by Dorothee Soelle
I read this on vacation and I’m just now getting time to write about it. It was recommended by a commenter on a PeaceBang blog entry – I figured if a UU minister was recommending a book on mysticism, it was worth checking out. And it was – up to a point.
The book begins with a wonderful quote from Rumi: “Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?”
Soelle does an excellent job of explaining what mysticism is and how all of us can be mystics. She references Aldous Huxley, who said there are three gates to mysticism: the bottom gate (practice and morality), the top gate (with contemplation of metaphysical truths), or the middle gate, “where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.” She attempts to make mysticism and mystical experiences accessible for everyone, not just those with the discipline to become cloistered monks.
At the core of Soelle’s mysticism is a love of God. She quotes the female Sufi mystic Rabi’a al-Adawiya, who said “I want to put fire to paradise and pour water over hell so that these two veils disappear and it becomes plain who venerates God for love and not for fear of hell or hope of paradise.” The few mystical experiences I’ve had have been so wonderful it is tempting to seek them out simply for the thrill of the experience, rather than what they really are – an experience of the Divine.
And Soelle’s mysticism is universalist. She refers extensively to Sufi and Jewish sources, and she quotes the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan Ruysbroeck, who said “God is ‘common,’ that is to say, accessible to everyone” and “God is there for everyone, with all the gifts divine. The angels are there for everyone.” Mystics frequently have more in common with mystics from other religions than they do with the orthodoxy of their own religions. Yet the greatest mystics remained devoted to their traditions , even though many were persecuted and even killed as heretics. It’s a reminder that there is great value in drinking deeply from one religion rather than sipping a little from many.
But for all the good in this book, I found it difficult to read. Soelle is a German theologian, and although the translation into English is good, she still writes like a German theologian – in language that, while not as obtuse as, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is still work to read. Her sources and examples are largely Christian and almost exclusively Western – Buddhists and Taoists get a couple of lines, but no more. I have nothing against the Christian setting, but as a Pagan, it doesn’t speak to me.
And as with many contemporary liberal Christian theologians, Soelle’s politics are radically left-wing. She criticizes Marxism only for its repression of religion, and she advocates mysticism as motivation for “resisting” the modern material world. To the extent that helps people overcome materialism, I think it’s a good thing. But when she praises a friend who “threw away” his car because not everyone in the world can have one, she’s going too far for me.
One of the strong points of Paganism is that it affirms the world is good and we should enjoy it. Now, I admit I struggle to maintain balance, and I struggle to enjoy things without becoming attached to things. I try not to be wasteful, and to enjoy small luxuries without becoming extravagant. I’m not always successful, but this is my “middle gate.” For all its troubles, I like the material world.
I will never be a “renouncer” in the Eastern sense, and I will never be a “resister” as Soelle advocates. That may limit how much of a mystic I’m capable of being. So be it – I am what I am.