Friday, February 17, 2006

A Stammering in the Dark

A Stammering in the Dark

[Talk for the Carmelite Community, Langham, Norfolk
Week of Christian Unity, 2003]

I sometimes think all our troubles begin when we forget that religion is only a stammering in the dark. The trouble is, we start listening to the stammering, become fascinated with it, get stuck in its sounds instead of in the silence that surrounds the sounds, and finally insist that my stammering is better than your stammering. This is, more or less, what divides Christians, and Christianity from other religions.

What religion is about is a way further into the dark. There are as many ways as there are people. Some ways are similar, so those people group together. This is the beginning of institutional religion. When two or three are gathered together there immediately is politics, that is, there is a power struggle. Somebody has to be on top, telling those less sure of themselves how they should think and stammer.

Those on top want the spotlight, and soon are so dazzled by it that they lose sight of the dark. They forget about silence and hear only their own stammering. Then the people still out in the dark become convinced that they should be in the spotlight too, and that only the person already in the spotlight knows how to get there.

So the person in the spotlight makes up all sorts of rules and regulations about how to get into a spotlight and everyone becomes so busy comparing themselves with each other and other groups of stammerers that they, too, forget all about the dark and the silence. Then the battle is fought over whose spotlight is bigger and brighter, and whose rules for entry into a spotlight are more competitive and rigidly enforced, and whose stammering is so convincing that the rest of those left out in the dark don't have to bother but just sit around and let someone else do it all for them, and hope that somehow, someday, they will get into the spotlight too.

At the end of this process, those who have for a time been taken in by these crazy goings-on realize what folly it all is. They start creeping back into the dark and the silence, sometimes bumping into one another, giving what comfort they can, and continuing on their way as they are blindly led.

In the meantime, back in the spotlights, no-one realizes that the audience has departed. The combatants are fixated only on their own self-perpetuation. They waste all their energy trying to unplug their opponents' lights in order to add additional voltage to their own. When this process isn't pathetic or tragic, it's often very funny, but these days the humor is a bit thin on the ground.

I've just come back from an errand in Paris. It was my first time to walk around that fabulous and beautiful city, but I have to say that the churches leave something to be desired. I saw enough baroque horrors to turn the stomach of Baron Munschausen.

I went to a concert in the Madeleine. The sound was lost in the reverberation of that cavernous place, not to mention the fact that some idiot had decided to precede the Mozart Requiem, which surely stands on its own, with some of the sappiest religious music ever written.

As the audience turned mutinous, I just sat there and tried to take in the excess—nothing exceeds like excess— the utter camp of the fresco, which looked as though it had been painted by a bath house artist high on something pretty potent; the hideous statues that dwarfed even the gigantic Corinthian columns—well, you get the idea. I couldn't bring myself to go into St. Suplice, and as for the pile of meringue called Sacre-Coeur, legs and time gave way before I could get there, even if I'd had the desire, which I hadn't.

A carved baroque banality spoils the sightline and gothic architecture of Notre Dame in the same way that a similar statue of the Assumption does that of Chartres. In my limited experience, it is the rare French church that is untouched by grandiosity, possibly because so many of them were built or redecorated in service of gamesmanship among seigneurs. Few of the big ones in Paris have an atmosphere of prayer that is strong enough to override the display, though there's many a roadside shrine and tumbling down chapel soaked in it.

It could be argued that I shouldn't be such an aesthetic snob and should accept that what I am objecting to is simply part of the history of these buildings, but the bad taste, wild irrationality and multiplicity are not the point. It was perhaps a past Dean of Canterbury who, years ago, told me that buildings such as these when they were built demanded as much as 70% of the livelihood of every man, woman and child in the population. They claim to be built to the glory of God, but while I might be able to believe that of Chartres and Canterbury—that is, I could believe it if I didn't know their real history—the Madeleine is something else again.

I'm not suggesting we would be better off without Chartres or Canterbury. Far from it. And grace has a way of working through the most corrupt charlatan. This does not, however, make the corruption any less noxious, nor the charlatan any more authentic. And someone else always has to pay the price.

We are now reaping what our forbears have sown in terms of religious institutions—in various denominations, in religious life, in Christian life in general. I don't need to say anything about the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches; we are all too painfully familiar with their dying, a necessary dying, but very, very painful to live through.

In terms of religious life, many Orders are also in trouble: one ancient Order with which I am intimately familiar is, in my opinion, dying of alcoholism, spiritual pride and the repression and neglect of their nuns. Instead of returning to the roots of their original simplicity, they have gone back to the period of their greatest grandiosity and most entrenched Jansenism. This entrenchment in unreality is consistent with their alcoholic syndrome.

"We are the best" (I have actually heard them say this), and they are merciless in holding one another to an inhuman—one might even say heretical—and entirely abstract standard. There are perhaps a handful in the entire Order who live what they were founded to live, and what all of us are called to: beholding in God.

Unfortunately this scenario is repeated across the spectrum of religious communities. It is not always or even frequently alcoholism that is the problem. There may be immaturity in the members, or the desire to always be on the most spectacular 'spiritual' bandwagon currently passing by, or sexual difficulties, or a simple inability to sort out the essential from the insignificant, to figure out why a particular practice which was once useful and is now a stumblingblock. There is the perennial mistake of thinking that going through the motions has value in its own right, that contemplative living is a 'lifestyle' instead of conversion of heart. And there are communities that have lost their way because they are constantly comparing themselves to other communities.

At this time when many communities are staring the possibility of dispersal in the face, it may seem odd to suggest that the communities in biggest trouble are not those with few aspirants. Small but healthy communities have a tendency to worry, to get caught up in the numbers game.

These days aspirants seem to appear in function of well-designed websites. I know a Second Order Dominican house that hadn't had an aspirant in at least a quarter century that is now getting a steady trickle, one or two a year, thanks to a sexy—no, maybe that isn't quite the word—anyway, thanks to an attractive website. Aspirants these days go surfing and do their initial sorting out on the net.

Nor are floods of aspirants a good sign. Communities with this syndrome don't usually announce the departures that commonly take place shortly after profession, when the co-dependent young ladies (or men) finally start growing up, and waking up to the fact that their humanity is being taken from them, and that the seemingly charismatic leader is in reality a petty tyrant, enlarging his or her hegemony at the expense of the members. An instructive book here is Shoes Outside the Door about the San Francisco Zen Center.

From where I sit the communities that simply get on with their lives and listen in the silence and the dark of the present are the ones that are flourishing. They may not feel like they are flourishing, but they are inhabiting what they have professed. These communities and the individuals who make them up, by this simple inhabiting, proclaim their own authenticity. They don't think in terms of 'success' or 'failure', because they realize that these terms are irrelevant. How can humans judge what is of God?

What they see and hear of other communities around them is useful, but at the same time they realize that comparisons are truly odious, and that God has a mysterious vocation for each person and group, if only we will listen, that waiting in the silence is far more important than locking ourselves up in a box of abstract identity constructs composed of our own stereotypes or those of others. As a friend recently remarked, the slogan is wrong: you can't think your way outside the box.

Let me try to make these observations a little more concrete.

The way of unknowing is the heart of the journey into God in every religion, no matter how conflicting their theologies may be. It is not the denial of the intellect but its crowning, a knowing in unknowing that comes into play when the intellect has exhausted its faculties.

Various practices of the Church, such as the Office, were initially designed to enable this path into unknowing. The Office has many purposes. One of them is to give us prayers when prayer is difficult. Unfortunately however, like so many other practices, the Office soon became an end in itself, acquiring nuances that were perilously close to magic. As such the Office can be counter-productive.

Our friends the Carthusians in this regard have got it right, I think: the Little Hours are said in private, and silent prayer may be substituted for each one. But in some communities there seems to be a terror of letting go one jot or tittle of recited prayer, whether it is the Office or add-on devotions.

I am not advocating an 'if it feels good do it' criterion of whether to keep a practice or chuck it. I am saying that when a community is small and overworked, or under great stress, the need for adequate time alone for each of the members becomes even more important than it is under so-called normal circumstances, and women, who in every respect need more space than men, historically have always had less. Silence offers the opportunity to rest in God in every sense. It is sad that it is so often presented as something extraordinary, and even sadder that women's communities are especially prone to the 'keep busy' mentality that has been imposed on them by men.

Trouble is, we have got into the habit of reassuring ourselves that we are 'real' monks or nuns by the fact that we have carried out certain practices. We all know this is rubbish from a theological point of view, but these secret security blankets are reinforced by a surrounding culture where religion has become entertainment, and so-called spirituality has become a lust for 'experiences'. We fail to realize not only how simple silence and unknowing are, but also how radical a demand it makes on us in terms of letting go of our shibboleths. Unknowing is not some sort of metaphysical moonshine between the soul and God in isolation—as if God, who is relationship, could ever be isolated! Rather, this unknowing touches every aspect of our humanity, our solitude and our life together.

We spend a lot of time in religious life asking 'Who am I?' We have been taught to cultivate our spiritual lives like a garden. This is a necessary passage, but ultimately it falls apart. We come to realize that being made in the image of God is precisely that: an image without image. The unknowability of our selves, the other and God is the same unknowability. Everything we seem to have known about our selves is revealed as a delusional construct. I suspect the relinquishing of our ideas about our selves has at least as much to do with the phrase 'loss of self' or 'gift of self' as the service of others or adoration.

The trigger for this insight varies from person to person and from time to time. It's something we may start suspecting early on, and then a life event—for me, the death of the last parent and the final break-up of my family—will bring it into shattering clarity. Whether we are aware of it or not, a parent provides pressure and energy for both impetus and rebellion. No matter how mature we are, the withdrawal of the last of these two sources of energy provokes a crisis.

In the process of this crisis, we may think we have lost our passion, if not our vocations. But maybe it's something else. Maybe it's just that we don't need to inhabit that passion any longer in order to keep ourselves going. Maybe when we realize this we become aware that our vocations have a life of their own, and that after a certain point we are helpless, that we are given over far more than we realized, or maybe even wanted, and that much that we thought essential to our religious lives, the trappings that once helped us feel like 'authentic' religious don't mean anything at all.

This is a highly traumatic passage, but it gives us a glimpse, perhaps, of true apatheia. We learn that it is far more important to the process that is being done in us than our exercise of doing. This movement from action to being was beautifully summed up by Thérèse of Lisieux in her image of the offering of empty hands.

This crisis of passing from action to being is associated with another: the feeling that one has not merely lost but failed or even betrayed one's vocation. I think these are among the sorts of feelings that the counsel of the ancients urges us to ignore. Not deny, but ignore.

Just as the necessary idols we make for God and our religious practice are smashed one by one, so our perception of the vastness of the silence grows imperceptibly. In light of this, we are always going to feel that we fall short. Far from being a negative, such a groundnote of pain can be a welcome touchstone of realism in times of greatest exaltation.

Our capacity for unknowing has to grow and expand into that silence, and though we will be—and indeed already are by our shared nature—'onyd' with God, as Julian says, our capacity for unknowing will never begin to have the capacity to welcome the vastness of infinite Love that embraces us.

My sisters, be of good cheer. The essence of our lives in God has little to do with buildings or numbers or practices or rules. All of these, without exception, can help—but they can also also hinder. Our lives in God have nothing to do with success or failure by any human norm.
Our lives in God, rather, have everything to do with 'seeking into the beholding', in darkness and in silence, yielding all of our lives in responsive unknowing, being willing to be done to, being willing not to claim to know, and not to measure. After all, this is God's work.

We are only stammering in the dark.


Blogger John said...


What happens if a group of you stagger in the dark together, no feel led by the Holy Spirit, find a concensus and attribute it to being led by the Holy Spirit.

And then meet for prayer to focus on giving love to God, and not expecting that at any particular meeting they will 'receive'.

1:34 am, February 18, 2006  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Yes, as long as there is no 'claim' that this is the Holy Spirit. Your second paragraph provides the discernment: 'every true sacred sign effaces itself.'
Thanks, John.

9:30 am, February 18, 2006  
Anonymous dFish said...

"Communities with this syndrome don't usually announce the departures that commonly take place shortly after profession, when the co-dependent young ladies (or men) finally start growing up, and waking up to the fact that their humanity is being taken from them,..."

I feel this is truthfully entertaining having gone through religious life myself.
I'm just taking my time digging your archives and reflect more especially over the meaninglessness that I'm thrown into. In between your grand lines, I sense hope Maggie.

8:17 am, August 08, 2009  

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