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Mystic: Howard Thurman
Mystic: Howard Thurman

Mystic: Howard Thurman: Weekly Summary

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Mystic: Howard Thurman

Summary: Sunday, July 21—Friday, July 26, 2019

The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! —Howard Thurman (Sunday)

God reveals God’s Presence out of the mystery of Being. —Howard Thurman (Monday)

Faith teaches us that God is. —Howard Thurman (Tuesday)

It has long been a matter of serious moment that for decades [Christians] have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers or as human beings. —Howard Thurman (Wednesday)

What does our religion say to the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed? —Howard Thurman (Thursday)

If being Christian does not demand that all Christians love each other and thereby become deeply engaged in experiencing themselves as human beings, it would seem futile to expect that Christians as Christians would be concerned about the secular community in its gross practices of prejudice and discrimination. —Howard Thurman (Friday)


Practice: Attending to Details

The mystic’s concern with the imperative for social action is not merely . . . to feed the hungry, not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If this were all, in and of itself, it would be important surely. But . . . the basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to . . . [fullness] in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action. —Howard Thurman [1]

Each Saturday we offer an invitation to contemplative practice. You may not always choose to try the practice we suggest, but I hope you will explore today’s, even if you have a regular contemplative practice.

One of our Living School teachers, Dr. Barbara Holmes, writes about “crisis contemplation” as a way to express grief and find refuge in the midst of danger. We need practices to move through suffering and find creative responses. One example of crisis contemplation occurred on plantations:

Here, enslaved Africans created narratives of survival that depended on personal courage and God’s deliverance. The word courageous within the context of slavery is problematic because it has incongruous but romantic overtones. Those who attempt to describe the horrors of one holocaust or another inevitably use language that mythically denies, romanticizes, or diminishes the oppression. When history is collapsed into myth, responsibilities become diffused, and repentance and reconciliation become impossible.

In the inflated realm of mythical oppression, villains are so villainous that no one sees themselves reflected in the image. Few can trace accrued privileges to specific and intentional evil acts. Similarly, victims become so quintessentially and epically victimized that all escape routes from the condition are sealed off by a maze of self-doubt, blaming, and low self-esteem. The antidote to this phenomenon is to attend to the details, to understand the specific events, ancestors, life stories, causes of oppression, and avenues of social change. Historical and spiritual specificity is salvific. Then and only then can the movement toward moral flourishing begin. [2]

Meditation teacher Ruth King helps people cultivate awareness of how we impact each other and ourselves, especially being “mindful of race.” For those of us who are white, thinking about our own race can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For people of color whose ancestors and they themselves have experienced oppression, this exploration can be quite painful. But the path toward healing for all of us includes attending to the details, as Holmes suggests, and seeing reality as it is.

Find some uninterrupted time to reflect on Ruth King’s questions below. After you’ve held these with an open heart, you may wish to do some research with an open mind.

  • ​Where in your life do you feel numb, shut down, dismembered, disrespected, or disconnected? What is your earliest memory of feeling this way? What events or circumstances do you believe gave birth to these experiences? What do you believe such feelings keep you from knowing?
  • What racial identities or ethnicities have shaped how you have come to know yourself as a race?
  • ​What views did your ancestors, elders, parents, or caretakers have about race? How did their views impact you? In what ways were/are your views similar or different?
  • What are the roots of your racial lineage? Given your lineage, what has your race gained or lost throughout the generations? How have these gains or losses influenced your racial views today? [3]

[1] Howard Thurman, “Mysticism and Social Action,” cited in Alton B. Pollard III, Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman (Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers: 1992), 65.

[2] Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 80.

[3] Ruth King, Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out (Sounds True: 2018), 173, 174.

For Further Study:
Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, ed. Luther E. Smith, Jr. (Orbis: 2006)

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press: 1976)

Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope (Friends United Press: 1989, ©1965)

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999)

“Howard Thurman: Good News for the Disinherited,” in Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 90-103.

The Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman Collections at Boston University include manuscripts, correspondence, subject files, audio recordings, and other items; these archives are available at

Image credit: Children Dance (detail), William H. Johnson, 1944.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. But He is so full of such wonderful and heartening surprises. —Howard Thurman
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