Friday, February 23, 2007

The Apophatic Ordinary III

The implications of these observations on apophatic consciousness, and the gift of complete stillness and silence that is accessible through the paradox of intention, for the development of, and controversies within Christian theology from its earliest days, should be obvious. A westerner with the most rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism would think it odd to say the least if someone were named a Zen roshi, qualified to pass on the tradition, who had never sat in a zendo or completed koan practice. But this appears to be analogous to what has happened in Christianity.

A person who has diligently pursued the way of the poor and received the gift of radical loss of self-consciousness and the sense of rebirth of language as well as life that accompanies it, finds theological conversation with someone who has not received this gift, and is speaking from a tradition of discourse alone, difficult, if not impossible. There may be more reasons than interior silence and avoiding ordination that led desert monks to flee bishops who, contrary to claims that the “whole teaching” had been passed on, would examine them for “orthodoxy”.

For a person who has received this radical loss of self-consciousness even once, most theological debate, particularly as it is carried on today, seems entirely beside the point. The question, for example, whether God “exists” or whether this existence can be inferred from so-called mystical or religious experience is entirely pointless, a non question, a question of the wrong order. Further, for such a person, it is evident that the refusal of contemporary theology to allow for and engage the rigor of paradox has led to the death of symbols and liturgy, for at heart, Christianity rests on paradox, paradox that is able to embrace and hold in relationship the seeming contradictions of life in the chaotic (i.e., random and open in the sense of chaos mathematics) continuum of space-time, a system that is thrown into contradiction with itself whenever this paradox is “resolved” into linear systems. Problems in nonlinear systems cannot be solved. “Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules.”(16) The contradictions then imposed on the faithful are presented, ironically, as “paradox” to be accepted on “faith”, when in fact, what is being presented is true contradiction.

Space limitations prohibit enumerating the many controversies,(17) and the quantities of blood spilt, in which those who have practiced the way of the poor have been persecuted by those who are ignorant but hold power,(18) or who have been too frightened or slothful, to learn to be accessible to the radical loss of self-consciousness. Today's futile arguments over tradition are among them, and include the entire spectrum from rigidly conservative to woolly liberal. The “dead religion of a living people”, to paraphrase Jaroslav Pelikan's apocryphal remark, that results from these arguments, brings us to the last definition of apophatic, which is death.

The foundational paradox of Christianity has to do with life arising from death, and the Letter to the Hebrews(19) informs us that the fear of death means enslavement to the Accuser. It is a commonplace today that attitudes toward death determine perception and behaviour, and that perception and what is perceived are interactive. It is also a commonplace among those who practice the way of the poor that the requisite letting go of images and ideas is death indeed and requires an equally radical faith, for the way of the poor is not a technique, and there is no guarantee that the ultimate gift will be given. But resultant shifts in perspective are radical, permanent, and transforming, as New Testament and other sources attest.

Theology today has something on the tip of its tongue which it cannot remember: it is the apophatic background called death. If theology does not remember death, if it does not employ the paradox of intention, if it will not learn to engage paradox on its own terms, as it searches the writings and traditions, then it will continue towards a dead end from which there is escape. For too long the word “experience” (much less the loss of experience) has been an unmentionable referent in theological discourse, and paradox a mere challenge for linear resolution.

Today's religious and theological controversies seem far removed from any understanding of apophatic, particularly as we face planetary questions concerning famine, war and the continuation of life. This remoteness appears to stem in part from theologizing that has ignored even the paradox necessary to concentration in its most ordinary sense, but, more importantly, its perceptions suffer from the consequences of its choices, the cramped issues on which it has chosen to concentrate, which can safely be controlled. These choices are determined by theology's fear of the reversal of language, that if it began to listen in a wider context, its talktiveness, by which it appears to define itself, would die. This is indeed very likely, but far from the dead end of language, which paradoxically lies in its talkativeness, it might discover not only the fulfillment, but also the regeneration of language.

Theology appears to have forgotten the paradox at the heart of Christianity, which provides a shift in concentration and a consequent shift in the perception of death in all its forms, a paradox that appears often to have been embodied in a profoundly silent and radical loss of self-consciousness that was and is still today interpreted as encounter with the Referrent from whom theology originally took its life.


(16) James Glieck, Chaos (New York, 1987), p. 24.
(17) The controversy over whether God suffers and what is meant by "immovable", for example.
(18) "It is this sensation of absolute annihilation of the individual,tasted by the mystics of all times, which Gerson, as a supporter of a moderate and prudent mysticism, could not tolerate. A female visionary told him that in the contemplation of God her mind had been annihilated, really annihilated, and then created anew. 'How do you know?', he asked her. 'I experienced it,' she had answered. The logical absurdity of this reply had sufficed himto prove the reprehensible nature of these fancies.
"It was dangerous to let such sensations express themselves by explicit formulas; the Church could only tolerate them in the form of images. Catherine of Siena might say that her heart had been changed into the heart of Christ. But Marguerite Poret , an adherent of the sect of the Brethren of the Free Spirit, who also believed that her soul had been annihilated in God, was burnt at Paris." The Waning of the Middle Ages, by J. Huizinga, (London: Penguin, 1987).
(19) Heb. 2: 14-15.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Apophatic Ordinary II

The word “apophatic” has at least two traditional meanings. The first is what is ineffable, completely beyond any human knowing. The second is ineffable knowing, beyond speech or image. It also refers to a way of doing theology that affirms by negation as typified on the one hand by Pseudo-Denys, and on the other by the Athanasian creed.

However, as noted above, this word today is used as noun or adjective in a variety of ways. Some of these are: the inclusive landscape of concentration that lies beyond the door of paradox, described above; necessary ambiguity, employed, for example, to give a word or phrase expansive resonance instead of restrictive definition; a particular way of concentration that can be sought, described below; a particular entry into complete silence for which this sort of concentration makes the practitioner available, and which is documented throughout much of human history, summed up by Isaac of Nineveh's phrase, “the mind is snatched”;(6) and, finally, the dark background that is death, before which all signs are displayed and the human drama is played out, which is of course another way of talking about the inclusive landscape in which concentration is focused that lies beyond the door of paradox. In this discussion, I wish to confine myself to the last three, that is, a particular way of concentration, a frequently documented loss of self-consciousness, and the background of death.

Whether or not one notices the periodic predominance of the apophatic on the continuum of consciousness, which occurs ordinarily with greater or lesser intensity while humans are awake (the questions of sleep and dreams cannot be discussed in this paper), depends on the intensity of the moment, cultural conditioning, personality, and other variables. It should be noted also that these variables are the filters through which apophatic consciousness, and the radical loss of self-consciousness, are interpreted in words and images.

Writers, who tend to notice small things, often wonder how they write. John Gardner: “All writing requires at least some measure of a trance-like state. When one has experienced these moments, one finds...that after one has come out of them, one cannot say, or even clearly remember, what happened.” The same impression is expressed by a Nobel biologist: “The main thing about it, is that you forget yourself,”(7) and by an anonymous writer in The New Yorker: “But occasionally, without being asked, time neither stops nor passes--it drops out of mind with such simplicity and secrecy that not until later do you understand the enormous gift you have received....As I walk by my rather disheveled garden in the country, I kneel to pull up a weed. I am called to lunch, and reply that I'll be there in a minute. The shadows begin to pour around my feet, and the earth grows cool under my hands. A voice rings out from the house, 'It's suppertime!'“(8) At a more mundane level, “W.H. Auden made the point well when he said that schools were places that should be teaching the spirit of prayer in a secular context. This they would do, he maintained, by teaching people how to concentrate fully and exclusively on whatever was before them, be it a poem, picture, maths problem, or leaf under a microscope, and to concentrate on these for their own sake. By the 'spirit of prayer', he meant selfless attention.”(9)

The gift of radical loss of self-consciousness by way of concentration, through which a person becomes open in the landscape that I am calling apophatic consciousness, as well as being inadvertent, may be sought. Some people stumble on the paradox of intention by themselves, and many religious traditions teach ways by which people may learn the concentration that opens them to the gift of complete loss of self-consciousness. As noted above, this concentration involves a radical shift, if not willing loss, of perspective. Such losses, as well as the encounter with what I have called the dark background, are often described in the language of death.

The means of seeking the predominance of apophatic consciousness has been taught for millennia.(10) There seem to be two principal means: one is what I shall call the ascent of insight. This leads to a momentary predominance of apophatic consciousness in which there is no image or word, which is sometimes sudden and noticeable enough to be interpreted as a “eureka” experience. In this moment, the silence and stillness from which the crowning insight(s) appears to emerge, seem to be complete, but the moment is usually brief.

The second way, what I shall call “the way of the poor”, is more mundane, and simply involves the repetition of a word or phrase, concentration on breath, counting, visualization, or similar devices. The ascent of insight is more aesthetically pleasing--in part because it leads to self-reflection-- than the latter, which is arduous and often boring, requiring a more rigorous pursuit. However, the second method can open the practitioner to more sustained apophatic consciousness, to prolonged periods where stillness and silence seem to become complete, and time “drops out of mind”.

The emotional reaction to either the “eureka” experience or “the mind is snatched”, depending on the person and the context, sometimes can be acute. There can be celebration at the gift given. There also can be tears mixed with joy: mourning the loss of loss.(11) As the shift in perspective becomes more evident in daily living, the emotional reactions tend to fall away or be pushed aside as distraction.

There is nearly universal testimony that availability to such stillness and silence cannot be sustained without the integration of moral with mental concentration. Religious texts seem to play on this fact. Thus, New Testament sayings about losing one's life to gain it, or the kingdom of heaven belonging to the poor, or the hymn in Philippians 2: 5-11, can from this perspective appropriately be interpreted as referring to the mode by which predominance of apophatic consciousness is sought, including the moral behavior required both as preparation, and issuing as consequence.(12)

The Philippians passage is particularly pertinent here, because without a humble and solidly incarnational outlook as a discipline as well as a theology, it is all too easy, as the gnostics did, and people in every generation still do, to go off the rails. Because radical loss of self-consciousness feels like leaving the body behind (although the body is essentially involved), and because loss of self-consciousness is so great a gift, which loss is mourned, it is easy to fall into anti-matter language. Because the first sustained loss of self-consciousness may seem extraordinary,(13) it can appear as though a secret has been discovered. Without an incarnational discipline, a number of inflated, self-dramatizing reactions can occur as can be seen throughout religious history. A recent cautionary example is the late Chogyam Trungpa whose Cutting Though Spiritual Materialism(14) is a modern masterpiece on detachment, but who died of cirrhosis.

Even with a healthy attitude, there is the additional problem, having discovered the gift of radical loss of self-consciousness, of how to communicate it. The gift of complete stillness and silence, by its paradoxical nature as well as definition, is impossible to communicate, in part because there is no corresponding experience—or rather, lack of experience—in a life lived without trained concentration as described above, or at least awareness of the landscape in which concentration occurs. To resort to the paradoxical language that attracts, as many who have tried to communicate this gift have done—bridal language, erotic language, and so forth—in order to urge someone to enter the way of the poor and persist through the problems, only compounds the difficulty, for such language will encourage the hearer to seek an imaginative experience instead of the abandonment of experience. And it is difficult to persuade someone to enter what seems like death through the relinquishing of control of language and images, by which most people seem to maintain their identities.

There is another important difference between what I have called the ascent of insight and the way of the poor. In its aesthetic self-regard, the former can lead to efforts to repress emotions, thoughts, and so forth, in an attempt to “climb” to apophatic consciousness. Here we see one method, a violent and combative one, of coming to interior stillness, a stillness that cannot be complete or sustained because of the effort required to hold on tightly to what it has repressed. By contrast, the way of the poor allows emotions, thoughts and the like to dissolve by disregard. Even so, it is possible for the ascent of insight to point towards, or bestow a glimpse of, the way of the poor, the most famous and commented upon passage being in Augustine's Confessions, Book 9: 10, where he appears somewhat wryly to give an account of the ascent of insight he shared with Monica, and immediately follows with what appears to be a description of a sustained period of complete stillness and silence.(15)


(6) S.P. Brock, "Divine Call and Human Response," The Way, January, 1981, p. 73.
(7) L.A. Schreiber, "Strange Fish, New York Times Book Review, July 3, 1983.
(8) "Talk of the Town", The New Yorker, November 11, 1985, p. 36.
(9) Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind, gives a survey of meditation paths. See also the brief account by S. Betchelor, in The Tibet Guide (London: Wisdom, 1987). Of Christian writers there are too many to mention here, but two of the clearest are Isaac of Nineveh (7th c) of which there are two complete translations, one from the Syriac and one from the Greek, neither of which are entirely satisfactory, and fragments translated by S.P. Brock, which are excellent, but not yet gathered together in one volume; and John Main's Word Into Silence cited above.
(10) For a superabundance of comparative texts, see W.N. Perry, ed., A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986).
(11) It is possible to imagine that Origen's mourning was intense enough to lead him to castrate himself. Cf., On First Principles, tr. G.W. Butterworth (New York, 1966) p. 248.
(12) See again the comparative texts in A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom.
(13) The Zen master will say that it is ordinary consciousness, while what the non-practitioner experiences is a waking nightmare.
(14) Boston: Shambhala, 1973.
(15) That Augustine knew the way of the poor is evident from such passages as De Gen. ad litt. xii. 12, 25 & 26, 53.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Apophatic Ordinary I

The Apophatic Ordinary (1)

[Anglican Theological Review Vol. LXXIV, No. 4, Fall 1992, pp. 456-474]

[NB This article was originally written approximately three years before its publication.]

It is a common experience to have a name, a reference, an idea on the tip of one's tongue and to be unable to express it. In order to recover the information, it is necessary to forget what one was trying to remember. This cannot be a half-forgetting, with one eye on the imaginary place where the forgotten information may reemerge; the shift of concentration must be complete. Depending on the person, this phenomenon may be amusing, frustrating, maddening, or humiliating.

Marvin Shaw has written a study examining this phenomenon over a wide religious and cultural spectrum. (2) “There is a universal and recurrent human experience in which the blocking of some sought for attainment leads us to modify our intention, and this is found to yield an unexpected fulfillment of its own; experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case, we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it.” Shaw has named this phenomenon, “the paradox of intention”.

In this article I will as far as possible use everyday language as opposed to theological or religious language. This is necessary because of another paradox: past attempts to describe what is ordinary and simple in language that is not ordinary and simple has led to unrelieved obfuscation of the matter I wish to examine. (3) Thus I will not use notions or terms such as “Holy Spirit” or “grace” or “infused” or “intellect” or “will”. I shall, however, use the word “apophatic” as a means of bridging ordinary language with theological and religious language.

“Apophatic” is a word that today is often loosely and carelessly used, and I shall attempt to outline some of the new ways in which it is employed. It is also possible that “apophatic” is today sometimes substituted for the word “mystery” which, along with many traditional Christian words and symbols, have become meaningless for those most deeply committed to the Christian enterprise, as well as for those who are indifferent to it. In this article, I hope to suggest two reasons for this decline. The first is the failure of theology, especially in the West, to recognize the greater intellectual rigour required to respect the inclusive paradoxes necessary to sustain the central Christian paradox, even as theology necessarily employs rigorous linear argument as it examines discrete parts. The second, more important, reason, and one on which the first rests, is that the paradox of intention is central to “the way” that became Christianity, both as morality and in the development of interior wisdom and transformation, and therefore to the development or, ignored, to the distortion of Christian theology and religious culture past and present.

Looking at the example above of the information that becomes lost, several things are immediately evident. The First, as Shaw points out, is that there is a “danger that getting the goal by giving up the attempt to get it may be taken as itself a technique.... Therefore this is an 'anti-self-help book,' a book which maintains our problem is precisely that we approach ourselves as projects to be completed.” (4) Second, it is evident that it is difficult to examine the paradox of intention and related phenomena precisely because the paradox is only operative, as in the example of the lost information, when control is relinquished. In addition, the failure, to date, of laboratory attempts to examine meditation or “prove” the existence of so-called paranormal phenomena is another example of this paradox at work.

More importantly, in discussing this paradox, it is necessary to respect it as a paradox, for to dismantle it will mean that we are discussing something else. There is no “linear” way to examine this paradox so that its paradoxical nature, that is, a seeming contradiction, disappears. All the elements held in relationship in this paradox are necessary to the description of the phenomenon.

Further, there is textual evidence (5) that the phenomenon Shaw is calling “the paradox of intention” is common to most human beings from early recorded history. It is part of the continuum of ordinary human consciousness in which concentration is more or less focused in different ways. In the example of the lost information, it is necessary to concentrate away from the desired object in order to create the possibility of recovering it, which we might call creating a “space” in which what is lost might reemerge.

To approach this space from a different perspective—and the willingness to relinquish perspective is essential to recognizing this space—intense concentration leads to ordinary absent-mindedness. If I am concentrating intently on what I am writing and the phone rings, it may take a few moments to reorient myself to the very different task of concentration required to conduct a telephone conversation. If I reflect on what has happened, I may become aware that I have moved from one “landscape” to another, from the vast writing space into which I came by the intense concentration needed to listen for what is inarticulate and imageless becoming words, into the more cramped conventions of everyday conversation.

I would like to call this inarticulate and imageless landscape into which everyday concentration takes us, “apophatic consciousness”, and to define entry into it as follows: a gradual or sudden loss of self-consciousness effected by deliberate or inadvertent concentration, causing physical and mental stillness in which some movement may occur, but having the potential for this stillness and loss of self-consciousness to become complete. It is self-evident from this definition that the initial problem of the forgotten information cannot be resolved until self-consciousness has once more been let go by moving one's concentration to a different part of the mental landscape.


(1) This article is an excursus to collaborative work with Dr Vincent Gillespie, St Anne's College, Oxford. See Gillespie, V., and Ross, M., 'The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich' in The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, Cambridge, D. Brewer, 1992; and Gillespie, V., 'Postcards from the Edge: Interpreting the Ineffable in the Middle English Mystics' given at Perugia, April, 1992, forthcoming. For a fuller development of this paper, see 'Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model: Notes for a Quantum Theology', Literature and Theology, (Oxford) forthcoming, 1993.
(2) The Paradox of Intention (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), p. 195.
(3) "The process of intellectualization takes on a life of its own, and is mistaken for the experience itself: theology is trapped in circumlocution. When the experience is forgotten and negated in this way, the Truth is dead and what is talked about is a lifeless shadow.
"Theologies proliferate. The number of theologies equals the number of theologians, and everyman is his own theologian. The mind splits, unable to come to rest; the mind is paralyzed before its own creations and cannot stop. The fission of the modern mind is characteristic of the religious and theological mind as of anyother mind. The result is the proliferation of idols called concepts of God [or "religious experience" MR]--theology as theothanatology. In the hands of Christians, theological interpretation has become the means of suicide for Christianity: the evagination of the Gospel.
"For how many years did Thomas Merton exist this way in his monastic life, until he came in desperation to this unheard of truth: 'The Contemplative is...simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond order no longer to clench our mind in a cramp upon ourselves, as if thinking made us exist.'" Charles Kinzie, "Merton Rimpoche: A Stranger in an Iron Cage", Contemplative Review, Autumn, 1985, p. 6
(4) Ibid., p. 2. Compare with John Main, Word into Silence (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1990), "There are no tricks or devices that will get trick results...or at least none that will not overload an unprepared an undisciplined psyche.... It is only when we have focused everything, surrendered everything that we are able to receive everything....the mysterious paradox of life proceeding from death."
(5) See, for example, Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1988).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Radiance of Torah II [Psalm 19]

The psalm continues with a beautiful image of "... the sun, that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoices as a champion to run his course... and nothing is hidden from its heat." The sun image is potent, not only because sun brings light, but also because of its penetrating beauty and radiance, its bridal intimacy, which generates life. "In the beauty of holiness have I begotten you, like dew from the womb of the morning." When we are focused beyond words and what we think we know, this radiance becomes reciprocal, as psalm 34 reminds us: "Look upon God and be radiant." God's loving relationship like the sun permeates everything; our lives are determined by it, no matter how we think we fail. It is where we focus our gaze that is important.

For the Psalmist, God's love is manifest in the radiance of Torah, the law that is spoken of in the next verse. Torah is not merely a set of writings. Torah, written and unwritten, spoken and silent, manifest and implicit, revives the soul and gives wisdom to the simple. It rejoices the heart, and gives light to the eye. Our awe before the Lord of Torah purifies us from self-reflection, and gives a taste of eternity. The judgements, or insights from such contemplation are more desirable than gold, sweeter than the sweetest honey.

So ineffable is this relationship that the Psalmist cannot imagine ever interpreting or living Torah in its perfection. "Your knowledge is too wonderful for me, I cannot attain unto it." Knowing he will fall short, the Psalmist pleads to be protected from his own errors and from the arrogance of presuming that his interpretation and application of Torah is ever more than provisional. It is not falling short the Psalmist worries about; it is presuming to think he understands more than is possible for mere mortals to bear.

The psalm ends as it began, with its focus on the imageless God, an overt summary of what was implicit in the opening metaphor of the sun. Our gaze in this psalm is always directed "upward" towards the light that blinds us in an indirect and gentle mimesis of the fire and darkness that enveloped Moses on the mountain.

"Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising," proclaims Isaiah, in the liturgy of Epiphanytide, but it is not to an interpretation written in stone that nations or individual hearts are drawn, but rather to the living Torah whose interpretation can never be complete. There is another paradox here: that God who is only outpouring love yet draws to himself all of the love of our "heart, mind and strength". It is the wisdom that comes from this continual encounter through all times and seasons that is passed from one generation to another, and communicates without language the discretion for right living of Torah.

This is the Sunday when we pray for Christian unity; and unity, like charity, begins at home. It commences with the receptivity of each human heart that tries to gather the scattered nations of its thoughts; that seeks the still and radiant point where healing and wisdom are given in the overshadowing of the Spirit. This movement, however it is expressed in words, is universal to human beings, and its wellspring is silence.

"How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not in the world of the word?" cries John the Solitary in the Fourth century, "For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I depart from the voice, no longer remaining in things which the voice proclaims? When shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things, when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring?"

Our search for unity within our selves and among ourselves can be confusing. There is a welter of language and interpretation, some of it conflicting. But perhaps unity may not seem so impossible if we think in terms of an ancient Byzantine icon, in which the archangel Raphael is holding a transparent sphere. The sphere may represent the whole of creation transparent to God; or it might be the circle whose centre is everywhere; or perhaps even one of God's tears.
It is as if all the words, metaphors and images we use are the surface tension of this sphere, but their meanings, what they signify, mingle within the sphere, and fuse to become a single lens through which we see God.