Integrating our Mysticism and Our Witness

by Christopher Sammond

Because we cannot reasonably expect to erect a constantly expanding structure of social activism upon a constantly diminishing foundation of faith, attention to the cultivation of the inner life is our first order of business, even in a period of radical social change.                     D. Elton Trueblood

For some time now I have been living questions about how to better integrate my own mystical practice and my witness in the world.  While on retreat recently, the Gospel story of Jesus’ response to being asked “What is the greatest commandment?” came to me.  Jesus responded:  “You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  I realized that, in many ways, this short teaching offers us a profound blueprint for how to live out the both/and of mystical connection to the Divine, and prophetic witness.

Let’s take it piece by piece.  What I know about loving God with all my heart, soul and mind, the utter totality of my being, is being in touch with that place within where I touch God and God touches me- the place where the Divine Inner Spark resides.  For when I am in touch with that place, my little love coincides with the Large Love, and there is not so much me loving God or experiencing God loving me, there is just love, present and powerful.  But being in touch with that place doesn’t just happen.  It takes intentionality in the way I live my life, and this implies self-care.  I can’t access this deepest well within me when I am sleep deprived, when I am weary from too much activity, when my attention is too divided.  So loving God this way actually means I need to order my life so that this is possible more and more of the time.

I was on staff at a retreat center for a year, and witnessed many individuals coming for a weekend or so with ambitious intentions of spending the time in prayer, or studying, or writing a chapter in their book.  What I invariably heard from so many of them at the end of the weekend was that they had spent most of their time sleeping.  They didn’t know how exhausted they were.  We are a nation of sleep deprived people, stretching ourselves too far, too often, to meet the demands of our busy lives.  James Bryant Smith, author of The Good and Beautiful God, and the creator of a spiritual formation program at Barclay College, starts his three book series on spiritual formation with a lot of statistics on just how sleep deprived we are as a nation, and how enough rest is foundational for a rich spiritual life.

This focus on a more adequate care of self leads inexorably to what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  Well, if we’re not doing the greatest job of loving ourselves, we are not going to have much love to extend to our neighbors.  For example, I had recently been planning on going to the open house at the SHARE farm (which stands for Strengthening Haudenosaunee American Relations through Education), to get to know some of our Haudenosaunee (First Nations) neighbors better.  But I saw my neighbor had just mowed his hayfield, opening access to a downed maple tree I wanted for firewood.  Though already tired, I jumped at this brief window when it was OK to cross his land to cut and haul away a pickup load of great firewood.  The next day, really beat, instead of resting, I worked hard to get seeds in the ground, already late in the season for some of them.   On the day after that, when I would have joined my Haudenosaunee neighbors, I was too tired to do much of anything.  I had to stay home, and I missed that opportunity.  So, there’s a connection with what I choose to fill my life with, and my capacity to be present, and to love my neighbor.

And it gets harder yet when the neighbors I am commanded to love are people I vehemently disagree with.  Many of my neighbors are ardent Trump supporters.  It’s not hard to know this; they have flags out proclaiming it proudly.  This is where I really appreciate Francis of Assisi’s teaching that “You can show your love to others by not wishing that they should be better Christians.”  It’s very hard for me to not wish my neighbors weren’t more discerning in their political loyalties, as I consider the object of their ardent admiration to be a fraud, a grifter, and an aspiring tyrant.

There are many who I wish were better members of the body politic, better Christians, even better Quakers.  Francis tells me this is not the way to love them.

And then there are the neighbors who are actively harming others, including myself.  Like my neighbors who have leased land to the gas companies, and who advocate for fracking all around me, or the neighbors with large CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) manure pits, emitting vast quantities of climate disrupting methane gas, who periodically spread that mess from the manure pits across the landscape, making a stench that lasts for days, and the neighbors who spread toxic chemicals across their acreage which leach down into my well water.  These, too, I am to love.  And that means, somehow, to not start by wishing they were better, or different, farmers.

As I get to know my Trump loving, pro-fracking, groundwater polluting neighbors, I find that they are really good people.  Getting to know them defuses the ability to cast them as “other.”  I know them as people, even as friends.

Jesus sums up his teaching on the greatest commandments by saying that on them, “hang all the law and the prophets.”  They are the basis, the origin point, for the law, which tells an observant Jew how to be in relationship with God and how to live in community in a good and respectful way.  And they are the basis, the origin point for the prophets, those divinely inspired Jews who were called to point out where individuals or the community were not living up to The Law, which they understood to be God’s law.

Perhaps it is also the place where Quakers, called to offer prophetic witness, can find our origin point, our basis from which to name where there is injustice.  Perhaps this place of love of neighbor, damned hard as that can be at times, could be the starting point for witnessing where our communities are not leading lives in harmony with the greater law of the Divine, even when we are living in complete accordance with the laws of our land.

Love of self, love of neighbor, love of God.  All different facets of an inseparable whole.  All require an openness and tenderness of heart, for us to “open the iris” of our heart wide, and take the world in through that lens.

If you are living questions around the connections between spiritual experience, self-care, being led, and Spirit-led action, you could check out the Participating in God’s Power program here.  We will be taking a year-long deep dive into those very questions.



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1 thought on “Integrating our Mysticism and Our Witness”

  1. Jane O’Keefe

    Your essay speaks to me just where I am right now in my spiritual life. I knew much about loving, and thus serving, the world since a child. It has taken me into my sixth decade to even know that I was supposed to love God, let alone how I was to do this. Now, focused as I was on loving others (albeit far from perfectly), I see that I really have no idea how to love myself. . . . So this is where I am now. And yet, as you said, it’s all the same love, only different facets of it. Thank you for your words, which have put into language what I am struggling to understand more fully right in this moment of my search.

    “Love of self, love of neighbor, love of God. All different facets of an inseparable whole.”

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