Mysticism, Dorothee Soelle, Francis of Assisi

Mysticism, Dorothee Soelle, Francis of Assisi

Glynn Cardy

Sun 04 Oct

Last week I mentioned one of the words or labels with which I identify: mystic.  When you put it into Google you soon discover you’re in the company of a whole gang of religious wierds and wonderfuls (and netball players!).  Wikipedia gives us a list century by century – a fairly male list mind you.  Some of the mystics mentioned are St Paul, Hildegaard of Bingen, Simone Weil, and Anthony De Mello.  In that list too are fundamentalists like Oral Roberts, and anti-Semites like John Chrysostem.   

A mystic is one who experiences, or tries to experience, G/god in and through all of life.  So, a mystic understand is that we are in God.  We are immersed in God.  There is nowhere where God is not, including our own bodies and minds, including our own frailties and fears.  In that sense we are divine.  This is not a self-inflation, a glorying in power understanding of divine (like a Pharaoh or a Caesar had).  Indeed, we become more aware of the goddishness, the sacred, in us when we let go of ego-driven aspirations.

To return to my little illustration from last week about the two fish in the sea and one asking the other where the ocean is, the awareness of the ocean (the sacred) seems to come for many when we shift our focus from (for the fish) the demands and needs of swimming constantly, eating, and avoiding predators.  It comes in stilling our thoughts, sometimes our bodies, and falling into and becoming one with the whole of sacred life. 

That stilling, that shift of focus, is often hard in our modern demanding lives and work.  That’s why I try to get into the bush as much as I can.  That’s why some walk barefoot on beaches or go somewhere beyond the reach of their phone.  Our souls need to come home to the godness in which we live and move and have our being.

One of the people who doesn’t make Wikipedia’s list of mystics is Dorothee Soelle, who died in 2003.  She was a leading feminist liberation theologian, poet, activist, and author.  She was German (as you might have guessed).  She also taught for some time at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

I heard her at the World Council of Churches General Assembly in 1983.  In that assembly, full of religious luminaries from around the globe, she was particularly memorable: an impressive, engaged activist and deep analytical thinker.  She’d been arrested a number of times for standing up against injustices.  What I didn’t know, or couldn’t hear, was that she was a mystic.

She writes: “The language of religion, by which I do not mean the stolen language in which a male God ordains and imperial power radiates forth, is the language of mysticism:  I am completely and utterly in God, I cannot fall out of God…”

As you might imagine in the context of the World Council of Churches, half her listeners were cheering her on in criticising the maleness of God and the imperial power that that God usually seems to support, and the other half were appalled.  Then the listeners who applauded would have been deaf to or mystified by the line ‘being completely and utterly in God’, and the listeners who were appalled might have applauded.  Or not.  She lived on the margins.

Elsewhere Dorothee writes:

If I’m absolutely still

I can hear the surge of the sea

from my bed

but it isn’t enough to be absolutely still

I also have to draw my thoughts away from the land.

It isn’t enough to draw one’s thoughts away from the land

I also have to attune my breathing to the sea

because I hear less when I breathe in

It isn’t enough to attune one’s breath to the sea

I also have to ban impatience from my hands and feet

It isn’t enough to calm hands and feet

I also have to give up images

It isn’t enough to give up images

I have to rid myself of striving

It isn’t enough to be rid of striving

If I don’t relinquish my ego

It isn’t enough to relinquish the ego

I’m learning to fall

It isn’t enough to fall

but as I fall

and drop away from myself

I no longer

seek the sea

because the sea has come from the coast now

has entered my room

surrounds me

If I am absolutely still.

She is describing the experience of falling into G/god and becoming one.  It sounds like nonsense, and it is certainly counter to our usual sense.  This process of letting go – what Matthew Fox calls the Via Negativa – is a place beyond words (for the words are part of what is let go).  In Dorothee’s metaphor the sea (the sacred) comes ashore, into her house and room, and surrounds her.  All distance then is traversed.

I’m reading a book by David Tacey[i] – a lecturer in English and Australian literature, also a Jungian – on the Australian psyche or soul.  He would describe the powerful Australian and aboriginal landscape like Dorothee’s sea.  However unlike Dorothee and other mystics who consciously and willingly fall into the vastness of the sacred other, Tacey writes how colonial Australians largely experienced the landscape and its indigenous peoples as threat to be conquered or at least kept a survivable distance, rather than wish that distance traversed.

Tacey writes that “Aboriginal people have long been aware that in order to maintain an equilibrium between the human and nonhuman worlds, sacrifices must be made to the elemental earth to ensure that humanity remains in harmony with the cosmos.”  By ‘sacrifices’ Tacey is not talking about slaughtering animals or humans; rather ways of thanking the earth for its gifts, living in ways that our imprint and industry is light, and giving up the designs and ideology of subduing, dominating, and exploiting the earth solely for our human gratification.

To let go, to fall into, the sacredness of all life means not only to think differently about the religious matters of G/god and worship, but also think and behave differently towards the land, animals, birds, and indeed all life.  Prayer (the act of falling into God/the sacred) encompasses a different seeing of the world and our relation to it.  We need to listen and give up, as well as enjoy and gain from.  There is a mutuality in the relationship, the currency of which is gift.

In the first reading today Francis, in what is called the ‘Canticle of the Sun’, uses language reflective of his time (1182-1226), to talk about the mutual, brother/sister relationship of humans and the cosmos.  Like indigenous peoples everywhere, Francis reminds us of the integral relationship of the entire family of human beings, and that the forces of the universe constitute all our relations.  This family metaphor is a way of reminding us of the interconnectivity of all life, and the interdependency we have.

What connects us together, what flows between and among people, animals, and trees.., what is not so much articulated as felt, what is known in the stilling of the mind… is the essence of G/god, which is love.  That four-letter word encompasses so much:  respect, mutuality, compassion, joy, reverence, pleasure, trust, commitment…  It is love that gives life.  It is love that gives purpose.  It is love that breeds justice.  It is love that best describes the heartbeat of the cosmos, in which we live and move and have our being.

Dorothee beseechs Francis to pray for us:

Blessed saint Francis

what have you changed

whom have you helped

Blessed saint Francis

pray for us

now and when the rivers run dry

now and when our breath fails us.

Those familiar with the prayers of Roman Catholicism may recognise here the ‘Hail Mary’ with its closing line: ‘pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death’.  In Dorothee’s prayer it is the earth that is dying and we along with it.

Dorothee asks, in despair at the state of the earth, whether Francis changed anything at all by his witness to Gospel values.  Whom has he truly helped?  Dorothee cries out to Francis as a kindred soul who gave so much to see justice prevail and lived to see that it didn’t.  She cries out for his prayers to mingle with her own tears, and with all who cry for what is happening, before the rivers run dry and before our polluted air so poisons us.  The Church since the 12th century has sentimentalized Francis with ‘bird bath’ iconography whereas we need Francis the eco-prophet and visionary to inspire us in repairing our relationship with the earth and with each other.

Dorothee writes elsewhere:

The mystical certainty (as espoused by St Paul) that nothing can separate us from the love of God grows when we ourselves become one with love by placing ourselves, freely and without guarantee of success, on the side of love.

A healthy mysticism leads to prophetic action.  It does not wallow in a sea all by itself.  The essence of the mystical experience is the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love called G/god.  It is this certainty that we are within, immersed in the sacred love which can build courage, and a freedom and a willingness to love those different from us, even our enemies. 

[i] The Edge of the Sacred.