THE ENGAGED MYSTIC
THE ENGAGED MYSTIC
About one third of the time I write from the perspective of the “engaged mystic.” This posting is meant to set a foundation for that perspective which I often use but have never defined. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of Engaged Buddhism which I enormously respect but I resist the confines of any single spiritual tradition in my writing, so I use the term engaged mysticism. When I started this posting, I expected to focus on a series of affirmations much like Hanh’s “Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism.” But that felt flat, hollow and derivative. So instead I have moved to a commentary on Matthew 25 from Christian Scripture.
My research into this actually began several (figurative) lifetimes ago while I was attending seminary. Then the passage was seen by students and teachers as primarily a prophetic statement aligned with Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah. It was a common practice of Jesus to make reference to the Hebrew Prophets. The passage was considered primarily a call for justice and compassion. That is quite accurate as far as it goes, but the passage is actually much deeper and more profound than that limited interpretation suggests. In these verses Jesus is combining the mystic with the prophetic. We work for justice not simply because it is a good thing to do but because it is a place where God him/herself is encountered.
Now in this time as I prepared for this posting with research on the internet and a local academic library, I became aware that most writers ignore the mystical aspect of this text. It is only Mathew Fox and I who focus here on the mystic so I warn you that this is a distinctly minority and perhaps even heretical view.
The actual scene is very late in Jesus’ ministry. This is considered his last sermon before he enters Jerusalem and faces the events which lead to his crucifixion. In this time there are no crowds of five thousand to feed, no miracles, no soothing, lovely beatitudes. The question came up from his few remaining supporters about how to best serve him and thus enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus responds with a dramatic vision of separating the sheep from the goats which unless you were a Sheppard or farmer was not an easy or casual thing. He says, those who enter will be seated because, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed cloths and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (vs 34)
Those who were listening were very surprised by this and immediately asked, “Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?” (vs 37)
To which Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (vs 40)
Shockingly, there is no mention of faith, belief, doctrine, temple attendance or other typical religious practice. The Greek word for “least of these” is ‘anawin’ which also translates to ‘the suffering and oppressed ones.’ God him/herself is found among these. In the midst of describing a glorious and ornate judgement scene, Jesus brings it all right down to those who are small and uncared for. This is a vision which takes seriously the unity of the human and Divine. It is a spirituality that does not separate faith and belief from action. It is a spirituality in which faith is both the source of action and its result. It is a spirituality which makes it clear that our own enlightenment or ascension into what ever form of heaven may be waiting is not enough when we leave behind those who suffer. The inner life of meditation and contemplation and the quest for social justice are part of the same spiritual quest.
In the words of Matthew Fox, from his book The Cosmic Christ, “When injustice reigns the Cosmic Christ is crucified again. This also means that wherever justice is fought for and prevails, wherever healing takes place and is passed on; wherever compassion prevails, the Cosmic Christ is healing, redeeming, liberating on a Cosmic scale.” In Christian terms, not only did God take on human form but took that form as the ‘Anawin’ – the suffering one. The passage says engage with these because that is where God is found.
Spiritual practice based only on enlightenment while ignoring the suffering in the world is only half there. In this sense, ‘finding your bliss’ is easy and very partial. The second half is finding the suffering and working with them.
So, in this way, writing about a president who is utterly without compassion or morality is part of the spiritual process, feeling the pain of children locked in cages is engaging with the Sorrow of God, discerning the true from the false is separating the sheep from the goats. As Mathew Fox also said, “The prophet is a mystic in action.”