Moments of Refuge and Renewal

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.

Howard Thurman and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration

howard-thurman-pensive

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.

Quiet Day, Anyone?

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.

HT-Meditations of the Heart