Yesterday morning I participated in an on-line retreat hosted by St. Catherine University for congregations participating in its Initiative for Contemplative Leadership (funded by a Lily Foundation grant). The theme was Contemplative Disciples: Thriving and Leading in Challenging Times. The special guest presenter for the retreat was Lerita Coleman Brown, and she used the writings of Howard Thurman as a way to organize and present the theme.
Part of my interest in participating in the retreat is my own participation in the Initiative; I meet monthly with one of the congregations participating in the initiative, introducing them to different contemplative practices. Another part, though, is my interest in learning more about Howard Thurman, whose writings I have only become familiar with in the last year. (I used two of his meditations in the prayer material I put together for my parish’s Lent Retreat in Daily Living.)
Howard Thurman, who Dr. Brown referred to him as an exemplar of a “contemplative sacred activist mystic, is not as well known in the current day as he should be. While in 1953 Life Magazine named Howard Thurman as one of the twelve “Greatest Preachers of the 20th Century,” and Ebony Magazine designated him as one of the 50 most important figures in African American History, even many of those steeped in spiritual reading and practice are not familiar with him.
There was much I will reflect on from Dr. Brown’s presentation, and much that resonates with my Ignatian spirituality, which invites us to deepen our relationship with God not only for our own personal growth, but so that we may do God’s work in the world. I think particularly valuable for all of us is Brown’s definition of sacred activism. She suggested that social and political activism become sacred activism when the Spirit is invited for guidance, and that social activism without a spiritual basis, that is, without a connection to the Spirit, is not sustainable and cannot lead to real transformation.
Thurman also reminds us of the need to remember our inner authority, to recognize that we have the agency to decide whether to take something in and make it part of who we are or not. That (and this is something else my friend St. Ignatius understood) knowing myself to be the holy child of God stabilizes and helps us ward off negative feedback and treatment, not allowing it to become a source of a feeling of unworthiness. (Among other things Thurman was deeply interested in how he could help young African Americans of his day not be overcome by their circumstances; he did not want the lynchings, Jim Crow laws, etc, to become part of their definition of who they were.)
I can’t really do justice to the morning here, but hopefully you will be tempted to pick up some of Thurman’s writings if you are not already familiar with him. Good places to start are his Meditations of the Heart, Jesus and the Disinherited, and The Inward Journey.