To be in unity with the Spirit

Today’s reflection comes to us from African American mystic and scholar Howard Thurman via Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation … drawing a through line from the ancient mystics and our historic faith to the challenges of polarization and demonization of “the other” that plagues us in this moment.

Long ago, Plotinus [205–270 CE] wrote, “If we are in unity with the Spirit, we are in unity with each other, and so we are all one.” [1] The words of this ancient Greek mystic are suggestive; for they call attention to the underlying unity of all of life. The recognition of the Spirit of God as the unifying principle of all life becomes at once the most crucial experience of humanity. It says that whoever is aware of the Spirit of God in themselves enters the doors that lead into the life of their fellow people.

The same idea is stated in ethical terms in the New Testament when the suggestion is made that, if a person says they love God, whom they hath not seen, and does not love their brother or sister who is with them, they are a liar and the truth does not dwell in them [1 John 4:20]. The way is difficult, because it is very comforting to withdraw from the responsibility of unity with one’s fellow people and to enter alone into the solitary contemplation of God.

One can have . . . [perfect] solitary communion without the risks of being misunderstood, of having one’s words twisted, of having to be on the defensive about one’s true or alleged attitude. In the quiet fellowship with one’s God, one may seem to be relieved of any necessity to make headway against heavy odds.

This is why one encounters persons of deep piousness and religiosity who are intolerant and actively hostile toward their fellow people. Some of the most terrifying hate organizations in the country are made up in large part of persons who are very devout in their worship of their God.

The test to which Plotinus puts us, however, is very searching. To be in unity with the Spirit is to be in unity with one’s fellow people. Not to be in unity with one’s fellow people is thereby not to be in unity with the Spirit. The pragmatic test of one’s unity with the Spirit is found in the unity with one’s fellow people. We see what this means when we are involved in the experience of a broken relationship.

When I have lost harmony with another, my whole life is thrown out of tune. God tends to be remote and far away when a desert and sea appear between me and another. I draw close to God as I draw close to my fellow people. The great incentive remains ever alert; I cannot be at peace without God, and I cannot be truly aware of God if I am not at peace with my fellow people.


[1] Plotinus, Enneads, VI.5.7.

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1981), 120–121. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

Image: Wylly Suhendra via Unsplash

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