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Center for Action and Contemplation
Engaging with a World on Fire
Engaging with a World on Fire

Mysticism and Social Change

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Retreat leader and author Lerita Coleman Brown highlights the work of mystic-activist Howard Thurman (1899–1981). She writes:

In his writings Thurman distinguishes between mysticism and social change, but he believed both were essential. In a tribute written by the esteemed Quaker mysticism scholar Douglas Steere, he commends Thurman to readers for his “concern for inward journeys that meet something at the center, which turns them outward again.” [1] Steere adds that Thurman must have carried in his heart this aphorism from Meister Eckhart: “You can only spend in good works what you have earned in contemplation.” [2] We need regular quiet time with God in order to have the strength, courage, and vitality required for social action: for moving against injustices, speaking truth to power, and assisting in humanitarian efforts.

Thurman believed Jesus was a mystic. “Mystical consciousness was part of Jesus’ life,” he writes. “It deepened his sense of self and his intimacy with God. Jesus’ whole identity depended upon his mystical experiences. These experiences made him sure of God’s presence, love, and commission for a ministry of love.” [3] Like Jesus, Howard Thurman lived his identity as a mystic-activist. He pressed for an active mysticism, for when we meet God, God has a role for each of us in the restoration of the beloved creation. [4]

Brown provides examples of the wide range of actions we might take towards healing and justice in the world:

When people hear the word “activism,” many think of marches and protests in the street. Yet not all participants in major human rights struggles like the civil rights movement marched. People cooked meals, babysat children, wrote and filed legal briefs, trained marchers, and became community organizers. Others who were unable to march prayed, made phone calls, and hosted movement gatherings. Activism can be anything that helps to heal people [and other beings] and the world. The call one hears in a unitive moment might involve work on gender or environmental justice concerns or humanitarian crises. It might mean working in a soup kitchen or connecting with military veterans or tutoring children. Or it might mean playwriting, choreography, painting, or sculpting.

Mystical experiences can give people a sense of vitality and lead them to their holy assignments. Part of Howard Thurman’s response to God was to provide the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings for the work that calls people to action….

[Thurman taught that] “the mystic’s concern with the imperative of social action is not merely to improve the conditions of society. It 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 this is not all. The basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to [God’s Self] in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action.” [5]

[1] Douglas V. Steere, “Don’t Forget Those Leather Gloves,” in Common Ground: Essays in Honor of Howard Thurman on the Occasion of His Seventy-Fifth Birthday […],  ed. Samuel Lucius Gandy (Washington, DC: Hoffman Press, 1976), iii.

[2] Steere, “Don’t Forget Those Leather Gloves,” Common Ground, iii.

[3] Howard Thurman, “Mysticism and Jesus,” lecture 5, University of Redlands, May 1973, quoted in Luther E. Smith Jr., Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet, rev. ed. (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1991), 65.

[4] Lerita Coleman Brown, What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk with Howard Thurman (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2023), 134–135.

[5] Howard Thurman, “Mysticism and Social Action,” Lawrence Lecture on Religion and Society, First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, October 13, 1978, quoted in Alton B. Pollard III, Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), 65; Brown, What Makes You Come Alive, 135–136.

Image credit: Evgeniy Alyoshin, Firefighters putting out a fire (detail), Ukraine, 2022, photograph, public domain. Click here to enlarge image.

What does it look like to engage with the catastrophic fires that sweep through our world without becoming frenzied or frozen?

Story from Our Community:  

Isolating during Covid helped show me that the simple things in life are the true keys to happiness and joy. During the third week of our isolation, my husband built a fire in our living room fireplace. I enjoyed helping him keep the fire going for weeks on end. In that time of uncertainty, it was so comforting to feel the warmth, see the light, and hear the crackle of the warming fire. I practiced yoga near it and we snuggled up to watch movies in the evening in front of it. Thank you, Father Richard, for sharing your life and ministry with me and so many others. Wishing you all peace and joy today. —Becky K.

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