We have been excitedly anticipating this second volume in this series of the sermons of Howard Thurman (1899 - 1981), who is featured in our Remembering Spiritual Masters Project. The first volume, Moral Struggle and the Prophets, examined the importance of courage and truth in the ethical choices we make in our lives.
The coeditors of both volumes, Peter Eisenstadt and Walter Earl Fluker, are both associated with The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman at Boston University. Eisenstadt is also the author of a new biography of Howard Thurman, Against the Hounds of Hell.
Thurman was a friend and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and a conversation partner with Mahatma Gandhi. A Christian with an expansive understanding of faith, he trained two generations of religious leaders in ways of interfaith and interreligious understanding and contemplative spiritual practice. As the editors say in their introduction: “If there is one point of agreement in discussions of Howard Thurman’s distinctive understanding of religion, during his life and subsequently, it is that he was a mystic.” He also preached many sermons — and this book collects some of those that focus on mystics from whom Thurman learned.
The list is wide-ranging: William Blake, Lao-Tse, Buddha, Plotinus, Saint Augustine, Mahatma Gandhi, Saint Francis, Jane Steger, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Thomas a Kempis, and Rufus Jones. Steger was new to us; she is not well-known; as Howard Thurman explains at the beginning of that sermon: “[She] left her record in a single little book which in many ways is one of the most suggestive and thoroughly and simply illuminating volumes that I have ever read…. Leaves from a Secret Journal .” *
We took particular interest in the chapter on Saint Francis of Assisi. Thurman tells the familiar story of a wealthy young man who hears God say, “Repair my church,” then practices a variety of ascetic disciplines, separates from his father who wanted a successful secular life from his son, and finds joy in serving others. At each turn, Thurman is careful not to be a hagiographer (a simple teller of saintly stories without evidence) and then points to what matters, for instance:
“He is an uncomplicated mystic. He isn’t bothered about trying to understand the Godhead and the soul and how the Godhead manifests itself, as we will be seeing when we talk about Eckhart. He isn’t interested in any of the metaphysical problems, any of the theological problems or the philosophical problems. The only thing he knows it that there is in his heart a song, which song is an expression of the love of God as the love of God manifests itself in Francis. And it is this same music that he hears when he listens to another person’s heart. It is the same music that he hears when he looks at the birds or the sun or the flowers.”
As with the first book in this series, most of the texts are transcribed from audiotapes, so do not be surprised if the reading is not as smooth as one usually finds in books. It is no less important.
Also included are a few lectures on related topics. See the excerpt accompanying this review for a sample from one of these: “Mysticism and Social Change: God as Presence.”
* Note: You can hear Thurman read part of Jane Steger's Leaves from a Secret Journal on the Boston University archive page for the Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman collections.