By Art McDonald
On one of my recent trips to Pittsburgh I was asked to lead a two-day retreat for about 50 social activists associated with a peace and justice organization, where I once worked, called the Thomas Merton center, a center named after a Catholic monk who spent the last years of his life reflecting upon and writing about issues of social concern. I entitled the retreat and shaped my reflections on the topic of “Mysticism, Resistance and Social Transformation.” You might say the aim of the retreat was to offer some thoughts about how to maintain social activism for the long haul without burnout, i.e., how to work on a spiritual foundation, prayer, meditation and reflection, as a way to ground our life of activism.
The organizers of the conference chose a venue that almost no one knew much about in Pittsburgh, but that, nevertheless, was a center for spiritual teaching, actually offering certified programs of study for deepening the life of the spirit. About 10 minutes before I was to give the opening lecture on Friday evening, I met the director of the institute. She was a pretty sober person, I’d say, and anxious, it seemed to me, to let me know of her own accomplishments in this field of spirituality, even showing a brochure with her numerous publications. And, just for good measure, she mentioned that she was actually an expert on mysticism, the primary focus of my remarks. Since it wasn’t an option, at that point, to look for the nearest exit or back door out of the center, I went into my best Groucho Marx routine and said, to this total stranger and rather stoic woman, if she wanted to go out for a cup of coffee or some ice cream during my lecture, I wouldn’t be offended. I noticed she didn’t laugh. At that point, I really did consider various escape routes. But, alas, I began talking to myself, reasoning that I’m almost 70 years old and even if I make a total clown of myself, or even if she jumps up in the middle of my talk to protest or to summon the security guard to usher me out, so what. I’m simply too old to worry now about the consequences of looking or sounding foolish, or, worse, a fraud (benefits do come with age). This is what I have to offer; hopefully it helps someone I reasoned. Let the evening begin! And so I let it rip with this woman and two of her associates settling into the audience full of many old friends.
I would say that I’m not much of a mystic, at least not in any traditional sense of that term. I acknowledged that early on in the lecture. Rather, I said, I’m primarily a religious activist, with some training in thinking theologically. Nevertheless, some of my favorite thinkers, mostly theological thinkers, have been considered by commentators to be mystics, thus, I’ve always been intrigued by just what it is and how one experiences something in a mystical way.
While I was on a conference call with one of the organizers of the retreat, a former priest, who like myself was attached to a semi-monastic order, said to me: “Art, when you say mysticism, I hope you’re not going to talk about those medievalists like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are you? I tried to read them years ago in the seminary and experienced it as a form of torture.” Or something like that! No, Fred, I replied, although I will mention one of these 13th century felows, a German fellow named Meister Eckhart, for the most part I am going to talk about what one modern thinker calls “Everyday Mysticism.” I think he was relieved? Turns out, he showed up late and missed the entire talk! Seemed intentional.
Turns out that while I was preparing this retreat I read a piece by a famous contemporary German Christian theologian who wrote before his death in the 1980s, “The devout Christian (believer) of the future will either be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or she will cease to be anything at all.” This theologian, a man named Karl Rahner, who deeply believed in what he called “everyday mysticism,” went on to say that he thought everyone or anyone, even an agnostic or atheist, who lived moderately, selflessly, honestly, courageously and in silent service to others, lives, in fact, what he calls the mysticism of everyday life.
One of the reasons I’m interested in this relationship between mysticism and activism is that it is so little explored. But also because I’m aware that sustaining a life of activism, especially when times are tough and victories few and far between, is very challenging, even discouraging (maybe like now). Maybe understanding mysticism can make a difference.
Most associate mysticism, especially, if like Fred, you have tried to read the medievalists, the classic mystics, if you will, with the inner life, the contemplative life, reserved for those who withdraw from the world, monks, who do nothing but pray, meditate, reflect, far removed from the world of politics, activism, commerce and public life. Some, like Merton, do that. But because he maintained contact with activists and constantly dialogued with them, he was able to reflect upon the active life. But he was rare.
So, for me, at base, mysticism is an experience, a felt experience, and, interestingly, this is precisely what many people are looking for in their spiritual journeys in life – I think that’s what many mean when they say I am spiritual not religious. They want to feel something –experience something, which brings them to another level. Most are not interested in doctrines, beliefs, commandments, ideas, creeds, but a felt experience, an encounter with something beautiful, transcendent, heavenly, if you will.
My main resource for this retreat was a brilliant book by yet another contemporary German theologian and Feminist, Dorothee Soelle, who wrote a book entitled: THE SILENT CRY: MYSTICISM and RESISTANCE. Soelle talks about everyday mysticism and her desire to “democratize” mysticism, i.e., make it available to all, help people see that we are all mystics, at least potentially. That is, we can and do experience God, if you will, or enlightenment (illumination) or love or awe or a feeling of something beyond the ordinary, of oneness with another or with all that is, nature, for example. We just never thought about calling it mysticism.
I’ve often referred to the amazing lyrics of the great Leonard Cohen, recently deceased, who grew up Jewish, later entered a Buddhist monastery and practiced for many years, who wrote what I would call many mystical songs – seems to me he was always exploring the holy – Hallelujah, anyone? One, about a young French woman named Bernadette, who in the 1850s had an apparition of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as Cohen wrote, the Queen of heaven. Mary told her of the world’s pain, of the need for prayer and healing, and to tell the local bishop of her experience. But she was not believed. Bernadette clearly had a mystical experience which Leonard Cohen captured this beautiful, lyrical, poetic tune, made famous by Judy Collins. He had many songs that I would say had deep inspiration. I’d call Cohen a mystic – he was in touch with something.
As we gather here for what we call worship or maybe celebration or simply, as the UU joke goes, we gather to gather, thousands of people are descending upon Standing Rock in the Dakotas to be in solidarity with the Sioux Indian tribe protesting the oil pipeline almost completed under a water source for the community. There is a call that went out for an interfaith day of prayer at noon today. Turns out, according to a local UU minster in Bismarck, ND, this non-violent movement of resistance is rooted in prayer. She writes: “”Each day I spend at Oceti Sakowin camp, I feel myself challenged and inspired to live a more prayerful and faithful life. We awake with prayers, dine with prayers, go to rest with prayers, and pray continuously throughout each day…based on the conviction that prayer, especially collective prayers, can protect our living water…If you aren’t able to be here in body on December 4th, please join us in spirit by praying for the water and the water protectors…”
When I read and reflect upon the depth of Native or First American spirituality, I feel the same way that I feel when I reflect upon mysticism; I’m in awe, but I’m not sure I can fully appreciate it. It represents a worldview that I didn’t grow up with and struggle to fully grasp and, more especially experience or feel. I keep thinking I need to go through a conversion to this worldview to appreciate its depth and beauty, and in the light of our ongoing ecological crisis, if I don’t have a conversion, the future is bleak. But it’s so different. I think in linear terms; history is going somewhere. Native Americans, much like some Eastern traditions, think in more cyclical ways – the seasons come and go, so do the harvests. (The earth, the water, the fire, the air, return, return, return, return.)
Take, for example, the indigenous perspective on the land. Not only is it sacred, but it is not for sale, i.e., unlike in the culture I grew up in where land is for our use and is a commodity that we often turn into a concept, foreign to Native American spirituality, i.e., private property – we even get to shoot someone who violates it!. Land is a gift from the creator; one can’t buy it. Like the Hebrew Bible prophets, Indians realize that the land belongs to God or the entire community, and its use is for all. When Native Americans refer to the earth, they mean not only the land, but the sea, the sky, the wind, the rain, fire and light. Furthermore, as one Native American scholar writes: “For Native Americans, their intimate relationship with the natural environment blurs the distinctions between human and non-human. Human beings are not the only people in the world. The world is populated with a large number of persons, human and non-human, whose interactions constitute the Native world. We must move beyond the Christian tradition of humans as unique creations of God to the idea that the world of persons is all-embracing. Native peoples believe that they share the world with spiritual beings with whom they must establish relationships…and…it is…the emotional experience of anxiety, fear, and wonder in the face of the power of the environment that best characterized the religious experience of Indian people. The important point is that human beings realize their humanity in relationship to the beings in nature – trees, rocks, water, winds, animals – anything that has capacity to move and change.” (A NATIVE AMERICAN THEOLOGY, Kidwell, Noley and Tinker, pp 86, 88). Seems to me the entire system is mystical by its very nature-experiencing the sacred constantly.
How to adapt this spiritual worldview? As a biblically-oriented person, I think of humans as stewards of creation, i.e., we must respect nature, but we are still in charge – we control it. A Native American perspective is we are partners with nature, not stewards. I feel we must adopt this worldview, but it is foreign to me. To practice Native American spirituality, it seems to me, one must be a mystic – to be one with all of nature; To befriend creation. And I’ve learned, or have been told, that mysticism is an everyday experience. So maybe it is available to me. Maybe I’ve even experienced it? Maybe there is hope, even if I can’t become a Native American any more than I can become a Hindu.
So, it seems to me, I have to become more attentive, more aware of what is going on around me. I need to slow down and focus in my relationships with other human beings and non-humans. Breathe more slowly and thoughtfully. Slow down my walk. Listen, observe, be grateful. Appreciate the possibility of everyday mystical experiences, experiences of oneness and wonder and insight that happen often, if we are alert.
I’ve shared many times my experience in the military during basic training when with my m-16 in hand and simulating hand-too-hand combat, I was told to thrust the bayonet into the opponents chest and yell kill and no words came out; that was mystical; it changed my life and thinking. My story to the children on the bus with the woman and the dog comforting the stranger; that was mystical; an experience of oneness with others. The day in the soup kitchen in Washington, DC, when a street person asked me what I was reading while I was preparing soup for his consumption, and I replied a book on prayer. To which he responded, I care nothing about that, implying I was an escapist, piously leaving the monastery once a week to mingle with the homeless and make them soup. He was saying something like why don’t you do something about a room full of homeless, despairing people, make a real difference in the world, face reality, leave the monastery and get real? The holy is right here! I don’t know but I’ll never forget the encounter and it turned my thinking around about doing charity rather than justice. Seeing a dead infant in the arms of his father in a remote village in Northern Peru and realizing this death is preventable, if only humans would be willing to work cooperatively; I’ll never forget the experience of solidarity with that father and dead child we were one in sadness and grief. I felt the suffering. It was mystical. Every Christmas Eve I have a felt experience; “something” happens, in Rahner’s words. I am uplifted; carried to another level; at one with all in this sacred space and beyond, however fleeting it is. Music and ambiance can do that. I think it happens a lot. Can I be more aware?! More appreciative?!
Can I imagine what the Sioux tribe in Standing Rock is experiencing as they see what they call the “black snack” (oil pipeline) invade their sacred land? Are those that are there with the Indians in prayer and protest having a mystical experience of oneness with the Indians and their land? I might imagine yes. And I have a new appreciation for what the Trustees of the reservation are trying to do by protecting certain parcels of land from development; for the Arboretum in Jamaica Plain which I grew up next to and which is available to all; for the parks in Pittsburgh that are owned by all and which one can get lost in nature in while jogging or bird-watching or simply strolling. Can I be more alert to what it means to be in relationship to all of that? Seems I must; we must if we are to survive.
Speaking of land use and private property, I had a funny conversation the other day with a long term resident of Essex whom I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the years. He started to rant and I listened. He was ranting about changes in Essex and about those people who want to control development and create zoning laws that restrict what people can do. Should be able to do what you want with your property, he reasoned. This is beyond socialism, he said in frustration, this is all out communism. Such different worldviews – I wanted to say sounds like we’ve got some Native American, mystical thinkers in town now. Maybe we should be listening to them? But, I didn’t. Next time, maybe.
We often recite our 7 UU principles, but we don’t often refer to what is the foundation of those principles in our religious movement. “The Living Tradition We Share Draws from Many Sources: (the very first) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to renewal of the spirit and to openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Wow, I think, every time I read that. We actually came up with it. That is the description of a mystical experience. So I ask all of us: is it true in your spiritual journey? Is that one of your sources? A UU minister said sometime back that UUs are “mystics with hands.” When I first heard it I laughed; yah, right, I thought! Now I think, especially having read about “everyday mysticism,” from Dorothee , who also says “We are all Mystics,” at least potentially, maybe he is right. Soelle writes: “What really happens in mystical union is not a new vision of God but a different relationship to the world, one that has borrowed the eyes of God.” (like the song “From a Distance?” sung by Bette Midler and Judy Collins.)… “My most important concern is to democratize mysticism,” writes, Soelle. “What I mean to do is reopen the door to the mystic sensibility that’s within us all, to dig it out from under the debris of trivia-from its self-trivialization, if you will.” And, finally, regarding the relationship between mysticism and social transformation, activism, French poet and philosopher, Charles Peguy wrote: “politics begins in mysticism, and mysticism always ends in politics.”
I must admit I went to bed the night of the talk in Pittsburgh wondering what the director, the woman named Susan actually thought about the talk on her area of expertise. The next morning as she open the door and greeted us, interestingly, I found her charming and engaging smiling easily. An overnight conversion? She even at one point in the morning quoting me and said something like: “As Art said last night, mysticism is not only about the inner life but about social practice as well. I was happily stunned and glad she didn’t take my advice and go for coffee during my talk. One must always be willing to be surprised by life’s encounters.