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Joy Unspeakable

Today’s post is by Tanya Radford

Black History month for me comes with great joy and great dread. Dread because the month typically consists of the same history and politically correct acknowledgements. No new enlightenment. But great joy as it gives me the opportunity to present something of more depth for conversation, for consideration about my culture, about who I am.

So, it is with this joy that I muse about what it means to be contemplative and African American. I’ve been thinking, praying, and studying this seeming contradiction for some time—only to conclude that there is no contradiction. For people of color, the contemplative is embedded in our DNA.

Before I began my journey at Shalem, it was recommended that I read a book titled Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. I began reading this beautiful study, and it was like a salve to my yearning soul. The author, Barbara Holmes, filled in the blanks and answered many questions. She discusses the communal nature of worship for African descendent peoples and explains why for me being contemplative is not all about silence but about community, spirited worship in community and silence.

Barbara Holmes begins her study in the church—the center of our community, the place we gather to give strength to each other as we receive strength from one another. The worship experience in the Black church is spiritual nirvana! It is the height of oneness: the prayers, the music, the preached word, the swaying, the shouting, everyone in one accord. There is nothing more powerful than when a people come together to praise and worship God, pray together and experience the supernatural power of the all mighty God! This communal worship informs our silent times, gives a place to bare our souls, reconnects us to the ancestral memory of wholeness, oneness. It is no wonder that the greatest movements in our history are borne out of the church. We need this experience. The goal therefore becomes carrying this experience of God’s presence into the everyday, to tap into that power for clarity and direction.

For me this also begs another look at the icons of our faith. For just as Howard Thurman is recognized as a contemplative, I would suggest that many others should also be named, among them Martin Luther King, Jr., who penned some of his greatest writings out of the solitude of seeking God to find a way to bring the peace of God into unimaginable situations. King then brought his experience of God back to the community to galvanize a people and give them the tools to tap into that strength to face the challenges of each day. He found strength in community and in the silence.

This suggests to me that maybe the definition for being contemplative shouldn’t be too narrow, too exclusive, too restrictive. This way of life is not so much about a practice but more about the approach to all of life. For African descendent people, the oneness of worship in all of its joyful celebration is a necessary part of the solitude of silence. It is a way, one way, our way to the contemplative mind. No contradiction, and certainly just as powerful.

Would you like to read more? Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color explores the unique concerns, issues and experiences of people of color. The essays, told from the viewpoint of the spiritual director, inspire us to explore our own traditions and encourage us to embrace culturally relevant approaches to spiritual direction.


Tanya-RadfordTanya Radford, Shalem’s Special Assistant/Program Administrator, works with Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program and assists with all other programs at Shalem. In addition, she helped produce Shalem’s 40th anniversary video and managed the creation of Shalem’s new web site and database. She has a degree in Media Arts and is a writer, vocalist and student of the word of God.

6 responses to “Joy Unspeakable”

  1. Dana Greene says:

    Dear Tanya, A beautiful post. Thank you for inspiration on this cold February Friday. Dana Greene

  2. Tanya’s reflection touched a beautiful memory for me. I was in the midst of inner city Newark at the time, more than35 years ago, at what I still consider one of my richest experiences of celebration, community & ritual. Our church communities had gathered for worship : black, white , Hispanic…. We were all in sync with the Spirit and with one another & it touched me deeply then & still does now. Because I knew then as I do now, true contemplative experiences flow out of community , bring us to silence , & move us to action.
    Thanks, Tanya.

  3. Thank you, Tanya . . . this was thoughtful and well-said . . . it brought back a distant but memorable experience of singing gospel music around the piano in the lobby of Slowe Hall at Howard University in the spring of 1967, when I was an exchange student there. Though I felt the outsider, still it was as if I was being momentarily enfolded into the community through participation in the music of faith.

  4. Beautifully articulated! We are ever so present in to God in spirited filled community worship, and, isn’t that what contemplative practice is all about? Thank you Tanya.

  5. I love this expression of celebration as contemplation.
    I too live this in my life of solitude, simplicity and prayer.
    It it all ONE within the WHOLE.

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