The National Catholic Review

Dorothee Soelle is well known for her seminal book on suffering. Entitled simply Suffering, it provoked much-needed discussion on the relation of theology to suffering. In the winter years of a long career as a theologian, as an activist in peace and ecological movements, as an opponent of every form of oppression, she has in this new book sounded the alarm for the need of mysticism. What our contemporary world needs are mystagogues and mystagogy; without a turn to mysticism, religion as a transforming power in the world will not hold. But not any kind of mysticism will do.

Like her other works, there is much that is autobiographical in this book. The author confesses that she has long been attracted and borne by mystical experience, hers and that of others. Much in this book reflects the content of a seminar taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Yet her concern with mysticism has much to do with her ongoing search to think God, to speak God in our skeptical world. She finds in various mystics an understanding of God that challenges contemporary images of God in which power and authority are emphasized. Mysticism in all ages is countercultural; it is characterized by resistance. Today, resistance to the process of globalization is necessary. The author perceives globalization as a corporate world dominance leading to a novel form of unrelenting individualization that has no attachment to our fellow creatures. Mysticism alone is capable of resistance; in fact, mysticism is resistance. But not any kind of resistance will do.

Soelle has a preference for a creation-mysticism. Here she is influenced by Matthew Fox. What must come first in any authentic mysticism is the experience of creation as original blessing. Creation- mysticism seeks union with the creator God in the very act of creativity. In light of her creation-mysticism, the author is critical of the classical emphasis on purification as the first stage of the mystical journey. The traditional stages of mysticism lead to a movement away from the world and a dualism of body and spirit. Soelle substitutes for the three stages of purification, illumination and union, those of being amazed, of letting go and resistance. The via positiva comes before the via negativa. Yet the via negativa is not forgotten. Resistance has to be understood as a form of letting go, which in our culture is a form of alienation, of homelessness. Letting go means becoming empty in a world of surplus. It creates a new relation to the three powers that, each in its own totalitarian way, hold us in prison: the ego, possession and violence.

Convinced that the present social order is in the throes of its death drive, Soelle is committed to a mystagogy for transformation. She invites people to avoid the trivialization of their lives by moving from a vague awareness of their death to the possibilities of mysticism. For her, genuine mysticism is available to all, not just to a privileged few. To discover the traditions of mysticism is to discover the mystical dimensions of one’s own life. To read texts of mystics is to have renewed cognition of one’s own self. Mystical experience has to do with the ecstasy of the self; the self stepping outside of self-imposed boundaries, out of its prison. If personal development is a process that is never completed, if the dialogue with God can never stop, then there is a sense in which it is true to say that the deepest reality of our being is still unknown to us and always ahead of us. This deepest realitySoelle names it the Silent Cryis a longing for God in the heart of human beings, Augustine’s restless heart.

In this magnum opus Soelle reveals her own vulnerability and struggle in the face of the forces of death present in our culture. One must praise her attempt to link the mystical with the ethical and political dimensions of the life of faith. A mystagogy for today must be simultaneously mystical and political: the political prevents faith from being reduced to private religiosity. The mystical prevents faith from a one-dimensional world, from death by bread alone.

Combining an understanding of mysticism with a passionate concern for issues of social justice, this book is an eloquent contribution to the struggle against oppression in all its forms. Studies in the history of mysticism have highlighted the struggle of women within patriarchal social and linguistic frameworks. Unlike Simone de Beauvoir, who rejects mysticism as a site of liberation, Dorothee Soelle embraces the place and the voice of the mystic. Because mysticism, when democratized, perceives God in a non-authoritarian way, it can liberate women from patriarchal structures.

Soelle has developed the use of mystical language as a way to encounter a loving God. Such language would use different verbs to describe God’s activity than does patriarchal language. The God of the mystics evokes, empowers, liberates, nourishes. All authentic mysticism is part of the endeavor to escape from language that serves the exercise of power, control and possession. Mystical language is a language without dominance.

The strength of Soelle’s mysticism lies in her attempt to democratize mysticism and to reopen the door to the mystical sensibility within all of us. Yet there are dangers lurking in such an attempt. Such dangers are also present in any ecumenical and inclusive approach to mysticism. The forms and manifestations of mysticism have always varied considerably. The boundaries between different mystics and their mysticism are easily blurred, especially when one’s goal is to use mysticism for a specific causebe that feminism, liberation or environmental issues. Each mysticism is a complex set of elements. The elements differ and vary from one mysticism to another. It is difficult, if not impossible, to compare mysticisms as if they were manifestations of an identical set of needs or activities. Mysticism covers such a variety of phenomena that no one element can be easily singled out as common and essential.

In her appropriation of the mystics of the past, Soelle has selected her own hermenuetical method, very much as feminists and liberation theologians have done in their reading of Scripture. Such hermenuetical methods are interested in the communication of a vision more than in accuracy and completeness. The goal is to appeal to the heart of the listener. There are many brilliant insights in the mysticism of the past, and while her book makes a significant contribution to Christianity’s mission to the oppressed and to a renewed understanding of mysticism, it cannot be taken as a substitute for a historical study of mysticism. Its value lies elsewhere.

Lucien Richard, a professor of theology at Boston University, is the author of several books, most recently Living the Hospitality of God.