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.’"


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