Mysticism and Resistance

A Memoir of Dorothee Sölle

Inge Remmert-Fontes met Dorothee Sölle when she joined her in 'Political Night Prayers' in Cologne in the 1960s. Following her friend's death last year, Inge recalls a life and work, in which prayer and political activism remained consistently inseparable.

Mysticism and Resistance wasn't Dorothee Sölle's last book. However, after her sudden death it has come to seem almost like her testament, as it sums up the way she lived, what she was committed to, and what she often expressed in words that made her readers and listeners think: 'That's just what I believe too'.

Dorothee Sölle was born in Cologne in 1929. She studied classical philology, philosophy, literature and theology. Despite qualifying as a university lecturer in 1971 and many years as a visiting professor abroad, she was never given a professorship in Germany, because her opinions were highly controversial in the academic world. It was only in 1994 that she became honorary professor at Hamburg University.

She became well-known as the co-instigator of the 'Political Night Prayers' held in Cologne from 1968 to 1972. Her writings and talks, as well as her social and political commitment pointed the way for many, including many young people. For Dorothee Sölle, leading a christian life, political commitment and theology belonged inseparably together. As an activist in the peace movement, she engaged in civil disobedience and practised non-violent resistance, for which she received repeated court convictions for 'attempted coercion'.

Dorothee Sölle died on Sunday April 27th 2003 at the age of 73. Over the weekend, together with her husband Fulbert Steffensky, she had taken part as the main speaker in a seminar on the theme of 'God and happiness'.

In her book, Mysticism and Resistance, at the end of Part 1, which aims to be 'a general introduction to mystical thinking...stages on the way of mysticism for people on the journey today', Dorothee Sölle lists these 'stages' for herself as: 'Being Amazed; Letting Go; Resisting'. [i]

She calls amazement being overwhelmed 'in the face of what encounters us in nature and in history's experiences of liberation', beholding the world like God after the sixth day of creation. However, this amazement is not only the experience of unending bliss, like the child's amazement on discovering the beauty of the world for the first time, but also the 'dark side of terror and hopelessness, that renders one mute'. This 'dark side' means not closing your eyes and heart to the suffering in the world. For Dorothee Sölle both these aspects of amazement mean that the soul becomes free from 'habits, viewpoints and convictions' that make us insensitive. It also means that we do not take this first step on the mystical way as seekers, but as 'those who have been found; the goodness we experience is there already long before'.

While we are amazed, we begin 'leaving ourselves' or 'letting go' , which for Dorothee Sölle starts with simple questions, like: 'What do I perceive? What do I keep away from myself? What touches me? What do I choose?' She describes letting go of false desires and needs, and our amazement in everyday life brings us closer to what mysticism calls 'being apart'. For her this is 'actively bidding farewell to the customs and norms of our culture'.

The third stage on the mystical way she describes - resistance - also implies healing. Healing means that 'humans live in compassion and justice co-creatively; in being healed, they experience also that they can heal'. The being at-one that this involves is not individualistic self-realisation, but moves beyond that to social change of 'death-oriented reality'. As I am amazed and let go of what I am used to, keep taking leave of my old ideas, resistance follows almost inevitably and requires change. This change is expressed in forms of resistance.

For Dorothee Sölle mysticism and transformation are inseparably linked. This comes out very clearly in the final chapter of her book Mysticism and Resistance, called 'A Mysticism of Liberation', in which she mentions several examples from Latin America: the story Death and Life of Severino by the North Brazilian João Cabral, liberation theology in general, and the particular approaches of Pedro Casaldáliga and Dom Hélder Câmara.

She starts with a model of 'centre and periphery', to describe the dependence of the poor majority on the rich minority. Awareness of this structural violence is necessary in order to understand a mysticism of liberation. Dorothee Sölle speaks of a 'hermeneutics of hunger', meaning the hunger of the poor for bread and freedom, and the 'hunger (in the First World) for spirituality, the search for meaning', beyond the hopeless emptiness of consumerism, depression and isolation, that produce a kind of 'spiritual anorexia'.

Dorothee Sölle uses her examples in this chapter to describe what she calls a 'mysticism with its eyes open', that expresses itself in changes in behaviour and religious teaching. These include:

Dorothee Sölle sees the changes required for necessary resistance exemplified in the life and works of Dom Hélder Câmara, the Brazilian archbishop, who was one of the first to describe a spiral of violence. Câmara distinguishes between:

The passive resistance 'without hatred and without violence' that Dom Hélder Câmara sets against this spiral of violence could also be regarded as the watchword of Dorothee Sölle's own life. This resistance is rooted in the conviction that love is stronger than hatred and the right to tell the truth can be gained through love and friendship.

At the end of her book Dorothee Sölle describes what the mystical way means, mysticism as singleness of life and the qualities it demands. She quotes the description of a Quaker life:

Dorothee Sölle will be personally missed by many people, her skill, her determination, her courage, her example as a committed woman and as a theologian, who not only preached but did what she could to bring about the changes she demanded, her spirituality that gave space and courage to others. Her words, her thoughts, together with her books, will remain with us as vital companions on our way.

Written by Inge Remmert-Fontes

Inge Remmert-Fontes has been a teacher and interpreter and worked for many years in co-operation for development. Recently, she has been working as a freelance counsellor, mediator and trainer in non-violent conflict resolution.

September 2004

Translated from German by the Editor


[i] Dorothee Sölle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001), p. 88. (German edition: Mystik und Widerstand: Du stilles Geschrei (Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 1997).