduce masses of people to the wonder, peace, and joy of contemplative experience and he wrote about this desire and other topics in Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman found it both intriguing and inspirational that Jesus chose to conduct his ministry with everyday people, the poor and outcast like himself, and not with the aristocracy or even middle classes of Jewish and Roman society.
Jesus and the Disinherited became a favorite of Dr. King’s and whenever he marched he carried this classic book. Thurman encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Civil Rights movement to utilize contemplative spiritual practices. In particular, he stressed the importance for marchers to examine and cultivate their inner lives before being thrust out into nonviolent confrontation.
A strong advocate of seizing moments of Presence—whether in nature, walking down the street or sitting in church—Thurman also knew that introducing silence into a worship service would be a mighty challenge in the 1940’s and 1950’s. So he wrote meditations (Meditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment—see recommendations) for this very purpose. What better way to ease people into a contemplative practice than by anchoring them with a written piece that orients them to the Presence? Stressing the necessity for silent contemplative prayer, he circulated the meditations for that time in the service when members could quiet their hearts and hear the messages always abiding in the Presence.
Yet the questions linger. How do we feed those who hunger for spiritual connection, for stillness, for peace? Where and in what ways can we insert openings for moments of quiet reflection, communion with nature, and tranquility of mind that engender a contemplative atmosphere and expand the awareness of Presence?
A few years ago my former pastor asked me to conduct bible study when she needed to travel. I prayed and sought to present relevant topics such as, “In God We Trust?” “Practicing Forgiveness,” and “Putting God on the ‘To Do List’.” However, I also felt guided to begin each session with a short meditation by Howard Thurman or Henri Nouwen or Mother Teresa, followed by two to three minutes of silence. Everyone loved it and asked for more. Likewise after organizing a faculty/staff retreat at a local monastery, several people inquired about how to maintain at work the inner peace they obtained. Out of this desire emerged a “Friends of Silence” group on campus so faculty/staff of all spiritual persuasions could sit together for 20 minutes each week.
Now as I reflect on those actions and the work of Howard Thurman, I wonder what each of us can do to nurture the contemplative longings of the everyday people we live, work, or worship with each day. What more might you and I do every day?
Would reading or listening to some meditations or lectures by Howard Thurman bring more peace to your heart? Look him up on the web and read more about his life and writings by borrowing or purchasing one of the many books he wrote—listen to the wisdom in his audio recordings and YouTube clips that are sure to awaken the Peace and Joy in your heart.
“Surrounded by all of the memories and the dreams and the hopes and the desires of so great a host of witnesses, we still ourselves in the presence of God, gathering together all of the things that are needful for our peace. The mood of thanksgiving overwhelms us when we remember how good and great is our fortune, even as we are mindful of the ways that are hard and difficult for so many whose names are known to us and whose pictures are vividly in our minds. It is so great a privilege to experience the watering of one’s roots at a time of such dryness in the world.”
–Howard Thurman The Centering Moment
A version of this article was previously published in the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation e-Newsletter, October, 2014.