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Sacred Activism: An Unprecedented Marriage, Book Review by Carolyn Baker
Friday, 06 November 2009 06:36
by Carolyn Baker

When I was a young activist in the late 1960s and early 70s, simultaneously finding myself engaged in a burgeoning metaphysical quest, I sometimes felt nearly schizophrenic as I encountered other activists who disparaged the metaphysical, even as I engaged with other students of the metaphysical who had no interest in social or political issues. For years, it was challenging and frustrating to integrate these two poles of reality in my own life, and I noticed that I was not alone in my frustration. Increasingly, however, I saw activists pursuing spiritual quests and spiritual practitioners becoming more engaged in championing social justice causes. Nevertheless, it was not until 2009 that the exquisite union of activist passion and spiritual ardor was articulated by the brilliant author, activist, spiritual teacher, and Rumi scholar, Andrew Harvey, in his extraordinary book, The Hope: A Guide To Sacred Activism.

The Hope is above all, a vision of a marriage-a union of radical action on behalf of social justice and human dignity complemented by a spiritual quest for meaning and purpose in a world that all too often feels excruciatingly absurd. More specifically according to Harvey:

When the inner joy Mother Teresa spoke of, the joy of compassionate service, is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing economic, social, and political institutions, a radical and potentially all-transforming holy force is born

A Sacred Activist is someone who is starting to experience the inner joy and outer effectiveness of this force, who knows that the profound crisis in the world is in is challenging everyone to act from our deepest compassion and wisdom, and who is committed to being, in the face of growing chaos, suffering, and violence, what Robert Kennedy call "a tiny ripple of hope" and a "center of energy and daring."

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While this may sound abstract or irrelevant, the author launches all 15 chapters with one entitled "Ten Things You Can Do Right Now." Some are a combination of suggestions that invite the reader into "deep, nourishing connection" with his/her spirit, and others awaken the reader to tangible action in the world.

In The Hope, the author shares his very personal journey into Sacred Activism-a journey that has been informed by the experiences and teachings of history's great mystics, lived and applied in the crucible of his own life. At the same time, however, it is important that the reader understand that Andrew Harvey is a scholar-both an Oxford graduate and a former professor at that esteemed institution. Clearly, he has not spent his life with his head in the clouds as his Wikipedia entry reveals.

As a student of ancient wisdom and the psychology of Carl Jung, Andrew Harvey brings forth from his in-depth knowledge of the two, an adamant commitment to exploring and working with the archetype or theme of the human shadow. Jung defined the shadow as everything in us that is unconscious, repressed, undeveloped and denied. Often it consists of those qualities we see around us which repel us and from which we recoil and exclaim, "That's not me!"

The shadow contains material that we identify as both positive and negative. For example, in our diligence to relate with honesty and integrity to other humans, we may overlook a shadow aspect of our own psyche that is less than candid and straightforward. Meanwhile, we frown upon the blatant unscrupulousness of others. Similarly, in response to parental abuse, a child may develop a cold, harsh exterior in an attempt to conceal his vulnerability and be unaware of or far removed from his capacity for tenderness and compassion which have now become buried in the shadow.

According to Harvey, working with one's own shadow is imperative in the journey of sacred activism. Otherwise, one may betray the very principles for which one is struggling. For example, the peace activist may disown her propensity for violence and project it onto imperialist warmongers, only to find herself inexplicably erupting in rage at one of her activist colleagues.

Shadow work, the author emphasizes, is not for sissies-and it is vitally important if one is committed to becoming a Sacred Activist. The first essential experience in the process is to open to the sacred and the unconditional acceptance of oneself that lies therein. Harvey himself was profoundly influenced by his relationship with a mentor and friend, Father Bede Griffiths, a British-born Benedictine monk who lived and died in South India. Some months before Griffiths' death, Harvey spent many hours with him and listened as the aged monk spoke freely of the evolutionary threshold on which he believed humanity stood at the end of the twentieth century.

A new kind of human was/is trying to be born, according to Griffiths-a human that is both human and greater than human. In that birth, he believed, lay the potential for the emergence of a species that honors and respects the earth community and that relates to its own and all other species with compassion and justice. Never inhibited by church polity, Griffiths perceived the earth community and humanity's place in it in much the same way as did the late Father Thomas Berry, who referred to himself as a "geologian", that is, an earth scholar as opposed to a religious scholar. Moreover, Griffiths did not perceive the birthing of a new humanity as passive or painless. He insisted that it would have to manifest first as an immense crisis or series of crises which he called "a cauldron of chaos."

As Harvey's activism and mysticism deepened, he began to notice a disturbing dichotomy:

The activists I knew were separated in crucial ways from the ecstasy and power that sacred vision could offer them. Many of them rejected the notion of the Divine altogether.

Mystics, I saw, were mostly addicted to being, activists to doing. Both had profound narcissistic shadows that I recognized in myself. The mystic's shadow was a surreal dissociation from the body, the world, and the grueling tasks of implementing justice. The activist's shadow lay in the messiah and martyr complexes that accompany the addiction to doing, with its vulnerability to burnout, rage, and despair.

So how do the mystic and the militant become wedded within one individual psyche? Harvey suggests that the crux of all mystical experiences is a descent into the dark night of the soul which compels one not only to face one's own shadow, but invariably coalesces deep compassion and "wilder love for all beings." One door to the descent is to allow oneself to feel deeply the pain of the world's suffering. "When you are ‘intellectually' concerned about what is happening," says Harvey, "you can at least partially, protect yourself from the pain of the truth; when, however, you decide that you cannot bear to stand by and must do something real, you will inevitably meet the reality of the self-destructiveness that now drives a great deal of human action in the world."

The author asserts that a profound death is occurring among the human species even as a magnificent birth is in process. The death consists of environmental devastation, population explosion, the growth of fundamentalisms and religion-inspired terrorism, nuclear proliferation, a narrowly technological world view, the corporate mindset and corporate-controlled media, and our hectic pace of life.

Conversely, the birth in process consists of: 1) the global wake-up call to which millions are responding-the "blessed unrest", as Paul Hawken names it, that has never before been seen on such a large scale; 2) creative technologies never before available and new discoveries and possibilities being opened up in every real of science; 3) new forms of democratizing media; 4) a worldwide mystical renaissance; 5) an evolving philosophy of non-violence; the return of the feminine principle through interconnectedness and cooperation vs. competition; 6) and last but certainly not least, the birth of the "divine human"-that human and more-than-human being which Bede Griffiths heralded in his teaching.

Consistently marrying activism with the sacred, Harvey presents a chapter containing "The Five Forms of Service" which activists can offer to their local and global communities. In the final section of the book, the author details specific spiritual practices from which activists may choose in order to enhance the union of the mystic and the militant in their own lives. Refreshingly, these practices are not entirely mental; many focus on the body and how one can ground activist passion in the body alongside nurturing the body in the throes of activism's taxing physical and mental challenges.

A specific chapter on shadow work reminds the reader that "In authentic shadow work, you will be compelled to discover that everything you hate in others lives in you-that everything you fear in the destructive forces raging in our world has a home in you in some dark corner, in an unacknowledged unhealed fear or trauma, a hunger to be unique and special, or an unexamined desire for revenge." The reader is referred back to an earlier section of the book which outlines "Five Inner Saboteurs" that can ensnare the activist and derail his/her effectiveness in the world.

Counterbalancing serious attention to the shadow is the need for joy and play. In a chapter entitled "The Law of Joy", Harvey offers seven kinds of sacred joy and reinforces our daily requirement for lightheartedness and reprieve from the gravity of the activist endeavor. According to Harvey, a balance of activism, spiritual practice, and wild ecstasy produce a human being who is, in his words, uniquely capable of creating "radioactive mischief" in the world.

The final chapter of The Hope, explains one of Harvey's most exciting projects called "networks of grace" which create community among those of like heart and mind-other sacred activists in one's local community and globally. This would result in "cells" not only of mutual support, but could be potentially organized around a particular profession in which individuals want to devote their common skills to a common cause. For example, concerned lawyers might want to work together to see that people trapped in foreclosure get proper legal representation. Cells of doctors and nurses may pledge to work together to give free treatment to people who cannot afford healthcare. Cells of parents and professionals could assist those going through financial crisis by collecting food and clothing, taking children to school, and helping unemployed people find jobs.

Andrew Harvey has given us not only a written guide to sacred activism, but has created an Institute for Sacred Activism in Oak Park, Illinois which is "a one-year program with four intensives, offering a profound experience of what Sacred Activism can contribute to the inner and outer worlds, mystical practices for activists, and a deep grounding of the mystical journey as understood by major mystical traditions."

Participants are expected to work on a project linked to an area of special concern: world peace, public health, the environment, poverty, social justice, human rights, women's rights, children's rights, animal rights, etc. Each will create and complete a project that makes a real and unique contribution to one specific area that needs their unique energies.

In addition to Mr. Harvey, teachers, healers, and activists who exemplify Sacred Activism in their lives share their experiences as faculty.

The Institute for Sacred Activism will present its fall conference November 20-22 in Oak Park, Illinois.

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