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Reviewed by:
  • Mysticism and Social Transformation
  • Brian Karafin
Mysticism and Social Transformation. Edited by Janet K. Ruffing. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001. 220 pp.

Father Daniel Berrigan, in a recent (September 2003) talk in Ithaca, New York, invoked the prophetic God of Isaiah as a Voice of radical social critique in the context of twenty-first century social injustice and imperial war. Isaiah's God calls for the beating of swords into ploughshares and the reorientation of the human community from the practice of violence to the harmonious social order of the messianic realm in which the antagonisms and injustices of history will be overcome. This prophetic God of justice, petitioned by Berrigan as a principle of resistance to unjust societies and war, speaks through the mouths and bodies of actors in history such as Berrigan himself. The resister-priest went on to connect the God of Justice to the Gospel image of the grain of wheat falling into the dark soil of death and thereby bringing forth fruit. Berrigan's faith in Jesus pivots around this image of new Life emergent from a self-sacrificial nonviolence that "puts up the sword" in the name of the love [End Page 264] of enemies. Jesus, says Berrigan, was a "corngod," rising again from death as a figure of the Life that comes from a sacrificial love that refuses legitimacy to the violence of history.

A young woman pressed Berrigan to speak more about his relationship to God. Departing from the biblical mode of his prepared text, Berrigan cited the Buddha as counseling action toward the good for its own sake rather than for an extrinsic end. He proceeded to speak of his months spent living in community with Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1970s (during which the book-length dialogue The Raft Is Not the Shore: Towards a Buddhist-Christian Awareness, recently republished, was composed) and the attitude he learned from the Buddhist master that sees mindful awareness directed toward all aspects of experience, external and internal, social and psychological, as the fundamental practice of the spiritual life. Berrigan seemed to suggest, by poetic indirection, that the way to God lay through the practice of mindful attention.

At another point in the dialogue, Berrigan spoke of Thomas Merton as his most significant spiritual influence, lamenting Merton's sudden death even after thirty-five years. Merton, of course, was famous both for initiating the Christian dialogue with Buddhism and for attempting to bring a mystical spirituality grounded in the Catholic contemplative tradition into contact with the social-political crises of the contemporary world. Contemplation, for Merton, took place in a world of action; the two polarities of the spiritual life could be neither fully identified with each other nor, if spirituality was to be grounded in love and compassion rather than individualism, considered to be separate. Contemplative or mystical practice must have its own space to develop lest the world of action be deprived of a principle that transcends its domain; at the same time, thought Merton, mysticism without attention to the cries of the world becomes a form of narcissism that produces exotic flowers while children starve and cities burn. Toward the end of his life Merton, like Berrigan, met and was influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, and he wrote of the Vietnamese Buddhist as a kind of exemplary figure of socially engaged spirituality for the contemporary world. For Merton, Nhat Hanh represented a voice and practice of peace grounded in contemplative awareness merged with an attempt to mindfully act in a world of war, social injustice, and environmental devastation, rather than remaining, literally and metaphorically, in the safely spiritual enclave of the monastery.

Janet Ruffing's edition of a collection of papers on this theme of the relations between mystical spirituality and prophetic politics shares the premise of Merton, Berrigan, and Thich Nhat Hanh, that the "mystical and political dimensions of religious existence" (p. ix) belong together not as institutions but as aspects of a complete religious response to the world and ultimate reality. Christianity, understood as a prophetic and messianic religion, emerges from a sense of justice and calls for resistance to injustice in the vein of the...