When I was a boy I was always driven to worship when I saw a storm come up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean on the Florida coast. A stillness pervaded everything. The tall sea grass stood at attention. As far out as my eye could go the surface of the sea was untroubled, quiet, but expectant. I could almost hear the pounding of my own heart against my ribs.
—Howard Thurman, Mysticism and Social Change
Young Howard Thurman frequently rowed a small boat on the Halifax River near his home in Daytona Beach, Florida, and wandered the woods nearby. Nature became a place for him to flee the physically and psychologically terrorizing atmosphere of the Jim Crow South in the early 1900s. Outdoors, he could momentarily escape this reality and sense a oneness with everything: trees, the ocean, and the night sky.
As children, many of us discovered solace outside. Perhaps we felt attached to a loving and expansive Presence outside long before we ever felt God inside a church. Howard Thurman gives voice to the often inchoate sense of the sacred that children experience in the natural world. “The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings,” he writes. “The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances. . . . The experience of these storms gave me a certain overriding immunity against much of the pain with which I would have to deal in the years ahead when the ocean was only a memory. The sense held: I felt rooted in life, in nature, in existence.”
Scholars often label Thurman a “nature mystic.” Thurman would likely argue that an experience of God can happen anywhere: in nature, during worship, or while in private prayer. It is clear, however, that his awareness of his connection to God began outdoors. In his autobiography and several other books, Thurman mentions that something ineffable called him outside at an early age. He considered nature to be a friend, consoler, and source of mystical union:
As a child I was accustomed to spend many hours alone in my rowboat, fishing along the river, when there was no sound save the lapping of the waves against the boat. These were times when it seemed as if the earth and river and the sky and I were one beat of the same pulse. It was a time of watching and waiting for what I did not know—yet I always knew. There would come a moment when beyond the single pulse beat there was a sense of Presence which seemed always to speak to me. My response to the sense of Presence always had the quality of personal communion. There was no voice. There was no image. There was no vision. There was God.
In nature’s quietness, Thurman could hear what he called “the harmony of creation.” Nature represents the interrelatedness of all things. Through his writings, he reminds us how the divine dwells among us and is particularly palpable outside. As we walk with Howard Thurman through nature, we learn from his keen observations. We begin to read the symbols of the divine that populate outside spaces. “The signature of God is all around me,” Thurman writes, “in the rocks, in the trees, in the minds of men.” The sense of unity and rootedness he felt in nature transformed into overarching themes for his life and work.
The Peace Outdoors
Serenity, exhilaration, awe: these are common words people use for what they feel when they spend time outdoors. Awe, especially, triggered by beholding a spectacular waterfall, a rolling countryside, or a field of flowers, is a feeling we associate with the numinous. Visions and voices, indescribable peace, and fleeting moments of transcendence make nature a home for God, a place for spiritual awakenings or even conversions.
When I read about Thurman’s experiences in nature, my heart leaped. I had not been the only Black child to uncover God outdoors! As a child, when I sat alone on the grass with my eyes closed, visiting relatives and neighbors with concerned faces would ask my mom and dad what I was doing. My sense was that wider culture’s awareness of Black people’s relationship with the natural world was limited as well. Absent from daily view were pictures of Black folks fishing, hiking, and camping. Thurman’s description of his rendezvous with nature validated my own mystical leanings.
My desire to sit in the wind began at age four, when I discovered nature’s deep peace. It was a tranquility nearly absent everywhere else—including church. The holy connection I felt when I was outdoors was devoid of the fear that lurked in my childhood image of God as an angry, punishing old white man. I didn’t associate my longing to sit in the wind or my astonishment at nature’s curiosities with God. As young children, Thurman and I both lacked the vocabulary to name such occurrences. My spiritual awareness expanded, but without language for what was happening. Much later, when I was older, I would read a scripture relating the Spirit to the wind: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
I had not yet read about a nature-based custom common among the enslaved Gullah people, African Americans who lived along the coast of and on the islands near South Carolina. Gullah youth would go out into nature to find God in a spiritual coming-of-age ritual. In Gullah communities, the Praise House was a central fixture. To be baptized and assume full membership in the church and the community, a young candidate had to provide testimony in the Praise House about a spiritual experience they had. This time of preparation was called “seekin.” Although the term is derived in part from Methodist missionaries who, after preaching and teaching, inquired if anyone wanted to “seek Jesus,” the Gullah culture adapted the term to describe their own notion about potential believers. Margaret Creel, in her outstanding book on slave religion in Gullah culture, writes, “A candidate’s acceptance into the church and subsequently into the Praise House depended upon relating a satisfactory experience, which was the result of a soul-grappling, traumatic confrontation between the individual and a higher power, culminating, if successful, in a sensation of rebirth and full membership in the religious community.”
The “seekin” experience for the candidate included assuming a temporary ascetic character: withdrawing from social life and wearing ragged clothing; going into the wilderness for solitude, meditation, visions, and night vigils; and communicating only with their spiritual teacher. Many of these practices were similar to those found in West Africa at that time.
The purpose of the “seekin” time was to examine the commitment of the candidate for baptism. This ritual managed to transform individualistic behavior into a more communal orientation and also heightened a young person’s sense of their own value. “While ‘seekin’ culminated in acceptance of socialization through church membership, the experience itself was a private one and a desire to ‘seek Jesus’ was a slave’s personal decision, although not devoid of community pressure,” Margaret Creel writes. “The travel, the visions, and the solitude possibly represented a bondperson’s inner reflection and recognition of ‘self’ as opposed to his or her treatment as a ‘thing’ by the master.”
While I didn’t call my experiences in nature “seekin,” and it’s doubtful that Thurman did either, what the Gullah knew—and what young Howard’s early life illustrates—is that the wisdom of nature is available if we choose to notice it. Thurman saw all of nature as a reflection of God.
This is an excerpt from What Makes You Come Alive chapter 3, “Signature of God.”