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Center for Action and Contemplation
Sacred Space
Sacred Space

A Sense of Presence

Monday, September 25, 2023

Minister and author Howard Thurman (1899–1981) stressed the importance of coming face to face with God:

The central fact in religious experience is the awareness of meeting God. The descriptive words are varied: sometimes it is called an encounter; sometimes, a confrontation; and sometimes, a sense of Presence. What is insisted upon, however, … [is that] the individual is seen as being exposed to direct knowledge of ultimate meaning … in which all that the individual is, becomes clear as immediate and often distinct revelation. He is face to face with something which is so much more, and so much more inclusive, than all of his awareness of himself that for him, in the moment, there are no questions. Without asking, somehow he knows.

The mind apprehends the whole—the experience is beyond or inclusive of the discursive…. The individual in the experience seems to come into possession of what he has known as being true all along. The thing that is new is the realization. And this is of profound importance. [1]

Spending time with Quakers provided Thurman with sacred space to experience his oneness with God and other people. It proved to be a doorway to both action and contemplation. Author Lerita Coleman Brown writes:  

For more than four hundred years, a vibrant Quaker commitment to the mystical practice of silence has persisted…. Staunch promoters of the “still small voice,” Quakers believe that everyone carries the divine light of God within them and that we are all equal regardless of title or socioeconomic status. They believe that God speaks ceaselessly to us and that quietness and stillness are prerequisites for hearing the soft, gentle, wordless communication of God. Yet for Quakers, being contemplative is not enough; they assume that actions emerging from the silence should facilitate the end of social injustices and the creation of a more benevolent world. As advocates of peace and equality, many Quakers participated in the Underground Railroad, assisting thousands in escaping slavery.

As part of his study of mysticism, Howard Thurman attended Quaker meetings and sat in the silence that characterizes unscripted forms of Quaker worship. In a 1951 sermon on the strength of silence in corporate worship … Thurman speaks of his personal experience of group silence during a traditional Quaker meeting:

Nobody said a word … just silence. Silence. Silence. And in that silence I felt as though all of them were on one side and I was on the other side, by myself, with my noise. And every time I would try to get across the barrier, nothing happened. I was just Howard Thurman. And then … I don’t know when it happened, how it happened, I wish I could tell you, but somewhere in that hour I passed over the invisible line, and I became one with all the seekers. I wasn’t Howard Thurman anymore; I was, I was a human spirit involved in a creative moment with human spirits, in the presence of God. [2]


[1] Howard Thurman, The Creative Encounter: An Interpretation of Religion and the Social Witness (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1972), 23–24.

[2] Lerita Coleman Brown, What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2023), 31–32; Howard Thurman, “The Strength of Corporate Worship,” sermon, April 8, 1951.

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Taylor Wilson, Madonna and Messiah (detail), ink, used with permission. Alma Thomas, The Eclipse (detail), 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Alma Thomas, Snow Reflections on Pond (detail), 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Click here to enlarge image.

Creation is sacred space; the multi-colored spot of paint on canvas echoes the light through a stained-glass window.

Story from Our Community:  

The other day, I had an experience of seeing and understanding the sacredness of all things. After mass on Sunday, my child wanted to go to the beach. It had been a difficult week and I was feeling disconnected and isolated. We walked out to a nearby island at low tide. I saw a rock formation, black with multiple striations in it. It called to me and I went and touched it. Just like that I was experiencing the holiness of all things—the rocks, grass, birds, little water creatures, people, sun, and the sky. I could see everything was sacred and I was in the middle of it. The feeling stayed with me while we were at the beach, and still lingers. The next day, the Daily Meditations suggested that what I experienced was a glimpse of the Cosmic Dance. What a glorious dance it is! —Linda M.

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