Social Justice

Mysticism and Resistance: Ezekiel - Dorothee Soelle

posted on 03/09/10 03:36 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  


In our last three presentations we have dealt with three ancient Biblical prophets – Isaiah, Amos and Micah and three contemporaries who are continuing the prophetic imagination – Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan and Jean Vanier. In these presentations we have accentuated the denouncing and announcing of God’s concern for the people and their right relationship with God and with one another. Tonight we want to continue in that vain but high light the Mystical and Resistance – the subtitle of our series. To do so we have chosen the ancient prophet Ezekiel and the contemporary German theologian Dorothee Soelle.

Today in the North of the Americas Spirituality is a buzzword and books on this topic are everywhere to be found. Some see this interest as a welcomed blessing; others see it as potentially a sophisticated narcissism or tranquillizer. True spirituality takes one to the root of things and situates one in the heart of the matter. While continuing in the prophetic tradition tonight we would like to also comment on the mystical and the resistance that arises from mystical prayer.

SPIRITUALITY * Returning from Europe I was asked what it was like to be back in Canada. I replied: “It seems that many of my friends are spending so much of their time managing distractions.” In this sense then, spirituality might be defined as “Paying attention in an age of distractions.” * Spirituality might also be defined as Mindfulness. It is the insight of a Thomas Merton or some of the spiritual masters of the East. It might also be seen as a Centering or a Still point. * Let us always hear however the corrective of St. Teresa of Avila: “When in our mystical prayer we hear a knock at the door, go to the beggar knocking for the God of the beggar is more true than the God of your mystical prayer.” Or we remember Dan Berrigan’s quoting the Buddhist who said: “After the mystical moment remember that one has to do the laundry.” It was also the concern of Vanier that we keep the spirituality and the commitment to the poor together. It is so difficult for we escape to either one or the other. * True Spirituality and Mysticism invites Resistance.


No prophetic book poses more of a question than does Ezekiel. It combines prophetic oracles with legal reflections, prose and poetry, extremely detailed historical descriptions with highly imaginative mythological allusions, sober judgment and wild vision, verbose sermonizing with vivid dramatic presentation. This led to a wealth of material and a breadth of vision far greater than in other prophetic books. It also leads to a confusing array of scholarly opinions about almost every aspect of the book’s composition and message.

The book of Ezekiel attempts to call forth a major return to trust in God. Revitalize the older traditions of God’s acting in history and strengthen the practice of the faith through worship and observance of the law. In view of the subsequent development of Israelite faith toward study of the Book of the Law i.e. the development of a canon of scripture that stresses the Torah is central, it is no wonder that Ezekiel is often considered the “father of Modern Judaism.”


The Book of Ezekiel is an orderly five part collection or anthology of writings by the prophet and his followers. Chapters 1-3 tell of the prophet’s call; chapters 4-24 contain prophecies about the fate of Jerusalem before its fall in 587 B.C.E.; chapters 25-32 are prophecies against foreign nations; chapters 33-39 encourage the hope of restoration after the fall of Jerusalem; and chapters 40-48 present a vision of the new temple and the restoration of the cultic and political life of the people in the land of Israel.

Ezekiel like the other classical prophets is a passionate, uncompromising spokesperson for God. He announces words of judgment and encouragement to his particular community as it faces a crisis in its religious and political existence. Ezekiel makes the sixth-century Jewish community in Judah and Babylon mindful of its false hope in Jerusalem and its false despair after the fall of the city in 587. In a variety of ways including visions (chs. 1-3; 8-11; 37; 40-48) symbolic actions that concretely dramatize the message (chs 4-5) allegories (ch 16) and judgments speeches Ezekiel calls for individual responsibility, repentance and submission to the sovereignty of God. Ezekiel gives voice to a poetic vision of a community restored for the sake of the divine name, to a new national identity in a new and restored Israel.

Babylon, which was over 750 miles from Jerusalem, is the presumed geographical setting for Ezekiel. Ezekiel described the Exile prophetically as an occasion that demanded the conversion of a sinful, rebellious people and their acquiring of a “new heart.” (36:26)

Ezekiel was probably brought to Israel in the first wave of refugees in 598BCE. Most of his prophecy is between 593 and 586 during the reign of Zedekiah. Ezekiel resisted any attempts by Zedekiah to overthrow Babylonian control of Jerusalem. He engaged in a deeper struggle against the political ambitions of the ruling class in Jerusalem proposing instead a strong Theo centric concept of Israel as a community faithful in its religious observance and its obedience to Yahweh.


* God punishes disobedience and lack of fidelity to covenant by political disaster. * Violations of covenant in language of adultery and prostitution. * He preferred fidelity to covenant under Babylonian rule to war for independence build on human pride. * Yahweh has lordship over all nations and events. * Yahweh’s holiness, moral and cultic integrity; responsibility of each generation for its own acts and God intends to restore Israel out of a totally free gift of grace. * The prophet must be faithful no matter is one hears or not (chs. 3 and 33).

At the time of Ezekiel Jehoiachim was King and he was taken to Babylon. Zedekiah his brother remained in Jerusalem as a regent-king on behalf of Babylon. He later tried to revolt and thus Jerusalem fell in 587. The Persians conquered Babylon in 537.


Dorothee was born in Cologne, Germany in 1929. She studied the classical languages, Philosophy and Theology. Although she wrote her habilitation exams in 1971, she never attained a full professorship in her native land. It was only in 1994 that she was named an honorary professor of the University of Hamburg. From 1975-1987 Soelle was the Professor for Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It is said that today she is the most well known theologian in Europe and the woman with the most theological works today. She has moved from being a systematic theologian to one who know writes in the area of prayer and theological poetry.

Soelle was heavily influenced by Liberation Theology and often made trips to El Salvador and Nicaragua. She was a leader in the peace movement in Europe and Germany and wrote an influential work: “Beyond Obedience.”

Soelle is married to Dr. Fulbert Steffensky professor of Religion and Education at the University of Hamburg and a former Catholic Monk. Dorothee Soelle is Lutheran. Soelle was strongly influenced by her Lutheran background especially the Confessing Church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Her family was a supporter of the Barmen Declaration, which led some to eventually try to assassinate Hitler. She was terrified of the effects of the Concordat that Hitler had signed with both the Catholic Church in the South of Germany and the Lutheran in the North.


* Soelle sees us as those “who prefer not to decide.” We put ourselves above the conflict. She maintains, “Christ’s view is extremist because his view is that of the victim.” * Choosing life for Soelle means three things: 1. To be free from our captivity, 2. To rediscover a sense of discontent, 3. Which can take us beyond cynicism and apathy. * Soelle says: “When I understood Auschwitz, I joined the peace movement. * She often likes to quote Meister Eckhart: “Therefore I beg of God, that he rid me of God.” She pleas for a liberation from language that is of a small God. Soelle maintains that the only power that God has is the power of love. She sees suffering as fundamental to being a disciple. She has a mystical certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God and this grows continually when we ourselves become one with love by placing ourselves, freely and without guarantee of success on the side of Love. (Theology for Skeptics.) Theology must make us hungry for the reign of God. * Prayer is the language of Faith and not Theology. * When Justice becomes superfluous, the God of Israel is rejected. * Soelle was strongly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his writings from Tegel Prison. “The time will come when people will speak the word of God and the world will be changed, a new language of truth and justice as Jesus spoke, in a way that scandalizes and draws people, not religious but liberating. * To pray means to cooperate with God. God has a dream about us humans; in prayer we end letting God dream alone. We participate in God’s dream, we join. I need to ground heaven on earth. * Soelle reflects on Middle Class. She maintains “the main difficulty is that the victims of the system are often invisible for us living in the middle class of the rich world. For the biblical story – the Poor are our Teachers. Soelle writes: “Free me O God from the dreadful historical role of the middle class rich countries. I believe that freedom, a deeper inner idea of freedom will not be attained until we are free of bombs, free of poison gas, free of the arms industry and free of this whole cancer that overruns our entire life, defines our cities, rules our research and terrorizes our landscapes with its low flying aircraft that cause school children to scream and cry at night because they are disturbed.” * Soelle is heavily influenced by St. Paul’s writings. Paul and the Early Christians saw sin as the essence of this legal and military system, which so enslaved people that they could not obey God.


Taking a brief scriptural passage from the five sections of the prophet Ezekiel let us bring these passages into dialogue with some of the convictions and thoughts of Dorothee Soelle. The Prophet’s Call (Chapters 1-3)

“In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions…. the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the Lord came upon me.”

“… open your mouth and eat what I shall give you. It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front and back and written on it was Lamentation and wailing and woe.”

* Dorothee Soelle and her family were part of that movement within the Lutheran Church that challenged Hitler and the Concordat that he signed with the main churches of Germany of the day. It was called the Barmen Declaration. It was in this script that the Soelle family saw the vision of their God for the Germany of the day. Collaboration was not the order of the day. Privilege must be challenged.

The Fate of Jerusalem before its Fall. (Chapters. 4-24)

“Spirited lifted me up and brought me to the east gate of the temple. At the entrance of the gate I saw twenty-five men, ..Princes of the people. The Lord said to me: Son of man, these are the men who are planning evil and giving wicked counsel in this city. Shall we not, they say, be building houses soon? The city is the kettle and we are the meat. Therefore prophesy against them, son of man, prophesy. Then the spirit of the Lord fell upon me and he told me to say: Thus says the Lord: This is the way you talk, hose of Israel and what you are plotting I well know. You have slain many in this city and have filled its streets with your slain…. Your slain whom you have placed within it, they are the meat, and the city is the kettle but you I will take out of it. Your fear the sword, but the sword I will bring upon you, says the Lord, God. I will bring you out of the city says that Lord God and hand you over to foreigners and inflict punishment upon you.” 11: 1-10

* Dorothee Soelle and her family spoke out against the Second World War efforts of Hitler. She spoke out against the War that the United States was fighting in Central America. She spoke out against the War in Iraq and continues to speak out against the ongoing struggles in the Middle East. * In Chapter 8 Ezekiel says that the Temple must be cleansed because it has become an abomination. Complete apostasy from God. The Temple must be cleaned. Soelle along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls for a “religion less Christianity” Our symbols and rituals have been so co-opted.

Prophecies Against the Foreign Nations (Chapters 25-32)

“Son of Man say to the prince of Tyre: Thus says the Lord God. Because you are haughty of heart, you say, a god am I! I occupy a godly throne in the heart of the sea. And you are a man and not a god, however you may think yourself like a god. Oh yes, you are wiser than Daniel, thee is no secret that is beyond you. By the wisdom of your intelligence you have make riches for yourself; You have put gold and silver into your treasuries. By the great wisdom applied to your trading you have heaped up your riches, your heart has grown haughty from your riches. Therefore thus says the Lord God. Therefore I will bring against you foreigners, the most barbarous of nations. They shall draw their swords against your beauteous wisdom; they shall run them through your splendid apparel….. You are a man and not a god…..” 28:1-10

* Dorothee Soelle in her present work and reflection wonders about the religion of the Market. Market capital is a religion with its notions of high priest, grace and sin. The technocrat is the new priest. We have developed a new reality of the techno-peasant. The World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are the new Unholy Trinity. The tragedy of September 11th, 2001 is an attack on the corporate organization of the World around capital.

Hope of Restoration after the Fall of Jerusalem. Chapters 33-39

“The hand of the Lord came upon me and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the plain which was now filled with bones. He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? Lord God, I answered, you alone know that. Then he said to me Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord…. as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together bone joining bone. I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them and the skin cover then but there was no spirit in them. Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy son of man and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord God: From the four winds come, O spirit and breathe into these slain that they may come to life…… Then he said to me: These bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost and we are cut off…Thus says the Lord God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and have you rise form them.”

Dorothee Soelle’s most recent work: The Silent Cry is a call to mysticism and resistance. Dorothee says that it is only prayer and the mystical moment that can bring us to our senses and have us see that we are called to a life beyond idolatry.

* Martin Buber once said that one could not speak of God as a kind of object. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “A God who exists as an object doesn’t exist.” You can only speak about God when you speak to him. God is always something different than what our theologies make him out to be. Prayer is the real language of faith and not theology. Praying is wishing, fiery wishing. * Soelle quotes John of the Cross – “Go where you are nothing.” And Jacob Bohme – “God is the void who wants to be everything.” Pascal – “God will hang on the cross until the end of the world.” The mystics know the picture of a spark. God is the fire, which is never extinguished, and the pure sparks shimmer, which are hidden, in individual persons. The beauty of the world and the happiness of creation impart experience of God. God hides even in tiny stones. The churches are responsible for not communicating the mystical dimension. It is this dimension that will give us fire to reanimate our dried and broken bones. The central project of the 21st Century is that we must learn to pray again.

Vision of the new Temple in the land of Israel. Chapters 40-48

“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the façade of the temple was toward the east; the water flowed down from the southern side of the temple, south of the altar…. He made me wade through the water which was ankle-deep…but there was now a river through which I could not wade, for the water had risen so high it had become a river that could not be crossed except by swimming…. He then brought me to the bank of the river, where he had me sit. Along the bank of the river I saw very many trees on both sides…. Wherever the river flows every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live and there shall be abundant fish…along both banks of the river fruit trees of every kind shall grow, their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” 47:1-12

* Dorothee Soelle speaks of a new fire, a new spirit that will come as a result of meditation and mystical prayer. We do need a new spirit within the human to bring us back from a destructive use of the planet earth. The birth of consciousness is the creation’s ability to dance and to offer praise. Mystical prayer gives us the desert eyes necessary to see and be moments of hope in these our times of dislocation and disconnect.


In this four part series we have tried to name these times in which we live. They are times of Exile, disconnect, dislocation and desert. It is said that low-grade guilt and depression abound. We are living at the end of an era. We are living in End Times or Kairos. It is also a God time – a time for radical gratitude. In order to see God working in these our times, it is necessary to have Desert Eyes. Such eyes are possible when we stay in the desert long enough with a posture of mystical prayer. Then we will be able to resist the addictions and the idolatries that provide less than our calling and our dignity.

God is doing a New Deed. In this season of Advent may we all be open to the God who comes always new and always life giving. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1944 in his season of Advent in the Tegel Prison of Berlin: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened form the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” It is mystical prayer that will invite an opening of that door to a new life, the fullness of life.

Paul E. Hansen

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