On Spiritual Mentors: Abraham Joshua Heschel

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?