His face seemed elongated to me, perhaps lengthened by years of stroking his chin, wondering. Wondering about this crazy life we are living, and structures that confound.
His name is Howard Thurman. His face is blazed in the back of my mind, but I have his portrait, a photograph, right in front of me at my desk. “Eyes of age”, implying a hard-won wisdom, look at me daily, reminding me, warning me, inspiring me. And as you will hear, centering me.
I had been encouraged to meet him by my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. For those of you unfamiliar, Joe succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, in that storied church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.
I confess I had not heard of Thurman, but Joe’s insistence clued me into the importance of making this happen. It was of cosmic importance, life-or-death kind of moment. Got it.
Joe warned me that I might find Thurman out talking to a tree, which seemed strangely comforting to me, a native Druid myself. I learned that Howard Thurman was known as the mystic, the soul of the Civil Rights movement. It is said that Martin Luther King kept two books in his briefcase at all times; one, the Bible; the second, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book by Thurman.
Thurman was viewed with suspicion by both academicians and activists. Too radical for the careful world of theacademy; too removed in the proverbial “ivory tower” for those marching on the line of fire. He was a “man without a country” in some ways, but seemed to be resolved to living in a tension between those two polarities. My sense was that he experienced a loneliness at times but deep within, his country, his home, was found in a deeper realm.
I was meeting him before he was to speak at Spelman College’s baccalaureate service. Instead of talking to a tree, I found him alone, squirreled away with a few select books and a legal pad. He graciously welcomed me into the empty classroom as we sat. I felt like he was peering deep into my soul as his tired, hound-dog eyes surveyed my soul. What was this boy’s story?, he seemed to be asking.
Young, stupid, and curious, Dr. Roberts knew that Thurman had the medicine I needed for my sin-sick soul. I was serving in a Southern Baptist Church as the “youthie”, the youth minister, while attending a Methodist seminary, trying to figure out my life’s calling, my vocation. Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief? Where should I spend this one, wild, precious life? as teasingly framed by Mary Oliver.
I tried to give him the spiel of my “spiritual autobiography”, a required narrative that every seminarian is obligated to carry in one’s back pocket, and present upon request. He seemed to wave me off the story-telling, getting to the heart of the matter. How might I live my life with integrity? He had read my mail long before I faced him. I was just another one of those young people who had come to him looking for the illusive way of centering one’s Self. And I am sure, his advice, his offering was not specific to me, but in the next few minutes, he offered a method of centering which has provided an anchor for my life.
He described a way to focus, to center oneself in the biblical narrative, notably the Psalms. This is an ancient method referred to as “lectio divina”, or holy reading or holy attending to the text. Christian hermetic monks had employed that method of reciting the Psalter in the context of communal chanting, as well as utilizing it in their private devotions. It was a way of “abiding” in the text rather than studying it, analyzing it, or in good Baptist style, memorizing. I used to joke that a typical Evangelical tactic was to memorize more verses that you are willing to do. This was a subversive approach. “Lectio” intends to engage the text with an expectant heart, waiting upon the Spirit to speak. The trick, as it always seems to be, is listening.
This was not a new method as I had been introduced to it experientially by the Trappist monks of Conyers, Georgia, where I would go to drink in the mystical silence of the monastery. The monks methodically went through the 150 psalms in a cycle for year upon year. Further, Dr. Glenn Hinson, the Southern Baptist mystic, who fed my hunger by directing me to Bernard of Clairvaux, reiterated this subversive method of listening, attending to, rather than the typical way of exposition.. So Thurman’s directions were not unknown to me, but his specificity was.
He “prescribed” a particular psalm for my focus, Psalm 139. He directed me to focus, to abide in Psalm 139 for a month, and then to call him to check in. Being the quintessential student, trained well by twenty years of performing stupid human tricks mandated by teachers, I hopped to it. A month of mornings, meditating, basking, playing in Psalm 139.
After a month, I called Howard to tell him of my excellent work. He congratulated me, and then told me to do it again. The next month, same thing. After five months, I asked if this was going to be the same thing each time. He laughed, and said YES.
I think I got it.
It became my center, my story that could expand me as I breathed in, and center me as I breathed out. The native infinity loop of breathing in….breathing out.
I never asked him why he chose Psalm 139 for me, some sort of psychic mojo? My hunch is that he sensed the profound drift in my sense of identity and intuited my need for home. a center from which to explore. I only know that on that initial day, he began his remarks before the graduating seniors at historic Spelman, with his eyes closed, reciting the first verses of that particular Psalm:
“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down; and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me, from behind, and before. and layest thou hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.”
The Psalmist poetically speaks of the deep connection with God, a connection so deep, that one can not avoid it, even if one were to try to escape that love by climbing high or diving deep. There God is, is with you, like it or not.
The Psalmist rhapsodically speaks of knowing you when you were knit together inside your mother’s womb. Your inward parts, even though mixed and convoluted, are known and valued. The days of your life touched and marked by God’s knowledge of you. You are precious. Wherever you might go, God is with you.
This is just the therapy, the healing that I was needing. A brokenness, a psychic tear rending my soul from birth was cauterized by the searing love of God. Other therapists, priests, shaman would assist in the soul surgery, but it was all baptized in these waters, these healing waters of the Psalmist.
And as if to send me off on my journey, charged with the quixotic mission of self-awareness as I travel my path, the Psalmist closes:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my restless thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way within me, and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”
I am convinced that Thurman saw me, really knew me, and gave me the immeasurable gift of Psalm 139. I was fortunate to spend more time with him before his death, but this directive changed the course of my journey. I was blessed to cross paths with this saint who graciously shared his wisdom, centered me, and pointed me toward the Light.
And I enter this new day, this next chapter, wondering where it will lead. But I trust, I know, that it will be a path more deeply into that Center.
Thank you, Joe, for the tip. Thank you, Howard for the insight. Thank you, God, for the journey.