Sunday, August 17, 2014

In Media Vita

I've just returned to Oxford after two blissful weeks in Devon with my friend and her two collies and new cat. Didn't do much but eat, sleep, walk dogs, play with cat and read novels—comfort reading. One day we went to Dartmoor: it was a brilliantly clear Northwest Day with a gusty wind blowing—we are still feeling the effects of Bertha's remnants in the form of a low pressure centre that refuses to leave our Northeast coast. One of the collies has very long hair, and as we walked up to one of the moor's weird rock formations, Kestor (each has a name), the wind blew his coat into fans so that he looked like a collie in a painting or a calendar photograph. It was late in the day and the light was nearly horizontal. Breathtaking.

The Northwest winds continue and the temperatures have really dropped: the weathermen and women forecast snow on the tops of the Scottish mountains: Snow! In August! Gives me fair warning, for I have signed up to undertake a ten-week Tibetan Buddhist retreat on a remote Scottish island starting in January. At my age—I must be crazy! But finishing volume one of Silence: A User's Guide (pub date in the USA is October 1 and in Europe October 29) has left me drained and exhausted, and I feel the need for something completely different before I embark on volume two. The version of Christianity we have today (which has little relation to the first five hundred years of its history) seems to have little to inspire me in the wake of finishing the first volume of the book. A friend who is a professor of theology here has urged me to keep a journal of the retreat, and to note how it changes my perspectives on Christianity. It took some doing to persuade the Tibetans to accept me; now I hope I don't wash out!

As I consider the various religions to be a multiverse with the heart as a nexus, there is no conflict: each tradition should be practiced in its own integrity. Anyway, in my view there is no conflict between Buddhism and Christianity: the former is a philosophy in search of a religion, and the latter a religion in search of a philosophy, as a late mentor used to note. And as I read in preparation for this retreat, I am finding the same mistakes in Buddhist texts and translations coming out of the West as I have found in Christianity: a lack of understanding how the mind works, and a concomitant misuse of the word 'experience'. 'Emptiness', for example, is not nihilism, but a non-objectifying 'beholding'. This is not perennial philosophy, but rather a perennial psychology. Similarly, there is not 'nothing' but rather a 'luminous ground', perhaps similar to what I am calling deep mind. I am eager but also a little apprehensive, which is probably a good thing.

During my two weeks' absence the garden changed dramatically. Kind friends and timely rain took care of it while I was away. Before I left it didn't seem to be doing much, but on my return I found pumpkins turning orange, tomato plants groaning with ripening fruit, enormous cucumbers and courgettes, and quantities of beans—a cornucopia. Everything is crawling over everything else, with little explosions of colour in the form of nasturtium blossoms and dahlias. My landlady is a bit askance that I grow more than we can possibly eat, but to me the garden speaks of the abundance of the love of God. And its fruits make wonderful gifts to kind friends.

With so much going on in the world that is painful, the garden gives hope; otherwise the pain would be unbearable. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Heavy with Summer

The past few weeks have been heavy with summer. There has been no rain in the middle and south of England except for a few isolated thunderstorms; the rain proper has skirmished along both coasts but inland we are very dry. The air is heavy with humidity, but that hasn't been enough to ease the stress of the plants in people's gardens or the orchards of Devon, laden with fruit, where I arrived yesterday.

The train was packed with holiday makers headed mostly for Cornwall. All along the track the fields on either side had been hayed, and the enormous rolls were scattered about the fields like glacial erratics. The air was saturated with the fragrance of it, and with the scent of the wheat harvest.

In one field which you can see from my friend's upper pasture, the wheat was grown for thatch. Wheat thatch is typical for Devon, and it's a special kind of wheat that has to be harvested in a special kind of way. Part of the field was gathered into old-fashioned stooks; the rest of the straw lay in braided rows like the twist used to make a corn dolly.

All these events, along with a real chill on the wind and cooler nights, and now clouds threatening a prolonged wet spell have farmers looking over their shoulders as they scramble to get the rest of the harvest in. The spring and summer seasons pass so quickly this far north; sometimes we have a lingering golden September, but by October we are already thinking of wood fires and warm tights under fleece-lined trousers, as the rain pounds against the windows.

The willow-herb—what in America is called fireweed—is in full bloom; in Alaska we used to say that when the fireweed blooms hit the top of the stalk, winter was only six weeks away.

We're not quite as far north as Juneau, and we have the Gulf Stream, which Juneau doesn't, so we may have a few weeks' more grace. But all the signs—and a raven calling outside as I write—are warning us to make ready for what is to come.


The publication dates for my new book, Silence: A User's Guide have now been set: in the UK the book will be released by DLT on October 29. In the USA the book will be released by Cascade (Wipf and Stock) on October 1.

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.