Friday, July 19, 2013

Dorothee Soelle - Mysticism

Soelle's writings on mysticism ring out as inspired testimony of the power and potential for a mystical way of relating to God and to the world at large.  It is telling that she wrote The Silent Cry, one of her last works, after a lifetime of searching for and reflecting on mysticism, especially in light of the works of Meister Eckhart.  After recovering from a serious illness, which left her briefly in a coma, she drew together her readings and her experience to advocate for a kind of mysticism that combined both her deep love of God and her passion for social and political activism.

Her writing reminds me, in some ways, of the poetry of Walt Whitman  -- the great stretch for incorporating the world (and in her case, God, the Creator and her confidant, as well as the Creation) in herself, transcending the bounds of self in expansiveness.  The critical difference, of course, is that she aspires to the kind of emptying of self that Eckhart and other mystics describe.  But the similarity is that she comes close to being, in some senses, one and the same as, as well as with, God at the end of passages like this:

"What happens really in the soul's union with God in terms of liberation and of healing?  It is an exercise in seeing how God sees, the perception of what is little and unimportant; it is listening to the cry of God's children who are in Egypt. God calls upon the soul to give away its own ears and eyes and to let itself be given those of God.  Only they who hear with other ears can speak with the mouth of God…. To use God's senses does not mean simply turning inward but becoming free for a different way of life:  See what God sees! Hear what God hears!  Laugh where God laughs! Cry where God cries!"  (EW 202)

In other words, what she seeks is to see and hear and feel what God does, to encounter the world with God's senses.  The message is that if one gives oneself over to God's way of perceiving, one will see and hear those who are enslaved, in one way or another, and reach out to them, acting as God's hands, in a world in which God is powerless as an agent independent from humans. Humans are to act not only for God but as God would act if God were anything but Presence that both shares his senses and suffers and rejoices with us.  Such action requires resistance and seeks liberation from all that would destroy or diminish the aliveness and worth of each living member of the Creation.

Like so much of Soelle's writings, her work on mysticism stands on its own as a personal response to various issues and problems she has encountered.  It makes wonderful sense in that context, as well as for others who may find themselves in similar places, internally or externally.  It would, however, be a disservice to her to treat those writings as some kind of embalmed, sacred texts, which one should read and follow without some critical awareness of the limits, gaps, and questions that her writings pose.

I realize that it is outside the readings of this course (though we have seen some excerpts as supplemental readings) but I have found Laura Pinnock's The Theology of Dorothee Soelle especially helpful.  In her introduction, Pinnock outlines three areas of concern: (1) "Does Soelle portray an overly 'positive' vision of faith"; (2) with regard to the "originality and indebtedness of Soelle's thought": "What connections exist between Soelle and other thinkers, especially contemporary theologians and philosophers?"; and (3) in light of the "apparently spontaneous and fragmentary character of her writings": "Does incomplete development in areas of Soelle's theology indicate inconsistency?" (TDS, Introduction pp. 13-14).

I will not spend much time detailing these concerns, as anyone who is interested may be able to find a copy of the book (which I found used) and read for themselves.  But the set in the first category particularly struck me in light of Lindy's current situation in a foreign country where political oppression and repression is deadly, Robin's thoughts about those impacted by a loved one's suicide, and various recollections of my own, especially the violent deaths of two toddlers (in unrelated incidents) whose parents, grandparents, and a great grandparent were members of my former parish.

Flora Keshigan's essay in Pinnock's book (TDS, Chapter 7 "Witnessing Trauma") speaks particularly to the problem of non-redemptive suffering and of trauma research, which suggests that "barriers of silence and repression may not always be overcome," and that "the silence of victims is not only about submission" but "may be a strategy of survival and resistance" or simply "the absence, often described as a black hole, that so textures the experience of traumatic suffering." While Soelle's approach "focuses on language that, to her, is indication of agency and subjectivity," "[t]he subjectivity and sense of agency of trauma survivors remain unstable and uncentered."  Their "suffering is world- and self-destroying.  It literally overwhelms the self and eats away at life, leaving gaping holes."  Thus,"[the] process of dealing with traumatic suffering requires that the victimized let go of the need to find meaning in relation to it.  They also need to accept the absoluteness and irredeemability of the losses." (TDS 104-105).

Keshigan recognizes that "Soelle's notion of inconsolability witnesses to the unrelenting nature of suffering in the world," but cautions that "it does not, however, recognize sufficiently the plight of the inconsolable."  While Keshigan says that she is "moved by Soelle's passion and drawn to her portrayal of those who live unto God," nevertheless, given the examples given in The Silent Cry, she must note that Soelle's "focus is on those who chose suffering or who chose a course of action they knew could well lead to profound suffering." In contrast, "the victims of childhood abuse, crushing poverty, of genocide, and of torture have not chosen."  Id.

There is no doubt that Soelle had great compassion for those in such circumstances -- so much so that she was called to take action against authorities she saw as responsible for and unresponsive to some of the conditions that create such suffering. But her theology was nevertheless born of and partly bound by "the Christian tradition of redemption in suffering and by her perspective as a first-world person."

As another first-world person, I cannot fault Soelle for these limitations.  But her writings do pose questions about whether the high value she places on language, especially poetry and poetic language, goes beyond what I think she initially hoped to accomplish by encouraging those, whom she sees as voiceless or unheard, to give voice to their relations and knowledge of God in new words and forms.  Listening to others, witnessing their joys and sorrows, standing by those who are marginalized and forgotten, seems at times to be overshadowed by the imperative that people must speak, to be active, alive, to be with and of God.  Indeed, in the "act of speaking, the mystery of the world is upheld as speaking and hearing."  (EW 204). While silence is occasionally, but infrequently, valued, not speaking is anathema.

I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with encouraging people to speak and think about and with God with their own voices and minds -- on the contrary. But I do mean to suggest that listening should be paramount and that no one should be demeaned or devalued because they find some things inexpressible or because they use language that has not been purified, re-invented, and liberated from others' subjective views of what are obstacles for themselves or what they "see" or "hear" God perceiving as domination or enslavement.  More importantly, listening to the stories of others' lives, their joys and suffering, should prevail over telling people whether and how to express those stories and how God does or may enter in.

We in the Episcopal Church live in a schizophrenic environment where, on the one hand, we have a wise and eloquent Presiding Bishop who could give us so much more in way of creative God-talk from the perspective of a feminist and a scientist, but whose administrative duties take up much of her time and whose religious writing and speaking is still, on occasion, attacked by conservatives (many of them now outside the church, so why do they bother?) as heretical, naïve, and unlearned.  At the same time, dioceses and parishes sometimes find themselves in the midst of needless church culture wars, which at one extreme includes laypersons who would like to worship in embalmed mutterings of the 1924 Prayer Book, and at the other includes clergy who declare holy wars on the King James version of the Lord Prayer and the use of kneeling rails.  Thankfully, good listening and communication skills, together with good will and compromise, can resolve or put aside sharp conflicts.  Yet the tension lurks, especially as anxiety mounts about whether young and new people will stay or join our faith communities.

Nowadays I do not much care about these issues, having at last found some space and communion relatively free of the tension and anxiety of the wider church culture.  I do care about listening and am often reminded of the one-day, regional, ecumenical session I attended as an introduction to the Stephen Ministries program.  I was struck by how the heart of the program is listening and being with others, and how the training can teach even those of us who know better from blurting out some kind of platitude or other religious language that we feel we must say to people who are suffering -- for the sake of simply saying something at all and/or for verbalizing our religious motivations for trying to help.  While caregivers must attend to their needs, as well, it should not come at the expense of blocking off or failing to see, listen to, or simply hold what grieving or troubled people may be experiencing. At the same time, by learning to read and respond to others, one may find, over time, that the experience informs the caretaker's thoughts, prayers, and consciousness in ways that help formulate new ways of speaking and thinking about God.

I think one of the contributors to Pinnock's book referred to Soelle, in passing, as an "action figure."  Indeed, action, as well as irrepressible words, is at the heart of the legacy she has left to us.  At times the frenetic energy of her speaking is simply too much for me. Listening to her, I sometimes wish she would slow down and stop to think more carefully about what she says and how she says it, but I realize (besides the obvious that she is done with speaking and writing in this life), that her flow of words and ideas is what it is because of her spontaneity and desire to explore widely with her own, unique voice. I also see her as a complex person, like the rest of us, who had the wisdom and compassion to sit with her mother, as she lay dying, singing old hymns and reciting the Psalms, as did Fulbert for her when it was her time.

In the end, words, music, and poetry are terribly important in sensing, knowing, and listening to God, both individually and in community.  I just hope that we never forget that silent witness and care are also vital, and that words inevitably fail, at least for a time.   Nothing that Soelle has written, or perhaps nothing anyone can write or say, will ever fully address the mystery of suffering or keep us safe from sorrow or despair.   At least sometimes we feel good enough to sing.


Dorothee Soelle, Essential Writings, ed. Dianne Oliver (Orbis Books, 2006) ("EW")

Dorothee Soelle, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian (Fortress Press, 1999) ("AW")

Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Fortress Press, 2001) (excerpts found in Essential Writings)

Sarah K. Pinnock, The Theology of Dorothee Soelle (Trinity Press International 2003) ("TDS")

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