"Confessions of a Militant Mystic:  Spirituality and Social Action – A Seamless Garment”

Richard S. Gilbert

Berry Street Essay, 1996


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Indianapolis, Indiana

June 20, 1996


            A funny thing happened to me on the way to delivering the 25 year address at the 1986 General Assembly in Rochester: I lost my voice on the eve of Ministry Day at one of those cacophonous soirees for which we are well known.  And because you may have missed the opening words, which were, and are, important words that need voicing, I repeat them now.


            In the Roman Mass there is a frequent exchange between priest and people: One morning it went like this: "The Lord be with you,” to which the congregation replied, "and with you also.”  And so it went until an ecclesiastical/technological gremlin did something to the pulpit microphone.  Frustrated, the priest said, "There’s something wrong with the mike,” to which the well-trained congregation dutifully replied, "and with you also.”[1]


            There is not only something wrong with him and me and you but also with the world.  Noting this, I have found deep meaning in the Hebrew word "tikkun”—repair of the world—for surely the world, wonderful as it is, is broken.  Emerson said, "Everything of God has a crack in it.”[2]  Ministry is about trying to fix those cracks, about repairing the world and creating the Beloved Community of Love and Justice.  The inner urge to work in the service of this vision I call the prophetic imperative.


            Before so vast a topic and with so little time, I feel like James Thurber, who wrote at 59, coincidentally my age, "With 60 staring me in the face I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and a definite hardening of the paragraphs.”[3]  We shall see.


            My chosen title is "Confessions of a Militant Mystic: Spirituality and Social Action—a Seamless Garment.”[4]  I use confession not as in the private act of admitting sin, "missing the mark” in Hebrew, but as a public confession of personal theology—articulating one’s convictions, with no attempt to convert, but merely to inform.


            Militant—I am not by nature pugnacious—I am a relatively gentle and mild-mannered soul.  However, from time to time I experience an explosion of the righteous indignation at injustice which was in those biblical prophets who spoke truth to power.  In professing ethical monotheism, they believed God cared more about justice than ritual, and whispered as much into their ears.  Believing they were "mouthpieces of God,” their coda was "Thus saith the Lord.”  I share their anger at injustice, though not their acute sense of hearing.


            By mystic I mean one sensitive to a reality greater than the self, but of which the self is an integral part.  Believing self is enmeshed in ultimate reality, the mystic celebrates that serendipitous union.  It has similarly been suggested that the prophet is "one who participates in the emotions of God”[5] a seemingly presumptuous claim for a religious humanist like myself.  However, in Angus MacLean’s image, I try imaginatively to take a "God’s eye view of the world,” seeking to distance myself, however slightly, from my humanist perspective, to identify with the highest cosmic good insofar as I can imagine that good.  In that sense I am a mystic, with a prophetic twist.


            Spirituality is a current buzz word among us—soul has gone mainstream—but it reflective of dimensions of experience which transcend the utilitarian—a recognition that there is more to living that eye can see, hand can touch, ear can hear, nostrils can inhale, words can say.  Spiritual has to do with soul—that which is irreducible in us—an understanding that we are both homo faber—the working animal—and homo spiritus—the religious creature.  We are the ones about whom there is no "bottom line.”  People are not cost-effective.  We are both a deep well of faith and a teeming river of action which cannot be quantified.


            Social action is a much-beleaguered term which simply means justice-making—repairing a broken world.  In Annie Dillard’s fortuitous phrase, we are admonished "to keep the world from falling apart.”[6]  Social action comes from a spiritual recognition that we are as much members as individuals—citizens of human community as well as centers of personal consciousness.  Convictions have consequences.


            Seamless garment is a term used in other contexts to suggest ethical consistency.  For me, it is a realization that trying to separate the spiritual from the social is a meaningless, if not dangerous, enterprise.  I challenge the seeming contradiction between prayer and politics, contemplation and action, being and doing.  We should not talk about putting faith into action or religion into practice as if faith did not include action of religion practice.  Spiritual and social are in a dialogue so interwoven it is hard to distinguish the one from the other.


            There is a biblical example of this unfortunate attempt.  In the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says (if the Jesus Seminar approves), "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  But in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, the Social Gospel, Jesus says "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Either Matthew has spiritualized the social gospel of Luke or Luke has socialized the spiritual gospel of Matthew.  The social without the spiritual is rudderless; the spiritual without the social is vacuous.  Matthew and Luke ought to get together.


            In short, life is both our only chance to grow a soul and to repair the world.  We can’t really do one without the other.  Ultimately mystic and prophet should be one.  In this essay, militant is the adjective and mystic the noun.  Mystical sensibility prompts prophetic passion.  They fuel one another, questioning and informing each other.  As the French spiritual and political leader Charles Peguy wrote at the turn of the century, "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”[7]


            Nor was Peguy alone in this thought.  Paul Tillich once said, "There is no vacuum in spiritual life, as there is no vacuum in nature.  An ultimate concern must express itself socially.”[8]  Karl Barth urged Christians to carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Dag Hammarskjöld wrote that "The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”[9]  And James Luther Adams taught us that "The ‘holy’ thing in life is the participation in those processes that give body and form to universal justice.”[10]  Our spiritual values must express themselves in the world of powers and principalities.


            Poet Marge Piercy writes:


The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries out for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.[11]


            The urgency of the prophetic imperative under which I live is dictated by what happens to me "in the holy quiet of this hour.”  That can create quite a problem.  My life’s task is trying to resolve the dilemma posed so exquisitely by E. B. White, who arose in the morning "torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day.”[12]  Or, I would add, to plan a life.  To savor the world or to serve it?  I have concluded that to savor one must serve; in serving one does savor.  In more traditional theological language, we are both vessels and instruments of God.


            It has been said that "Mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.”[13]  There is a mistiness about mysticism which can be downright mush, murky, muddy—yet who among us can deny those all-too-infrequent experiences when, in Wallace Steven’s terms, we experience "moments of inherent excellence,” or in Tillich’s word, we are "grasped” by something beyond ourselves.


            The first such experience I can recall persuaded me to enter the ministry when I was a Boy Scout at the 1951 National Jamboree in the historic hills of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  As an impressionable country lad of 14, with 50,000 youth from around the world, I heard then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower and then-President Harry S. Truman on successive nights.  I was well-prepared soil for what seed might drop.  It was planted by a Methodist bishop from Indiana who one memorable Sunday morning issued a sermonic call to serve humanity.


            Today, I would no doubt classify that sermon as sentimental, if not maudlin, but then and there I heard what I presumed to be the voice of God calling me to ministry.  With some sadness I confess I have not heard that voice nearly so clearly since.  However, it was of sufficient urgency at the time that it has directed the course of my life.  It was a mystical call to action.  "Here I am, send me.”[14]


            Father Thomas Merton felt called to the monastery to escape the world and encounter God.  Instead, he found himself, not farther from the world, but drawn ever closer to it.  "There is always a temptation,” he wrote, "to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.”[15]  A transformative experience occurred one day on a city street: "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even thought we were total strangers….  To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstakes…if only everybody could realize this!  But is cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.[16]


            There are experiences that come to me quite unbidden, when I am overwhelmed by just such a feeling—first "the rapture of being alive,”[17] and then a poignant sense of compassion for all people—especially those troubled in body or spirit, who live in oppression and poverty.  And while I can make an intellectual case for spiritual and ethical concern for the other, it is these moments of identification with what is human and good that take me outside myself, and I join "the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.”[18]


            After all, is not one of the purposes of religion to overcome the excesses of ego?  The mystic accomplishes this by union with the All; the activist by serving the Other.  To be is to be—for others.  I find a striking correspondence between the two paths to heightened spiritual experience.


            We tend to think of "spiritual” as private—that personal and untouchable zone of the soul whence comes our strength.  That is a necessary, but not sufficient, understanding.  Spiritual implies power, and personal power needs to be expressed in a public way.  Social action is not so much a product of my faith, but one of its expressions, absolutely essential to my spiritual health.  I could no more ignore justice-making than I could skip worship.  Promotion of "justice, equity and compassion in human relations” is as vital as "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”  Neglect of either is unthinkable.  In the words of the old Russian proverb, "Pray to God, but row for the shore.”


            I submit that public life is an arena of religious experience.  If we deprive ourselves of it, we lose a great opportunity for spiritual growth.  The word "public” is, after all, derived from the same word as puberty—both suggesting movement into adulthood.  We might even view the social/ethical expression of the spiritual in terms of Erik Erikson’s generative stage.  "Generativity,” he writes, "is primarily the interest in establishing and guiding the next generation….”[19]  This contrasts with self-regarding obsession in the private sphere of existence, which he calls stagnation.  A purely private spirituality leads to a withering of the self, checking our pulses instead of our responsibilities.


            Preoccupation with the private is stultifying.  The Greek word "idiot” means a private person, one who does not hold public office, hence an ignorant individual, since all intelligent citizens were expected to hold office at some point in their lives.  I will leave any translation to the present to you.


            Social justice work is simply a natural spiritual evolution.  Mystical and militant inclinations need one another.  Social responsibility has too much centrifugal force; it needs balance by the centripetal spin of inward spiritual experience to bring us back to the center from which the wholeness comes.  To change the figure, the warp of the spiritual and the weft of the social form a vibrant pattern—a seamless garment of being and doing.


            It was probably William James’ classic Varieties of Religious Experience[20] that has led us to believe that religious experience is confined to the personal and mystical.  I believe James did not pay enough attention to religious experience that has an ethical component.


            I think of one of the transforming moments of my life—which combines the mystical and the ethical.  The year was 1965—the height of the civil rights struggle.  I was a graduate student in social ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  After three years in suburban Cleveland, I had made enough mistakes as an activist that I decided to go to school to learn how it ought to be done.  I learned, almost too late, the truth of the Turkish proverb, "If you must speak the truth, have a fast horse and one foot in the stirrup of the saddle.”


            Martin Luther King was conducting a voter rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.  Our late colleague James Reeb was murdered on those hate-filled streets and Unitarian Universalists were urged to gather for the memorial service at which Martin Luther King, Jr. was to speak.  I dropped my studies briefly and flew to Atlanta where, in the dark of night, we were led in a car caravan to Selma.  After we arrived early the next day, we marched nervously through a cordon of Alabama troopers armed with long truncheons which, with intimidating force, they pounded into their hands.  Despite the fact we were unarmed and at their physical mercy, I felt like a member of a liberating army as we approached the Brown’s Chapel compound to be greeted by the cheers of the black residents and their supporters.


            That afternoon I could not get into the sanctuary—so great was the crush of bodies—and so I stood in an ante-room behind the pulpit unable to see, but well able to hear.  Then there was a stir behind me and Martin Luther King brushed my arm on his way to the pulpit—our only meeting.  His eloquent eulogy, the singing of "We Shall Overcome” with a cantorial descant of the Jewish prayer for the dead was simply overwhelming and I was bathed in tears.


            It was a mystical moment—calling to mind Theodore Parker’s words that "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[21]  I felt myself a participant in the very making of history.  I experienced a feeling of oneness with those worshippers—of every race and religion—shirt sleeve farmers with sweat on their faces, nuns in full habit—clergy in every imaginable liturgical garb.  I knew then that my life would never be quite the same—and it wasn’t.


            When I returned to Chicago I tried to resume work on an academic paper—"The Transformative Role of the Church in the Thought of H. Richard Niebuhr,” a gripping title!  But I found it hard to write.  I wanted to speak.  I wanted to be in a pulpit to share my experience!  When my wife came home from work that evening I said I wanted to end my academic career—I wanted to go back into the parish ministry—where the action was.  And so I did, never to regret it.  Thus I date my birth as a militant mystic as March 15, 1965.


            That experience in Selma reminds me of D. H. Lawrence’s metaphor: "Whatever the queer little word ‘god’ means, it means something we can none of us quite get away from, or at; something connected with our deepest explosions.”[22]


            Now, lest you think this religious humanist has gone theist in a late career conversion, I remind you of the story of the priest and the peasant.  The priest had come calling and admired the peasant’s garden.  "You and the Lord have done fine work here,” said the good father.  "Yes,” replied the peasant, "You should have seen it when the Lord had it alone.”


            Here is where mysticism enters the picture.  With Henry Nelson Wieman, I think of the divine as the power of cosmic creativity.  That creativity is manifest in nature as creative evolution; it is observed in history in those prophets of the human spirit who have tried to bend the arc of history toward justice against all odds; it is manifest here at now as we are co-creators of the Beloved Community.  That work I know will not be completed in my lifetime, but I wish to lend the "stubborn ounces of my weight” to the task.  It is my mystic identification with this creative process that prompts me to continue.


            There is a reality greater than ourselves, a "creating, sustaining, transforming reality” of which we are a part.  While it transcends us ontologically, we are part and parcel of it—co-creators with it, in a limited but vitally important way.  This power speaks to me from people of prophetic fire who are Toynbee’s creative minority; it speaks to me from the lives of ordinary men and women and children; and from the depths of my own heart when I pause long enough and thoughtfully enough to hear and heed.


            The deeper that I delve into the innermost recesses of my soul, the more intensely I identify with other human beings.  The further inward we explore, the more we see our common humanity.  The more the unseen moves in, the more we understand the hidden bonds of community.  And so the deeper I probe spiritually, the more I identify with others and cast my lot with them in battling all that keeps us from celebrating our mystic bonds.  That is my passionate and enduring center.


            That mystic oneness has been given eloquent and poetic articulation.  One of my predecessors in Rochester, David Rhys Williams, wrote that "We are joined together by a mystic oneness whose source we may never know, but whose reality we can never doubt….  This mystic oneness…has been glimpsed by nearly all the great seers and leaders of humanity.  We are our neighbor’s keeper, because that neighbor is but our larger self….  Behold, thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself, because they neighbor is thyself.”[23]


            I find the term "Beloved Community” is a humanistically-oriented substitute for Kingdom of God—deftly finessing issues of sexism, patriarchy and theology—and creating a poetic metaphor to describe, not theological salvation in the next world, but social salvation in this.


            Salvation!  Now there’s a word to set religious humanist teeth on edge.  Salvation by faith—Martin Luther held that faith is the quintessential religious gesture—we are saved by the gracious love of God acting through Jesus Christ.  Salvation by works—others believed doing good is the sine quo non of religion—one could earn one’s way into heaven.  Or Unitarian Universalist salvation by character—this worldly social salvation by people whose convictions are embodied in good works.


            I am reminded of a favorite story which underscores my belief that ethics is near the heart of religious experience.  "After living what he believed to be a grace-full, faith-filled life, a Lutheran dies and finds himself baffled by the heat and flames of the afterlife.  He gasps to another Lutheran through clouds of sulfur, "It’s not exactly the way we pictured Heaven would be, is it?”


            "No,” his acquaintance replies.  "Let’s go ask Brother Martin to explain this supposed ‘Paradise’”


            They find the still-portly Martin Luther, alone and sweating profusely, and ask him what went wrong.  Luther pauses, signs, and says with resignation, "It was works.”[24]


            Yes, it is works, but also faith: it is mystical and it is prophetic.  If the primordial religious gesture is dependence which prompts gratitude, then my modest attempt to repair the world comes because I have been filled to overflowing with life and find it cannot be contained within the skin of this body or the circumference of this soul.  If religion begins in thanksgiving, it ends in service.  The soul shrivels if it loses its connectedness with other souls, with humanity and history and with that great cosmic context in which we live and move and have our being for too-few precious years.


            Dag Hammarskjöld wrote that "Only what you have given is salvaged from the nothing which will some day have been your life.”[25]


            I know, I am a Puritan—one who is constantly worried that someone, somewhere, somehow, is having a good time.  There is a bit of justification by works in me, I confess.  One of my recurrent dreams—archetypal I’m sure—is facing a final exam, suddenly remembering that I forgot to study.  This perennial panic can wake me from a deep and peaceful slumber.  I’m sure life has a final exam somewhere; I’m not sure where of when or who administers it, or what the criteria are, or what are the consequences of passing or failing.  But I know there is one.


            I think back in our own history to the 17th century Minor Church of Poland.  To an impressive degree its adherents stressed church discipline, by which they meant the frequent reminding of individuals of their duty as faithful people in a religious community.  Quarterly, a moral and spiritual examination was made of each member, followed by exhortation and correction from minister and laity alike.  It was serious business, and each had to make an accounting of their stewardship.  Such an interview was no doubt the precursor of our Ministerial Fellowship Committee!


            A Catholic historian later declared this religious faith was very influential in Polish history, and that one reason why its adherents did not become more numerous was that its moral and spiritual demands were too strict.


            How do we measure up as a movement of both mystics and prophets?  Poet Lee Carroll Pieper, thinking no doubt of Jesus’ words, "Many are called by few are chosen,” has wryly written: "Many are called but most are frozen in corporate or collective cold, these are the stalled who choose not to be chosen except to be bought and sold.”[26]


            For some time now I have had a "lover’s quarrel” with our movement.  When I was a graduate student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School a fellow student, a Catholic Worker priest, knowing I was working on the prophetic imperative in Unitarian Universalism, asked me point-blank—"How can your denomination—middle class as it is—critique the system that has so favored it?”  It was a disturbing question.  I have been troubled by his implied accusation ever since.


            There is a temptation among us to be complacent.  That is our default mode, we who have been called the "technicians and bureaucrats of the establishment.”  By and large we benefit from the status quo.  "Come weal, come woe, my status is quo” is our mantra.  How, then, can we exhibit the prophetic zeal to envision what might and ought to be, much less be in the vanguard of those who seek to bring that vision to reality?  In biblical terms, Unitarian Universalists tend to be "terribly at ease in Zion.”  As Clarence Skinner lamented "A stuffed prophet sees no visions.”[27]


            This relative complacency is as much a spiritual as a social problem.  Who are we religiously, and what are the meanings that guide our lives?  How does the quest for justice play out in our quest for meaning—the age-old religious enterprise?  In short, what is our religious mission statement?  My attempt to create one for myself goes as follows:  "In the love of beauty and the spirit of truth, we unite for the celebration of life and the service of humanity.”  That is my faith as a militant mystic—a spiritual core coupled with an ethical imperative.  By themselves, neither of these values can survive.  They must stand together or the whole thing will fall apart.


            The church, then, is a school of the spirit—helping us probe the depths of worship and work.  It is a locus, and perhaps the only locus, where we can ask those basic questions of the meaning of our brief guest appearance on this earthly stage.


            As we face the new millennium we will need to do some serious soul-searching and some serious world repairing—the two go hand in hand.  We of the liberal religious faith are slowly, but steadily, being marginalized, overwhelmed by a confident fundamentalist political theology that threatens to engulf us utterly.  However disparagingly we may speak of the religious right, it has tapped into something very deep—it has given its followers a spiritual rootedness in a dogmatic faith and a sense of purpose grounded in an absolutist politics.


            We who eschew dogma and reject absolutism will need to work harder than the denizens of the right, for our faith demands more of us.  We need the power of conviction even in the face of our ultimate uncertainty about the nature of reality and right and wrong.  While it is perhaps better to be vaguely right than absolutely wrong, the very nature of our faith requires of us deeper convictions.


            The times are dire, but then people who live under the prophetic imperative are always worried.  Comedienne Lily Tomlin recently said, "No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.”[28]


            I am hopeful, thought not optimistic, about our capacity to repair the world in the face of the many unjust assaults upon it.  In such a situation I am encouraged by the prophet Jeremiah, who even as he warned of imminent doom and approaching foreign invasion, bought a piece of land as a sign and symbol of hope.  So must we all.


            I leave you with a story about the German poet Heirich Heine who stood with a friend before the cathedral of Amiens in France.


            "Tell me, Heinrich,” said his friend, "Why can’t people build piles like this anymore?”


            Replied Heine, "My dear friend, in those days people had convictions.  We moderns have opinions.  And it takes more than opinions to build a Gothic cathedral.”[29]


            And it will take more than opinions to build the Beloved Community of Love and Justice.  It will take a cadre of militant mystics whose gratitude for living is so pervasive it overflows into the social life.  Spirituality and social action are a seamless garment—a coat of many colors.  May we be worthy to put it on.


[1] Rev. Joseph Gallagher, columnist, "Via The Witness”, The Evening Sun (Dec. 12, 1985).

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, source unknown.

[3] James Thurber, source unknown.

[4] I am indebted to Adam Curle, Militants and Mystics: A Study in Self Awareness and Identity, (London: Tavistock Publications, 1972) for the title of this Berry Street Essay.

[5] Gerhard von Rad defined the Hebrew prophet as "one who participates in the emotions of God.”  The Christian Century (May 23, 1979), 589.

[6] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: Basic Books, 12th printing, 1974, 1982).

[7] Quoted by Martin Marty, "Mysticism and the Religious Quest for Freedom”, The Christian Century, date unknown.

[8] Paul Tillich, source unknown.

[9] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings.

[10] James Luther Adams, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976?), 16

[11] Marge Piercy, "To Be of Use."

[12] E. B. White, source unknown.

[13] Quoted in Morton Kelsey, Companions of the Inner Way: The Art of Spiritual Guidance (New York: Crossroads, 1984), 35.

[14] Isaiah 6:8.

[15] Quoted by Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Basic Books, 12th printing, 1974, 1962), 276.

[16] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965-66), 140-1.

[17] Joseph Campbell.

[18] Albert Schweitzer, source unknown.

[19] Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950), 231.

[20] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1902 (first edition), 1963).

[21] Theodore Parker, source unknown.

[22] D. H. Lawrence, quoted in Quotations of Courage and Vision, Carl Hermann Voss, ed. (New York: Association Press, 1972), 108.

[23] David Rhys Williams, "Thy Neighbor Is Thyself,” We Sing of Life with We Speak of Life, Vincent Silliman, ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), #79.

[24] Reported by Jocl Anderle of Grand Rapids, MI, via Micah Marty, Context, 12115/93, 6.

[25] Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings.

[26] Lee Carroll Pieper, Original Blessing (Northhampton, MA: 1983).

[27] Clarence Skinner, source unknown.

[28] Quoted by Michael S. Josephson, "Does Character Still Count?” USA Weekend (September 23-25, 1994), 20.

[29] Quoted by Leonard I. Sweet, "Not All Cats Are Gray: Beyond Liberalism’s Uncertain Faith,” The Christian Century (June 23-30, 1982), 721.