Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
Mystic: Howard Thurman
Mystic: Howard Thurman

The Meaning of Life

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mystic: Howard Thurman

The Meaning of Life
Sunday, July 21, 2019

In spite of all seeming evidence to the contrary, mystics know that God is love, and this love is both our source and our goal. I’d like you to recognize that it’s not just me saying these things. There are a great many theologians, saints, and laypeople who have conveyed this reality much better than I. I’ve previously written about some of the Christian mystics who have had a profound impact on me, such as Francis and Clare of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Ávila. [1] This week I’d like to reflect on a more contemporary mystic, Reverend Howard Thurman (1900–1981).

Here’s an insightful description of how Thurman’s significant influence was built upon his commitment to contemplation and action:

The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman contributed much to the incorporation of the contemplative in social/racial justice efforts. An African American theologian and mystic, Thurman was reared in an African American Baptist Church, . . . [and] served as spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and thus played a critical role as a “behind the scenes” leader in the development of an alternative to violence in the dismantling of racial injustice in America.

Thurman chose to engage in work that would serve all people and to use the contemplative experience as a path to peace, joy, and power. . . . [He] had the prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life and the work for social justice. [2]

This week I’ll share Thurman’s own writings with very little introduction or explanation. His words speak for themselves. Read with your heart wide open:

The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! That out of which life comes is that into which life goes. . . . God is the guarantor of all [our] values, the ultimate meaning—the timeless frame of reference. That which sustains the flower of the field, the circling series of stars in the heavens, the structure of dependability in the world of nature everywhere, the stirring of the will of man to action, the dream of humanity, developed and free, for which myriad men, sometimes in solitariness in lonely places or in great throngs milling in crowded squares—all this and infinitely more in richness and variety and value is God. Men may be thrown from their courses—they may wander for a million years in desert and waste land, through sin and degradation, war and pestilence, hate and love—at last they must find their rest in Him. . . .

The source of life is God. The mystic applies this to human life when he says that there is in man an uncreated element; or in the Book of Job where it is written that his mark is in their foreheads. . . . To deal with men on any other basis, to treat them as if there were not vibrant and vital in each one the very life of the very God, is the great blasphemy; it is the judgment that is leveled with such relentless severity on modern man. “Thou hast made us for thyself and our souls are restless till they find their rest in thee,” says Augustine. Life is like a river.

Deep River, my home is over Jordan—
Deep River, I want to cross over into camp ground. [3]

A note on language from Thurman’s editors: “We realize that inclusive language is noticeably absent in Howard Thurman’s writings. As gifted and prophetic as he was, Howard Thurman was also a product of his times, and inclusive language was not a part of the social consciousness. Regardless of language, the substance of Howard Thurman’s work is inclusive. His life and theology were inclusive, and if he were writing today his language would more accurately reflect this worldview.” [4] While his masculine words might suggest that Thurman didn’t consider other perspectives, he did see many women in his life (for example, his mentor Mary McLeod Bethune and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman) as peers and leaders. We must grant this same sympathy to all those who write with sincerity in previous times and various cultures.

[1] See, for example, my previous Daily Meditation series on the mystics: and

[2] Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks and Lerita Coleman Brown, “Howard Thurman: Contemplative and Social Activist,” Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Stories of Contemplation and Justice, ed. Therese Taylor-Stinson (Church Publishing: 2017), 71-72.

[3] Howard Thurman, Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals  (Harper & Brothers: 1945, 1955), 74-76. See Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, ed. Luther E. Smith, Jr. (Orbis: 2006), 40-41.

[4] Editors, Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 6.

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
Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.