Mystics and the Margins
Margins Create Liminal Space
Sunday, September 27, 2020
When we are content and satisfied on the inside of any group, we seem to suffer from a structural indifference. We do not realize that it is largely a belonging system that we have created for ourselves. It is not until we are excluded from a system that we are able to recognize its idolatries, lies, or shadow side. It is the privileged “knowledge of the outsider” that opens up the playing field. People can be personally well-intentioned and sincere, but structurally they cannot comprehend certain things. In his ministry, Jesus quotes the call of Isaiah to describe this collective social disregard: “You will hear and hear again, and not understand, see and see again and not perceive . . .” (Isaiah 6:9; Mark 8:18). Insiders are by nature dualistic because they divide themselves from the so-called outsiders.
I believe it is for that reason that so many saints and mystics and even everyday people have chosen to live their entire lives at the edges of most systems. They take their small and sufficient place in the great and grand scheme of God by “living on the edge of the inside.” They build on the solid tradition (“from the inside”) but from a new and dynamic stance (“on the edge”) where they cannot be co-opted by a need for security, possessions, or the illusions of power.
People such as Francis and Clare of Assisi try to live on the margins so they will not become enamored by the illusions and payoffs of prevailing systems. They know this is the only position that ensures continued wisdom, ever-broadening perspective, and even deeper compassion. Such choices may be seen in the lives of monks, nuns, hermits, or Amish communities. There are softer forms, too, like people who do not watch TV, people who live under the level of a taxable income, people who make prayer a major part of their day, people who deliberately place themselves in risky situations for the greater good. It is ironic that we must go to the edge to find the center, but that is what prophets, hermits, and mystics invariably do.
I want to acknowledge that there is a difference between being marginalized—forced (usually by prejudice and systemic discrimination) out of the common benefits and goods that come from living in mainstream society—and choosing to live on the margins. Both can be privileged places for spiritual growth and transformation. This week we will offer examples from the broad tradition of Christian mystics and communities who sought or accepted their location on the margins as a place of creativity and interior freedom. Through their insights, writings, rituals, and art, these men, women, and movements inspire us to cease protecting the surfaces of things and fall into the core of our own souls and experiences.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 136;
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), xxi, xxii, 34; and
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2008), 92.