Recently my wife and I were watching the very excellent CNN series on the 60s. One segment focused on the issue of race and paid attention to the great work of Martin Luther King. I became excited as Dr. King’s great march from Selma to Montgomery was portrayed. In the front row near to Dr. King was one of my spiritual mentors — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rabbi Heschel’s work with Dr. King reflects one of the lessons I learned from him through his books — that one’s spirituality must have legs. My own spiritual journey tends to be quite introverted and contemplative. Yet I must remember the call to justice in all great world religions. I must challenge myself to pray with my legs and not just with my mind, just as Rabbi Heschel did with Dr. King in Alabama.
Rabbi Heschel was more than a social activist. He was also a theologian and especially a mystic. He often makes reference to “the ineffable” by which is meant that aspect of spirituality reality that eludes words. As Heschel wrote “To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words.” And again “The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; in the immense expanse beyond it, only the sense of the ineffable can glide.” Heschel reminds me that the God of my understanding (or anyone’s understanding) cannot be confined by words or concept
Heschel also helped me to a different understanding of the Bible when he said “The Bible is not a book about God; it is a book about Man.” Understood this way, the Bible doesn’t so much give me a glimpse of God but rather of the efforts of mankind and womankind to find Him/Her. I have much I can learn from the quests of others, especially great seekers and believers like Moses or Esther or Job.
Heschel cautions us on the dark side of religion when he observes “…when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.” These words ring true in my own Catholic Church as Francis endures a barrage of criticism as he tries to infuse doctrine with compassion.
It is from Heschel that I grasp wonder as perhaps the greatest spiritual experience of God. Wonder, after all, is to let go, to dispense with any language other than poetry. to simply stand in awe and appreciate a manifestation of God’s glory.Finally, Heschel along with Thomas Merton and a few others, gives me hope that the mystical experience can be found every day, everywhere, that I don’t have to withdraw to the mountaintop to experience the ineffable. As he wrote “The road to the sacred leads through the secular”. If so, then those who have dubbed me a “secularist” may, unbeknownst to them, have been paying me a compliment!
Further Reading: There is a wonderful sampling of Heschel’s writings titled I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel edited by S.H. Dresner.
Reflection: What works best for you in articulating your spiritual experience? Words? Poetry? Silence? Action? All the above?
The Catholic Church’s best kept secret is its stance on social justice. We have a rich tradition concerning social justice. That stance compels me to get out of the pew and into the street to change unjust structures and to be in solidarity with the marginalized and the poor. I have developed compassion as a result of my actions. God uses my energies that way. While being still and contemplative is more difficult for me, I do set aside time to sit and listen to God. I don’t want to miss anything She has to say to me. Currently, I am co facilitating a program called Just Faith–we are forming community and compassion while discovering God and realizing our part in changing the world.
So as not to spoil my record as being the downbeat pessimist of the blog, I wanted to point out a couple of potential negatives. It is true that experiencing God (or His works of nature) is often beyond what mere words can capture. Unfortunately, the same is true of evil. It can render destruction which is difficult, if not impossible, to describe with language. I remember sitting with an Active Duty soldier who could not speak, only weep. No words could describe it. His pain was beyond words. Is Grace stronger than evil? I believe It is, but not necessarily in this world or in “ordinary time”. Secondly, with regard to “secularism” and also with regard to doubts and questioning, I have this paradoxical observation. Perhaps my experience is peculiar, but some of the most compassionate people in my life have been the doubters and even the atheists.
Conversely, some of the most cruel, have been those who said they were Christians. Of course, I know how hard it is to always live out the Christian values. My husband once told my son, “Your mom is a Christian”. And I had to ask myself if I practice that with my feet, as Dr. Patterson said.