Wednesday, October 3, 2012

This is Love

Tiffany Curtis is the Micah Fellow at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, through the Life Together program in the Diocese. She was raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition, and received an MDiv from HDS in 2011. In 2011, she was awarded a Sheldon research fellowship and worked in Ecuador to study the intersection of Indigenous spirituality and alternative sustainable development models. Each week she offers us a reflection from her work, past or present.
 I recently attended a lecture at Harvard Divinity School entitled Rethinking 'Mysticism': Toward a Pedagogy of Contemplative Life. The speaker was Thomas Coburn, President Emeritus at Naropa University and Visiting Scholar at Brown University, and the lecture was part of the Center for the Study of World Religions' ongoing series "The Intellectual Worlds of Meditation."

Among Coburn's many wonderful insights, he shared his skepticism concerning Max Weber's distinction between prophetic and mystical religions. According to Coburn, Weber casts the two modes of religiosity as a dichotomous relationship between wanting to change the world "out there" and wanting to close the gap between "is" and "might be" by transforming interior worlds. According to Weber, although these ways of being religious are very different, both approaches are born out of the disparity between what we actually experience in the world and what we want the world to be. While Coburn challenged this Weberian model, noting that many activists are also contemplative practitioners, he also raised the paradox that contemplative traditions hold the primacy of the present moment, but social justice work tends to be future-oriented. 
Given this, what is it that drives practitioners of more now-centered "mystical religion" to engage in the prophetic work of justice? Perhaps it is because inner and outer transformation are so deeply intertwined. In the work of transformation of self, one's focus is drawn outside of oneself, to a feeling of integration with a more expansive reality. The distinctions between self and other, inside and outside, become blurred. Coburn held up Parker Palmer's metaphor of the Moebius strip as a perfect example of this. The Moebius strip is completely one-sided and yet multi-dimensional. As Coburn said, like a single line drawn across a Moebius strip, we can seamlessly look at our experience in its totality, without need to divide into inner and outer. We can live in a continuous now, a series of presents, in which we actualize change, however slight.

A friend forwards me daily reflections from Franciscan Richard Rohr, and this week one of these emails concerned precisely this tension between mysticism and prophecy. Fr. Rohr notes that although these ways of being religious are often seen as disparate, if we look to the biblical prophets we see that they use intimate language about God, an indication of close divine relationships, mystical relationships that seemingly led to their radical voices about social change. 

The truth is that suffering is at the heart of mystical and prophetic approaches to spiritual practice, and both ways of being seek a love that embraces and transcends the aching heart. It is  in an intimate engagement with the realities of suffering and the expansiveness and immediacy of divine presence that allows us to be open. Open to our own longing, open to the longing of the world around us, allowing the distinctions between self and other to melt away.

I am reminded of the wise words of the Muslim mystical poet Rumi:

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,
to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.

First, to let go of life.
In the end, to take a step without feet;
to regard this world as invisible,
and to disregard what appears to be the self.

Heart, I said, what a gift it has been
to enter this circle of lovers,
to see beyond seeing itself,
to reach and feel within the breast.

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