Theme:
Black Women Mystics

Black Women Mystics

Summary: Sunday, July 28—Friday, August 2, 2019

God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman (Sunday)

When the word contemplation comes to my mind I want to think of Thomas Merton . . . [and] Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . I want to present Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and all the black congregations that sustained whole communities without fanfare or notice. —Barbara Holmes (Monday)

And if “God is all in all,” and “worketh all in all,” as I have heard them read, then it is impossible he should rest at all; for if he did, every other thing would stop and rest too; the waters would not flow, and the fishes could not swim; and all motion must cease. —Sojourner Truth (Tuesday)

Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say, “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.” —Jarena Lee (Wednesday)

I know Thee by revelation, Oh Thou Mother, Thou Spirit of Wisdom, I was begotten in Thee and brought forth, though I knew Thee not. They that have revelation must live it.Rebecca Cox Jackson (Thursday)

This is our calling as Christian faithful: to recognize the Christ in everyone. And to reach out a hand of hope, to speak a word of love, to sing a song of happiness, to share a tear of joy or pain, to speak a word of praise, to murmur a prayer, to stand together against those forces that would divide us, isolate us, and block our flow toward home. —Diana Hayes (Friday)

 

Practice: Do No Harm

Ruth King is a Buddhist teacher and founder of Mindful Members Meditation Community in Charlotte, North Carolina. In Buddhism, mysticism is defined differently than it is in Christian context, but it shares a focus on contemplation and direct, embodied experience. Below, Ruth King invites us to begin to heal the racism that divides us through a practice of doing no harm.

Uncertain times are all we have. We never know what’s going to happen—and many of us are afraid, afraid of what’s happening or what might happen to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to other people in the world that are suffering from racial distress, injury, separation, and fundamental hatred that’s really pervasive right now in the world. . . .

The challenge we have now is how to navigate the certainty of racism in these uncertain times. Racism is a heart disease. And it’s curable. It requires a transplant, a surgical intervention of mindfulness and heartfulness. To heal the heart, we must understand the mind. Jiddu Krishnamurti [1895–1986] said it this way:

If you don’t know how your mind reacts, if your mind is not aware of its own activities, you will never find out what society is . . . because your mind is part of society; it is society. . . . It is not distinct from your culture, from your religion, from your various class divisions, from the ambitions and conflicts of the many. All this is society, and you are part of it. There is no “you” separate from society. [1]

We must therefore ask ourselves: How do we work with our thoughts and our beliefs in ways that nurture the dignity of all life? How do we ensure justice without fostering generations of harm and hate internally and externally? How do we comfort our own raging heart in a sea of racial ignorance, ill will, and violence? And how can our actions reflect the world we want to live in and leave to future generations? These are questions about how to respond with both heart and mind, while being awake and wise.

I like to offer practices that support racial awareness and well-being. This practice is the practice of doing no harm. It has to do with conduct and it has to do with us setting an intention; it’s not just words that we speak, as if it were a New Year’s resolution. It’s actually a life practice that supports us in regularly aligning our heart and mind with our actions. So, it’s important to set an intention and reflect on it often. This intention is about doing no harm in our speech, our actions, or in our thoughts.

Maintaining a contemplative practice like this is a first step in investing in a culture of care and contributing to an atmosphere of kindness.

References:
[1] Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think on These Things, ed. D. Rajagopal (HarperPerennial: 1989, ©1964), 83-84.

Ruth King, “Teachings for Uncertain Times: Racism Is a Heart Disease,” Tricycle (February 17, 2017), https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/ruth-king-uncertain-times/.

For Further Study:
Joy Bostic, African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth-Century Religious Activism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2013)

Can I Get a Witness?: Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology, ed. Marcia Y. Riggs (Orbis Books: 1997). This book includes biographical sketches and a bibliography provided by Barbara A. Holmes.

Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016)

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

Rebecca Jackson, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress, ed. Jean McMahon Humez (University of Massachusetts Press: 1981)

Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pantianos Classics: 2017, 1836)

“Thea Bowman: A Gift to the Church,” Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 131-142.

Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Digireads.com Publishing: 2018)

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

The River Flows
Friday, August 2, 2019

As we’ve seen through the perspective of black women mystics this week, our experience of God is not for its own sake or an end in itself. Unless we share the love we’ve been given we’ll become spiritually constipated!

Modern mystic Dr. Diana L. Hayes is an author and professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University. She was the first African American woman to earn a Pontifical Doctorate in Theology. In her book No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality, Hayes writes about the never-ending dance of giving and receiving:

We are not alone in this world, nor have we ever been, no matter how much we may feel otherwise. Many have come before us and will come after us feeling the same way, seeking as we are, searching for the “light.” And it is in coming together—one by one, two by two, and on and on—that we form the converging tributaries that make up the mighty stream of just and righteous people flowing home to God. We are and can be that justice that “rolls down like water,” and that righteousness that “flows like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

This is our calling as Christian faithful: to recognize the Christ in everyone. And to reach out a hand of hope, to speak a word of love, to sing a song of happiness, to share a tear of joy or pain, to speak a word of praise, to murmur a prayer, to stand together against those forces that would divide us, isolate us, and block our flow toward home.

We must seek to become the righteous of God, recognizing that the path is neither short nor easy, but rock-strewn, obstacle-laden, sometimes even seeming to flow backwards and uphill! But as the prophet Micah proclaims:

You have been told . . . what is good
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do the right and to love goodness,
And to walk humbly with your God. (6:8)

This is the Christian vocation of the laity in the world. Today and every day. It is not an easy vocation for there are temptations to flow in other directions, to leave our own course and follow the so-called “main-stream,” a stream that appears large and exciting but eventually peters out into nothingness. . . .

The black scientist George Washington Carver [1864?–1943] . . . stressed that “how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.” [1] . . .

The river is still flowing. We can accept the grace to be part of that flow . . . if we truly are to be followers of Christ, imitators of him, then we must leap with faith into that torrent knowing that we are . . . in the bosom of God, our Creator, our Sustainer, our Liberator, our Mother and Father.

References:
[1] George Washington Carver, as quoted in Christina Vella, George Washington Carver: A Life (Louisiana State University Press: 2015), 291.

Diana L. Hayes, No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (Orbis Books: 2016), 35-36.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

Gifts of Power
Thursday, August 1, 2019

Rebecca Cox Jackson (17951871) was born into a free family in Pennsylvania. After a mystical encounter, she divorced her husband and became an itinerant preacher. She discovered the Shakers and eventually founded the first black Shaker community in Philadelphia. Jackson’s spiritual awakening was catalyzed by what Joy Bostic describes as an “emotional and spiritual crisis” when Jackson faced her deep fear of lightning. Jackson wrote in her journal that, as she was praying in despair for the storm to end: “The cloud bursted, the heavens was clear, and the mountain was gone. . . . And I rose from my knees, ran down stairs, opened the door to let the lightning in the house.” [1]

Bostic explores how this prompted Jackson to share her gifts:

Within this mystical space, Jackson experiences intimacy with the divine and is overcome with feelings of peace and protection. . . . The obstacles and burdens that previously seemed to stand in her way vanish. . . . In fact, she writes, “at every clap of thunder I leaped from the floor praising the God of my salvation.” [2] . . . This ecstatic encounter consoles and frees her soul. The love and joy she feels wells up into a yearning that everyone in the world could experience that same love . . . particularly those whom Jackson believes have injured or wronged her. . . .

Issues of power and authority loom quite large for black women who are most often marginalized from the centers of power recognized by cultural and social institutions. However, African American women transformed from objects to Subjects through their mystical experiences have been able to establish a sense of inner authority that extends to their active lives. Rebecca Cox Jackson understood her authority to be rooted in the “gifts of power” she received from God. These gifts included healing, foreknowledge, and . . . literacy.

Jackson believed that God had bestowed these gifts upon her so that she could minister to the needs of others. . . .

God makes it clear to Jackson that . . . she is engaging in a process of recreation that meant deconstruction and reconstruction not only of an oppressive worldview but also of the self. The fact that she is being “unmade” and “made again” places her life and ministry in humble perspective. . . .

Jackson is adamant about acting and speaking according to her inner authority rather than adhering to the dictates of church doctrine and institutional protocol. In rejecting the patriarchal traditions of the churches, Jackson recovers the female aspect of the divine. . . .

I received word of understanding how the Spirit of Wisdom was the Mother of children. . . . I was in the spirit speaking these words to the glory of God: “I know Thee by revelation, Oh Thou Mother, Thou Spirit of Wisdom, I was begotten in Thee and brought forth, though I knew Thee not. They that have revelation must live it, that they may see the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Oh, how I love thee, my Mother!” [3]

Through mystical encounter, Jackson engages in a profound act of unsaying, a decolonization of mind and spirit.

References:
[1] Rebecca Jackson, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress, ed. Jean McMahon Humez (University of Massachusetts Press: 1981), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 174-175.

Joy Bostic, African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth-Century Religious Activism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2013), 96-97, 102, 117.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

Gift of Heaven
Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Jarena Lee (17831864) was the first authorized woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her spiritual autobiography—the first by an African American woman published in the United States—describes her childhood and her journeys across the United States. Though born to free black parents, she was hired out from the age of seven and worked far from her family and home in Cape May, New Jersey. A mystical encounter gave Lee the courage and calling to preach.

An impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me . . . to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say, “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.” . . .

I . . . told [the minister] that the Lord had revealed it to me that I must preach the gospel. He replied . . . as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline . . . did not call for women preachers. This I was glad to hear . . . but no sooner did this feeling cross my mind, than I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered. This I soon perceived. O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. . . . And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. . . .

Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour . . . and the gospel? . . . But some will say that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply . . . perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now—if it were not, the unlearned fisherman could not have preached the gospel at all. . . .

If then, to preach the gospel by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? . . . As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. . . .

Reference:
Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pantianos Classics: 2017, 1836), 14, 15, 16.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

All in All
Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Mysticism is not all ecstatic visions. People who have endured great suffering and let it open them to a new consciousness or perspective are often mystics. They discover that they are always sustained by Love’s presence. James Finley has a beautiful image for this unceasing support: Imagine, if at the count of three, God would stop loving you into your chair; at the count of three, your chair would be empty. Moment by moment you are loved, chosen, invited into being. So lived Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth (17971883)—an abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights—was born “Isabella” to an enslaved couple in New York. When she was nine, Isabella was sold to another slave-holder that brutally beat her. Joy Bostic describes how Isabella’s mother taught her children strategies to survive “within the oppressive system of slavery. Mau-Mau Bett would sit with her children during the evening under the stars and teach them how to call upon God to help them in times of crisis.” [1]

Isabella gradually came to know God as what I might call “the eternal now,” beyond human comprehension. God is only known by loving and experiencing God. Sojourner Truth wrote of her own mystical encounters with God in the third person:

As soon as Isabella saw God as an all-powerful, all-pervading spirit, she became desirous of hearing all that had been written of him, and listened to the account of the creation of the world . . . with peculiar interest. For some time she received it all literally, though it appeared strange to her that ‘God worked by the day, got tired, and stopped to rest,’ . . . after a little time, she began to reason upon it, thus—‘Why, if God works by the day, and one day’s work tires him, and he is obliged to rest, either from weariness or on account of darkness, or if he waited for the “cool of the day to walk in the garden,” because he was inconvenienced by the heat of the sun, why then it seems that God cannot do as much as I can. . . . If I had been God, I would have made the night light enough for my own convenience, surely.’

But the moment she placed this idea of God by the side of the impression she had once so suddenly received of his inconceivable greatness and entire spirituality, that moment she exclaimed mentally, ‘No, God does not stop to rest, for he is a spirit, and cannot tire; he cannot want for light, for he hath all light in himself. And if “God is all in all,” and “worketh all in all,” as I have heard them read, then it is impossible he should rest at all; for if he did, every other thing would stop and rest too; the waters would not flow, and the fishes could not swim; and all motion must cease. God could have no pauses in his work, and he needed no Sabbaths of rest. Man might need them, and he should take them when he needed them. . . . As it regarded the worship of God, he was to be worshipped at all times and in all places; and one portion of time never seemed to her more holy than another.’

References:
[1] Joy Bostic, African American Female Mysticism: Nineteenth-Century Religious Activism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2013), 70.

Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Digireads.com Publishing: 2018), 64-65.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

God’s Abiding Presence
Monday, July 29, 2019

Today, I’d like to feature the words of a modern mystic I am honored to know. Dr. Barbara Holmes is a teacher in our own Living School, a former lawyer, professor, and author of several books. She has taught me, our staff, and students so much. I hope you will go deeper with her work beyond today’s excerpt from Joy Unspeakable. I have been telling folks that there are people who talk about God and there are people who know God. Barbara is the latter:

Holiness is a concept that makes ordinary people nervous. . . . The holiness that Jesus describes has less to do with pious character traits and more to do with the hosting of God’s abiding presence. It is not effort but invitation that opens the human spirit to the possibility that God may sojourn with us.

Receptivity is not a cognitive exercise but rather the involvement of the intellect and senses with a spiritual reunion and oneness with God. When this oneness occurs, it is accompanied by heightened spiritual awareness and insight. Contemplative moments also carry with them the potential for mystical encounter which only compounds the difficulty of describing the experience in words. C. S. Lewis’s attempt to describe his own mystical event is a prime example. He says, “I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.” [1] His wry comments are clearer than any somber attempt to describe the event with exactitude. Rather, this contemplative moment is a spiritual event that kisses the cognitive but will not be enslaved to its rigidities.

Our twenty-first century ideas about contemplative practices are borrowed from a Christian heritage that relegates contemplation to desert mothers and fathers, anchorites and monastics. Although we have learned much from our Catholic brothers and sisters, there is a rich but neglected legacy in the Protestant tradition. When the word contemplation comes to my mind I want to think of Thomas Merton . . . [and] Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . I want to present Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and all the black congregations that sustained whole communities without fanfare or notice. Like Christianity, contemplative practices come in many forms; these practices have survived and thrived through inculturation and ethnic adaptation. . . .

The human task is threefold. First, the human spirit must connect to the eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning. Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace. Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts. Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth.

References:
[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Geoffrey Bles: 1955), 22.

Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 3-4.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry

Black Women Mystics

Images
Sunday, July 28, 2019

It’s so important that all people are able to recognize themselves as God’s image. Icons and images of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a dark or ebony hue are revered in many cultures around the world. For example, the Black Madonna as a model of maternal love, faithfulness, and hope is esteemed by people across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Yet, as we explored a few weeks ago, the divine feminine—especially in darker form—generally has been suppressed by Western Christianity unless the image had already reached iconic form.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that women of African descent have faced so much oppression in the United States, both historically and to this day. For example, black women are paid 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men. [1] Last year at least twenty-six transgender people died due to violence (and at least eleven already in 2019), and the majority were black transwomen. [2] Yet even as white men continue to monopolize positions of religious leadership and theological authority, black women are reframing Christian traditions, practices, and Scripture in liberating and justice-oriented ways.

Womanists today build on a long lineage of courageous and wise prophets and mystics. This week I’ll introduce you to a handful of African American women mystics. They reveal Christ to us as they speak of their personal relationships with and experiences of the Divine and, as they stand in their truth, remain uncompromised by the systems that seek to silence them.

Thea Bowman (1937–1990) was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi. I am drawn to Sr. Thea since my own mother would listen to her talks, especially when she knew she was dying, and she found out that Thea listened to mine! I am sorry we never met. Her description of Black American spirituality provides helpful context for this week’s reflections:

[It] is rooted in our African heritage, with its ways of perceiving and valuing reality, its style of expression, its modes of prayer and contemplating the divine. It is colored by our Middle Passage, Slavery, our Island and Latin experience, segregation, integration, and our on-going struggle for liberation. [3]

For Sr. Thea, “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere.” [4]

Like other mystics, Bowman found God everywhere, in all beings. She saw many images of God:

God is bread when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, a harbor from the storm. God’s father to the fatherless, a mother to the motherless. God’s my sister, my brother, my leader, my guide, my teacher, my comforter, my friend. God’s the way-maker and burden-bearer, a heart-fixer and a mind-regulator. God’s my doctor who never lost a patient, my lawyer who never lost a case, my captain who never lost a battle. God’s my all in all, my everything.

God’s my rock, my sword, my shield, my lily of the valley, my pearl of great price. God’s a god of peace and a god of war. Counselor, Emmanuel, Redeemer, Savior, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Mary’s little baby, wonderful Word of God.

These images come from Scripture and from the meditations of Christians. . . . Each one corresponds to a particular need. All these images help me as I call upon God’s name. [5]

References:
[1] See https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2019/04/04/closing-the-gender-pay-gap-what-women-employers-and-government-can-do/#7a98ba896c73.

[2] See https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019.

[3] “Thea Bowman: A Gift to the Church,” Modern Spiritual Masters: Writings on Contemplation and Compassion, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 2008), 133.

[4] Ibid, 141.

[5] Ibid, 142.

Image credit: Sister Thea Bowman (detail), TheArthur Wright. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere. —Thea Bowman, FSPA
Read Full Entry
FacebookTwitterEmailPrint