Nancy HawkinsAugust 27, 2007

The Mystery of Deathby Dorothee Soelle

Fortress Press. 146p $15

In 2003 the theological community and the world lost one of its most prolific and down-to-earth Christian scholars, Dorothee Soelle. Her work endured five decades and spanned the period from the birth of political theology to our present globalistic cyber-age. Soelle’s voice was not silenced at her death. Instead, she left us what she considered the “missing chapter” to her work The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. This small, reflective book on death is a highly personal chronicle of Soelle’s final conversation with her inevitable companion, “Mr. Death,” as Soelle calls him. As usual, Soelle refuses to give him the last word. Instead she faces the experience of impending death head on, and brings it into the realm of mystical reflection.

Throughout The Mystery of Death, the reader will continue to hear the strong themes of all Soelle’s theology. There are her ponderings on suffering, which cause her to ask why contemporary people are unable to embrace death instead of sanitizing it. She accuses us of losing and ignoring the skills we need to live radically in an age of violence and death. Once again Soelle calls upon her mentor Meister Eckhart as she challenges us to “live without a why.” We are so concerned with success that we fail to see death’s lessons, which are all around us. I was delighted to see once again her critique of the persistent classical image of the omnipotent, distant Father-God, whose stoic removal from human experience makes it impossible for so many to embrace the words of Paul in Romans: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Soelle reminds the reader of the power of these words. They counter any theology that denies God’s presence in the midst of our sufferings and fears.

Early on in her career, Soelle wrote a book entitled Death by Bread Alone. In her reflections on death Soelle returns to the core theme of this earlier work—that what truly causes the death of human beings is a lack of relationships and connectedness to others. We of the 21st century work and work for possessions and loaves of bread, but these cannot sustain us as we die from aloneness. We watch endless hours of television and go on the Internet but lack significant, longstanding friendships. These are not words from an aging theologian who longs for a previous time. Rather, they are astute words of an active woman who recognizes that our contemporary culture values the young, the strong and the good-looking. Soelle challenges the reader to work for the bread that lasts forever: the bread of care and community.

I found the weakest section of The Mystery of Death to be the author’s thoughts on women and death. Her words seem forced, and while Soelle insists that women “naturally” face death “better” than men, she refers the reader to numerous examples of male mystics and scholars to make her point. Her words ring truer when she concludes that it is mystical experience and language that allow us to embrace death as a natural and necessary part of the spiritual journey. As with all Soelle’s books, the reader is exposed to many unique themes being worked out almost simultaneously. As one who has read almost everything Soelle wrote, I am used to this pattern in her writing. But if this book is the reader’s first exposure to Soelle, there may be moments of confusion. One has a strong sense that Soelle is making the most of the time given her to write down the final thoughts of a lifetime.

This meaningful book allows the reader to see into the very heart of its author. Soelle, who championed the concept of spiritual resistance, is no longer resisting the coming of death. She sees its shadow and is willing to invite it in. It is especially moving to hear Soelle reflect on the death of her mother in 1990. If she had any doubt that something amazing would manifest itself at the time of death, it ended in that room. Soelle comes to understand more and more that everything she ever worked for, stood for and hoped for will live on after her death. In poetry she offers humor as she tells us all she will do for death is die.

We cannot help but be grateful to Dorothee Soelle for leaving us this final manuscript. That thanks extends to her family, especially to her husband, who honored the requests of so many to publish this book. He says she was tired as she pondered death’s arrival. I beg to differ. She was and will always continue to be that feisty, committed, radical Christian who believed in a world where death can and should be conquered by human love and faith.


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