War and Becoming Stripped to Our Literal Substance before God

Howard Thurman talks frequently about how our spiritual journey is about becoming “stripped to our literal substance before God.”  Often war and other crises do that to people—it strips us to the literal substance of ourselves before God.  We become who we truly are, or commit to being.

“Volunteers assist refugees at a Polish train station.” Image by Pakkin Leung. Wikimedia Commons.

From war there emerges the best and the worst of ourselves.  In the former category we see cooperation and, on occasion, true generosity and authentic sacrifice and courage.  People forget themselves for others and for the sake of a larger and greater good.  Bravery and courage are on display.

Consider the brave people of Ukraine, being led by a courageous president and courageously doing their best to protect their children, even when it means fleeing the country amidst much chaos and uncertainty.

Consider the courage of those who stay behind to fight even when the odds in the short run are not with them.

Consider the bravery of the journalists who dare much to give us the reality of what is taking place on the ground.  And the bravery of Russian people who dare arrest by protesting such an unjust and savage war.  And the willingness of other countries to break ties with Putin’s Russia so that he will forfeit the financial means to maintain his war and/or the future of occupying a country.

In St. Petersburg, the police detained a well-known survivor of the Siege of Leningrad Yelena Osipova at a protest of the war in Ukraine. Twitter.

Consider those helping one another–the young and the aged and the sick, and even the animals–who are suffering and brave grave dangers to do so.  Many are also making sacrifices such as boycotting businesses and products associated with Russia, or putting up with higher prices of food and gasoline. All in order to stand with Ukraine.

Sometimes it takes a breakdown for a breakthrough to happen and for the best of ourselves to step up.  We learn who we are and what is truly “the literal substance of ourselves before God.”

We learn what Meister Eckhart teaches about breakthrough: “That we and God are one.”

See Matthew FoxPassion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, pp. 291f., 302-312.
To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.
Banner image: “Woman with Dead Child,” by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, whose son died in WWI. Marked with CC BY 2.0.

Queries for Contemplation

What are the occasions when you became “stripped to your literal substance before God?”  What did you learn from that experience?

Recommended Reading

Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart

Matthew Fox’s comprehensive translation of Meister Eckhart’s sermons is a meeting of true prophets across centuries, resulting in a spirituality for the new millennium. The holiness of creation, the divine life in each person and the divine power of our creativity, our call to do justice and practice compassion–these are among Eckhart’s themes, brilliantly interpreted and explained for today’s reader.
“The most important book on mysticism in 500 years.”  — Madonna Kolbenschlag, author of Kissing Sleeping Beauty Goodbye.  

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11 thoughts on “War and Becoming Stripped to Our Literal Substance before God”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you ask us: “What are the occasions when you became ‘stripped to your literal substance before God?’ What did you learn from that experience?” The occasions when I feel as if I am stripped of my literal substance before everyone is when I stand up to speak to a group. This was the result of being at a church where we were engaged in becoming open and welcoming of lgbt people when the leadership of the church turned on me and said that what I was preaching was turning people away from the church. After they told me that, I felt like I was being judged every time I spoke, and I finally had enough of it and… You ask, “What did I learn from that experience?” To be honest I have learned to write more and speak less, but that lacks courage… In view of all o f this however, I am comforted with your words: “Sometimes it takes a breakdown for a breakthrough to happen and for the best of ourselves to step up. We learn who we are and what is truly ‘the literal substance of ourselves before God.’”

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    We’ll said, Matthew. God, or Spirit dwells in the innermost of things, is hidden in matter, said Jesus, “like leaven in bread.” So spirit is the invisible substance of all form, and the highest part of matter. In difficult times, things seem to boil down to the substance of what really matters, say, the way sap boils down to maple syrup in sugar bushing this time of year. The catalyst is heat, which refines the sap, breaks it down to its constituent part, revealing its sweetness. Ditto the soul in the ‘heat’ of crises, properly handled. There is a oneness to things, to being and inter-being that dissolves surface differences and appearances. Bullets can’t kill it, nor bombs destroy it, nor water drown it, nor fire burn it. God forbid, should nuclear catastrophe occur, it very well may melt (boil) materiality down to its spiritual essence, like so much scrap metal, or boiled sap, or crushed grape skins in wine making, to begin resurrection life and the earth anew — the heart of the refining paschal mystery. Perhaps 2 Peter 3:10 makes reference to same, “where the elements shall melt with fervent heat.” God always gets life out of death, the best of what the worst of human nature tries to destroy or divide asunder. It is human to divide, divine to resurrect, unite and begin anew. Spirit at the center of things, the extract of materiality, body and soul is stronger than death, and the essence of spirit is love. “Then shall dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit return unto God who gave it.” Spirit is much to precious to entrust totally to man, who is given to trample it underfoot.

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    Rosemary Kopec

    Dear Matthew:

    This is not a response to your query but a deep bow of gratitude to your daily meditations. These are such challenging times and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for offering such relevant and current guidance, readings, and wisdom. It has been soul saving.

    Much love to you and all of your readers,

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    Jeanette Metler

    In response to today’s first inquirey, “what are the occasions when you became stripped to your literal substance before God,” what comes to my remembrance is the many times I took a stand for justice, compassion, mercy and truth-telling with regards to advocating for the elders under my care, and my co-workers as well. As a result of these choices I made, which I would make all over again; I was accused, persecuted and condemned. After eight years of fighting the good fight I chose to resign, and shake the dust off from my feet and move on… all be it, bruised, wounded and battered from the experience… I was not broken in spirit.

    Within 48 hours, after many tears and long, prayerful conversations with God, I was blessed with everything that I thought I had just lost. I was offered a full-time position, doing the same work, in a smaller more intimate retirement home, with a company that is unionized, and managed by people whom actually respect, appreciate and support its staff, and that also treats the elders with love, compassion, mercy and the dignity that they deserve.

    “What I learnt through this experience is” that sometimes you need to let go, to move on… to take a risk of stepping into the uncertainty of the unknown… as scarey as this may be… trusting that God has something new and better for you. Thanks to the teachings offered within these DMs, that I had been engaging with throughout this season of my life, I also learnt the light side of being a spiritual warrior… that I am a justice seeker, a truth-teller, an advocate of compassion and mercy… a protector of the vulnerable and weak… that I am a little torch bearer, carrying the light of love in the midst of dark places. I learnt alot about what the Cross really means.

    I also learnt the importance of self-care… as I suffered PTSD, anxiety and depression during the 8 years of carrying this cross… which I was unaware of until I chose to resign. However, God helped me with this too… providing me with safe refuge, comfort, consolation and much needed wise counsel. Throughout this unfolding and evolving process a new found balance emerged, as I began to rediscover life outside of work, as well as a rediscovery of other passions and parts of my soul that had long been neglected, that I am now learning to tend to, nurture, care for and cultivate from within. I am also grateful, for this spiritual community and all that we share with one another within these DMs!

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    “Woman with Dead Child,” is a haunting Pieta for our times. Every mother with a child in her arms fleeing the terrors or this tyrant’s war is a Madonna crossing the border from bondage to freedom; a Madonna without the protection of a father left behind to fight and protect the cradles and kitchens, Holy Families torn in two.
    I can’t get to breakthrough yet…I am still in Heartbreak.
    Calling all Angels, Calling the Holy Mother of Hope, Calling the Sacred Heart of Jesus, be with us now in our time of great need. Amen
    I am Grateful Matthew and team for these daily mediations and all that is given to cradle and comfort.

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      I’ve been where you are many times when the pain of the shell cracking consumes rational thought about a way to relief. Be assured that this will pass. It may take some time for your mind to glean the lessons, but eventually you will see. And be comforted. And wiser.

    2. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Ellen, When I read what you wrote: “‘Woman with Dead Child,” is a haunting Pieta for our times. Every mother with a child in her arms fleeing the terrors or this tyrant’s war is a Madonna crossing the border from bondage to freedom… ” These words in turn reminded me of Joseph and Mary fleeing from Herod with the baby Jesus–“the death of the innocents” as well as the Pieta as you point out…

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    I hope/pray that our Breakthrough from the current global chaos will signal a decommissioning of the military industrial complex. In the 1980s George Kennan, American intellectual and politician, man of deep soul and wisdom, warned:
    “We have gone piling weapon on weapon, missile upon missile, new levels of destructiveness upon old ones. We have done this helplessly, almost involuntarily, like the victims of some sort of hypnotism, like men in a dream, like lemmings heading for the sea, like the children of Hamelin marching blindly behind their Pied Piper, and the result is that today we have achieved, we and the Russians together, in the number of these devices, in their means of delivery, and above all in their destructiveness, levels of redundancy of such grotesque dimensions as to defy rational understanding.” Quote from Dr. Helen Caldicott’s book MISSILE ENVY, 1985.

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    Years ago I experienced a “breakdown” of almost everything I had based my life on and thought it all lost. At some point in that experience there was a “breakthrough” that brought immense relief but no immediate understanding followed by years of examining, self searching, a certain amount of confusion, and, eventually, peace. I walked away from an abusive religion and the constant turmoil it had created in my life. I now seek the Divine in Nature and in the Love that created it and understand I AM that Nature and that all of it is holy.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Olive, I too had a “breakdown” as I mentioned in my comment. At the time I, like you felt that, “almost everything I had based my life on and thought it all lost.” But if we just keep taking one step at a time on the spiritual path, we will survive and thrive !!!

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