Monday, January 28, 2008

IX Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

The ordination of women: supposedly this is a triumph of feminist theology, and as such it is perhaps instructive. I remember a polite disagreement I had with Jane Williams over the interpretation of Ursula le Guin’s Tehanu. It’s a pity, said Jane, that women can’t be mages. From my point of view (later confirmed by the author) this was entirely beside the point when women have kinship with dragons and can look them in the eye, which mages can’t. Why be an acolyte to substance when you are substance itself? But for Jane, the issue seemed to be only whether women could be mages or not. In other words, priests or not. But if by grace you already live at the heart of the Eucharist, why be so bent on stepping back to go through the motions? Why retreat from the implicate to the ephemeral, from multi-dimensionality into linearity?

The evils that plague theology have a reciprocal relationship with the pathology called clericalism, which infects every aspect of life related to religion and theology. Clericalism (as distinct from people) is a kind of contagious sickness. It is inherent in a hierarchical system. It infects clergy without distinction of gender and without their knowing it. It sets them apart as a class, which is a very different matter from the setting-apart of holiness that is the interior solitude of each human being, from which true community is born. Clericalism is inherently destructive, both to the person who is already infected and to those affected by it, and who are therefore in turn often infected; it perpetuates the classic co-dependent cycle and its denial.

It is denial that makes clericalism intrinsically abusive to others. It gives the impression of sacramentalising the seven devils, the seven Ps: Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage. Clericalism is doubly destructive in that it reinforces the abuse people have received from an increasingly violent culture and bring to the Eucharist to be healed. Clericalism traps them in the depressive self-consciousness that is one of the most subtle and pernicious effects of any sort of abuse, and is the opposite of the freedom from the tyranny of self-consciousness that is called ‘salvation’.

Clericalism is a collusion among those who deliberately choose to be deaf and blind especially to themselves (Jn. 9). It arises from a need to hide: to hide from oneself, to hide from other people. The need to hide is itself pathological. Clericalism creates a Dives and Lazarus abyss. There is no way to cross it. Even supposedly well-intentioned groups such as Affirming Catholicism ‘forgot’ (I quote two of the organisers) to invite the laity to its initial meeting, and seems merely to be a yet another mask behind which the old evils hide themselves.

Sometimes clericalism takes the form of clergy creating problems or eliciting them from people so that they, the clergy, will have someone to ‘help’ and can thereby feed their egos on another’s suffering. Sometimes clericalism, especially when it is linked to sexual problems, takes the form of excessive devotion to Mary (and consequent hatred of flesh-and-blood women). Heinrich Institoris, ‘earned much commendation for popularising the rosary’ and with his co-author of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, was a ‘fervent venerator of the Virgin Mary.’

Sometimes sexual problems are expressed in excessive, even compulsive, concern with ritual. The variations are endless, and please note, again, that clericalism infects people irrespective of sex or gender or status in the hierarchy. Laypeople can often be more clericalised than clerics.

Clericalism like other forms of addiction always needs a bigger fix. Witness the history of clerical orders in the church. Witness the ecumenical dialogue when it is conducted at the official level, where the ego stakes and perks are highest, dialogue that accepts by unspoken convention claims that appear to have little foundation in fact for which there is scholarly evidence, but have every foundation in ego-decoration.

The problem is that clericalism creates a classic spiral: when the abused take power, they become the abusers. In a society where women are held in contempt by men, they cannot help but have contempt for each other. When they have had all the ground on which they stand taken from them, they will try to take from each other the little scrap another has in order to have the illusion of a slightly surer footing. And when the women take power, they have the same potential for abuse of others as men. The men, of course, often say they have been abused by women.

Once again I want to ask the question I asked at the beginning of this paper: Why are we continuing to assent to degraded theology? Why are we ordaining women into this bankrupt system?

This is the question, along with those of sex and power, which, unacknowledged, prolonged the acrimonious debate in the Church of England. There were others, unaddressed; for example, that the church never has been, and never will be, coterminous with the institution. These days they hardly relate at all. There is an unbridgeable abyss between them that only Christ can cross, and Christ can do so only if both sides are receptive and responsive; the clericus seems not to be. Both sides are composed of people, but the other is made up of people who seek the peace of Christ and try to listen to something other than the ceaseless ranting of their own egos. Christianity will survive even if, or perhaps because of, the demise of present institutional systems.

'If all of this sounds extreme, listen to The Rev’d Dr. John Pobee, a West African Anglican addressing the Joint Meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council in Capetown, January, 1993:

We must explore such Anglican spirituality as there is in the light of the new geographical-cultural configuration of the Communion. But it must also be sensitive to the spiritual challenges of our day. Spirituality is more than prayer and worship, important as they are; it is, as well, obedience to the will of God in bread-and-butter issues; it is, as well, vulnerability. Any church that is preoccupied with its self-preservation will die.'

With the descent into linearity and its attendant failure of vision has come the failure of discernment. While many women seeking ordination are driven by unintegrated passions, by the motive of the seven Ps, others, now ordained deacon, or considering ordination, are distinctly uncomfortable with the system into which they are being forced, particularly since the 1993 Synod, quite rightly suspecting, though they may not be able to articulate it, that they are making a Faustian covenant.

These women realise that the freedom of Christ’s promises has been turned on its head to become rigid categorisation and conformity, the creatures of class and status. Some are aware, quite conscious, even, that theirs is a vocation to behold, and to communicate ‘beholding’, but since the church has no use for contemplation and will not support it no matter how piously it rabbits on about ‘prayer’, they perceive that only way for them physically to survive is to become ordained. People who follow such a vision, who are compelled to follow it by the self-emptying mind of Christ, do not do well in the cut and thrust of the churches of post-Thatcherite Britain or post-Reagan America. What these women who have chosen the clergy option out of despair do not realise is, that unless they are exceptionally lucky, the clergy club and the laity who act as its minions, will eat them for breakfast.

It does not take a theologian (many theologians would be the last to be able to perceive them) to see that these observations and the concrete situation in the Church of England (as opposed to its public pronouncements) are almost completely at odds. It almost seems as if we have entered the phase of life in an organism where the body is killed and only the sickness, which has destroyed it, remains, having, in the process, condemned itself. Similarly, organisations have a terminal phase in which those who are less healthy and more oblivious obtain control and drive the more healthy and visionary away.

This situation does not bode well, and from what I have seen in America as well as Britain, the women being ordained are becoming even more clericalised than the men, perhaps because they are the new kids on the block and less secure, like any convert, over-zealous and anxious to toe the party line. At the same time, they are distinctly uncomfortable, often bearing a deep and undifferentiated unease, a sense that they are betraying something. How, under these circumstances, women propose to turn the tide I do not know and I do not think they know, either. Certainly the faces on television in November, 1992, were not encouraging, nor has been the experience of women deacons. But for an American, this is old news: ECUSA has become arguably one of the most clericalised churches on earth.

In the light of these observations, the contradictions (not paradoxes) inherent in the present situation are untenable. Here are a few more:

— In Christ, both sacrifice (self-emptying) and priest (the will and gift to manifest this self-emptying) are indistinguishable. Why then do we create a duality?

— This sacrifice is made in the solitude of every human heart, and the body is the altar on which the Eucharist of each human life is made. Why then do we continue to allow the exaltation of one group of human beings to the denigration of others? What has happened to wonder, awe, reverence, before the unique mystery of each human person in whom God dwells in Christ by the Spirit? and by extension, before the unique mystery of creation?

—The purpose of Christian life is to realise our inherent gift of participation in God by becoming other Christs. Why do we imply that the ordained are more ‘Christ’ than the non-ordained?

—The Holy Spirit blows where she will,—I use the Semitic pronoun—bestowing her charisms on the just and unjust, but she unfailingly bestows grace through those who humbly wait on her, who, in attentive receptivity, are emptied of their self-preoccupation and drawn, in Christ, to the Father.

—Christ refused the temptation in the desert, and continued to refuse throughout his life, to lay claim, to grasp, equality with God (Phil. 2,5-11). The Eucharist is the sacrament of his life. Why then do clerics and would-be clerics presume to ‘claim’ the Eucharist? Eucharistic celebration is not a ‘right’, nor a ‘call’, nor an ‘exercise of power’, nor cause for preferment. The laws of life in Christ operate on the principle of ungrasping and the principle that humility is divinity, which has its corollary in the law of the paradox of intention, the fundamental law of prayer. It is the life of one who is the most humble servant of all.

The foregoing leads to some inexorable conclusions, the most obvious being that we need to de-institutionalise the clergy. This is not the occasion on which to develop this theme, but beyond what has been suggested earlier, the question needs to be asked what feminist theologians and women in general can do to turn the situation around.

Phil. 2, 5-11 and Heb. 2, 15 offer key hermeneutical tools for unlocking the essence of both the theological and religious enterprise, for they are at the very least accurate metaphorical descriptions of the empirical laws by which the human psyche operates in relation to God in both men and women. The suspension of the grasping self-consciousness and freedom from the fear of death are absolutely central to creative human endeavour of whatever kind.

Theologians, feminist or otherwise, need to stop doing theology in reaction with an eye to reaction and be courageous enough to take an independent line, no matter what the price. This requires freedom from the fear of death in all its forms. For women this additionally means willingness to face the threat of physical violence and coercion that are all too familiar and do not need to be detailed here. For men, who tend to feel that the world is out of control if a woman thinks differently, freedom from the fear of death means not feeling castrated or threatened when women oppose them or propose an alternative methodology.

How are these goals accomplished? In stillness, through beholding. To change something, writes a contemporary Carthusian, and it is clear that the need for change is undeniable, ‘you must first will it, or rather will God in it.’

'The willing of what is, is, at once, utterly simple, yet very mysterious...of the order of intuition and practice. One would perhaps go a step further and speak of willing God in a situation, rather than the situation with God. One would quit oneself as initiator and base of attitude and act and plunge into the act by which God wills and creates what is, in willing Himself. By willing God, in this concrete context, we will al that is, not as we perceive it to be, but as God wills it to be and how he wills it to be in the mystery of his wisdom and love...To which must be added that this willing is something that God does or is in us....

'The life of prayer entails going beyond without end, a refusal to rest content, a thirst for the infinite that shatters the pious, safe idols we are endlessly making one after another. This is the desert.

'It is possible to live for years... occupied solely with the things of God, without even passing the threshold..., for want of leaving an infantile world people with images, ‘spiritual’ pleasures, and words without end. An entire world that reflects only the multiple facets of our own self and our unconscious desires. It is this self that one risks adoring, and not God. We need images, sensibility, concepts, but we must know how to go beyond, to leave the surface to plunge into the silence of faith, the humility of solitude, the boundless infinity of Love.'

Abba Poemen asked Abba Macarius, weeping, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved.’ But the old man replied, ‘What you are looking for has disappeared now from among us.’

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

VIII Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Since we are practically at the very day of the ordination of women to something that is called ‘priesthood’ but which I dare to say is not priestly in any way, the day when all those mutated chickens I have been talking about are about to flap crazily home to roost on their misshapen wings, let me now try briefly to summarize the paper I had originally intended to give today, which is called ‘The Seven Devils of Women’s Ordination, or She Who Lie Down with Dogs Catch Fleas’ [published in "Crossing the Boundary', ed. Sue Waldrond-Skinner, London, Mowbrays, 1994, pp. 93-131].

I will begin by reading a recent statement from Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and a passage from Hosea:

‘Lay Catholics...”do not want to be treated as children but as adults, not as idiots but as responsible and conscientious followers of Christ....They want a hierarchy that listens more, is part of their common struggle and does not give the pretension of having the answer before the question is even formulated.’ (NCR Dec. 17, 1993)

‘The more priests there are, [says Hosea] the more they sin against me; their dignity I shall turn into dishonour. They feed on the sin of my people and are greedy for their iniquity. Priest and people will fare alike.’ (Hos. 4,7)

Or, here is Richard Sipe, and what he says applies not only to the Roman Catholic Church but any hierarchical organisation, particularly one where a single sex, male or female predominates:

‘Both the negative oedipal and this stage of puberty can be broadly called “homosexual” in that they constitute a turning toward the object of the same sex and away from the complementary sex through devaluation or denigration. It is necessary to pass through these stages on the way to adult heterosexual adjustment. This is why I call it the “necessary homosexual phase of development.”

‘This latter phase is particularly important for understanding celibate practice and development in the Church organization and structure. Much of the homosocial organization of clerical culture is fixed at this stage. It is the culture’s natural protection. The power structure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy can be seen psychically only in the context of encapsulating, solidifying and protecting this stage of development; in this sense, it can rightfully and only be called homosexual. If it moves to any other level of psychosexual development, it could not maintain itself in its present structure.’

And this is the sort of group, intent on protecting their arrested development, that women wish to be ordained into?! Through the domestication and subjugation of the church, women too have been arrested at an infantile, prepubescent or pubescent level. As I said earlier, ‘patriarchy’ is a misnomer: it is rather an ‘archy’ of permanent adolescents, whatever the gender or orientation, caught in a system that is most profitable to themselves if they remain permanently developmentally impaired, employing the particular method of hatred of the opposite sex and the concomitant need to reduce them through psycho-spiritual abuse to a level where they feel they can ‘legitimately’ despise the other, thus encouraging members of the despised sex to despise each other.

I said earlier that every theological statement has sociological, psychological, and anthropological implications, which we see clearly in the disaster that the General Synod has wished on us. We see this clearly also in the historical process of the technologizing of theology, and consequent linearity spilling over into praxis and cult. For example, Ranke-Heinemann has pointed to the specious document, the Protoevangelicum, which she calls ‘a theological meat inspection’, which recounts the fantastic tale of an old woman who didn’t believe that Mary was intacta after Jesus’ birth, that when she went to do a pelvic on Our Lady, her right hand withered.

While we may find this absurd, the use of such methodology to coerce is not to be dismissed, and Ranke-Heinemann points out that it has been known from the beginning that this was a specious document, yet one promulgated in the name of ‘truth’, and an entire edifice of doctrine has been built on it. Such technologising is the beginning of the end of theology.

What is lost here is the Semitic understanding of virginity, which is singleness of heart. It is degraded into a technology of membranes, yet another example of the degrading of paradox into contradiction, multidimensionality into linearity, not to mention the degrading of the human person, the imago Dei, who has capax Dei. It is doubly ironic that it is a woman who bears God, who has the original capax Dei, while for nearly two millennia women have been denigrated as not having the capacity for God, and thus have been barred from ordination. This flies in the face of the archetypal priesthood of Mary—the very human Mary of the Gospel narrative, the humble peasant Mary who is the mirror of her Son, and from whom all other notions of Christian priesthood derive, not the bells and whistles version used by the institution to enforce subservience and infantilism.

The subtext of the doctrine of virginity-as-membrane stretched to cover both genders, is, ‘any human being who is not intacta is a failed human being, and even those who are intacta are inadequate, for they have produced nothing, much less, God.’ No wonder there is a squeamishness about penetrating into the apophatic—or having it penetrate us—whether one is male or female—and we need to remember that the soul of every person, man or woman, is considered feminine. We can all think of other examples: the mystical exchange of the Eucharist becomes technologized into a culinary ‘confection’, to use Cardinal Hume’s euphemism for transubstantiation, a technologizing, over which, it hardly needs be said, much blood has been spilt.

The corruption of theology into technology is important because, for a time—this time has now come to an end—it enhanced the self-serving ends of the clerical order, whose diabolical 8-track tape-loop is now acting like a python’s coils, causing the institution to choke itself. Nor does the ordination of women necessarily point to change: history, such as we can understand, shows us that women make equally good tyrants, hierophants and concentration camp guards as men, because the factors required are incipient in every human person, again without reference to gender or, for that matter, age.

Women, as often evidenced in the movement for their ordination, are subject to a lockstep mentality that does not allow for deviation. Only with difficulty do they seem to be able to give each other room for individual expression. The price of this is a ministry of managed niceness, of feeding and feeding off of one another’s depression. Men give the appearance of allowing one another more space, but they have other, more obvious means of coercion. The means may be different; the effect is the same.

There are, however, much bigger issues to be addressed, and if women are to have leadership, they are going to have to show themselves capable of it. They need to develop spacious minds and the right sort of self-forgetfulness. Leadership qualities are also without sex or gender, and however a human person develops, there is always the need to explore and balance ourselves, and, more to the point, be free to find completely new resources within, the ever-unfolding truth of the self as it issues from the divine indwelling. Women who have struggled all their lives for this spaciousness of mind, for truth and for mental health are not going to have much time for an institution that perpetuates the same old adolescent narcissistic, blind-sided evils, whether it is men or women who are doing the perpetuating.

The only true obedience, without reference to gender, is given freely, not as a response to coercion. It is elicited unself-consciously and without exploitation; it is an act of love, of eros, the self-emptying of one calling to the self-emptying of the other, deep calling to deep, kenosis calling to kenosis. This is the only legitimate model of obedience and has nothing to do with the oppression that has abused obedience under many euphemisms to perpetuate religious tyranny, slavery and degradation, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, or academic.

The rise of clerical orders, especially today, reflects acculturation to an economy-driven cultural system based on what I call the seven Ps: Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage, which are modern versions of what the Desert hermits named greed, unchastity, avarice, anger, melancholy, accedie, vainglory and pride. These propensities obviate the possibility of beholding, which is apatheia.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Walrus of the Living God

Sermon for St Albans, Oxford
13 January, 2008

Some of you may remember a time back in the 1970s when certain waterways in the United States were so polluted they spontaneously caught fire. One of the most notorious of these fires occurred in a place coincidentally named the Love Canal. The feast of the Baptism of the Lord always reminds me of this event because there is a very early Syriac tradition that when the Holy Spirit appeared at Jesus' baptism, the Jordan caught on fire. There is a related tradition that says when Jesus came out of the water he was covered with our sins.

The ecological news isn't very good these days. Climate change is happening far more quickly than anyone anticipated. Animal species are vanishing all over the planet; the UK is hard hit. What has escaped the news, however, is a recent catastrophe on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, the body of water that washes the northwesternmost corner of the North American continent, and the eastern coast of northern Russia. This body of water vitally links the ecologies and First Nations families of these two countries. Late last summer and into the autumn, walrus in unprecedented numbers hauled out onto its narrow beaches near the Bering Strait because all the sea ice had melted. The overcrowding led to stampedes, and it is estimated that four thousand walrus died.

This news has shaken Alaskans badly, not quite to oil spill magnitude, but getting there. The gentle and wise soul who emailed me this deeply worrying information added, "Judgement may come because of walruses. Revelation talks about the Seal of the Living God; surely we could extend that to walruses."

It isn't as long a stretch as you might think between dead walrus and the Baptism of the Lord, for the Baptism of the Lord signifies an ecological crisis in the human soul. Make no mistake: the root cause of our peril is that we have lost awareness of the importance of our core silence, a silence that developed as we evolved. One of its functions was to help us to survive. Anyone who goes into a wilderness such as Alaska's becomes aware of this silence; becomes aware of the awakening of subtle senses. Our skin warns us of changes in humidity and the arrival of storms that can rage across the landscape with very little warning. Our sense of smell and other senses too elusive to measure warn us of predators.

I once was picking berries on a knoll above camp when I suddenly felt all the hairs on my neck stand straight up. They really do prickle when this happens. I wasn't consciously aware of seeing, smelling or feeling anything out of the ordinary, but I paid attention to what my body was telling me and left the clump of bushes as quietly as possible. When I arrived back in camp someone asked me if I was aware that there had been a bear also picking berries on the other side of the of the bushes from me. My friend was just about to call out when I escaped down the hill.

The exercise of these subtle senses is normative for human beings; we are made to live and to relate to our surroundings and to other creatures with a continual listening from the deepest level of silence. But our separation from nature—both nature in general and our own nature—has reached such a crisis that urban dwellers are today subject to a psychosis caused by deprivation of contact with the natural world. This psychosis is now on the offical list of mental illnesses.

Paradoxically, it is what is we regard as not human that has made us human. Witness our fascination with animal programs on TV, and particularly with the research that shows how badly we have misjudged the mental and emotional capacity of animals. We are learning so much about the high functioning of other primates that there is an ongoing debate over chimps' being included under human rights conventions. Elephants make beautiful paintings, which have been exhibited at a gallery in London; parrots learn to communicate in human speech; their brains have the same structures that human brains do, whereas chimps lack them. The raven biologist, Bernd Heinrich, has evidence that this intelletual of the bird world, may have developed a kind of primitive mythology.

Even the ability to know that we know is now being called into question as an exclusively human trait. And if that is the case, then what about the divine gift that allows us to go beyond our self-consciousness, to that mysterious silence of the heart where it falls away, where all our experience, and all the signs by which we live are transfigured, that is, mutated, shuffled, reintegrated and energized. It is in this deep heart that we meet God and are en-Christed. It is possible to influence what is taken there, but what is returned to us is a new creation.

In the Christian tradition, unsullied creation is symbolized by the Garden of Eden, where all the predators were herbivores, and where there was no conversation as we know it, but something like direct communication between God and Adam and Eve. The readings from Isaiah we had during Advent recall this idyllic myth as symbolic of the reign of God in the new creation for which we long, where justice and mercy will prevail, and where the earth and our relation to it will be restored to some kind of balance.

Much has been made of the so-called sin of the Garden. The interpretations of the Fall—a word and a concept that do not occur in scripture—are legion. Perhaps it is Irenaeus, the third century bishop of Lyons, to whom we should pay attention, for he does not mention the Fall. Rather, he says that what happened in the Garden was not a sin but a distraction from this direct gaze on, and exchange with God. Irenaeus takes God to task for allowing this distraction to occur, but as our contemporary biblical scholar John Barton noted not too long ago, Adam and Eve's exit from the mental and spiritual womb of Eden is necessary to our maturation as human beings.

My own take on the story is that everything that happens to Adam and Eve after the crafty snake starts up the first conversation is hallucinatory, just as our ordinary waking lives are more or less hallucinatory. When Adam and Eve suddenly realize that they have lost their direct connection with God, they are completely disoriented. They have misplaced their reference point and become self-preoccupied so that what was once familiar, qualities of life they had taken for granted, are now strange, alien and painful.

Their fear of God walking in the Garden, the tree of life, the angel with the flaming sword, the curses—these are images that grow in minds that are clutching at straws, even if those straws are terrifying. Poor old practical God never stops loving them but heaves a great sigh and makes them some clothes.

In a tragic sense we are luckier than Adam and Eve because we have got used to our ongoing halluciation and disorientation even though there is something in the back of our minds that beckons us to find our way home to the silence of the heart we share with God. It is far easier for us, like Adam and Eve, to remain in the prison of our projections and distorted interpretations than to do the work of silence, which would enable us to have a life with God that is even better than the primordial one.

As Rowan noted in his Christmas sermon, we have become expert in "the ways in which we prevent ourselves from opening up to the true joy that God wants to give us by settling for something less than the real thing and confusing the truth and grace of God with whatever makes us feel good or comfortable."

People in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages may have had some bizarre ideas about neuro-physiology, but from the point of view of what the mind needs to function optimally, they seem in some ways to have known far more about it than we do. They understood that the mind must be in ecological balance between silence and speech; otherwise things go awry. As the authors of 'The History of Private Life' remind us, silence once was as much a part of education as the ABC. In a 13th-century treatise written for nuns, Bonaventure remarks that if you have a self-image other than the image of God, your relationships with yourself and everyone around you will be problematic. Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century writes of the mind itself as reflecting the image of God.

One of the main subtexts of the bible is this relationship between silence and speech; indeed, one reason the name of God is silence is that to name is to control, and God is so far beyond us that the notion of control becomes absurd. Equally it is not possible to control what goes on in the meeting place with God in the silence of each human heart, the place of incarnation. What we can control, rather, is the choice whether to remain in the heedless prison of our ongoing hallucination, which is acted out in the very real suffering of the material world, or to do the work of silence, which halts our heedlessness and reconnects us.

Through the transfiguring love we encounter in this silence, we are once more related to God by a restored innocence more profund than Adam and Eve's, for we have chosen and worked for it. As we become rooted in silence, the hallucination starts to fade, and we begin to engage the creation with something greater than original reverence. Jesus, the second Adam, is our model in this; we might think of him as the Undistracted, for his gaze never leaves the face of God even as he grows and matures.

The pollution of the earth reflects the pollution of our souls, the detritus with which we litter our minds. We choke on interior noise and external consumerism just as the albatross chokes on a tuna hook, or the sea turtle on a plastic bag, or the curlew on contaminated mollusks.

Our toxic, phantasmagorical pseudo-world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. A life of illusion adores only what it can consume and lives solely for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of deception and arrogance that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence. But when he comes, will he find faith on the earth?

It is a sad fact that the institutional church has not fulfilled its function of helping us find the needful balance between silence and speech, by reorienting our focus towards the beatific vision. By the time of the Council of Constance, which was held in the first few years of the 15th century, the hierarchy had effectively banned silence, for they knew that a person who has been educated by silence has matured to an autonomy that cannot be coerced.

As time passed, this ban on silence became ever more stringent in spite of protests from the 14th century mystics, the Dissenters, the humanists, the metaphysical poets—groups ever smaller and farther apart in time until in the 20th century there were only a few voices left, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil among them. These voices continue to remind us that it is the quality of our core silence—or lack of it—that determines how we behave, what we commit ourselves to, and who we become. If we lose silence, we lose our humanity.

Religion that has lost its proper balance with silence has lost the ability to help us realize our shared nature with the divine, and by extention, with the creation of which we are a part. Religion that has lost the practice of silence, the goal of silence, silence as an interpretive tool, is subject to all the distortions with which we are far too familiar today: hierarchy, legalism, money, preferment, power, infantilization, empty ritual and division. Rules have no meaning if they do not issue from a vision of God. When religion has deteriorated to this level, it has itself become the kingdom of noise. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that much of Christianity today is in the same condition as Judaism at the time of Jesus.

The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten its task of bringing the transfiguring silence of of the heart into the static world of noise. Clergy are no longer trained for lives of holiness but for career trajectories. One shattered deacon said to me, “The only thing I learned in seminary was how to lie.” If the institutional church has become part of the kingdom of noise, then it should not be surprised when those who come to worship in spirit and in truth, who seek support for living transfiguration in the world, turn away.

Rowan Williams is one of the few clergy acutely aware of the church's need to restore the balance between silence and speech. If you are baffled by some of what he writes, recall that silence and the unsayable are his continual reference point, and read the passage again. In his New Year's Eve message, he reminded us that "God does not do waste:

"In a society where we think of so many things as disposable; where we expect to be constantly discarding last year's gadget and replacing it with this year's model, do we end up tempted to think of people and relationships as disposable?"

"Are we so fixated on keeping up with change that we lose any sense of our need for stability?"

"[God] doesn't give up on the material of human lives. He doesn't throw it all away and start again. And he asks us to approach one another and our physical world with the same commitment."

Having said this, it is impossible and pointless to lay blame for our peril, nor do we have time. We are all responsible for our Earth, and we are all called to the fullness of ourselves in the life of God. “Respect” is a key word among the Inuit,Yupik and Aleut people, the people most hurt by the walrus' deaths. Respect means the humility that is clear sight, the recognition of our interconnectedness and the limits of what we know; the fragility of survival and creation, the precious gift of life and the mystery that sustains it; the sacredness of individual integrity and individual choice undertaken for the sake of the community.

Repentance for what we have done to the Earth is not possible without this respect; without our acceptance of pain and death as a part of life and joy; without the freedom from the fear of death that is the gift of silence, silence that brings to birth in us a compassion that is the new creation. With this gift, we receive freedom simply to be, freedom to hope that our search for solutions to the ecological crisis will not merely compound it. But all our hopes for reparation will be stymied unless they begin by restoring the balance of silence in our lives.

When the Buddha achieved the openness of enlightenment, he touched the earth. When oil from the Exxon Valdez drifted southwest to blacken the crystalline waters around the Kenai peninsula, Alaska's children went, grieving, to the beaches to write in the sand letters of apology to the Earth and the Sea.

As—not forgetting the walruses—may we.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Itinerarium Mentis in Deum

[NB: "Nonne" will continue in two weeks' time]

Sermon for St Mary and St John, Oxford

Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2007

The Feast of the Epiphany is often called the Feast of the Manifestation to the Gentiles. This title tells us that the light of Christ is given not only for the people of the nation from which Jesus comes, but to all nations. Throughout Advent we heard Isaiah's prophecies about nations coming to the light of God; the mountain on which the peoples shall be judged; the silent Word that instructs so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation; the root of Jesse that shall stand as a signal.

Along the way these messages of hope have led us through the realms of death, judgment, hell and heaven, while all around us in the physical world, the darkness has increased so that we are left with mere "light squibs" for a few hours during each dim and dropsical day of the sun's solstice pause. [see Donne on St Lucy]

The readings for Advent seem to me to be inextricably linked with the dying of the sun's light. I simply can't imagine what the Advent liturgy must be like in Australia or New Zealand, where the sun is reaching its peak. This attitude says a lot about the limits of my imagination, but there is a good reason for them, for I believe that there is yet another layer of convergence we need to explore that underlies not only these texts but the entire liturgical arc from All Saints to Candlemas. This layer is what we might call the silence of the heart, which includes our minds, our emotions, and all that we are and can be.

Growth in the spiritual life is rooted in the willingness to seek silence as a balance and reference point for speech and signs. This is a process in which all the words, images and other symbols by which we live, and all the interpretation we call "experience" are forgotten as the mind comes to a single focus and yields everything to the silence. Within this silence, out of our sight, these signs and interpretations are transfigured, that is to say, they are mutated, shuffled and reintegrated into something new. They acquire an energy that seeks expression, and in turn, through searching out the way to give that expression to them, we are impelled to seek yet more resonances in the silence.

It is impossible to enter this core of silence directly, or to control what happens there, but it can be influenced by our intention, which needs cultivating and nurturing so that the hidden heart from which we live rests in adoration. In this way, adoration becomes the source, the hidden outpouring for everything that we do, the measure against which everything in our lives is evaluated.

We are what we adore. It is the quality of our core silence—or lack of it—that determines how we behave, what we commit ourselves to, and who we become. If we lose silence, we lose our humanity.

We tend to speak of the process of going into silence as a trinitarian movement: inward to the imageless silence of adoration, the outpouring of its transfiguring effects, and the return to silence. If you meditate, it sometimes feels like that.

However, it is only the dualistic nature of language that forces us to speak this way, and to think of this process in terms of a sequential pattern can be misleading. The silence and the music/speech are coinherent and indistinguishable. It is a mistake to speak of “Contemplation and…” as if contemplative adoration were a discrete and exalted entity, not to be sullied by daily activity, or liturgy, or spiritual maturation. On the contrary, adoration is the essential energy in all of them—or should be. To understand the organic nature of adoration in everyday life is key to understanding the resurrection of the mind through the body that is the essence of the incarnation we celebrate at this time of year.

The Judeo-Christian religion at its best uses words, images and gestures in a way that mirrors the mind's journey into God, as Bonaventure called it. Good religion proceeds by narrative, paradox and reversal, because our minds work by narrative, paradox and reversal. This is one of the main reasons why the Christmas story has meaning for everyone, no matter what their belief.

The Word is silence and goes forth out of the silence; it does not return empty. The immaterial enters the material, and, enriched, returns to itself. On the other hand, for us to go into silence, we, the material, usually need a word, or a liturgical gesture, or some other focal point to open to the invisible, to the unsayable immaterial, which energizes, informs and transfigures the materiality of our lives.

The mind can absorb knowledge, integrate experience and solve problems only if it forgets for a time, that is, only if it yields the information it has acquired to silence, whether that yielding takes place in meditation or sleep, as recent scientific experiments have shown. This forgetting gives the mind a chance to seat what we are trying to learn, and if we are willing to work with the silence of the heart, it animates the information, which grows and deepens exponentially as it seeks expression in speech, which speech elides again into silence to be transfigured once more.

The liturgical cycle from All Saints to Candlemas reiterates the mind's journey into God and God's journey through our minds into the world. The Feast of All Saints reminds us of the cloud of witnesses who have been faithful to the reality of this journey, who urge us on towards the mystery for which we long. Advent conducts us safely through the thoughts and fears that cluster around death, judgement, heaven, hell. They must be faced and allowed to fall away from our sight as we continue steadfastly to move forward into the deepest silence.

In the process of coming to terms with these shibboleths, we find they have no power over us; they are mere thoughts; they dissolve. The liturgical readings for Advent continually remind us of the judgement of mercy, of the light that can be found only in the darkness, of discovering peace and harmony where we least expect it, the consequence of the gifts of the spirit of the Lord "of wisdom and understanding...of counsel and might... of knowledge and the fear of the Lord," all of which play a part in the transfiguring silence at the heart. That this is an interior journey is confirmed by the words, "he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth." Our fears come to nothing; our chains fall away: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid...and a little child shall lead them."

It is a little child, not a pontiff or a guru who leads us into the deepest darkness where our observing eye cannot follow. This child is our potential truth, stripped of all illusory constructs of self. Then, when the longing has become almost unbearable, when we have given up hope and wait in nothingness, we find ourselves at the manger where the child of our truth is newly born as Christ. We rejoice in the silence, in poverty and simplicity, for we understand that salvation is being set free from the noise of our fears and sins, and the chains of possessions. Our false treasure is but straw, a soft bed for the new creation, and fodder for the peaceable beasts.

Mary is the purity of heart that has been given us; Joseph, vigilance. The shepherds remind us that the greatest gift we have brought to the manger is our suffering. Holy Innocents tells us that to live as Christians is to go into exile from the consumer culture; that our attempts to endure without guile mean that our hard-won innocence will be slaughtered again and again. Circumcision reminds us that our bodies are not for pleasure alone.

We receive the three mages and their offerings with reverence and gratitude, for the myrrh of compassion and the frankincense of wisdom will enable us to use the gold of abundance humbly to succor those of every race and creed who still dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. The Baptism of Christ reminds us that we must re-commit again and again to receive in silence, through the temple of our bodies, a renewal of these divine gifts. Finally at Candlemas we carry the light of silence into the world of noise, hoping in some small way gently to wake it up, heal its wounds, turn its sorrow into joy. How this is done is not our affair; we go forth in open-ended faith without precondition or expectation.

The understanding of the mind's road to God I have just outlined, using images from the present liturgical cycle, was operative in the ancient world, and in the church until the middle of the 13th century. Aquinas and Bonaventure were its greatest exponents, but they mark the end, not the beginning. They saw the danger of the rising tide of dialectic and their work seeks to show us the proper balance between silence and speech. While they succeeded wonderfully, they also failed. By 1274, the year they both died, the wildfire of dialectic had already been spreading for 200 years, and at the end of the thirteenth century it became unstoppable, scorching the earth of the soul, its clamour drowning out the pedagogy of silence, and aborting the fullness of humanity transfigured in silence.

Silence became suspect. As the authors of "The History of Private Life" remind us, silence used to be as much a part of education as the ABC. However, by the time of the Council of Constance in the first few years of the 15th century, the hierarchy had effectively banned silence, for they knew that a person who has been educated by silence has matured to an autonomy that cannot be coerced. This ban became ever more stringent in spite of the protests of the 14th century mystics, the Dissenters, the humanists, the metaphysical poets, groups ever smaller and farther apart in time until in the 20th century there were only a few voices left, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil.

Those, who like Socrates, have tried to restore this balance frequently have been killed for their efforts. In 1310 Marguerite Porete was burned because her psychologically accurate description of the mind's road to the core silence where the observing I is left behind transgressed the clichéd vocabulary of her day, which some clerics sought to make legally binding. She refused to defend herself—how do you explain the process of silence to someone who has never practiced it?—and in silence went to the stake.

Religion that has lost its proper balance with silence no long has the ability to help us realize our shared nature with the divine. It lacks the tools to enable believers to come to spiritual maturity. Religion that has lost the practice of silence, the goal of silence, silence as an interpretive tool, is subject to all the distortions with which we are far too familiar today: hierarchy, legalism, money, preferment, power, infantilization, empty ritual and division. Rules have no meaning if they do not issue from a vision of God. When religion has deteriorated to this level, it has itself become the kingdom of noise. It is perhaps not an exaggeration to suggest that Christianity today is in the same condition as Judaism at the time of Jesus.

While there is a revival of sorts under way in terms of meditation, Christian institutions for the most part have made sure that this movement is kept peripheral, reduced to just one more consumer option among many in the spiritual marketplace. If I may quote Rowan's Christmas sermon out of context, the church has become expert in "the ways in which we prevent ourselves from opening up to the true joy that God wants to give us by settling for something less than the real thing and confusing the truth and grace of God with whatever makes us feel good or comfortable."

Christmas is the only time in the church's life when silence has the slightest chance. Stop for a moment and think of how many ways silence is emphasized in the writings, atmosphere and music that surround Christmas, a silence that tends to get lost in our celebrations. Father Christmas comes when everyone is asleep; Christmas cards show silent, snowy landscapes; "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given," we sing.

The carol "It came upon the midnight clear" states the problem with devastating clarity, if only we will pay attention. "The world in silent stillness lay/To hear the angels sing." For it is only in silent stillness that we can hear them, echoing the silent Word. This song has never stopped, the hymn tells us, but we are so lost in Babel, the kingdom of noise, that the prophecies concerning the nations go as yet unfulfilled. Instead, "Beneath the angel-strain have rolled/Two thousand years of wrong." The trammeled poet then cries, "O hush the noise, ye men of strife/And hear the angels sing." He knows full well that it is only when we learn silence that we are able to join the angelic chorus, to " . . .give back the song/That now the angels sing."

Each year between All Saints and Candlemas the church once again misses the opportunity to renew the role of silence and the vision of God as the heart of its life. Each year the church avoids the task of making silence the single most important criterion by which it thinks, writes, prays, celebrates and educates. Nothing less than a total commitment to this criterion can save our rich heritage, living and active.

If only we would undertake this work, we would be given the knowledge Rowan described on Christmas Day:

"When God has become human, then humanity will recognise in his face, in Jesus’ face, its own true nature and destiny. And the angels sing at the wedding in Bethlehem, the marriage of heaven and earth, where, in the haunting final stanza of [St John of the Cross's] great poetic sequence, humanity senses the joy of God himself, and the only one in the scene who is weeping is the child, the child who is God in the flesh: ‘The tears of man in God, the gladness in man, the sorrow and the joy that used to be such strangers to each other.’"

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

VII Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

Theology as I understand it is a function of the apophatic, and, in the apophatic, with its goal and criterion of the vision of God, so-called feminist theology is not only becoming irrelevant, it is also becoming destructive, because it doesn’t understand the basic principles that underlie religious language and much theology—the theology, say, of Origen and Augustine, of Gregory of Nyssa and St. Thomas, of Julian of Norwich and Marguerite Porete, of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hugo Rahner, even though these theologians themselves may not self-consciously be aware of these principles. According to the criterion of an organic and relational theology, which is sometimes called ‘feminist’, Hans Urs von Balthazar and Karl Rahner may be the most ‘feminist’ theologians of our age.

Let us look at the example of inclusive language. Because all useful sacred signs efface themselves, as we noted with the Eucharist above, clumsy inclusive language is often more opaque, more of a barrier than a help to the pursuit of the apophatic, of the vision of God, because it refocuses the attention of the worshippers on themselves and on their politics. Thus some of the problems with ‘mother’ used on its own outside of metaphor or analogy.

As many writers have noted, use of feminine language in reference to God is nothing new, and the Semitic pronoun for the Holy Spirit, and for Wisdom, is ‘she’. However, we need to be aware of the context in which this language is used. Sometimes, as in the Odes of Solomon, the strategy is to displace stereotypes without introducing a new monolithic stereotype, as too often happens with mother-language today.

A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the kindness of the Lord.
The Son is the cup,
And he who was milked is the Father,
And the Holy Spirit milked him;
Because his breasts were full,
And it was not desirable that his milk should be emitted without reason;
The Holy Spirit opened her bosom
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father,
and gave the mixture to the world without their knowing;
And those who receive it are in the fullness of the right hand. (Ode XIX)

I should add here that there is much in Syriac literature that is sympathetic to the difficulties we face today. Here is the 4th c writer, Ephrem, on metaphor:

It is our metaphors that He put on—though he did not literally do so;
He then took them off—without actually doing so:
when wearing them,
He was at the same time stripped of them.
He puts one on when it is beneficial, then strips it off in exchange for another;
the fact that he strips off and puts on all sorts of metaphors
tells us that the metaphor does not apply to His true Being
because that Being is hidden, he has depicted it by means of what is visible...

For this is the Good One, who could have forced us to please Him,
without any trouble to Himself; but instead He toiled by every means
so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will, that we might depict our beauty with the colours that our own free will had gathered....

It seems to me that feminist theologians and their opponents alike are far less concerned in respecting free will than God, or their forebears of sixteen centuries past.

Traditional language and imagery have other strategies that today’s revisers seem not to be aware of. While it is certainly salutary to get rid of phrases such as ‘us men’ and ‘all men’ and language about abhorring wombs, to say in the context of the Eucharist ‘our brother Jesus’ as opposed to ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ (to cite only one example) is theologically questionable, because the focus of the Eucharist is on the historical Christ, not on the historical Jesus, a historical Christ who dissolves the shackles of time and syntax and bears us to the Father. In the historical Christ there is neither male nor female.

‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’ focuses on Christ as the metaphor for a process, a process which is ritually enacted in the liturgy and provides a seamless meeting place, a union, between the God who is self-outpouring, and the worshipper who ideally mirrors the divine self-outpouring. It is equally the worshippers’ body and blood which are offered on the altar to the Father in union with the Christ who both indwells and transcends them. The historical Christ is a performative text.

Changing ‘Lord’ to ‘Brother’ also misses the point that the word ‘Lord’ does not refer to hierarchy per se but is a signifier for transcendence. More profoundly, such a change in language destroys the paradoxes necessary to contemplative prayer, i.e., the Lord who becomes a servant, the God who becomes a human being; divinity that is epitomised in lowliness; and, if one requires a feminist twist, the paradox of a prodigally self-outpouring, humble God signified by a male pronoun.

Further, to change ‘Bridegroom’ to ‘friend’ (e.g., in the Advent hymn, ‘Wachet auf’) obliterates the use and transfiguration of eros, of sexuality, which is vital to prayer and the pursuit of the vision of God. There are very good psycho-spiritual reasons that mystical language is often profoundly erotic. Prayer involves the entire being, and even as eros or ‘sexuality’ is the animator of intention, so self-consciousness is similarly suspended in this specialised way only in orgasm and death. It is not an accident that Eros is the child of Hermes, traveller, guide of the dead, creator of resonances, bestower of fragments of truth.

How were these fundamental understandings lost, especially as regards the working of the mind in prayer? Principally through lack of praxis. As just mentioned , the suspension of self-consciousness—not to be confused with consciousness itself—is linked to the little death of orgasm and to mortality. For the early church, death was a daily reality. Theology was costly; its ordinary mode had to focus on the threshold of heaven, the living-out of the resurrection at the intersection of time and eternity, the apophatic. With the decline of martyrdom, a remnant went to the desert to try to continue to live in this vision, shunning the stampede for clerical preferment—and the consequent loss of hermeneutical insight based on praxis—which it engendered.

Loss of understanding also came through the contradiction, not the paradox, that developed with the growth of church as institution, and particularly with the elaboration of hieratic orders. As paradox can be the gate to the ineffable, so the contradiction manifested by the clerical system and its human exponents slams worshippers against an opaque wall of oppression and degradation. It throws them back on themselves, and much of the recent debate over these matters seems to have been about who will be allowed to intrude their egos between those who seek God and their apophatic goal.

One senses two motives behind the doctrine of ex opere: a profound exasperation that attempts to shut its eyes and bypass the problem, retreating into God’s inviolable mercy; and an invitation to license by abstracting, fragmenting and compartmentalising incarnational theology. ‘Ex opere fails to take into consideration the profound impact of psychological signals vital to the transformational context of the liturgy.’ (Pillars p. 24) While the operation of grace in itself may be unaffected in a purely abstract, artificial and disincarnate world, the ability to receive grace, which is always cooperative, may be profoundly impaired, especially by invasive, unspoken signals coming from a self-serving celebrant, especially given that the liturgy dissolves distinctions between outside and inside, thus bringing the context of the liturgy within the worshipper. Grace is by nature inherently relational.

Please note that everything I have said so far about the human person, about the mind, about paradox, language, prayer and the apophatic, applies without respect to sex or gender. While the more superficial aspects of a beginner’s approach to God may need to be focused individually, the deeper aspects are universal. And generally speaking, today’s theological agenda, feminist or not, seems to be stuck at a very superficial level indeed.