A Luminous Autobiography from America’s Most Unsung Mystic

Not all spiritual books are created equal.

Of course, there are the theological differences: many books present an image of God that is limited, narrow, and sometimes even abusive. And even the books that are theologically well-grounded are not always particularly contemplative. It is a rare treat to find a book that is both contemplative and shaped by a truly loving image of God.

But then there is a problem of literary merit. Frankly, some spiritual books are not particularly well-written. The writing can be tedious, ponderous, and overly abstract; other books suffer from writing that is too breezy, informal, and filled with clichés.

So I am always thrilled when I come across a book that balances a truly life-affirming understanding of God, with a deeply contemplative sensibility, and a literary quality that is poetic and a joy to read.

Yes, such books do exist. Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk and Martin Laird’s An Ocean of Light are two examples of books that combine literary excellence, theological insight, and a contemplative heart.

And today I’d like to shine a light on one I just read this month: With Head and Heart: the Autobiography of Howard Thurman.

If you don’t know about Howard Thurman: Thurman (1899-1981) grew up near Daytona Beach, Florida; his childhood was deeply influenced by his loving grandmother, who had been a slave in her youth. After studying at Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary, he was ordained a Baptist minister. Spending much of his adult life in academic settings, he was the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University from 1932 to 1944, and then the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965 — the first African American clergyman to hold such a position at a major historically white college. In between his years as college chaplains, he co-pastored a large interracial church in San Francisco. Dr. Thurman wrote many books, including The Inward Journey, Meditations of the Heart, and The Centering Moment. But he is probably best-known for Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that was said to be so important to Martin Luther King Jr. that he kept a copy with him at all times.

Howard Thurman is today best known as the godfather of the American Civil Rights movement — his profound spirituality shaped by a resolve to struggle for justice balanced by a firm commitment to nonviolence influenced MLK and others in the Civil Rights movement. But what is not so well known about Thurman: he was a true contemplative, and I would dare to say, a mystic — a mystic who deserves to stand with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Evelyn Underhill and other great mystics who were his contemporaries.

I’ve read meditations by Thurman, along with some of his shorter works (like Mysticism and the Experience of Love) and have listened to the recordings of his sermons that are available online and as an audiobook, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman. So in reading his autobiography, I expected to bask in his deeply authentic humility, his compassionate heart, and his keen sense of God’s presence, justice and mercy. But what truly blew me away about the autobiography was the evidence of just how deep a mystic he was — and the continual delight of enjoying his rhetorical skill as a writer.

This shouldn’t be surprising: Thurman was the Valedictorian of his class at Morehouse College. He was a brilliant man. But not all brilliant men are great writers, so it was such a joy to find that I could savor in his eloquence as much as in his keen spiritual insight.

Here are just a couple of examples:

When I was young, I found more companionship in nature than I did among people. The woods befriended me. In the long summer days, most of my time was divided between fishing in the Halifax River and exploring the woods, where I picked huckleberries and gathered orange blossoms from abandoned orange groves. The quiet, even the danger, of the woods provided my rather lonely spirit with a sense of belonging that did not depend on human relationships. I was usually with a group of boys as we explored the woods, but I tended to wander away to be alone for a time, for in that way I could sense the strength of the quiet and the aliveness of the woods. (page 7)

and,

What had I learned about love? One of the central things was that the experience of being understood by another was of primary importance. Somewhere deep within was a “place” beyond all faults and virtues that had to be confirmed before I could run the risk of opening my life up to another. To find ultimate security in an ultimate vulnerability, this is to be loved. (page 146)

Thurman had the gift of writing about something ordinary (like a school boy wandering in the woods or fishing) and using vivid language to make the experience come alive for the reader, while simultaneously finding the spiritual meaning even in the most mundane of moments. But then he could turn philosophical — waxing poetic on the meaning of love — without abandoning his skill as a raconteur.

His skill as a writer alone makes this book a joy to read, an insightful look at an important twentieth century religious figure who encountered numerous significant people in his life, from Benjamin Mays to Rufus Jones, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. His description of life in the Jim Crow-era south was sober yet unflinching. His unfailing optimism — that racism can be overcome, that Christianity in particular offers a more hopeful vision of what it means to be human, a vision within our grasp — makes this book truly inspiring.

But like the late-night commercials say, “And wait, there’s more!”

For With Head and Heart is also the story of a contemplative life. And while Thurman, as a twentieth century Baptist, would not have had the same language to describe his inner life as someone like Merton or Underhill had, nevertheless he makes it clear that he had an ongoing, living encounter with the Spirit of God, that this encounter was nurtured by silence and solitude, and that at least at its peak moments it ushered him into a truly transfigured state of consciousness.

Once again, just a few examples:

More than forty years have passed since that morning. It remains for me a transcendent moment of sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirit looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see. I would never, never be the same again. (page 128)

and,

That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable. It was as if we had stepped out of social, political, cultural frames of reference, and allowed two human spirits to unite on a ground of reality that was unmarked by separateness and differences. This was a watershed of experience in my life. We had become a part of each other even as we remained essentially individual. I was able to stand secure in my place and enter into his place without diminishing myself or threatening him. (page 1219)

and one more:

As a boy in Florida, I walked along the beach of the Atlantic in the quiet stillness that can only be completely felt when the murmur of the ocean is stilled, and the tides move stealthily along the shore. I held my breath against the night and watched the stars etch their brightness on the face of the darkened canopy of the heavens. I had the sense that all things, the sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all of life breathed. Not only was I aware of a vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was a part of it and it was a part of me. (pages 225-6)

Daytona Beach. Photo by Darrell Cassell/Unsplash.

Whether a child on the beach, a young man on a mountaintop, or friends engaged in truly meaningful conversation, Thurman had the ability to recognize non-duality when it arose in his life. Not only did this ability to see impact his life’s work as a prophet calling for loving resistance to an unjust social order, but it also put him years ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing the spiritual unity that could be found beneath religious differences.

I had to find my way to the place where I could stand side by side with a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Moslem, and know that the authenticity of his experience was identical with the essence and authenticity of my own. There began to emerge a growing concept in my mind, which only in recent years I have been able to state categorically, namely, that the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience. It is not the context that determines validity. On any road, around any turning, a man may come upon the burning bush and hear a voice say, “Take off your shoes because the place where you are now standing is a holy place, even though you did not know it before.” I think that is the heartbeat of religious authority. (page 120)

A gifted preacher, a man of prayer, a social prophet, a gentle family man, and a companion to some of the most important figures of his age. Howard Thurman’s life story is fascinating, and his writing was beautiful enough to be equal to the task of telling the story.

• • •

We all know that America is a racist society. It is a matter for continual lament and, for whites, repentance.

Again and again, we run into evidence of this. And before I was even finished reading Howard Thurman’s autobiography, this thought occurred to me:

If America were truly a land without racism, I believe that With Head and Heart: the Autobiography of Howard Thurman would probably be as famous, and celebrated, as The Seven Story Mountain. It’s that good of a book.

So friends, let’s do what we can to help get this book (and its author) the acclaim it (he) deserves. If you haven’t read this book, do so. You’re in for a treat.

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Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.