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).


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10:21 am, March 23, 2011  

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