Monday, July 21, 2014

Excerpt from 'The Fountain and the Furnace'

When I lived alone in the canyon my only source of water was not the stream which ran along the geological fault that formed it, but a spring high up the ridge opposite.

On old maps it was known as "Boar Spring." Certainly the wild pigs, lions, bobcats, and coyotes knew it, and doubtless it had been sacred to the Native Americans as was the clearing near which my cabin stood.

The spring welled out of a crack in an enormous rock; "knockers," they're called by geologists, these rocks that seem to rise singly out of the earth.

In early autumn before the rains the flow was a mere trickle, but in April it gushed from the rock and into the "box" carved from the rock, down the pipe to the redwood holding tank, where the water erupted from under its conical lid like lava from a volcano.

Developing and maintaining a spring is a delicate business. Springs are mysterious. Sometimes they will give their water in greater abundance if they are cautiously tapped. But beware of digging carelessly, or too deep. Beware of removing sentinel trees. It is no wonder springs often have been thought to have their own spirits: they are life-bearers, who guard their own secrets.

When the optimal amount of water is coming from the tapped rock the work is then to develop a box where the waters can collect to build up enough pressure to start moving through the pipe to a holding tank. The box is usually hollowed out of the rock, and the banks on every side lined with timbers. Then the box is covered to prevent contamination by animals and debris.

You run the overflow pipe down the side to the bottom of the tank so the animals can lick the water from its mouth.

Even then your work is not over. The spring has to be protected and cared for. Branches flung from surrounding trees during storms can damage the box cover. Leaves collect, and some slip into the water. Small insects can  clog the screened opening where the water enters the pipe; and occasionally a dying creature will find its last refuge in the box, seeking the cool shade and icy water to slake its thirst.

The whole system then becomes polluted and must be cleaned out and purified. This is a difficult and smelly task. With the best effort you must wait until much water has flowed before what pours from the fractured rock is again cold and crystalline.

Sometimes I would go to the spring simply to look at it. I never removed the cover without a sense of awe at the sight of the mirroring pool, and of the water welling into the stone box.  I would gaze into its depths for long moments before removing any debris. I was careful never to let anything of my own fall into it, but whether or not I actually touched the water I came away cleansed and purified, and went on my way with liquid flames burning in my heart.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Available in November . . .

Silence: A User's Guide
will be available in the USA
and the UK in November.
[Click on the image to enlarge]

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Silly Season

I am reading—or re-reading—a book I read many years ago. It's clear that it registered far more deeply than I was aware at the time. Perhaps because it supported conclusions I had already arrived at, it didn't stick out in my memory.

In any event, The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim blows to smithereens the stereotype of the Old Testament God as big bad Daddy in the sky. It also goes a long way towards showing how much of the understanding of notions such as incarnation, transfiguration, and the suffering of God are already established in the Old Testament from very early times onwards. It's a terrific read, highly recommended.


It's high summer here in Oxford and in the UK in general, often called 'The Silly Season'. The town is heaving with tourists to the point that it is almost impossible to walk down the Cornmarket or the Broad. It's quicker to take the longer routes, but I try to avoid the town centre as much as possible. We have had a couple of weeks of hot weather; badly-needed rain last night, thank God—the garden loves both. The beans looks as if they grew a metre up their poles in the rain overnight. The squash plants are enormous, and the pumpkins are crawling all over the place. I'm already thinning leaves to keep the air circulating.

Very concerned about pollinators, though: I haven't seen too many bees this summer. There used to be a bumblebee nest behind the shed, but there is no evidence of it now. I don't use any chemicals unfriendly to bees and I've set up various places bees can nest, so their absence is worrying. The apple tree has not set a lot of fruit, but this may be because it had a plethora of small apples last year. If bees go extinct, some scientist think that humans will follow in four years' time. The latest culprit named as deadly to bees, aside from pesticides, is diesel exhaust. Since so much trade and transport depends on diesel, it's hard not to be extremely pessimistic, because regulation is so difficult and from some points of view it is already too late.


On a happier note, it's the season of summer rituals in southern England, starting with Royal Ascot, continuing with the pre-Wimbledon tennis tournaments (Queens and Eastbourne), Wimbledon (the finals are today and tomorrow), the Henley Regatta, and the Proms to come from mid-July to mid-September, all lavishly accompanied for those who attend by champagne, strawberries and cream, and Pimms (needless to say, whatever I watch is on TV, without the accompaniments!).

The men's semi-finals day at Wimbledon yesterday concluded with a wildly funny evening doubles match played by flamboyant seniors. They were all in their early seventies, but still able to deliver excellent, if not remarkable, tennis, laced with wildly funny trick shots and antics, most of which looked entirely spontaneous, even if they weren't—it was hard to tell. These older men have been playing one another for so many years that they need no rehearsal, though it's clear that they all train hard—well, some harder than others. Their agility and muscle tone is enviable. Even the umpire and Hawk-eye got in on the act. At one point a player decided to serve two balls at once and the deadpan umpire named it a double fault. The server challenged, and Hawk-eye came up with three large question marks. For all the clowning, the seniors do have their own ratings so the match wasn't mere frivolity.

Nor is my life! But these events provide welcome intervals from the hard graft of research and of creating volume 2 of Silence: A User's Guide.

May your summer be richly blessed.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Now Shipping [Click on the image to enlarge it]

A Paper IX

Definition of 'mysticism'
I said I would attempt a definition of the word "mystic" and its cognates. That I am doing so does not in any way change my opinion that we should stop using these words. But if, God forbid, I were forced to define the words mystic, mystical and mysticism, mystic would simply be someone who has committed to re-centering their life in the deep mind, no matter what the cost; mystical would refer to beholding, when self-consciousness is effaced, and effects irrupt within beholding from the deep mind—which definition would exclude all interpretation, experience and phenomena, such as visions; and mysticism would refer to the effort, process and effects of living the absolute primacy of re-centering in the deep mind so that one's daily life is informed by continual beholding. To return to my earlier definition: mysticism is living the ordinary through transfigured perception.
I will now sum up so that we have of time for discussion.
One of the criteria for testing the reading of a text is how much fiddling and adjustment the reader has to do. If the text simply leaps off the page by itself without requiring a lot of mental gymnastics, then the reading is more likely correct than not. I have applied the model I have described in this paper to a number of disparate texts, from the Pre-socratics such as Empedocles and Heraclitus, through some of the so-called Neo-platonists, the bible, patristic and medieval texts. Where possible I have gone back to the original languages and have consulted experts when the original languages have been too difficult for me.
I am convinced that we have mis-read most of the texts in what is called the Western canon by applying a post-Cartesian method, which is confined to the merely linear, to texts that were written with two ways of knowing in mind. It isn't simply a matter of mistranslation, as I have already discussed; it's rather that all of our interpretations are called into question by this disparity between method and content.
The bad news, then, is that we need to go back and re-translate and re-interpret all of these texts through the lens of the two aspects of knowing. We need to be excruciatingly careful about the language we choose in discussion and translation. We need to revise our opinions about Plato and Aristotle; and about many of the texts we have dismissed as "gnostic". We need to revise our opinions about medieval writers. We need to look again at the way we talk about and classify different kinds of texts.
But there is good news, too. This work will keep humanities scholars busy for at least another hundred years.
Thank you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Paper VIII

Classifying Texts
Now I would like to say a word about the way we might classify texts according to what I have said so far. For example, if you look at the group of texts that are commonly referred to as "The English Mystics" you will see that there are all sorts of texts included, some of which have little resemblance to the others. There are didactic texts, such as the Ancrene Wisse; there are abstract texts, such as Walter Hilton's; there are devotional texts such as Richard Rolle's; there are anagogic texts such as Julian of Norwich's Long Text and The Cloud of Unknowing. The devotional category is probably the biggest, and the anagogic category the smallest. The former includes everything from devotional manuals to visionary texts to Rolle's trance-inducing canor, and the latter is limited to those texts that lead the reader into infinite openness and invites him or her to remain there without filling up the space with a lot of devotional kitsch. All of the groups except the anagogic are firmly products of the self-conscious mind and reflect the reader back on him or her self. Only the anagogic texts lead into the liminal. Of course there might be phrases or tropes in any of these texts that act as triggers that propel the reader into the liminal, and it is to them that we now turn.

Poetics: A Short list of Tropes
I mentioned in the beginning the importance of reading literarily instead of literally, and the need to read many texts as poetry even if they are set out as prose. The Pseudo-Dionysian corpus is a good example. The author even tells us that he is writing hymns, though I have yet to come across an interpreter who acknowledges that fact. In doing theology through hymns he is following his Syriac predecessor, Ephrem. In fact, he is more like Ephrem than Neo-platonists. But that is the subject for another paper.
Many authors, while writing prose, use poesis to bypass the relentless linearity and self-referentiality of language.[23] These tropes offer the reader the opportunity to be opened to deep mind and transfiguration. I do not have time to more than a list of a few of these tropes: apophatic images, conflated subjects and objects, word-knots, deliberate ambiguity, self-subversion, hyperbole, irony and so forth; and there is time only to discuss two of them at any length. The following descriptions are taken from the paper "The Apophatic Image", which Vincent Gillespie and I co-authored.
Apophatic images and surfaces are themselves non-figural but allow projection from within the viewer or perception derived from ineffable knowing. Moses' encounter with the burning bush is a classic apophatic image which allows the focussing of the imagination on a single image but which eschews representation of what it communicates. . . Such images and surfaces tend to the paradoxical. Water, wine, pearls, the moon, clouds, a flame, all partake of a play of light and darkness and offer neutral surfaces on which images can resolve and dissolve themselves. The coinherence of meaning or layers of meaning in a single image is a hallmark of the liminal signifiers of the apophatic. They defy or defer the lapse into linearity and monovalency that characterises most conventional interpretation and allow for the generation of productive paradoxes within the same signifier. . .[24]
Word-knots, a term based on medieval love-knots, gather the many threads of meaning attaching to a single word—and it is a rule of thumb in such usage that all meanings are meant. Julian of Norwich's semantic clusters, especially the use of the word 'mene' is a case in point. She is using it to imply that the showing was without speech and without intermediary.
The nominal senses of mene  include: sexual intercourse; fellowship; a companion; a course of action, method or way; an intermediary or negotiator; an agent or instrument; an intermediate state; something uniting extremes; mediation or help; argument, reason or discussion. Adjectivally it can mean 'partaking of the qualities or characteristics of two extremes'. As a verb it has the senses of: to intend to convey something; to signify; to say or express something; to remember something; to advise, admonish or urge somebody to do something. It can also have the sense of: to complain; to cry out for help; to pity, sympathise with or condole with somebody. A further adjectival set of senses coheres around notions of lowness, inferiority and smallness which resonates with Julian's sense of humble self-emptying. (MED, sv mene, n.; menen, v.). Julian's exploitation of the polysemousness of this word means that it becomes the meeting place for many of her key ideas, perceptions, responses and expressions.[25]
As you can easily find the paper to read, I will go on to my final topic.

[23] Gillespie and Ross, 'The Apophatic Image', op. cit.
[24] Gillespie and Ross, 'The Apophatic Image', 57.
[25] Gillespie and Ross, 'The Apophatic Image', Note 28, 61-2.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Paper VII

Now let us look briefly at the words 'transform' and 'transcend', words that are casually thrown about by translators and interpreters alike. Both are anti-incarnational and theologically inaccurate. In the Christian understanding, the word that should be used is trans-figure, because when the contents of the self-conscious mind are submitted to deep mind, the way we figure things out is changed; we are given a new perspective on our interpretations that we call experience. The word 'transform' is wrong because in the process of deification frogs are not changed into princes. They remain frogs, but are transfigured into glorified frogs. Jesus in the resurrection is still wounded, but his wounds are glorified. The word 'transcend' is equally anti-incarnational: nothing is left behind. Nothing is wasted. It is through our wounds, become Christ's wounds, that we are healed. That is to say, it is through our wounds that we become kenotic, self-outpouring, of which the cross is the sign.

The Importance of the Word Behold
As I have already published a paper on the word behold, I will confine myself to the briefest of remarks. Because we have lost the practice of observing our own minds and the model of the two ways of knowing, we have also lost the sense of the importance of the word behold and its nuances both in scripture and in subsequent texts that are written by people who are soaked in the language of scripture. In consequence, our translations in English have become increasingly flattened, banal and clumsy, if not just plain wrong.  Although it is not frequently used in contemporary English, this word is not archaic: one can find it even in advertising, not to mention newspapers. It also can be heard in broadcast news. Uneducated people use it intuitively and correctly. The word occurs in the imperative more than 1300 times in the original languages of the bible; it is arguably the most important word in the bible because it sums up everything that ever has been said and ever can be said about the human seeking of and relationship with God. Patristic and medieval writers frequently use the word 'behold'—yet the word is rarely translated. As we have already noted, the Cloud author, for example, uses the word thirty-five times; it is a word essential to understanding both his text and the bible.
This single word sums up all that the bible is try to say: 'behold' is the first word that God speaks directly to the new humans after creating and blessing them; everything that follows—the serpent, and so forth—arises from a refusal to behold. The only thing God ever asks of human beings is to behold. Beholding transgresses the self-conscious mind and opens the person to what is given beyond the merely linear, that is, it opens the person to the fountain of wisdom in deep mind and the unfolding truth of the self, which is always hidden from the person whose self it is.
Silence is context and end, beholding the means. In the final analysis this is all we need to know.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tragic But True

We have long known that the institution is of, by, and for the clergy and that the laity are just numbers with pocketbooks and don't count, but in case anyone doubted this view, here is  conviction out of the institution's own mouth (and don't think non-Catholic religious institutions are exempt: these attitudes apply across the board). With thanks to Mike Ford for sending this item.

Roman Catholic guidelines to using the Liturgy of the Hours state: 'Clergy and religious have a canonical obligation to pray it as official representatives of the Church. Increasingly, the laity are also praying it, though they do not do so in the name of the Church.'