Fortress Press

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance

The Silent Cry

Mysticism and Resistance

Dorothee Soelle (Author)


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Exploring the religious impulse known as mysticism — the "silent cry" at the heart of all the world's religions.

Mysticism, in the sense of a "longing for God," has been present in all times, cultures, and religions. But Soelle believes it has never been more important than in this age of materialism and fundamentalism. The antiauthoritarian mystical element in each religion leads to community of free spirits and resistance to the death-dealing aspects of our contemporary culture. Religion in the third millennium, Soelle argues, either will be mystical or it will be dead.

Therefore, Soelle identifies strongly with the hunger of New Age searchers, but laments the religious fast food they devour. Today, a kind of "democratized mysticism" of those without much religious background flourishes. This mystical experience is not drawn so much of the tradition as out of contemporary experiences. In that sense, each of us is a mystic, and Soelle's work seeks to give theological depth, clarity, and direction.

This, her magnum opus, conjoins Soelle's deep religious knowledge and wisdom with her passion for social justice into a work destined to be a classic of religious literature.
  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • Format Paperback
  • ISBN 9780800632663
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Pages 336
  • Publication Date April 17, 2001


"Soelle, author of the best-selling Against the Wind: Memoirs of a Radical Christian, explores mysticism as a major stream of Christian faith. She explores contexts that often give rise to mystical experiences, and then probes the ways mysticism creates a powerful resistance to materialism, violence, and globalization. Soelle sees mysticism as the silent cry at the heart of all authentic spirituality; the place from which visions of creative resistance and alternatives come."

The Other Side

Read how " Best This Month" reviews this book.
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, The Lutheran July 2001


Excerpt from the Introduction

Why, when God's world is so big,
did you fall asleep in a prison
of all places?
— Rumi

For many years I have been drawn to and borne by mystical experience and mystical consciousness. Within the complex phenomenon of religion, they appeared to be central. All living religion represents a unity of three elements that, in the language of the great Catholic lay theologian Friedrich von Huegel (1852–1925), we may call the institutional, the intellectual, and the mystical (see chapter three). The historical-institutional element addresses itself to mind and memory; in Christianity it is the "Petrine" dimension. The analytical-speculative element is aligned with reason and the apostle Paul. The third element, the intuitive-emotional one, directs itself to the will and the action of love. It represents the Johannine dimension. The representatives of all three elements tend to declare themselves to be absolute and to denigrate the others as marginal; however, without reciprocal relationships among the three elements, religion does not stay alive. Reciprocity between institutional, intellectual, and mystical elements of religion may take the form of polarization, or the exchange may be dialectical.

What enticed me to the lifelong attempt to think God was neither the church, which I experienced more as a stepmother, nor the intellectual adventure of post-Enlightenment theology? I am neither professionally anchored nor personally at home in the two institutions of religion—the church and academic theology. It is the mystical element that will not let go of me. In a preliminary way, I can simply say that what I want to live, understand, and make known is the love for God. And that seems to be in little demand in those two institutions. At best, what Protestant theology and preaching articulate in what they designate as "gospel" can be summed up as follows: God loves, protects, renews, and saves us. One rarely hears that this process can be truly experienced only when such love, like every genuine love, is mutual. That humans love, protect, renew, and save God sounds to most people like megalomania or even madness. But the madness of this love is exactly what mystics live on.

What drew me to mysticism was the dream of finding a form of spirituality that I was missing in German Protestantism. What I was seeking had to be less dogmatic, less cerebral and encased in words, and less centered on men. It had to be related to experience in a two-fold sense of the word: how love for God came about and what consequences it has for life. I was not looking for what Thomas Müntzer refers to as "made-up, fictitious faith," that is, something that is fine for the head and keeps the institution functioning. Instead, I searched for the mystical element of faith; in the Bible and other sacred writings, in the history of the church, but also in the everyday experience of lived union with God or the divinity. The distinction between the ground of being perceived in personal terms, or, in transpersonal terms, need not concern us here. For are "mindfulness" or "pure attentiveness" of Buddhist tradition not other words for what the Abrahamic traditions call "love for God"?

Often an expression like "longing for God"—which could be a different rendering of "mysticism"—evokes embarrassment; yet, tradition declares that our greatest perfection is to need God. But it is precisely that longing that is taken to be a kind of misguided indulgence, an emotional excess. In recent years, when two of my friends converted to Roman Catholicism, I could not approve. In the first place, the denominational divisions of the sixteenth century are no longer substantive for me. Second, in the Roman institution—with its unrelenting "nyet" to women, to a humane sexuality, and to intellectual freedom—I only find in double measure the coldness from which both my friends were fleeing. But what these two women were seeking they found, above all, in the liturgy of the Catholic Church. The experience of mysticism made them feel at home. That is what I am looking for, too, and that is what this book is about.

The history of mysticism is a history of the love for God. I cannot conceive of this without political and praxis-oriented actualization that is directed toward the world. At the beginning of the seventies, I wrote Death by Bread Alone (Die Hinreise), a book with autobiographical undertones. Many of my friends on the political and Christian left became worried. "Dorothee is leaving," I heard them say in Holland, "will she ever return?" But that was not my worry; what I was particularly trying to do was to hold together what Roger Schütz, the founder of the Protestant monastic community in Taizé, calls "lutte et contemplation" (struggle and contemplation). I did not want to travel on two distinct pathways. What in the late sixties we named "politicization of conscience," at the time of the political evensong of Cologne, has in the meantime become widely generalized. More and more Christians and post-Christians understand the connection between setting out and then coming back again (Hinreise and Rückreise). They need both.

There has been very little examination of the relationship between mystical experience and social and political behavior. Social-historical enquiry always recedes—especially in today's mysticism boom—in favor of a "perennial philosophy" (to borrow the name of Aldous Huxley's famous anthology), a way of thinking that is outside time. It looks at God and the soul alone, without any social analysis. To say the least, such an approach is an abridgment. What interests me is how mystics in different ages related to their society, and how they behaved in it. Was the demeanor of flight from the world, separation, and solitude adequate for mysticism? Were there not also other forms of expressing mystical consciousness to be found in the life of communities as well as individuals? Did mystics not have a different relation, communally and individually, to the "world," to the whole of society, both in practice and in theory? The prison, of all places, in which we have fallen asleep (Rumi)—is this what we are supposed to regard as the world's eternal condition, unaffected by real history?

My questioning is focused on social reality. This means that for the sake of what is within, I seek to erase the distinction between a mystical internal and a political external. Everything that is within needs to be externalized so it doesn't spoil, like the manna in the desert that was hoarded for future consumption. There is no experience of God that can be so privatized that it becomes and remains the property of one owner, the privilege of a person of leisure, the esoteric domain of the initiated. In my search for concepts that depict the possibilities open to mystics of their relation to the world, I find a series of different options. They lie between withdrawal from the world and the transformation of the world through revolution. But whether it be withdrawal, renunciation, disagreement, divergence, dissent, reform, resistance, rebellion, or revolution, in all of these forms there is a No! to the world as it exists now. The reformer Teresa of Avila; the Beguines of Flanders, who created their own new forms of life; Thomas Müntzer, the revolutionary leader of peasants; and Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit destroyer of weapons of mass destruction; all of them lived their mysticism in the repudiation of the values that ruled in their worlds. For those who want the world to remain as it is have already acceded to its self-destruction and, consequently, betrayed the love of God and its restlessness before the status quo.

Table of Contents


Part I: What Is Mysticism?

1. We Are All Mystics
Mysticism of Childhood
Are Mystics Completely Different?
Mystical Sensibility
"I Am What I Do": C. S. Lewis

2. Ecstasy
Stepping Out and Immersing Oneself
Commotion and Unity: Martin Buber
Rabi'a and Sufi Mysticism
Mansur al-Hallaj: Agnus Dei Mohamedanus
We Have Not Been Created for Small Things

3. Definitions, Methods, Delimitations
From the Hermeneutic of Suspicion to a Hermeneutic of Hunger
Pluralism of Methods and Contextuality
The Distinction between Genuine and False Mysticism

4. Finding Another Language
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Cloud of Forgetting
Sunder Warumbe: Without a Why or Wherefore
A Language without Dominance
The Via Negativa, the Way of Negation
The Paradox

5. The Journey
Ladders to Heaven and Stations on Earth
Purification, Illumination, Union: The Three Ways of Classic Mysticism
Traces of a Different Journey: Thomas Müntzer
Being Amazed, Letting Go, Resisting: Outline of a Mystical Journey for Today

Part II: Places of Mystical Experience

6. Nature
Places and Placelessness
A Morning Hymn: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Monotheism, Pantheism, Panentheism
Sharing and Healing: A Different Relation to the Earth

7. Eroticism
Heavenly and Earthly Love and Their Inseparability
The Song of Songs
Marguerite Porète and the Enrapturing Far-Near One
The Bitterness of Ecstasy: D. H. Lawrence and Ingeborg Bachmann
Sacred Power

8. Suffering
Job: The Satanic and the Mystical Wager
Between Dolorousness and Suffering
"Even When It Is Night": John of the Cross
"Better in Agony than in Numbness": Twentieth-Century Mysticism of Suffering

9. Community
The Hidden Sacred Sparks: Hasidim
Community, the Sinai of the Future: An Examination of Buber's Relation to Mysticism
Without Rules and Poor, Persecuted, and Free: The Beguines
The Society of Friends and the Inner Light

10. Joy
The Mystical Relation to Time: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publicans, Jesters, and Other Fools: The Abolition of Divisions
Dancing and Leaping: The Body Language of Joy
The Relation of Mysticism and Aesthetics

Part III: Mysticism Is Resistance

11. As If We Lived in a Liberated World
The Prison We Have Fallen Asleep In: Globalization and Individualization
Out of the Home into Homelessness
Acting and Dreaming: Becoming Martha and Mary
The Fruits of Apartheid

12. Ego and Ego-lessness
The Ego: The Best Prison Guard
"Go Where You Are Nothing!"
Asceticism: For and Against
Tolstoy's Conversion from the Ego to God
Freedom from the "Ring of Cold": Dag Hammarskjöld
Success and Failure

13. Possession and Possessionlessness
Having or Being
Naked and Following the Naked Savior: Francis of Assisi
John Woolman and the Society of Slave Owners
Voluntary Poverty: Dorothy Day
Middle Roads and Crazy Freedoms

14. Violence and Nonviolence
The Unity of All Living Beings
The Duty of Civil Disobedience: Henry David Thoreau
Mahatma Gandhi and Ahimsa
"Our Weapon Is to Have None": Martin Luther King Jr.
Between Hopes and Defeats

15. A Mysticism of Liberation
The Death and Life of Severino: João Cabral
Kneeling Down and Learning to Walk Upright: The Theology of Liberation
"When You Dance with Death, You Must Dance Well": Pedro Casaldáliga
The Voice of the Mute: Dom Helder Camara
Learning to Pray and a Different Mysticism