Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Howard Thurman on Spiritual Disciplines

Luther Smith writes: “Thurman asserts that living the spiritually disciplined life enables each person to be “alive to life.” (Smith, HETW, 130)

HT relies on spiritual disciplines “to tutor our spiritual discernment so that both the familiar and the strange are understood in light of the desires of God’s heart.” (L. Smith, HETW, 32)
  • Spiritual disciplines “tutor our spiritual discernment.” This brings “understanding.”

Spiritual disciplines “are meant to ‘ready’ the mind, the emotions, the spirit. They are no guarantor of Presence… God reveals His Presence out of the mystery of Being. With all of my passionate endeavor, I cannot command that He obey.” (HETW, 45)
  • E.g. – if I played basketball. I engage in “training” so as to compete in the game.
  • The training, the “disciplines,” prepare me for the game.
  • Spiritual disciplines “train” the body and mind and spirit of a person.

In Disciplines of the Spirit HT identifies five spiritual disciplines:
  • Commitment
  • Growth
  • Suffering
  • Prayer
  • Reconciliation

  1. Commitment

Mind and spirit cannot be separated from the body.

“Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his identification with what he is committed to. The character of his commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.” (HETW, 46)
    • In commitment there is a “yielding.” There is a “giving oneself to…”

“Commitment” is related to “surrender. “Whatever stands in the way of the complete and full surrender, we must search it out and remove it.” (HETW, 48)

“Surrender your inner consent to God.” (HETW, 48)

I think “commitment” and “surrender” are like: jumping out of the plane and trusting the parachute to open. It is a whole-being thing.

Like: “I surrender all…”

  1. Growth

“Growth means development in the life of an organism. It means change manifest in structure.” (HETW, 51)
  • “Change manifest in structure” sounds like: transformation.

“There are many adults who for various reasons have escaped this essential discipline of their spirit. True, in terms of physical and intellectual development they have continued to grow. Their bodies and minds have moved through all the intervening stages to maturity, but they have remained essentially babies in what they expect of life.” (HETW, 52)
  • It’s either deep change or slow death.
  • It’s either maturing or endless baby-hood.
  • It’s either dining on spiritual meat or drinking spiritual milk from the bottle.

One of the real challenges of growth is crisis, and the “real possibility of failure.” “To guard against this and be prepared to deal with it when it occurs is an authentic discipline of the spirit…  And for the religious man, it is to grow not only in grace but also in the knowledge and experience of God.” (HETW, 54)
  • Ongoing engagement in the spiritual disciplines prepares one for crises and failure.
  • Always growing deeper…  the body wastes away but the spirit is being renewed day after day after day…  closer knowing and experiencing of God…

What HT says about “growth” sounds like what I mean by spiritual transformation; the pain of change.

  1. Suffering

“When a man is driven by suffering to make the most fundamental inquiries the meaning of life, he has to assess and re-assess his total experience. It may be that… he has never thought seriously of God. He has taken his life and all of life for granted. Now under the assault of pain he is led to wonder about the mystery of life. Why do men suffer? He asks himself. He sorts out the answers available to him…” (HTEW, 55)

“What would life be like if there were no suffering, no pain? The startling discovery is made that if there were no suffering there would be no freedom. Men could make no mistakes, consciously or unconsciously. The race could make no mistakes. There would be no error. There would be no possibility of choice at any point, or in any sense whatsoever… Freedom therefore cannot be separated from suffering. This, then, may be one of the ways in which suffering pays for its ride…” (HTEW, 55)

“Why do men suffer? They suffer as part of the experience of freedom. They suffer as part of the growth of life itself.” (HTEW, 55)

“Without suffering there is no freedom for man.” (HTEW, 56)

“What hostility may do is to serve as a guide through the wilderness of our suffering until we are brought to the door of the temple.” (HTEW, 56)

“There are many people who would feel cheated if suddenly they were deprived of the ego definition that their suffering gives them.” (HTEW, 56)


Thurman - “Sometimes the quieting of one’s spirit in prayer exposes the area of sensitiveness to God’s spirit which is submerged by much traffic.” (Meditations of the Heart, 21)

  • Busyness covers up the true self.

Thurman - “The sheer physical necessity [of taking time to go alone to pray] is urgent because the body and the entire nervous system cry out for the healing waters of silence.” (Meditations of the Heart, 27)

Thurman - “The strength of the personal life is often found in the strength and intensity of its isolation. The fight for selfhood is unending.” (A Strange Freedom, 191)

  • The need for a still center.
  • There’s a battle going on for the “self.”


Thurman - “Prayer at its best is revealed when a man enjoys God and prays out of sheer love of Him.” (Meditations of the Heart, 26)

  • True prayer is about a relationship. It’s 2-way communication.
  • Love of God compels a person to pray. This is not prayer as ritual.

Thurman - First if all, “prayer… means the method by which the individual makes his way to the temple of quiet within his own spirit and the activity of his spirit within its walls. Prayer is not only the participation in communication with God in the encounter of religious experience, but it is also the “readying” of the spirit for such communication. It is the total process of quieting down and to that extent must not be separated from meditation. Perhaps, as important as prayer itself, is the “readying” of the spirit for the experience.” (HTEW, 57)

  • Thurman: “When one has thus been prepared, a strange thing happens. It is very difficult to put into words. The initiative slips out of one’s hands and into the hands of God, the other Principal in the religious experience. The self moves towards God. Such movement seems to have the quality of innate and fundamental stirring. The self does not see itself as being violated, though it may be challenged, stimulated, inspired, conditioned, but all of this takes place in a frame of reference that is completely permissive. There is another movement which is at once merged with the movement of the self. God touches the spirit and the will and a wholly new character in terms of dimension enters the experience. In this sense prayer may be regarded as an open-end experience.”

    • Cmp. Dallas Willard – “prayer is talking with God about what we are doing together.”

·         “Fundamental to the total fact of prayer in the Christian religion is the persuasive affirmation that the God of religious experience is a seeking and a beseeching God.” (HTEW, 57)

·         “I agree most heartily with Rufus Jones when he says that prayer at its best is when the soul enjoys God and prays out of sheer love for him.” (HTEW, 59-60)


Waiting/Creating a space

  • Thurman - “In the total religious experience we learn how to wait; we learn how to ready the mind and the spirit. It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life – so that when His presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.” (HTEW, 45)
·         Cf. Nouwen’s distinction between “waiting” as expectation, and “wishing.”