Trade Secrets from the Monastery: Rev. Howard Thurman and Brother Franciscus

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi*

While teaching Pastoral Psychology and Psychology of Religion at the University of Manitoba, I would often talk to various people about the Reverend Howard Thurman, a great African-American contemplative and my mentor at Boston University. As The Canada Council sometimes made grants available to invite a speaker, I eventually arranged to invite Dr. Thurman to speak at the university. He came by train (as he said that flying affected his sense of time), gave some wonderful talks in different places, and even led a chapel service for us.

During his talk and sermons, he had a wonderful way of pausing that was simply amazing. It was as if he was looking for just the right word . . . looking and looking . . . until everyone wanted to help him with the word, but didn’t dare. But in that pausing, people also tended to fall into the space and silence he had created, until finally he would speak again and cover you with the word. He would say something like “that luminous  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  . darkness” and catch you on the insight of the paradox. 

Between talks, I asked him if there was anything that he would like to do in Winnipeg. I told him about all the various sights to see, but he was not interested in the real estate.  So I asked him, “Would you like to go out to St. Norbert’s monastery?”

He said, “Yes, that I’d really like to do.” 

“Good, I’ll call up and arrange it. Who would you like to talk to while you’re there?  Would you like to speak with the abbot?”

“No, the abbot is a manager.” 

So I called the abbot and said, “I think my guest would like to talk with the Master of the Novices, Brother Franciscus.”

The abbot said, “That’s fine; we’ll arrange it.”

After we arrived, we sat down in a room with the noice master and they began to talk over tea and cookies. Dr. Thurman asked the Master of the Novices, “What are the complaints that your novices have?”

Brother Franciscus replied, “The hardest thing has to do with the ones who come and say, ‘Why do we have to have these long hours of discipline in prayer when it’s so easy to get into raptures out in the field doing our work?’” (St. Norbert’s is a Trappist monaster where the do ora et labora, ‘prayer and work,’ and the work is often agricultural.)

So Dr. Thurman asked, “So what is it that you do when they say this?” 

Brother Franciscus answered, “I forbid them to come to chapel, except on holidays and for Masses of obligation. After a while, they come and complain again, ‘We didn’t come here to be merely farmhands.’ But it is in this way that they eventually realize that it is the time that they spend on their knees in prayer that prepares them for those raptures that they experience in the field.  It is as it is said, ‘Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.’” (Ps. 126:5)

Well, Dr. Thurman was very happy with this answer. You know, people sometimes want to talk theology and fight with each other. It’s ridiculous. But when two clerics can sit down to talk with each other, saying, “Listen, you’re working at the same trade that I’m working at; what do you do when people experience recalcitrance to the message?” Then things just fall into a softer place and we can do work across the borders of denomination, and even religious traditions.

 

* Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (d. 2014), founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, was widely considered one of the world's foremost authorities on Hasidism and Kabbalah and a pioneer in interfaith dialogue. This reminiscence was originally told to Netanel Miles-Yépez and later edited by him for publication here.