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]

Go and do likewise, for as long as it takes

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Look what fear hath wrought
It left a mortal wound
What will become of us?
We hone our blades on denier’s strops
Fingers pointing, jabbing
Bleeding out
Oh we are so smart
No one asks “who is my neighbor?”

Our faces glow unnaturally
One fingered strategists
Judge, jury and executioners are we
Spreading the contagion
We picked up online
Swapping spit with flat screen pundits
Fear infects and deafens and errs
If only we would listen

What is that sound?
A still small voice.

Do something.
The Samaritan says

Do something now to stop the bleeding.
The voice of God urges,
And you will live

You know what to do
It is not so mysterious and remote
It is something very near to you
Already in your mouths and your hearts.
The Deuteronomist says

You have only to carry it out.

Go to the opposite side
Wherever it may be
Make haste to the injured ones
Speak words that heal
Tend to their wounds
Tend to them
For as long as it takes.

Now you, Go and do likewise.

—Susan Francesconi

Not as the world gives

6th Sunday of Easter (C)

Speaking to his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Then he said, “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Which leads me to wonder, how does the world give peace?

A few examples come to mind. We contemplate putting down weapons, disarmament, or at least restricting the use of arms. Policy makers search for common ground; they come to the table looking for mutuality. Citizens of the world seek ways to better understand one another, to be more considerate, to share to planet’s resources, and to resolve issues that lead to intolerance and division. All noble steps towards a peaceable kingdom.

It’s complicated, though. The way in which the world gives peace is complicated by the fact that the Peace that Christ left with us, which motivates and inspires us, is opposed by so many.

Yesterday Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet, and pacifist died. He was 94. Early on, Berrigan’s tireless work for peace took the form of protest and civil disobedience against the Vietnam war, most famously when, in 1968, he along with nine other activists seized and burned hundreds of military draft cards.

Considered by many at the time to be both a traitor and an anarchist, Berrigan tirelessly articulated, in word and deed, the unheeded message of nonviolence which he located in Scripture. His death came after nine decades of personal risk, multiple arrests, imprisonment, and ceaseless opposition to societal injustice, something he knew to be an offense against God.

Berrigan’s campaign for peace not only earned him the contempt of the US government, but it also antagonized many members of the Catholic Church hierarchy who rejected his tactics and attempted to squelch his influence on the young Catholics whom he taught in university.

As a poet, Berrigan frequently blended his pacifist and theological vision into striking commentaries on religious blindness. In the following poem published in 1964[1], Berrigan suggests that the Church’s attention, while sincere, is misdirected away from the essential work of Christ in the World.

We Are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say

They hold up Christ for ascension
like twelve earnest athletes at a trampoline, but

If I go, I return, He says
skilled in gravity and the dynamics of flesh

Which decree His continuing declension
like dew or fiery napalm

Or the seeding of streams with trout eggs.
The twelve earnest orantes hold their hands

Safe as stone up to the absent One
which He presently strikes, forces and fills—

World, and world’s Body.

—Daniel Berrigan, SJ

Prophets like Daniel Berrigan and his brothers Phillip (1923 – 2002), and Jerry (1919 – 2015), walk amongst us, nudging us to awaken from our complacency. In the coming days, there will be accolades and honors and likely calls for beatification. Those of us who esteemed the work of the Berrigan brothers will read every word. But even as we hold them up and admire their vocation, we recognize that prophets are difficult to be around. Their means to peace make us uncomfortable. We dislike having the status quo challenged, and we don’t like messes.

Prophets disrupt our “peace,” which we have misunderstood to mean a lack of personal discomfort. Why can’t we just enjoy our Sunday afternoons and not be bothered? It’s just so tiresome to hear someone complain about injustice all the time.

Undoubtedly, we are responsible for some of the stain the church bears on behalf of its rejected prophets, but it is not a permanent mark.

Modern day prophets like Daniel Berrigan challenge us with every step to receive the Peace of Christ and give it to the world, not as the world gives it, but as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Daniel Berrigan, SJ, ed. John Dear. We are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say, from And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems, 1957-1997. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998) 58.

A Softness is Touching the Earth

 

Threshold of Spring

Harshness gone. All at once caring spreads over
the naked gray of the meadows.
Tiny rivulets sing in different voices.
A softness, as if from everywhere,

is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree.

—Threshold of Spring. Ranier Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems

Thresholds usher us from one space into another. The seasons of the earth, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, are crossings that cycle from one to the next. Nature strides across thresholds toward new birth, towards the flourishing of all that lives, towards necessary rest, towards death and resurrection, towards transformation. Always transformation.

We, passive participants in nature’s cycle that we are, experience Spiritual crossings in the same way. Although, perhaps this year we will do so with more intentionality.

How many Easter thresholds must we cross in a lifetime before the example of our life gives witness to what we profess to believe?

Surprised once again you sense its coming in the empty tree.

“Christos Anesti!” Christ is risen!
“Alithos Anesti” Truly, He is risen!

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Let us each move forward in confidence and seek the flourishing of all that lives, always moving towards our conversion and transformation. We are Easter People, Alleluia! Alleluia!

Happy Easter, Good Disciples!

Hey! Corinthians of yesteryear and today

How about we
stop trying to
be the greatest.

How about we
not look out for number one.

How about we
stop building walls
around the fiction of our security.

How about we
stop making rivals out of
people who
look, think, act, believe
differently
than us.

How about we
stop comparing our stuff
with that of our neighbors.

(None of which, by the way, is ours to keep,
and all of which has no value at all
if it is not used to build a better world.)

How about we
recognize that we can’t survive
without each other.
Like the parts of a body.
Like the body of Christ.

—Susan Francesconi

“If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

—1 Cor 12:12-29

Your First Word Was Light

Your first word of all was light,
and time began. Then for long you were silent.

Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still.

Are you about to speak again?
I don’t want your third word.

—Ranier Maria Rilke. Your First Word Was Light. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours I, 44

____________________________

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) has been called “the greatest German poet of the twentieth century” (The Economist). I’m going to bypass writing a short biography of the poet and just point you here instead.

Barrows, Anita, and Joanna Macy. A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke. 1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 116.
You can find “A Year with Rilke” here, or through your favorite bookseller.