Wednesday 30 September 2009

Mysticism and action: Christian anarchism as a paradigm

[This is the last piece I salvage from the Geocities-site Christianarchy. It is a lecture given at the University of Bergen, Norway, August 2000. Perhaps - especially when readers would be twisting my arm about it - I will write about the circumstances surrounding the conference at which I gave it. For now I thank Dr. Horst Jesse for having given me the opportunity and a framework to study and speak about mysticism and Christian anarchism.]


Mysticism is generally associated with resignation, with calm observance "of that which is God's", not with action or with resistance. This is a mistaken or incomplete view.

Actually, only two years ago - it is documented, because it was what I reported at a Conference in Haifa - I thought there was a contradiction between action and mysticism. I inferred this from the history of Dutch Christian anarchism around 1900: after "having seen the light" it organized as a movement, people involved thought they could make see by giving the right example that the woes of the world could be solved. It ended in tears and regret, and a turning towards the mystical roots, especially toward protestant mysticism. Action, or resistance, seemed to precede mysticism. Of course, this was a simplification, because Ds. Louis Bähler, one of the main figures in Dutch Christian anarchism, stated that this "turning" towards mysticism meant recognizing "the mystic vein that ran through our movement all along". My idea of only two years ago was that "action" can only imply "doing things actively", which of course is etymologically a proper idea. Still, seeing it that way, one gets barred from the idea that mysticism is a call for action, for radical action even, but for action different from that of the Dutch Christian anarchists before they went to their "mystical roots".

I had been studying the lives of those who played a key role in the American Catholic Worker Movement and was already approaching my new way of looking at the relation between mysticism and action, when someone mentioned Dorothee Sölle's Mystik und Widerstand: Du stilles Geschrei to me. I am glad I was made attentive to this book, because I really would not have thought about ever taking note of Sölle's writings anyway - call it prejudice, or call it judgement based on criticism by writers I value. I must say I still think it is an irritating book by an irritating writer - but I must admit it is also a treasure of ideas of all kinds of thinkers whom I would have thought of even less than of ms. Sölle. And her idea of democratizing mysticism without trivializing it, and against the general trivialization of the world of "Western" consumer capitalism, appeals to me and seems completely compatible with the strivings of Peter Maurin, to whom I shall turn now.

Peter Maurin was born in 1877 as a peasants' son in Occitania. In his younger years he was a member of the Young Catholic Action group Le sillon, which advocated a stressing of good peasant ways of living and a turning away from industrialism. [Generally, such movements are being called "reactionary", which seems to suggest that there is a linear logic which dictates the direction human society is moving towards. Of course, there is not.] Whilst being a member of this catholic society Maurin read socialist and especially anarchist writers, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin being the most impressive to him. He leaves Le sillon and emigrates to Canada (1909), trying to work as a farmer, which does not succeed, he moves to the United States in 1911 and becomes an itinerant worker. For about twenty years he lives on the road for most of the time, talking to or arguing with anyone who wanted to listen or even did not want to listen and spreading his message of catholicism and anarchism, mixed with English guild socialism or Distributism and increasingly with French personalism.

It all adds up to a special message of elementary christian anarchism. It has been laid down in books mainly called Easy essays, or sometimes Green revolution. Although his ideas fit in completely with non-political "green" strivings, his "green" refers to the Emerald Isle: he calls for a return to the practice of Irish monks who in his view brought civilization to Europe. It means building hospices, places where the poor and the sick can stay, where round table discussions are being organized "for clarification of thought" and where people can learn a trade, be it agricultural or other. Cult, culture and cultivation, that is what these houses should be about. It is being realized, though not according to his ideas, in the Catholic Worker Movement, a pioneering lay movement on the edge of the Roman Catholic Church, and as far as I know the only movement which specifically combines catholicism and anarchism.

One of Maurin's Easy essays says that for ordinary people "politics is just politics, and mysticism is the right spirit". His life after the start of the Catholilc Worker is very well documented, before that time it is not - and he seems not to have been willing to tell about it. Which makes it difficult to see if there was a particular moment of his meeting God, which we tend to associate mysticism with generally. His mysticism can be seen as living the life of whom he called "the Ambassadors of Christ", the poor. One of his maxims: if everybody wants to be the richest, everybody will be poor; if everyone tries to be the poorest, nobody will be poor". One of the others: "we must work for a society which makes it easier for people to be good". It is tempting to quote from his Easy essays, which leave so much to think about they really cannot be called that easy. Summing up: Maurin's mysticism is that of the identification with Christ in the poor.

The other founder member of the Catholic Worker Movement is Dorothy Day, a journalist of episcopalian descent, born in the US in 1897. In her late teens and twenties she belongs to the radical circles of New York and Chicago, apparently she was a member of the communist party for some time, later she was in touch with the anarchist minded Industrial Workers of the World (she does not mention having had her "Kronstadt", the affair with bolshevism seems to have been superficial). She is married to an anarchist artist and expecting a child when she gets the urge of becoming a Catholic. At least, she wants her child to be catholic, and she is told she has to convert herself too. This she does, and paradoxically it leads to her divorce, in 1927.

The mystical striving for unity with God seems to be this urge to become part of the Corpus mysticum of the Catholic Church. Why this, and not go back to the own tradition? I think it is not being explained satisfactorily, at least as far as the non-catholic onlooker can see - and that is why I choose this feverish urge to be part of Christ's mystical body to be the defining mystical moment in Dorothy Day's life. After she joined the Catholic church she still identifies with the radical worker movement, and regrets that the Church does not show any solidarity towards these movements - mysteriously she ignores the record of the Church's recent history e.g. in Spain. After she has joined the Catholic Church some quiet sets in, but not for long: the discontentment about the lack of a radical Catholic worker movement grows, which can only be strengthened by the Depression. And then she meets Peter Maurin, in 1932, who seems to share her idea about this catholic movement. They start a paper, the Catholic Worker, which is launched on May Day 1933. Peter Maurin wanted it to be called "Catholic Radical", but "Man proposes, woman disposes" as he sadly remarks.

Along with the paper a House of Hospitality is started, according to the idea of the Green Revolution. The Houses somehow do not work in the way Peter Maurin had proposed. The care for the poor, the function of soup kitchen and sleeping place for the Ambassadors of God turn out to be the main function of the houses. This, in combination with the own liturgy of the houses, is the Cult side of Maurin's idea. The Culture side has been developed gradually in later years: it seems to be the action against the preparing for war which goes alongside with welfare consumer capitalism. The Cultivation still has to make itself known.

Reading Dorothy Day is entering a different world: she writes about things which might be called trivial, but she never is trivial - and she blesses ordinary things and creatures with a spirit, given form by the (deuterocanonical) Canticle of the Three Young Men. This is her everyday mysticism: there are no ordinary things or creatures, there is no ordinary time, there is no ordinary work. Living the life of the poor, working for the poor, actively resisting preparations for war until the end of her days - in the protestant sense she certainly lives a sanctified life. Even during her life it was said that she ought to be declared a saint, to which she replied: "I do not want to be dismissed that easily." Let there be hope for the Catholic Church it does not need a special anarchist saint.

Thomas Merton may be called a Christian anarchist, but he did not have the time to consider if that would have been a branding that suited him. He would not have wanted "to be dismissed that easily", I suspect - even more than the Dutch christian anarchists or Dorothy Day he stresses that leading a saintly life and striving for peace is a general Christian idea. Christian, to him means Roman Catholic.

The story of his conversion is less acceptable still to a non-Catholic - to me at least - than Dorothy Day's story. Merton's background is anglican, while a student he is convinced that he is a non-believer, he joins the communist party (he does not mention anything about his membership except his party name), but gradually dissatisfaction and the realization of spiritual emptiness take control of him. Reading English literature he gets gripped by Love by George Herbert, he is inspired by William Blake on whom he writes a thesis, but what touches him most is Etienne Gilson's Gifford Lecture The spirit of mediaeval philosophy. I hope I see right when I conclude that reading this book does prepare him for the Catholic Church as against turning back to the church of his baptism.

From his autobiographical Seven storey mountain which I take as the prime source for his conversion one can hardly conclude that he leads even according to today's standards an immoral life. He does not mention it, one has to read it in a biography written by someone else. This omission indeed makes the "inner voice" which calls him to convert to catholicism and nothing else, and to become a monk, hardly bearable. We do not get to hear "the other voices". There had to be a "Nihil obstat. Imprimatur" in the book. It adds to the feverishness of his will to become a Catholic - again, to join the corpus mysticum. The pressing inner voice is what I would call his introduction to mysticism, if not his mysticism proper.

After his conversion quiet resignation takes the place of all the unrest - perhaps the most feverish about Merton after he joins the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani in 1941, is his wish to become a recluse. This wish is only granted in 1960, at a time when he has made the acquaintance of the Catholic Worker Movement, without which - as he stated later - he never would have been a real catholic. His hermits' days are also the hottest in the Cold War. Merton starts to speak out for catholic action against war, for non-violent opposition to the permanent preparing for mass murder - inspired by the Sermon of the Mount, of course, and by Thoreau and Gandhi. His writings in the Catholic Worker were a call to action for a whole new generation of catholics, the most well-known of whom are the Berrigan brothers, the faces of radical action against the war machinery at this moment. So having got his impulse to radical commitment to the peace movement from the Catholic Worker, he acts as an impulse too. Merton's radical action against war is prayer - he fully believes it makes a difference.

Allie Neill writes that he never met a man of 53 who did not know what he wanted to become. Thomas Merton died of an accident at this age, while on pilgrimage in Asia - and actually I wonder what might have become of this man had he had time and chance to get deeper into East and South Asian religion and perhaps into anarchism. We must conclude God did not want Merton to be a denial of what Neill said. He was born in 1915, so we still can see that he is being missed at this very day: for his role in the Church, for his passion for peace.

From the story of these people around the Catholic Worker Movement might be distilled a model - I know, it is difficult, maybe even unbearable to conclude to some kind of model whilst talking about mysticism, but it is a way of applying some ordering to what we can know. It seems to be a scale or ladder according to which mysticism and action are integrated.

First there is the general call by the world's injustice: identification with the oppressed, the poor, the working class. For Dutch Christian anarchists - practicing modern Hervormd and for the most part even churchmen - these were the workers who seemed only to be able to forget their misery in alcohol. For people who seem to be estranged from their religion, like Day and Merton, this also is the phase in which they join radical atheist movements which promise "pies in the sky when you die" - socialism in some distant future.

The second stage is the inspiration by writers who represent both Gospel and struggle for a better world, or transcending this world - which may be the same. For Dorothy Day this writer seems to be Fëdor Dostoyewsky, especially his "Brothers Karamazov". For Thomas Merton it is both George Herbert and William Blake, completed by Etienne Gilson. For Dutch Christian anarchists this is, like for most Christian anarchists, mainly Lew Tolstoy. For them, not being estranged from religion in the first place, this also is the call to action for changing the world - not with the rancour or illusions movements like the communist party were selling, but still with the idea of "giving the good example for people to follow": starting self managed industries, living in communistic communities. It ended in proverbial disaster. This phase I call "dawning mysticism": the idea of living according to Christ's teachings takes root, but it makes a false start.

The third phase is that of "mystical union". Obviously, for Day and Merton it is joining the Catholic Church, for Dutch Christian anarchists it was rethinking their mystical roots. It is indeed followed by some resigned calm. For Dorothy Day and Dutch christian anarchists this period does not last long, for Thomas Merton it takes nearly twenty years. Then it is time for a crisis, accompanied by a second call from someone who could appropriately be called starets, having Zosima from the Brothers Karamazov in mind. For Dorothy Day this is Peter Maurin. For Thomas Merton it is Dorothy Day, and certainly pope John XXIII too. For Dutch Christian anarchists it is the World War, which later got its number, they have different startsy, the ones they have in common are - paradoxically - the younger people who join in with the movement against conscription, in 1915. Felix Ortt, one of the few who does not get jailed during the World War, turns to Lao Zi and tends to put Tao above Christianity in his long remaining years.

After this second calling the fifth phase - the crisis point being the fourth - sets in: the real integration of mysticism and action. It is a working in the realization that things can only be done in the here and now - the Kingdom of Heaven is amongst you or within you, but it is NOW, not in some illusory future. NOW it is time for poor to be given soup, coffee and bread. NOW is the time for peace, which can only be lived in prayer: there is no way to peace, peace is the way - this is the action all have in common in this phase. All the way to heaven is heaven, as Dorothy Day quoted Teresa de Avila. Of course, there is the possibility of making other people see what they have not seen yet, but this is being done without the idea of a future break in worldly history. Revolution is a process to be lived by living people, it is not to be made by a new form of worldly government, and the time is now. The process takes long, still, but there is the Certainty - mysticism as the right spirit.

As a postscript I can add that Dorothee Sölle in "Mystik und Widerstand" identifies mysticism with anarchy - not having any authority on earth, either government or church officials. Here indeed is where she seems to prove that christian anarchism is what she calls the democratization of mysticism - not a paradox but a paradigm, and though I rather hate to admit it because I still take offense of her style of writing, and though I offer a different "scale" from hers - in the final analysis we seem to agree.