Saturday, April 12, 2014

Holy Week


Tomorrow Holy Week begins and as every year, I am filled with a mixture of dread, longing and a sense of loss: dread for the inexpressible magnitude of the events we will celebrate; a sense of loss for the liturgy that hardly anyone bothers with any longer—the monastery spoiled me forever in this regard; and finally longing . . . for what cannot and should not be spoken.

It may seem paradoxical for someone who is as "ruthlessly realistic" as one friend recently called me in a positive, not a negative way, to want to be so immersed in liturgy and myth. But then, the life of silence seems to the one who does not live it  paradoxical. For the one who "seeks to the beholding" silence cannot help but immerse one in the single movement that is both realistic and mythical. For those who seek there is no distinction, no paradox.

I'm entering this Holy Week already exhausted. The first volume of my book, Silence: A User's Guide, has gone to the publisher; with any luck it will be out in November. This book has been gestating for so many decades that it's almost a let-down that it is now well on its way.

Another reason for exhaustion is that I broke my usual pattern of not going to conferences and went to one in Durham. As conferences go, it had the best papers and discussions of any I have ever been to. It was well worth it. And it was wonderful to be in my favourite of all cathedrals—at least, early in the morning. After 9 AM it was filled with far too many officious "guides" and swarming tourists. Just to put the icing on the cake, they were having "messy cathedral" so the place was often filled with shrieking children. My last day the little chapel where the noon Eucharist was celebrated was so crammed with people intent on not giving anyone an inch of room that I had to leave. At that point I decided to bail. I had to pay double for a rail ticket home (I had come up in a car) but given that I collapsed as soon as I walked in the door, as it were, it was money well spent.

Now I'm transplanting tomatoes and doing other garden chores preparatory to leaving for Devon and Cornwall for ten days. The West Country is always restorative, and our fire on Easter Eve will go a long way towards resurrecting this tired old body.

May all of you, gentle readers, have a most blessed Holy Week and Eastertide.

Last night did Christ the Sun rise from the Dark,
Thy mystic harvest of the fields of God.
And now the little wandering tribes of bees
Are brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.
The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long
Darkling the nightingale her descant told,
And now inside church doors the happy folk
The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.
O father of thy folk, be thine by right
The Easter joy the threshold of the light.

Sedulius Scottus translated by Helen Waddell

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Difference Between Then and Now

Mike asked me to unpack what I meant by the shift I described in the last post. It happens that another correspondent, Frazer, sent me two quotations from Doris Grumbach. She describes how I used to feel:

From Doris Grumbach's The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany (1998)


I hope you will understand and excuse my absence.  My respect and affection for you as my rector is very great.  My sympathy for you is even greater: a charismatic, loving man whose spiritual life must be severely tried, almost consumed by your duties as a church CEO, a leader, somewhat like a stage manager, responsible for the determination of the liturgy for an ever growing congregation, responsible for fidelity to the rubrics.  Perforce, you are a sincere believer in the often onerous role you have been trained for and ordained to. (p. 7)

And further on:

... due to my advancing age and crotchety disposition, I found myself unduly distracted by the programmed motion during the service.  The stirrings of the congregation, the riffling of pages and booklets and hymnals, the sounds of kneeling, standing and sitting, the perambulations ofthe assistants and the celebrants on the altar and the offering-collectors up and down the aisles, the progress of well-intentioned but unskilled lectors to and from the podium, the ushered parade to the altar to receive communion--I had not been able to find a way to blot out the constant bustle.  True, it was all in obedience to official rules of conduct, but for me it left no place to pray in silence, or listen, or wait for a sense of God.  "Be still, then, and know that I am God' is the familiar injunction in Psalm 46:11, but in church there was no stillness, no time in which to know Him.

A minor matter: most disturbing to me were the built-in interruptions to the liturgy itself.  Priests and Rectors most often prefer to make all their announcements of coming events--dinners and meetings, lectures and committee gatherings, parish suppers, and much else--in the middle of the service.  Having broken into the rhythm of the liturgy for these practical matters, some community-spirited pastors then inquire if anyone in the congregation has an announcement to make. Once, I recall, a full ten minutes at the center of the rite was occupied by items of social action and plans for the winter rummage sale.
. . .
So, the flow of prayer is usually halted in order to inform the congregations of the potluck supper next Tuesday.  God, if he has been summoned in the first moments of the liturgy, is put on hold.
I used to notice all these things too, as you, Gentle Readers, all know from past posts on this blog. But the insight that I had last Sunday was that I no longer am involved enough, or care enough, even to complain. Instead, going to church has become almost dystopian, as I describe in my new book. Even though the architecture of the cathedral is far more agreeable than a fast-food shop, and even though the music is glorious, the experience is the same:

"Recall the experience of eating in a fast-food joint. The interior is made of molded plastic in nursery colors. It is designed to make you feel as if you had entered a badly made television cartoon. (Life no longer imitates art: it imitates cartoons.) The lines on the floor guide customers like cattle, gently toward the slaughter. As you shuffle along, your steps unconsciously take up the rhythm of the background thump and hiss of the broadcast noise. There is a rising sense of isolation, unease, claustrophobia, incipient panic, and wild weeping. The only possible way to alleviate this extreme anxiety is to consume. You reach the counter: "A triple Vacuity, a medium Frozen Scream, and a large order of Lies, please." You are then provided with a blasphemous parody of what a meal should be. The hard plastic stall provided as a place to sit and eat mimics special chairs for children such as potty chairs; it pretends to offer a haven while in reality it assaults, removing all possibility of dignity, silence, thought, reflection, or genuine exchange with any other person unfortunate enough to have entered this dystopian nightmare. The only option is to shut down, to go through the prescribed motions: order, pay, munch (huddled and hunched) as quickly as possible, and depart.

"Fast food means not only fast delivery of imitation edibles into the hand of the corralled consumer; it also encourages fast, mindless eating. There is no time for consideration; if there were, we might discover how disgusting are the items saturated with fat, sugar, and salt that pervade the malign, addictive combination of substances that we are shoving into our mouths. The atmosphere renders impossible the time-honored value of meals as gatherings for appreciation of healthful, lovingly prepared food to be shared with conversation and the renewal of relationships."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Three AM Thoughts


It's been the sort of night I used to have a lot of but haven't had for a long time: fitful, waking up every 45 minutes or so. I have been laying in bed trying to figure out why, and certainly the failure to post weekly on this Blog has something to do with it. With apologies to you, Gentle Readers. But my creative juices have been entirely soaked up by finishing up Silence: A User's Guide Vol. 1.

The good news, however, is that it is finished. I'm just nit-picking now. The editor wants it on May 1st so I have a deadline. Rowan Williams, bless him, has written the most wonderful Foreword. We are looking to have books in November. The book will also be available on Kindle, but when you see the cover—O my—you may want to own the thing. It will be published in paperback. Watch this space!

I don't know yet when the reprint of The Fountain and the Furnace will be available, but I'm guessing on no basis at all that it will probably be this summer. In the meantime there is Vol. 2 of Silence: A User's Guide to write, which is promised for January. But I am still going to try to do better on the posts here, even if it is only exegesis.

The Society for the Study of Theology conference in Durham is Monday-Wednesday of next week and I will be there only because the subject is Speech and Silence and two of my colleagues insisted that I go. Any of you who are in the area: I'd love to see you. Let me know by a "Do not post" comment and we'll find a time to meet up. I will present a 20-minute account of the book there. I will be wearing armour . . . at least, spiritual armour.

We have just had two of the loveliest days imaginable; very warm for March. Both days I puttered happily with a trowel in the garden planting lupines and snapdragons, and doing odd chores, enveloped in the perfume of hyacinths. After years of soil amendments the garden, and even the bags of compost, are full of fat worms. There are few things that make me happier than sitting in the soil planting seedlings, my hands black with it, smudges on my face, basking in the sun as each tiny plant is set on its journey in the great outdoors. The tomatoes have had a hard time with the damp weather—I started them from seed—but I think there will be enough . . . and some to give away as well. Alas, the wet winter was hard on the birds: the robin population was hit hard, including the one that has visited us for several years. At least we have a pair of blackbirds.

But the thought that finally dragged me out of bed was this: I have given up on the church. Finally. Probably permanently. I had great hopes for the new Dean of the cathedral, but the election did not produce the correct result to generate a renaissance, and all the things I find most depressing are probably going to get worse. I shouldn't be so pessimistic, perhaps, but the trajectory for the last half-century has been forever downward.

One of the wonderful things about Rowan's Foreword to my book is that he agrees with me on these specific points—there's no need to enumerate them; you all know what they are. It isn't just that he is agreeing with me; rather that it reassures me I am not just grousing for no reason, or being self-deluding. There is always this niggle of self-doubt—which I think is very healthy—when I really get going—and of course in the book I really do get going!

I have forced myself to go to church every Sunday this Lent as penance: one shouldn't have to use the institution that way. I've attended even when the person the mere sight of whom makes me lose the will to live has been there, though thankfully not presiding. The one Sunday this person did preside I had the happy excuse that a friend from Germany was preaching at another church. But I have been trying to recognize the former person as a human being; just sitting in church trying to realize that fact in my mind, even though I know through his/her preaching and refusal to engage that this person regards all laity as idiots and ciphers. I don't apologize for my difficulty; I'm in good company: at a recent public lecture Rowan was only half joking when he said that in his next life he was going to be a Quaker. But that's not a live option, either, at least not in this life: the Quakers are just as riven with divisions and schlock as we are.

But it was a shock to realize how far my feelings about institutional religion had gone. I thought I had already hit bottom a long time ago. Evidently not. I quit going to church for much of the winter: in part I couldn't risk my feeble chest in the bad weather; but I wasn't sorry. But then missing the liturgy, which I always do, and the lack of singing hymns, overwhelmed me to the point that, like an addict in need of a fix, I started going again under certain conditions, even though I realized how really reprehensible this was; even though there is no genuine worship. Even though I normally feel that it is better to stay away than be cranky from despair at what goes on. Or doesn't.

I am really looking forward to Holy Week when I go to Devon. At midnight on Easter Eve we will light our own new fire in a brazier of medieval design, outside under the Paschal moon, with the owls calling and the new lambs bleating in the night, and the dogs having hysterics because we have locked them in the house. We will do it even if it pours with rain. My friend will come up with wonderful and wholly appropriate contributions for the liturgy and the haunting chant of Exultet will pour of its own accord from what is left of my throat. We will hear the stories of creation and the dry bones, and Christ rising from the dead.

We will do all this, and, only a stone's throw from us, the exquisite 14th century church that is—or was—at the heart of this hamlet will be dark.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spring Weirdness

We have in fact had two days of spring: Sunday and Monday were warm enough to work in the garden in a T-shirt. The winter blahs disappeared; there was a sense of energy and purpose as bulbs burst into bloom and the buds on the pear tree swelled almost to flowering.

Now, of course, we are back to cloud and drizzle and it is said that it will turn cold again towards the end of the week. There's an old joke in England that I also heard in Alaska: "When will it be spring?" "We've had spring—the two days of warmth in March."

In the meantime pushing to have my book ready for the editor by Easter, which has produced the realisation that I am gradually forgetting American spelling and syntax.

But this is trivia compared to the two events dominating the news: Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the Crimea's vote to return to the Russian fold (one might perhaps better say the iron fist)—which, in my view, is short-sighted. I have always felt that Putin's long-term goal is to re-establish the Soviet Union both in terms of territory and the rule by terror. Is the invasion of Ukraine the first step in that direction? It makes all the Russian good will toward the winter Olympics and paralympics seem very hollow and cynical indeed.

The other big news story, of course, is the loss of the Malaysian airliner. How is it possible to 'lose' without a trace a 777 with more than 200 passengers and crew? The Russian invasion was almost predictable; this latter event was not. A thousand questions swirl in the back of my mind: why are you not looking in the piracy capital of the world, the Horn of Africa? If the plane flew for seven hours, did it have time to fly that far? If it flew for seven hours, then the intention, at least, was not to ditch. If the southern Indian ocean is one of the suspect areas, then it would seem that the idea of the Horn of Africa is not so far-fetched. What country would risk receiving a hijacked airliner? What has happened to the innocent passengers? There is nothing original in these questions but they bother me. I feel, as I suspect many other feel, as if a hole has opened up in reality, which has swallowed this airplane and who knows what next? Very unsettling. Very. 

Pray for them all.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Happy Lent!


Happy Lent!

For some reason it's always a relief when Ash Wednesday rolls around. There's something comforting about hearing the words 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...' It's a reminder that all those imagined burdens and the weight of the world are most definitely not on my shoulders. I can fast and pray and try to make peace in my life and community, and respond to the requests made to me, but in the cosmic picture I am an insignificant speck, a speck, however, that is beloved of God. And because of that love, our prayer matters, far more than we can ask or imagine. Let us all pray for peace in this time of crisis.

Recently Graham Edwards gave me a translation of a poem by De Guileville, a tribute to St Benedict and his sister, Scholastica. You may recall that Gregory the Great in Dialogues 2.33 recounts the story of their meeting. She desires him to stay longer so that they can talk 'of the joys of heavenly life [de caelestis vitae gaudiis].' When he shows reluctance to remain, she prays with tears that miraculously set off a thunderstorm, thereby preventing his departure. [Apologies for the formatting problems]

Inundacio pluvie                           I ask that the downpouring rain
Dei misericordie                            Of the mercy of God may now
Adsit michi per sororem;               Assist me by thy sister's act.
Per vos ambos fons gracie             By both of you may grace's fount
Stillaque dulcis venie                    And the drip of gentle pardon
Recreet me peccatorum;                Revive me, sinner as I am;
Per vos spernam mundi florem,     By you I shall spurn the world's bloom,
Eius vana et honorem                    Its vanities and its honour,
Erecta mentis facie                         Having raised the face of the mind
Ad bonorum largitorum                 To the bestower of good things
Et pium distributorem                     And the pious distributor
Donorum regnil glorie.                   Of the gifts of glory's kingdom.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ways of Reading

Yesterday I went to a seminar where all the usual buzz-words were liberally scattered through the the paper: useless words and nonsense-phrases such as 'mystical' and 'mystical experience'. To her credit, the speaker was very dissatisfied with these words and with the traditional scholarly tools at her disposal, and tried unsuccessfully to get a discussion going. But the die-hards were much in evidence and she didn't get very far.

It would have been a much more interesting paper if she had understood the problems with the word experience and how the two aspects of knowing function and are revealed in the text. As it was, enthusiasm got tangled up with Quakers, and the counter-Reformation got tangled up with recurrent notions of so-called platonism. To her credit, however, she did address the problem of doctrine cut off from praxis.

It seems to me that out of the many ways of reading texts three are of paramount importance: first, to try to understand the author's point of view and intention as far as that is possible—and often it is very difficult to do so. Second, to understand what the text actually says, because it is often true that the author is the last to know what he/she has said. And finally, to understand where the text moves along the continuum—for want of a better word, because the process is holistic—between extreme self-consciousness on the one hand, and the depths of the mind (apophatic consciousness, deep mind) on the other.

And it is also useful, instead of using the nonsense word 'mystical', to try to understand whether it is didactic, devotional, abstract or anagogical or some combination of these or other qualities. In addition, many of these texts should be read as poetry, even if they are set out as prose, because the authors are often trying to convey what has occurred beyond the 'event horizon' at the far end of liminality, and so are using both aspects of knowing as most poetry does (see Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry).

This isn't rocket science, but old scholarly habits seem to die very hard, and the chains of the academy are forged with a particularly hard steel. Scientism and positivism, as she noted, die very hard. What I am suggesting, of course, are not the only ways to understand these texts, but they can be useful until something better comes along. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

'Mysticism' vs Schizophrenia


While I was in Devon I spoke to several people involved in writing and art and everyone said the same thing: the very low barometric pressure the UK has been experiencing has affected their ability to create. I don't offer this as an excuse for not posting more frequently at this time, but it's somewhat comforting to know that I'm not alone in my struggles.

I'm attending a series of lectures sponsored by TORCH, the Oxford University network that supports interdisciplinary seminars in the humanities. It's an opportunity for interested scholars to get together and compare notes. One of the seminars is on affections and ethics, and the other is on so-called mysticism—and, as you might imagine, the papers so far in this latter seminar have been dire. Fortunately two of my colleagues have been in the audience to back up my observations during the discussion periods.

Mercifully I missed the first one on Richard Rolle, which, my colleagues tell me, really scraped the bottom of the barrel. Last week's wasn't much better: I went directly from the train to the seminar and so missed part of the first paper, but the second paper was shocking in its content. Far from concerning a 'mystical' text it discussed the solipsistic diary of a schizophrenic who started cutting herself at an early age (Zurich ZB, MS. Rh 159). This evolved (or devolved) into conversations with 'god' in which the projected pseudo-divinity told her to abuse her body. It reminded me of a book I read decades ago by a psychiatrist who was trying to communicate to the general public what it was like to live inside the head of a schizophrenic with a similar pathology to the author of the Zurich ms. The malign voice within always greeted the protagonist with the phrase 'Suffer, Victim.' The Zurich ms also reminded me of a 19th century Dominican text in which every twitch of a sister in obvious catatonia was recorded by her grotesquely fascinated sisters as evidence of 'holiness'.

It is the elevation of such texts that give God and the pursuit of holiness a bad name. There was nothing in the Zurich ms of redemption, of mercy, of self-forgetfulness, of peace or joy. It was about suffering for its own sake, the glorification of self-abuse, and submission to a sado-masochistic projection. The erasure marks were of particular interest to the presenter, but it was a text so violently in opposition to transfiguration that one questions why one would want to spend any time with it.

Both the presenters used the word 'transcend' to leave the ordinary behind, which readers of this blog will understand as a false apophaticism, and both presenters made all the usual mistakes in regard to the use of 'experience' and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding as to how to study these texts. They were interested only in the point of view of the authors, and while this point of view is important, there also needs to be discernment about the position of the text in regard to other texts which are both similar and dis-similar, which are closer or farther away from beholding (although it is hard to see how any text could be farther away than the Zurich text). 

In other words, the reader should also act, to a certain extent, as someone who takes on the role of discerner. It is essential to keep texts such as the Zurich manuscript at arm's length from one's own psyche. To put this another way, it is just as important to retain one's critical distance with some texts as it is to allow oneself to be 'read' by other texts (see 'The Apophatic Image'.

This seminar shows how much of an uphill struggle it is going to be to change the way we study these texts, to lay out a reasonable set of ground rules, and to teach people to read texts such as Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs as poetry rather than prose even if they are set out as prose; to read literarily as opposed to literally; and to approach them using the model of the two aspects of knowing seeking unity and integration.

I'm going to a theological conference in early April at Durham on silence and language and will present this methodology under the guise of my findings on Pseudo-Denys (see posts above). I will be very disappointed if it doesn't fire up some discussion! I also hope to see Andrew Louth to discuss PsD further.