Life goes on: The wisdom of Howard Thurman

This morning, my dear friend and mentor, who knows my heart too well, forwarded Howard Thurman’s uplifting meditation, aptly titled “Life Goes On.” For those readers who are less familiar with the man, Howard Washington Thurman (1889-1991) was an African American theologian, mystic, prolific writer, and mentor to civil rights activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. His influence is as crucial to dealing with the circumstances our contemporary expression of hopelessness as it was during his lifetime and it is worth taking the time to learn about the man and study his words. Tomes of information on Thurman exists, and his timeless books are still in print and readily available. I’m no shill for Amazon, but click here to learn about the many titles penned by this great man, and give yourself a gift today.

I suggest you read “Life Goes On” multiple times, like a lectio divina, noticing the arrangement of Thurman’s thoughts and the feelings that arise in you as his words fill you. Notice the way he gradually lifts the shade of darkness to expose what the great deception of despair prevents us from seeing. Indeed, hopelessness is a form of blindness.

I find it striking that Thurman identifies the human spirit as the target of evil. How true this is. Isn’t it the lack of hope that brings on both despair and violence, and the countless variations of each? In terms of self-preservation there seem to be two base responses to hopelessness: we either internalize it—increasing our personal boundaries so much we block even the tiniest bit of light, or we externalize it, expressing fabrications of personal power, selfishness and greed to prevent the re-entry of light entirely.

Surely we can think of people who live their whole lives in one or the other states of hopelessness. That’s not living. Please read, comment, share. Lift the shade.

“Life Goes On”

By Howard Thurman

During these turbulent times we must remind ourselves repeatedly that life goes on.

This we are apt to forget.

The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms; the purpose of life outlasts our purposes; the process of life cushions our processes.

The mass attack of disillusion and despair, distilled out of the collapse of hope, has so invaded our thoughts that what we know to be true and valid seems unreal and ephemeral. There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.

This is the great deception.

By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength of the clean and the commonplace.

Let us not be deceived.

It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.

Birds still sing; the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields, and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.

There is no need to fear evil.

There is every need to understand what it does, how it operates in the world, what it draws upon to sustain itself.

We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.

Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body, the reduction to rubble of cities; the real target of evil is to corrupt the human spirit and to give the soul the contagion of inner disintegration.

When this happens, there is nothing left, the very citadel of the human being is captured and laid waste.

Therefore, the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.

This would be to be overcome by evil.

To drink in the beauty that is within reach, to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness, to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind— this is as always the ultimate answer to the great deception.

[Excerpted from Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press, 1981), 110-11 with modest adaption]

“Let it be done unto me”

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (A)

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, we hear a story of profound faith—the Annunciation—which sets in motion the divine purpose of her birth, her Immaculate Conception.

As much as we want to soften the Christmas story and disguise it as a children’s pageant, it is important to reflect on the courage it took for this teen-aged peasant girl to give her fiat—to give up normalcy and risk her and her fiance’s and their families’ reputations, and agree to participate in the impossible event for which she was born.

She was free to choose. And she chose to say, “Let it be done unto me.”

So often it seems we have no control over the events of our lives, but in truth the historical world has never been driven by fate or by accident, but by the free-will of fully-conscious, spiritually attuned human beings whose faith in God’s faithfulness leads them to live in accord with God’s purposes [Eph 1:11], for which they were born and which they, with hearts opened to God’s reign of justice and peace, participate.

…Human beings who give of themselves freely and without fear in service of the greater good, who are good stewards of earthly matters, who marvel and ponder those things that cannot be explained, who are motivated by not by fear or self-preservation, but by trust, and who who accept they may never see the fruit of their life’s work

…Human beings like Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose Immaculate Conception and fiat to participate in God’s divine plan continues to send ripples of hope throughout the universe.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”

But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

Video courtesy of Danielle Rose via YouTube. [Uploaded on Sep 24, 2014. Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises]

Today’s full readings can be accessed by clicking this link.

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Art: Women Singing Earth, by Mary Southard, CSJ

God is Faithful

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Every Wednesday, without fail, a thought-provoking reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU). In September I shared the wisdom of CTU president, Fr. Mark Francis, CSV on what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” It is my privilege once again to share another timely piece, written by Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time whose words refresh and invigorate like the sweet and sonorous bell of mindfulness.  “What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living”.

By Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD

Tucked into the middle of the second reading today is a phrase that might be the key to understanding what our readings today are pointing to: “the Lord is faithful.” This is the conviction that sustains the brothers in our rather grisly first reading from Second Maccabees. This is the conviction that prompts the psalmist to pray, “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shelter of your wings.” This is the point that Jesus makes in the gospel. God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Through the years there has been a lot of speculation about what life after death and our resurrected bodies might be like. The Greeks, who basically didn’t like human bodies, saw death as an escape from what weighed us down in life. The medieval theologians sometimes thought that the resurrected body would be a return to the bodies we had at about the age of thirty. Resurrection would mean eternal youth. Homilies at funerals often try to console the deceased’s loved ones with images of parents, friends, and relatives happily receiving him or her on the other side. Indeed, several accounts of people who have had near death experiences talk about that experience in this same way — a grand reunion with friends and loved ones. Contemporary theologians sometimes speak of resurrected life as a new consciousness and unfettered unity with all peoples and all things. In this way, God is all in all.

The truth is, though, that we don’t really know. Our speculations about life beyond death may be just as primitive as the scene proposed to Jesus by the skeptical Sadducees. What we know in faith, however, is that God is faithful.  What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. What we know in faith is that when we pass beyond this life, we pass into the arms of a loving God.

This is the kind of faith that gives people like the young men in our First Reading the courage to endure death rather than compromise on their principles. This is the kind of faith that offers us “everlasting encouragement and good hope,” so that we can live our lives in joy and contentment. This is the kind of faith that gave Oscar Romero the faith that, if he would be killed, he would rise in the Salvadoran people. This is the kind of faith that allowed a dying John XXIII to say simply: “My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.” This is the kind of faith that, in the words of poet Julia Esquivel, sees persecution as being “threatened with resurrection.”

November is the month when Catholics remember and pray for their loved ones who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” and for all who have died in God’s mercy, as Eucharistic Prayer II expresses it. Parishes offer books where parishioners can write the names of those for whom the community will pray. Latino/as have the beautiful custom of constructing “altarcitos” with pictures and mementos of relatives and friends who have died — a custom that is being increasingly adopted by other cultures as well. On November 1, Filipinos clean the graves of relatives, leave food offerings on the graves and have them blessed. We might visit the cemetery and bring flowers as signs of love and respect. We do not know what happens after death, but we do believe that God is faithful. We do believe that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and that all who have been born are alive to God.

Our readings today give us a chance to renew that faith. God is faithful.

Stephen Bevans, SVD
Professor Emeritus

Readings:
First Reading: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm: 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
Second Reading:  2 Thessalonians 2:16-35
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

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© Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

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My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.