Frank Johnson reviews a new book on the life of Hildegard Goss-Mayr, a pioneer of non-violence.
[New City Magazine – April 2009]
If we were asked to come up with a name associated with the philosophy and practice on non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi would almost certainly be the automatic response from most people. It is true that it was Gandhi who drew the world’s attention to the idea of non-violent resistance and who created a great following for this approach as he faced up to the might of the British Raj. However, a much lesser-known, but equally powerful figure, kept the flag of non-violence flying for the remainder of the century. Very few of us would immediately recognise the name of Hildegard Goss-Mayr, and yet she is regarded by experts as one of the great pioneers in the field of non-violence.
In the Foreword to this captivating story of Hildegard Goss-Mayr Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan says: ‘To me, Hildegard is living proof that there are many spiritual paths to God and whilst some of the mystics live on the mountain and in the monasteries, there are also the active mystics all around us doing God’s work, quietly, with humility, gentleness and joy.’ From reading this book it is clear that Hildegard is one of the latter.
Born in Vienna in 1930, as a young girl Hildegard Mayr experienced persecution under the Nazi regime. In 1953 she became the travelling secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, with priority for East-West dialogue. Then in 1958 she married Jean Goss and they began working together for international peace and justice. After the birth of twins in 1960, she started work in Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and, from 1962 in Latin America. Since then, Hildegard and Jean, until his death in 1991, travelled the world spreading their message of reconciliation and non-violence.
The first two-thirds of the book give an account of Hildegard’s life and work. This is both interesting and inspiring. The last part of the book is taken up with her own writings which are a beautiful blend of the spiritual and the practical.
In a world in which violence seems to be both the first and the last resort of so many individuals, groups and governments, Hildegard’s deep spirituality and her total commitment to non-violence as a means of achieving lasting justice and peace give the reader a real sense of hope. This is a book which will edify and give encouragement to anyone, no matter what their standing in the world.
This quotation, taken from a Christmas letter written by Hildegard and Jean in 1983, is a good summary of their approach: ‘…the self-giving force of love with which we commit ourselves is THE POWER that overcomes injustice even if we do not see the immediate results! It is the force of Life, the force of renewal in society, the liberating force of humanity.’
The non-violent approach to resolving situations of injustice was made famous by Mahatma Gandhi. One of its leading proponents in the late 20th century was Hildegard Goss-Mayr. Hers is a remarkable, though not well-known story of witnessing to the power of non-violent resistance.