Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown has retired as Distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. Now, in addition to her academic work, she has pursued a life in ministry, becoming a spiritual director and leading workshops and prayer groups promoting contemplative spiritual practices and the life and work of Howard Thurman. More than 25 years ago, she underwent a heart transplant, which led to her strong advocacy for organ and tissue donation and the contemplative practices of stillness and living in the present moment. “I consider each day to be a walk of faith and hope,” she says.
Dr. Coleman Brown has contributed essays to Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell their Stories and Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America. She completed the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in 2008. Her book When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom tells the story of her heart transplant.
In this episode, she and I talk about our need of being more expansive with definitions of contemplation and mysticism. “Mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens,” she says. “I hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism only happens to special people.”
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown: Are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the Oneness?
Cassidy Hall: Welcome to Contemplating Now, a podcast about the intersection of contemplation and social justice. Through interviews with scholars, mystics, and activists, this podcast will focus on contemplative spirituality’s direct relationship with issues of social justice. I’m your host, Cassidy Hall, a filmmaker, podcaster, pastor, and student, and I’m here to learn with you.
Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown is a distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She studied Psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz and received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University. Some of her publications include Praying Without Ceasing, Basking in the Loving Presence of God, and she’s also published in the edited book, Embodied Spirits: Spiritual Directors of Color Tell Their Stories. In 2008, she completed the Spiritual Guidance Program at the Shalom Institute for Spiritual Formation. She’s a Howard Thurman devotee and serves as a spiritual companion, director, writer, retreat leader and speaker. Her first full-length book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen: Discovering Inner Wisdom, was released in January of 2019, which tells the story of her heart transplant and the dialogue within.
CASSIDY HALL: Well Lerita, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s so great to see you.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, thank you. I always love talking to you Cassidy and I’m just delighted that you invited me to be a part of your podcast.
CASSIDY HALL: So one of the ways we like to begin is to begin kind of orienting ourselves around you and your experience. So how do you define “contemplation”? And how do you define “mysticism”?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I’ve studied contemplation in so many different contexts. But certainly, within training for becoming a spiritual director, I find that my sense of it now is that contemplation is really about trying to find ways to live in the presence of God. And oftentimes, I define it in terms of: what is a contemplative. What kind of person is that? And usually, it is a person who is wanting to be aware of the presence of God all the time, but also knows that there are certain kinds of practices that they can engage in that will lead them to perhaps having that awareness more frequently. So taking time for silence, taking time for solitude, getting away from time to time, and then being outside, for me, at least, is sort of the three S’s. The stillness that you find often when you are anywhere in nature, it just seems to be like a vibrating energy kind of thing. And it reminds me quite a bit of a being in the presence of God. But I think that it’s really doing things, talking about things that intentionally, in some ways, lead us to that place where we are feeling or being aware of the presence of God.
Mysticism to me is something totally different. And I think people have mystical experiences all the time. But somehow or other, we tend to think about mysticism as something sort of mysterious and oftentimes there are people who, in some ways have negative views. They think of voodoo or something that is part of the occult, or bringing up spirits, etc. And I certainly, just in learning the word early on, had that sort of scary feeling, even though I was brought up in Catholic school and going to Catholic and not hearing anything about mysticism or mystics in the time in which I was a Roman Catholic. But mysticism is just one of those kinds of things that happens. And I think in my study of Howard Thurman, he’s helped me to sort of clarify it and have a little bit more concise sense of it, but it’s having a direct experience with God. So you could be praying, you could be singing, you could be outside, but all of a sudden, you have this experience of I call it oneness of unity. And so people have talked about it in different ways. Abraham Maslow in Psychology talks about peak experiences. I think he’s talking about a mystical experience. Jerry May, Gerald May, he calls it a unitive experience. And even Howard Thurman called it a religious experience. He was sort of saying, look, I think it’s just a religious experience. If you all want to call it a mystical experience, fine, but it’s really having sort of this breakthrough of whatever it is that keeps us from being at one with God all the time. It just happens. And I’ve had those experiences since as a young child, I didn’t know what it was. I remember once telling somebody that I felt the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once, and they were like, girl you’re crazy. But that’s what it felt like to me as a child. I think we need to be a little bit more expansive about our definitions of what that is. I think in the past, it’s been kind of restricted to people having visions and stigmata or the soul, touching the God, all of that. I would just want to sort of cut through that and say, my definition of mysticism is very different.
CASSIDY HALL: That is beautiful. Yeah. And it strikes me that even my wrong perceptions of this idea that being a contemplative might make us more prone to having the mystical experience is still limiting, that’s limiting of mysticism and of what the mystical experience can be and who gets it. Because that’s not, that’s not up to us. And it shows up when it shows up.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes. And somehow or other, as we sort of trace the evolution of mysticism, it seems as if what people used to be talking about as mysticism is now really spirituality. Like there’s this just kind of natural progression, and that in some cases, people might call it a transcendent experience. And then it’s not something that is restricted to a small group of people living in a cloistered community, and it has happened as a result of that they are praying or that they were singled out, but that children had mystical experiences. And certainly, Howard Thurman was also one of those children. I think it’s more common than it is uncommon that these transcendent experiences happen and we don’t quite know how to explain it, except for that it was really nice, and we wish we could go back, but we can’t make it happen again.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and also along with your definition of contemplation as solitude, silence and stillness, mysticism and a mystical encounter can happen in the middle of chaos. It can happen in the middle of a crowd, it can happen, like you’re saying, for a child at school.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Right. Or maybe they’re out somewhere at the ocean, or I mean, it could be anywhere, and you’re not trying to make it happen, you can’t make it happen. It’s just one of those things that happens to you. I would count two visions, that I know people have had dreams. I have a couple of friends who have dreams. And it’s like the divine has broken through and said, look, I want to tell you something, and it comes out in the dream. So I would hope that we will abandon this idea that mysticism happens only to special people, or only special people are mystics, etc. And that it’s some special club that only a few people get invited to. But I think once you understand what it is and you are not afraid, and that you allow those mystical experiences to happen when they do, it’s such a lovely guide in some ways. It’s like, oh well, thank you for the visit.
CASSIDY HALL: So many things in there I want to unpack but I’ll try to stay on track. So Thurman speaks a lot to things like the sound of the genuine within and also speaks to the inward sanctuary. First of all, what do you think he means by these kinds of things, tending to the inward sanctuary or listening for the sound of the genuine within? And how can we take this advice to tend to those things in the context of today’s social justice movements which take so much attention, time and energy?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, in some ways, I think Thurman would probably say, you need to tend to your inward sanctuary before you get out there. You need to do some, I might call it house cleaning, so that you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Particularly in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, partly what he’s doing is saying to the disinherited, ‘it’s so important for you to protect your inward sanctuary because people are always going to be extending these or communicating these attributions about you that are just not true.’ And I think what happened with Thurman is that ––and I’ve had this experience myself, which is that you hit someplace within you and you realize, oh, this is who I am. And when people come at you with something else, you’re just like, looking at them, like, are you talking to me? Come into some knowledge, coming into some understanding of who you are inside. Who you are as God created you? Do you really believe your Holy Child of God? All of that. But you do have to protect them because they are going to be people that are going to come at you with attacks. I would add, that we also must begin to listen for what our call is in God’s plan to restore the beloved creation. And I emphasize creation, you know a lot of times people say community, but I emphasize creation. Both because Thurman believed it was all including the animals and the plants and the environment and the air, all of that was part of God’s beloved creation. You know, there’s this beautiful psychological stuff going on here, which is like who’s in control of you. So I think that has to get cleared up so that you can hear what is your role. Sometimes I think people associate social action with protests in the streets. But as we know, with every movement, every transformation, there are people in many roles. In the civil rights movement, there are people cooking, there were people taking care of children, there are people writing articles, there were lawyers behind the scenes to bail people out and to file legal motions. Howard Thurman was really great on what I call inner authority. He knew what he was supposed to be doing. He was not supposed to be Martin Luther King, Jr. He was supposed to be Howard Thurman. And so I often describe him as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. That was his role. I think it’s really important to do this, like I said, examining. Examining your inward sanctuary, your inward center, and to begin to be able to distinguish what it is that is truly you, what is genuine. And what it is, it’s somebody else’s issue that they are projecting onto you. Or they’re trying to cajole you into doing something that they want you to do.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, you know, my own experience of navigating the genuine within, navigating the inward sanctuary, and the ways this kind of connects to our conversation about mysticism, in that, in my experience, the genuine is often tethered to also that understanding of oneness. So it’s almost like a mystical experience when I actually am revealed of who I am and what I am.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Well, I think anytime that you say “yes,” to God, you know what I mean? That you actually are happy, that experience of oneness. It’s like, oh! And I think the difficulty for most people is, we live in such an individualistic culture, which is part of the mystical experience is to lose yourself, but your independent, autonomous self. But at the same time, I think that that sense of unity, that sense of connection is very familiar to our spirits. Even though we may be fighting it at some point. But I think it’s really difficult for people to just surrender and say, okay, I’m going to stop trying to figure it out. I’m going to stop trying to plan and I’m just going to try to move through my life, guided by the Spirit. That’s just like, real hard for a lot of people. I think for me, as I told many people that when I had a heart transplant about 26 years ago, more than 26 years ago, I got thrown into the deep end of the trust-surrender pool. And so in many ways, the pandemic, I don’t think was as traumatic for me. And so I could stay grounded, because I had done this. I had been in quarantine, I had awakened many days where I had no idea what was going to happen that day. Was I going to to be in the hospital, was I going to be at home, was I going to have to get some special medication, was I in rejection, was I not. So it was like familiar territory to me. But I had been through it. So I knew that there was another side, by continuing to use the guidance that I learned when I had to go through that trauma helped me to then be one of those people who could stay grounded for other people, that just weren’t used to so much turbulence.
CASSIDY HALL: In a lecture on mysticism and social action, which you informed me was originally titled mysticism and social change, Thurman spoke a lot about the autonomy of the self, which is interesting in the context of this navigating, being in an individualistic society, alongside these things we’re discussing. And in that he writes, or he said, “the call to social action must never be an end in itself, but rather, a means by which the individual sufferer can get access to his own altar.” So my question is, what do you think he meant by that?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: When he talks about the autonomy of the self, I think what he’s talking about is not being a conformist in the sense of going along with everybody else, just because everybody else is doing it. So you may be with a group of people who kind of talk about taking social action, but you might also be hesitant, if you think that people are going to think about you in a certain way. They might reject you, they might not be friends with you anymore, if you step out of sort of the party line, whether that be what your church’s theology is, or you know, take a stand on a particular political or social issue. So I think in part, what he’s saying is that you can’t really get to — he’s got this idea that there is an altar within all of us, sort of where God resides. And it’s really hard to get to that place if you don’t have the courage, if you don’t have the strength to do what you’re called to do. And so many people sometimes hesitate, because again, it might upset the total applecart of their life. Where they stand, their reputation, their economic situation, all those kinds of things. And so it’s really tough to be able to step out of that and say, “look, this is wrong.” So I mean, it’s like, where are those people who, particularly during Thurman’s time, were willing to step up and say, segregation in churches is wrong? This whole system is wrong. Because there was a lot of punishment for anybody who stepped out of that. But he’s saying you’re not going to get to that union with God unless you’re willing to answer the call. And in that way, you’re being an autonomous self. You’re sort of stepping out of the groupthink, if you will, deciding that you’re going to walk a different path. At least that’s been my sense of what he’s trying to say in those remarks. Because he says the call to social action must never be an end in itself. It’s always about: are you willing to answer your call, regardless of what it might cost you in order to then be able to move all of us closer towards the oneness.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, that’s a big call, the Spirit. That is the call of the Spirit. I love that you kind of informally named Thurman as the Spiritual Director of the Civil Rights Movement. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to Thurman’s relationship to that movement and how you see that role unfolding for him.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: So Thurman had a number of, I call them holy coincidences or sacred synchronicity, divine intervention, whatever things you want to call it, in his life. Because I think he did accept that call and he kept going with the spirit wherever it was taking him, sometimes reluctantly. And so, in 19, probably around 34-ish , he was asked to lead a pilgrimage to India. Initially, he was not particularly interested in going, because he certainly did not want to be evangelizing for Christianity. He was very ambivalent about traditional Christianity, because it’s like, sort of why am I promoting a religion that won’t even allow me to sit next to another Christian in a church? And why hasn’t this religion addressed some of these basic social issues? I mean, we could get into a whole discussion about when Christianity got co-opted for the state or whatever, but that’s beside the point, we’re just dealing with the reality of it. And initially, they didn’t want to invite his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, who was just an amazing woman in and of herself. And he was being invited by a group that was pretty much similar to the YMCA in the United States. But the sort of, you know, in India, and this guy Ralla Ram really wanted him to come, he wanted some darker skin people to come and sort of represent Christianity. Because at the time the people in that area of the world were not interested in converting to the colonizers religion. So he thought, well, maybe if they see some people that look kind of like us, they might change their minds. It ended up that he finally, and I should say, prior to, many years earlier, Thurman actually participated in the YMCA when he was in high school because they had a lot of programs for the uplifting of young colored boys or men, kind of thing. And there was some ambivalence by many people that were participating in that because they wanted to have segregated branches for YMCA. So we sort of run into these issues everywhere, but nonetheless, so in the Fall of 1935, he and Sue Bailey Thurman, Edward and Phenola Carroll boarded the ship to South Asia, Burma, Simon, all of these different countries and they actually spent six months giving talks about a variety of issues, not necessarily focused on Christianity. But sort of American Negroes and education, and Sue Bailey Thurman gave lectures on Negro women, because these are the terms that they were using at that time. They also, he also had a chance to meet Tagore, the Indian poet. He spent a little time with him, but they really wanted to meet Gandhi. And so they had some difficulties. I think, initially, Gandhi was sick, and then they were sick, and about maybe a week or two before they were to leave to come back the United States, Thurman was on his way to the post office to send a telegram and he saw this guy with a Gandhi cap on, and they kind of looked at each other and then turned around. He had come to bring a telegram from Gandhi. Nonetheless, they got a chance to meet and they met for three hours and had a long conversation. There’s a lovely book called Visions of a New World, Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India. And so what we now understand, which I never knew for many years is that it was really Thurman who brought the ideas of non-violence and civil disobedience from Gandhi to the United States. And Gandhi even said, after that three hour meeting, that he thought it was probably going to be through the American Negro that this message of non-violence and civil disobedience would be brought to the world. Thurman came back with this idea. And I think he incorporated some of that in Jesus and the Disinherited, which actually became the blueprint for the civil rights movement in some ways. That is the inspiration. So there were so many people that were later leaders in that, that basically read that book and got excited. So Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of them, James Lawson was one of them, Jesse Jackson was one of them. There were lots of people who were inspired by that. But Thurman did cross paths by the way with King in a variety of different ways.
First, another providential occurrence: Sue Bailey Thurman and Martin Luther King’s mother, Alberta King, her name was not King before, Williams, were roommates at Spelman Seminary in high school, it was a high school at the time. And so they had known each other for a very long time. And then in the newest book Against the Hounds of Hell, written by Peter Eisenstaedt, who’s a Thurman scholar and historian, he said that after the Thurmans came back from India, they had dinner with the Kings. Martin Luther King probably was about seven years old at the time, and probably overheard much of this conversation. But it really wasn’t until he read Jesus and the Disinherited that I think he really got inspired like, well, we can use this as a way to understand what our role is. And then, of course, King and Thurman crossed paths at Boston University for about a year, as King was finishing up his dissertation work. They met a little bit over sports. Again, I’m sure at the urging of Alberta King and you know, let’s get these people together. King also spent a lot of time listening to Thurman’s sermons in the Morse chapel to take notes. And then one final thing is that King was stabbed by a mentally ill woman in 1958. And Thurman writes that he had this visitation or this vision that he needed to go there. And so he actually went to the hospital and talked to King and basically said to him, this movement that you’ve started, I think it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. And I would suggest that you take some time off or some silence and solitude so that you can discern what your role is going to be in this movement.
There are many people who write in various ways about coming to Thurman as kind of like the spiritual advisor. So Vincent Harding writes about it, Vernon Jordan, as well as Jesse Jackson, Otis T. Moss II, P. Marshall, and her work also says that she used to consult Thurman for spiritual guidance. So there were a number of people, Marian Wright Edelman was influenced by him. And all the amazing people that went through Boston University. Barbara Jordan was a person who used to go to his sermons. So he would basically be the person holding the spiritual space for these people as they came in and out and asking the questions that a good spiritual director would ask like, well, so you know, how are you feeling about this? And what do you feel guided to do next? Asking sort of the deeper questions. I mean, it’s not wasn’t just about, let’s get angry and go out in the street. But really helping people to understand that this might be in fact a godly matter, that there’s some spiritual reason for their being a part this movement.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, I love that. It was the women and their family that ultimately got them together. In his biography With Head and Heart, Thurman talks about his vision for the church, which I really always loved this quote. But he notes that it was his “conviction and determination that the church would be a resource for activists. To me, it was important that the individual who was in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church.” And it strikes me that he lived his life like that, he lived his life as a resource for activists and a place for people to find fresh courage.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Yes, yes. And I think that’s so important, a place for finding fresh courage. Because in my experience, particularly as a spiritual director – companion, but also as a friend, people are weary. They are worn out and worn down. And I think in part if you don’t have that spiritual undergirding, if you don’t have a sanctuary, if you don’t have a place where you can just bask in the renewal of being in God’s divine presence, then you are going to fall apart. I mean, you’re going to burn out. And I’ve been trying to help young, particularly African American contemplatives, as well as activists to understand that it’s more than, you’ve seen an injustice and you’ve got to go do something about it. It’s got to be deeper. Because if it isn’t deeper, you are going to burn out quickly. And that is going in for those moments of contemplation or contemplative prayer, centering prayer, whatever you want to call it, where your spirit is renewed. And then that’s when you get the courage to be able to stand up and say, or do, whatever it is that needs to be done without fear. You know, that’s where you get the strength to be able to have the stamina to stay as long as you need to stay or stay up as long as you need to stay up. But it’s got to have something other than just passion and fire. Because as we know, that just burns quickly. But it’s got to be deeply rooted into something else.
CASSIDY HALL: So I like to end by asking one last question, and that is, who is someone or some people that embody mysticism for you or to you?
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: I wish I had more time to think about this. I think about all the people that I’ve read along the way. And I must admit that it really wasn’t until I stepped into the life and work of Howard Thurman that I felt like somebody was speaking to me. I mean, I read about a lot of people and they were talking, but in terms of having somebody speak to me, like, I know you, I know what you’re going through, here’s my take on it. He was probably the first person. But I think I think about Harriet Tubman. I mean, here’s the mystic involved in social action, and it doesn’t really matter how it happened. Some people say, well, you know, she had a brain injury. Okay. Well, you know, people talk about so many mystics its probably having some form of psychopathology. So let’s talk about courage. I mean, where do you get the courage and the guidance, you know, so that you don’t get captured and killed? Just incredible. So I’m very inspired by her and what she did and how it happened. But if I bring myself to modern day, I think about Barbara Holmes, I think she’s just an amazing person. And I’ve listened to a few of her presentations, and it’s like, she’s in the deep waters. I always think about mystics as moving into deep waters. They’re moving in the deep waters. And so was Richard Rohr. He was someone that I read early on and had a chance to meet once here in Atlanta. But just, I believe, following that call. I have some people that we probably wouldn’t define as mystics. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have him in that category because after I saw Hamilton, I thought, who could do this? I mean, this is just beyond. It’s like when you’re in the presence of genius or creativity at that level, it was like a divine experience to just watch the production. I think about Toni Morrison and some of the words and things that she came up with, August Wilson as a playwright, he was another one. Those people that clearly they are connecting with the divine in some way, are people that — There’s a woman many years ago wrote a book called Ordinary Mystics – Marsha Sinetar. And now I just want to cross out them the ordinary. I mean, because they are mystics, they just don’t happen to emerge from religious communities. And I’m hoping that, as I said before, we can move beyond that kind of definition of a mystic, not only demystify the word, but make it one that is not associated with something negative. As I said earlier, everybody has different roles. And so let’s not confuse activism or social action as one thing. Art can be activism, plays can be activism and poetry. Look at Amanda Gorman. What the activism is about is provoking people, is waking them up to paying attention to what’s going on around them.
CASSIDY HALL: Yeah, and I love that you named so many artists too. And that idea of deep waters, deep waters and I remember being with you at the Wild Goose Festival at Wisdom Camp, and you said to me, “spirit gets what spirit wants, so we might as well listen.” And that was actually a time in my life when I needed to listen. I needed to rest. Yeah, so I see that mysticism alive in your life and I’m so grateful for you and your work and appreciate you taking the time to be with me.
DR. LERITA COLEMAN BROWN: Of course it’s always a joy to be with you, Cassidy. Great conversations and I think our love for this work is part of our calling.
CASSIDY HALL: Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Contemplating Now to support this work and get sneak peeks of new episodes. join me over at patreon dot com slash Cassidy Hall. This podcast is created and edited by Me, Cassidy Hall. Today’s episode features the song Trapezoid, instrumental by Emily Sankofa, which she has generously allowed us to use. Please find this song and more from Emily Sankofa on your favorite streaming platform or by visiting E Dash s-a-n-k-o-f-a dot com. The podcast has created in partnership with the Christian Century, a progressive ecumenical magazine based in Chicago. The podcast is also created in partnership with enfleshed, an organization focused on spiritual nourishment for collective liberation. For liturgical Resource Is and Tools head over to enfleshed dot com.