Mrs. Jellyby & St. John of the Cross by Jim Forest

Mrs. Jellyby & St. John of the Cross

Jim Forest on Activism & Prayer

Among the cautionary characters the reader encounters in Charles Dickens’s novel of the 1840s, Bleak House, is Mrs. Jellyby, who resolutely devotes every waking hour to the “Borrioboola-Gha venture.” The reader never discovers the details of the endeavor except that it involves the settlement of impoverished Britons among African natives with the goal of supporting themselves through coffee growing.

Mrs. Jellyby is convinced that no other undertaking in life is so worthwhile, or would solve so many problems at a stroke. Dickens’s interest is not in the project, however, but rather in Mrs. Jellyby, who is so wedded to her work that she has no time for her several children, with the exception of Caddy, a daughter she has conscripted as her secretary. Ink-spattered Caddy puts in nearly as many hours as her mother in the daily task of answering letters and sending out literature about Borrioboola-Gha.

Caddy, however, has come to hate the very word “Africa” or any word that has the remotest suggestion of causes. For her, causes simply mean the ruin of family life. Mrs. Jellyby’s husband eventually becomes suicidal and, though surviving despair, is last seen in the book with his head resting despondently on a wall.

In the book’s postscript, we discover that the Borrioboola-Gha project failed after the local king sold the project’s volunteers into slavery in order to buy rum. Mrs. Jellyby quickly found another cause to occupy her time, “a mission with more correspondence than the old one,” thus providing a happy ending for a permanent campaigner.

The Mrs. Jellybys

While few in the social movements so radically neglect those in their care, unfortunately I cannot think of Mrs. Jellyby merely as a caricature. When my wife and I talked about her, we could think of several people, of both sexes, resembling her in many details: people with a legitimate concern but engaging themselves so fully that their fixation has wreaked havoc in the lives of those around them, and probably done a great deal to drive many people they intended to influence in the opposite direction.

While in theory dedicated to compassion, the Mrs. Jellybys I’ve often known seem to be driven by anger with those around them, whom they can punish with a clear conscience by taking up a virtuous cause.

I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s marriage because of a demonstration that day. Another man, more Gandhian than Gandhi, when left in charge of the office of the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the rest of the staff was away being arrested and jailed, nearly starved the office cat to death because his conscience opposed the domestication of animals. Whatever food the cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from his ideology-guided hand.

It is a dilemma that the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, discussed in the 1960s in one of his letters (included in The Hidden Ground of Love) he sent me. “One of the problematic questions about nonviolence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations,” he said, especially in those who are not “spiritually developed.” There is

[t]he danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence. . . . In our acceptance of vulnerability, we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time . . . all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation. . . . We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it.

Because of my own experience, I tend to think especially of the peace movement, but it hardly matters what movement it is that one belongs to: left or right, red or green, nationalist or trans-nationalist, large or small. The cause could be pacifism, feminism, marxism, anarchism, vegetarianism, libertarianism, anti-communism, states rights, human rights, animal rights, some political party, or one’s religion.

In any case, ideology, not compassion, tends to become the driving force of much activism. Compassion, however much the word may be used, rarely thrives within the climate of movements and causes, except a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a victim group whose needs legitimate the cause.

Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or feels compassion for one group of war casualties but not another.

Cause-directed ideology also serves the function of keeping its users in a constant state of guilt and anger: guilt because one can never become the person the cause requires and expects of its adherents; and anger because there are never enough people ready to join the group and there are always those, even vast numbers, who either stand in opposition or don’t seem to care.

The Spanish Mrs. Jellybys

I suspect St. John of the Cross would easily recognize Mrs. Jellyby and identify her Spanish counterparts. The sixteenth-century Spanish Church was not short on ideology or in people whose ecclesiastical purposefulness was matched by harshness to those around them. It was a climate in which the Inquisition met a profound need: Ideology must find and punish those who oppose it or fail to measure up to its demands. (Punishment of ideological offenders today must be done mainly with words rather than torture and bonfires, though the fires built of words can blaze very hot.)

St. John of the Cross’s opposition to religious ideology and its structures, which made him a prisoner for a time, was not protest in a form that we would quickly recognize as such. Rather it took the form of building up communities of mystical life in which, in community with the poor, the members disowned many familiar comforts, including shoes, thereby getting their name, “the shoeless Carmelites.”

St. John of the Cross encouraged everyone to live a mystical life. Perhaps in those days this seemed nearly as outrageous as it does in our own world. The word “mystical” sounds so remote and other-worldly, suggesting to many a sort of person indifferent to the needs and problems of his neighbors. (One finds that sort of figure in the cast of Bleak House as well: There is the Reverend Mr. Chadband, whose pastoral devotion makes it easier for him to notice a potential donor than a person in rags.)

To get rid of misleading stereotypes about mysticism, one must ask: What is mystical life? It is firsthand experience of God. It is the difference between the menu and the meal. “Taste and see how good the Lord is,” we are told by the psalmist, not “read about God and his goodness.” It is one of the primary eucharistic invitations.

We are not summoned to a verbal excursion but to an actual experience, as real and indescribable as tasting an orange. Not even Shakespeare can give us in words the taste of an orange. Not even St. John the Evangelist can put God into words. Each of us must either taste for ourselves or settle for religious press clippings.

St. John of the Cross insists that there is nothing remarkable about moving from secondhand to firsthand experience, from becoming informed about God to being a participant in God. Nor could there be any event more transforming in our lives or of greater consequence to those around us, for we would see ourselves and others with new eyes and live without the fears that so often limit or paralyze our responses or make them self-serving. St. John’s poems, and his essays about these poems, are entirely on this subject.

Nor does he suggest that one must be clever to be a mystic. God is not reserved for the smart people—rather they are the one’s most likely to get in their own way, to wall themselves in—and God out—with words, causes, and ideology.

Avoiding Mysticism

Ideology has the advantage over mysticism of being controllable. It is “well-lit.” We can more or less comprehend it and to some small extent define its shape, although in the end, it defines our shape.

God is not comprehensible and definable. God is, compared to “well-lit,” an infinite darkness, a light that seems like night. Thus St. John’s “dark night of the soul.” St. John is a spiritual journalist reporting on how it is one must pass through blindness (the cross) in order to see (and thus rise from death). It is a terrifying passage, but finally one gets to see, not simply to hear about seeing.

Perhaps for these reasons—the desire for the controllable and the terror of the uncontrollable—mysticism is something social movements generally avoid. In many groups dedicated to peace and justice, even ones with some religious basis, the word mysticism, if said at all, is pronounced with derision, as if to say, the true social activist has no time to be a mystic, for mysticism cannot possibly have anything to do with untying the knots in our disordered world.

There is too much to be done, too many urgent needs to be met, to permit indulgence in long liturgies, religious rites, penitential activities, examinations of conscience, periods of silence and withdrawal, etc. If religion is tolerated at all, it must be kept in a well-governed corner under the strict regulation of ideology and peer-group control.

This kind of climate, of course, remains spiritually very shallow and inevitably results in many cases of “burn-out”—psychological and physical exhaustion that makes it impossible for the activist to continue. At least a long pause is required.

How different our work for social healing would be if it were nourished by a deep spiritual life! As St. John of the Cross wrote in the Spiritual Canticles (xxix, 3):

Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works note that they would bring far more profit to the Church and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer. . . . Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. For through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.

Perhaps we are at a moment in history, with many ideologies in a state of collapse, when we can imagine that mysticism would lay a foundation for social action that would not only produce useful results, rather than results quite opposite what is intended, but also refresh us day by day as we seek to build up a nonviolent social order.

Love’s Measure

St. John of the Cross said: “Love is the measure by which we shall be judged.” It is a quotation I first heard from Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, a woman devoted to both St. Teresa and St. John, who spent much of her time each day in prayer and yet is rightly remembered as one of the great social activists in American history.

Again and again, John of the Cross reminds us that God is love. We move toward God through no other path than love itself. It is not a love expressed in words or slogans or ideologies but actual love, love experienced in God, love that lets us know others not through our ideas and fears but through God’s love for them, so that we see them not only as enemies but also as estranged (even if deranged or pathological) relatives.

How are we to make our way out of the various ideological corners in which we find ourselves? In my own life, nothing has been more helpful than the rediscovery of the richness of liturgical life, an unexpected gift that I have received by getting to know the Orthodox Church, renowned for its long liturgies and its tradition of standing rather than sitting in church.

But many of us, Orthodox included, face the problem of finding ourselves in parishes in which the Liturgy often resembles a television program made to fit into an hour’s space. Ordinary parish worship at times seems more an obstacle to mystical life than an opening. In such cases we must imagine what can be rather than what is, in the meantime doing what we can with the resources at hand, in the parish, at nearby monasteries, and, most of all, at home.

A great part of the process of healing the world is healing the Church, which means, in part, to recover traditions of spiritual life that have been greatly damaged over the centuries. St. John of the Cross can be a companion in the process of repairing the division within our own spiritual life and of encouraging us as we seek to experience the God who makes all things new.  

Jim Forest is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and edits its publication, “In Communion.” He is the author of many books, including The Ladder of the Beatitudes, Praying with Icons, and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (all published by Orbis Books). He lectures widely and leads retreats at centers in both the United States and England. He and his wife Nancy have six children and make their home in Alkmaar, Holland, a city northwest of Amsterdam.

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