©2009 by Alice Walker
Sounds True which offers so many amazing and helpful works, has recently produced an audio set of Howard Thurman’s talks. Thurman was a mystic and theologian who influenced many of today’s most thoughtful leaders. I was asked to introduce a segment of this collection.
Howard Thurman used to come speak to us at Spelman College during morning chapel and perhaps vespers. I cannot claim to remember these visits precisely, but, listening to his voice on tapes made roughly half a century ago, I seem to be once again in that atmosphere. There we were, young girls of seventeen to twenty, required to be in our assigned seats at Sisters Chapel each morning, five days a week, to hear words of inspiration that would propel us through our studies, and through our days. Service started promptly at eight o’clock. Or was it, more likely, seven? I remember sliding into my seat just as the clock struck, pajamas tucked discreetly into my socks, yawning, and thinking of the French poetry I’d ventured to translate until late the night before.
After singing, after a prayer, after wondering whether there would even be time for breakfast, there would be, if we were very lucky, Howard Thurman, and not some other speaker whose concern would be more about our behavior with boys, or with a God who was always male and needing to be feared and obeyed, than with the growth of our spirit and the awakening of a political and social and activist conscience.
In fact, what struck me about Howard Thurman then, as I seem to recall those times listening to him now, is that he was one of the first spiritual guides I encountered who could pray to a “heavenly father” with every awareness, transmitted to his listeners, that the “heavenly father” of whom he spoke did not live by himself in heaven. Thurman was capable of knowing and of teaching us also that “heaven” is inhabited by all things: ancestors, heroes of our interminable struggles for justice in the form of racial and economic equality, as well as the water in the ocean lapping at the shore, and the sunshine blessing us with its radiance. The flowers were a part of heaven, as was our own kindness and thoughtfulness. This might not seem much now when we are surrounded by spiritual guides who acknowledge mystical and pagan and animist roots, but for most of the girls in Sisters Chapel, coming as we did from strict Christian families for whom the Bible was total law, and everything dominated by one God, himself jealous and alone, it was a revelation to be told, in quite clear terms that no, heaven was not a closed room. It was not small either, it was vast. And, even in its vastness it also existed inside of you.
He was subversive of the very system of the school he was speaking in. I wonder how much he considered this, as he spoke to us. For we were actively engaged in the struggle to free our people from American apartheid. Sometimes leaving the chapel to march in the streets of Atlanta, some of us going to jail, reading our textbooks as we went.*
The administration of the school frowned on such behavior; it rocked a boat they were comfortable rowing in. For our daring we could be expelled or lose our scholarships, those of us lucky enough, as I was, to have one. The tension surrounding any overt resistance was intense. Which is one reason I could not remain at Spelman, though I loved it very much. I especially loved the other young women, my beautiful sisters, who were so brave and determined to change the racist world that had so degraded the lives of our people. There were also others who had fought the good fight at Spelman and moved on to graduate, for instance Marian Wright ( now Edelman) who was legendary and whom I would one day, to my great if not always graceful good fortune, meet.
Listening to Howard Thurman now, I am so grateful for his life. For his presence among us: Young girls who had never had anyone to tell us about the inner listener. The one Carl Jung calls the two million year old man/being, who is the witness to our every thought, every move. The one who knows, even when we think we know nothing and are without guidance, and friendless. The teaching about “the inner and the outer” that is explored in one of these selections is one I wish all people, young people especially, could absorb.
For it is true, an inner discipline of the spirit develops the character that is then visible to others in our behavior, but it is also true that “acting as if” also works; which is to say, conscious development of our outer, discernable behavior, in a direction that we desire, also has the power to move us along. This truth may well be discovered as one goes along in life, but how much more useful to have someone teaching it when one is young.
It is easy to see why Howard Thurman was mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. And it is moving to hear his statement made the night after King was assassinated. There is in all of Thurman’s work support for the one who contemplates and also acts. In Martin there was a stunning balance that Thurman must have applauded. And then to lose him! I can only imagine his pain, a pain shared by so many of us. And can only marvel at what he saw as the value of such a death: that the day after King’s death, the people of America moved one step closer to being human. That humanity is sometimes only moved forward by the sacrifices that make us weep.
December 5, 2009
*I avoided being arrested while at Spelman College and have always felt I missed something special. My three arrests later in life were always, among other things, a nod to my Spelman sisters, who (a couple of years before I arrived on campus) had exhibited a style and grace as they were carried away that should have put their jailers to shame.