Breakthrough to Unity by Roswitha Jarman
By Harvey Gillman
Roswitha Jarman has called her Kindlers’ booklet ’Breakthrough to Unity’ as if the human condition (or is it just Quakers?) , were lost in multiplicity. The subtitle ‘The Quaker way held within the mystic tradition’ is ambiguous. The word ’held’ confused me a little but I like the idea that the Quaker way may be supported, upheld, sustained, if it recognises itself as part of a universal search for unity beyond the different faces assumed by different traditions and religious teachings. I read Roswitha’s work after writing a short booklet myself on the mystical path, but whereas mine reflects an existential struggle to reconcile divisions in the self, Roswitha’s, although she does mention personal difficulties, seems much more serene. In fact I am attracted to, even envy, her serenity.
This work is directed at Quakers and has a practical emphasis. Exercises are given for group work. Friends are asked to reflect on their own paths and how these relate to the life and practice of the mystics. The questions are deep and searching: ‘What words do you give to the Inner and Outer?’ ‘What are your doorways to your spirit nature?’ ‘Do I know and live out my daily life as bedded in the eternal mystery?’ Not questions you can answer in a brief yes or no – questions which might last you a lifetime! To help us on our way, Roswitha offers comments and insights from several mystics, Quaker and other Christians, and followers of other paths. Her favourite non-Quakers seem to be Martin Buber, Dorothee Sölle, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Meister Eckhart. She devotes a short chapter to Eckhart, so pivotal is he in her thinking. I loved her comment on him: ‘For me he does not so much teach (although he was also engaged in teaching) as say things that crack open inner doors’. That cracking open inner doors is a metaphor for the words of many mystics. This breaking in, breaking through is at the heart of Roswitha’s understanding of the mystic tradition: ‘Mystic to me simply means allowing myself to sink deep into the holy unity of all and there to know this Unity and know the spirit experientially’.
Her reflections are made stronger and given authority by the fact that she has been involved in areas of conflict for a number of years. For her, mysticism is not a flight from this word, but a deeper commitment to it. The mystical way is lived in the here and now and is tested by its relevance to justice, peace, and ecological awareness. The proof of the divine in these situations is not the miraculous, or a rational philosophy, but the challenge of love: ’People have asked me what has kept me going in my work for peace in war-torn regions?…..I know for myself that it was love, not a love I talked myself into or a feeling of who I should love but a love that flows out of being centred within…..a love that has the power to transform.’
One of the striking images in the booklet is that of Roswitha sitting in the church of San Marco, Florence, in front of the fresco, The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. For her, Mary is the icon of surrender and the painting is analysed as a symbol of the surrender of each person to the Divine and the giving birth of the divine seed within each human soul (an image dear to Eckhart). I appreciated this reference, as it often seems to me that Friends often look down on the visual even though modern Quakerism has brought back an emphasis on the immanence of the divine in all creation.
(Just two comments on the text – on page 27 there are references to Origen who is misspelled twice and the note concerning the mystical writer Dionysius the Areopagite is ambiguous, as he was not ‘a disciple of St Paul’ in the usual sense of the phrase. He is now thought to have been a sixth-century Syrian monk who took the name of a first century disciple of St Paul.)
In my own work on the mystical path, I have been faced with several questions which I should like to raise here even though I do not have any definite answers. Is there a basic mysticism of which different religious paths are just external manifestations? Or does the mystical spring out of different religious insights – which means that there are a number of different mysticisms? Does the mystic need a certain asceticism, or rejection of the outer world, in order to find a deeper world? Are we all mystics or is this a preoccupation of just a few? How does talk of love and surrender appeal to those who are just about surviving human degradation and natural disasters? Roswitha’s booklet is helpful here, but perhaps there are no real answers, just ways of living.
A highly recommended work!
Breakthrough to Unity by Roswitha Jarman is available from the Bookshop at the Quaker Centre, Friends House, London.