Black Women Mystics

July 29th, 2019 by Dave Leave a reply »

God’s Abiding Presence
Monday, July 29, 2019

Today, I’d like to feature the words of a modern mystic I am honored to know. Dr. Barbara Holmes is a teacher in our own Living School, a former lawyer, professor, and author of several books. She has taught me, our staff, and students so much. I hope you will go deeper with her work beyond today’s excerpt from Joy Unspeakable. I have been telling folks that there are people who talk about God and there are people who know God. Barbara is the latter:

Holiness is a concept that makes ordinary people nervous. . . . The holiness that Jesus describes has less to do with pious character traits and more to do with the hosting of God’s abiding presence. It is not effort but invitation that opens the human spirit to the possibility that God may sojourn with us.

Receptivity is not a cognitive exercise but rather the involvement of the intellect and senses with a spiritual reunion and oneness with God. When this oneness occurs, it is accompanied by heightened spiritual awareness and insight. Contemplative moments also carry with them the potential for mystical encounter which only compounds the difficulty of describing the experience in words. C. S. Lewis’s attempt to describe his own mystical event is a prime example. He says, “I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back—drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.” [1] His wry comments are clearer than any somber attempt to describe the event with exactitude. Rather, this contemplative moment is a spiritual event that kisses the cognitive but will not be enslaved to its rigidities.

Our twenty-first century ideas about contemplative practices are borrowed from a Christian heritage that relegates contemplation to desert mothers and fathers, anchorites and monastics. Although we have learned much from our Catholic brothers and sisters, there is a rich but neglected legacy in the Protestant tradition. When the word contemplation comes to my mind I want to think of Thomas Merton . . . [and] Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . I want to present Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and all the black congregations that sustained whole communities without fanfare or notice. Like Christianity, contemplative practices come in many forms; these practices have survived and thrived through inculturation and ethnic adaptation. . . .

The human task is threefold. First, the human spirit must connect to the eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning. Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace. Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts. Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth.

Black Women Mystics

Sunday, July 28, 2019

It’s so important that all people are able to recognize themselves as God’s image. Icons and images of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a dark or ebony hue are revered in many cultures around the world. For example, the Black Madonna as a model of maternal love, faithfulness, and hope is esteemed by people across Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Yet, as we explored a few weeks ago, the divine feminine—especially in darker form—generally has been suppressed by Western Christianity unless the image had already reached iconic form.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that women of African descent have faced so much oppression in the United States, both historically and to this day. For example, black women are paid 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men. [1] Last year at least twenty-six transgender people died due to violence (and at least eleven already in 2019), and the majority were black transwomen. [2] Yet even as white men continue to monopolize positions of religious leadership and theological authority, black women are reframing Christian traditions, practices, and Scripture in liberating and justice-oriented ways.

Womanists today build on a long lineage of courageous and wise prophets and mystics. This week I’ll introduce you to a handful of African American women mystics. They reveal Christ to us as they speak of their personal relationships with and experiences of the Divine and, as they stand in their truth, remain uncompromised by the systems that seek to silence them.

Thea Bowman (1937–1990) was a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi. I am drawn to Sr. Thea since my own mother would listen to her talks, especially when she knew she was dying, and she found out that Thea listened to mine! I am sorry we never met. Her description of Black American spirituality provides helpful context for this week’s reflections: 

[It] is rooted in our African heritage, with its ways of perceiving and valuing reality, its style of expression, its modes of prayer and contemplating the divine. It is colored by our Middle Passage, Slavery, our Island and Latin experience, segregation, integration, and our on-going struggle for liberation. [3]

For Sr. Thea, “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere.” [4]

Like other mystics, Bowman found God everywhere, in all beings. She saw many images of God:

God is bread when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, a harbor from the storm. God’s father to the fatherless, a mother to the motherless. God’s my sister, my brother, my leader, my guide, my teacher, my comforter, my friend. God’s the way-maker and burden-bearer, a heart-fixer and a mind-regulator. God’s my doctor who never lost a patient, my lawyer who never lost a case, my captain who never lost a battle. God’s my all in all, my everything.

God’s my rock, my sword, my shield, my lily of the valley, my pearl of great price. God’s a god of peace and a god of war. Counselor, Emmanuel, Redeemer, Savior, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Mary’s little baby, wonderful Word of God.

These images come from Scripture and from the meditations of Christians. . . . Each one corresponds to a particular need. All these images help me as I call upon God’s name. [5]

Summary: Week Thirty

Mystic: Howard Thurman

July 21 – July 26, 2019

The goal of life is God! The source of life is God! —Howard Thurman (Sunday)

God reveals God’s Presence out of the mystery of Being. —Howard Thurman (Monday)

Faith teaches us that God is. —Howard Thurman (Tuesday)

It has long been a matter of serious moment that for decades [Christians] have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers or as human beings. —Howard Thurman (Wednesday)

What does our religion say to the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed? —Howard Thurman (Thursday)

If being Christian does not demand that all Christians love each other and thereby become deeply engaged in experiencing themselves as human beings, it would seem futile to expect that Christians as Christians would be concerned about the secular community in its gross practices of prejudice and discrimination. —Howard Thurman (Friday)

Practice: Attending to Details

The mystic’s concern with the imperative for social action is not merely . . . to feed the hungry, not merely to relieve human suffering and human misery. If this were all, in and of itself, it would be important surely. But . . . the basic consideration has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to . . . [fullness] in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action. —Howard Thurman [1]

Each Saturday we offer an invitation to contemplative practice. You may not always choose to try the practice we suggest, but I hope you will explore today’s, even if you have a regular contemplative practice.

One of our Living School teachers, Dr. Barbara Holmes, writes about “crisis contemplation” as a way to express grief and find refuge in the midst of danger. We need practices to move through suffering and find creative responses. One example of crisis contemplation occurred on plantations:

Here, enslaved Africans created narratives of survival that depended on personal courage and God’s deliverance. The word courageous within the context of slavery is problematic because it has incongruous but romantic overtones. Those who attempt to describe the horrors of one holocaust or another inevitably use language that mythically denies, romanticizes, or diminishes the oppression. When history is collapsed into myth, responsibilities become diffused, and repentance and reconciliation become impossible.

In the inflated realm of mythical oppression, villains are so villainous that no one sees themselves reflected in the image. Few can trace accrued privileges to specific and intentional evil acts. Similarly, victims become so quintessentially and epically victimized that all escape routes from the condition are sealed off by a maze of self-doubt, blaming, and low self-esteem. The antidote to this phenomenon is to attend to the details, to understand the specific events, ancestors, life stories, causes of oppression, and avenues of social change. Historical and spiritual specificity is salvific. Then and only then can the movement toward moral flourishing begin. [2]

Meditation teacher Ruth King helps people cultivate awareness of how we impact each other and ourselves, especially being “mindful of race.” For those of us who are white, thinking about our own race can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable. For people of color whose ancestors and they themselves have experienced oppression, this exploration can be quite painful. But the path toward healing for all of us includes attending to the details, as Holmes suggests, and seeing reality as it is.

Find some uninterrupted time to reflect on Ruth King’s questions below. After you’ve held these with an open heart, you may wish to do some research with an open mind.  

  • Where in your life do you feel numb, shut down, dismembered, disrespected, or disconnected? What is your earliest memory of feeling this way? What events or circumstances do you believe gave birth to these experiences? What do you believe such feelings keep you from knowing?
  • What racial identities or ethnicities have shaped how you have come to know yourself as a race?
  • What views did your ancestors, elders, parents, or caretakers have about race? How did their views impact you? In what ways were/are your views similar or different?
  • What are the roots of your racial lineage? Given your lineage, what has your race gained or lost throughout the generations? How have these gains or losses influenced your racial views today? [3]


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