Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sermon for Mansfield College, Oxford [February 27, 2008]

"The Church is like a swimming pool: all the noise is at the shallow end." —Robert Runcie

Tonight's remarks may seem a bit strange because I am going to use a minimum of religious language, most of which, in my view, has become useless. It's not very hard to understand why this has happened. Religion is not about believing seven impossible things before breakfast; it is a series of metaphors about the work of silence and the relationship of silence to speech and behaviour. Religion and its language become bent out of shape if the people using the metaphors, making the rules and writing the doctrine do not practice silence.

One of the main reasons for this distortion is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the authentic work of silence, which is organic and focuses away from itself, and speech, which can only ever be dualistic and self-regarding. Religious language becomes distorted when silence is no longer the ground from which it emerges and to which it returns. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, the institutional church effectively banned silence, and since then has progressively become the kingdom of noise. Until it recovers silence as its context, goal and primary tool of interpretation in everything it does and everything it teaches, institutional religion cannot reform itself, understand its own texts, or help us in our times of crisis.

So tonight I am going to try to give you a nano-course in the work of silence that will help you in every aspect of your lives if you will simply sit down and make room for it. If you wonder why your work isn't going well, why you feel anxious, why emotional pain guts you and seems to go on forever, why you seem to have two left feet, and most of all, why you seek a way to blot it all out, then the work of silence is your best resource. It's simple, it's free, and it works. It doesn't mean your problems will go away, but you will be able to deal with them much more easily; the effects of trauma will disappear more quickly; exams and tutorials will be less frightening. Most of all, if you pursue the work of silence even for six months, your life will change dramatically, and if you persist you will find the joy that no one and nothing can take from you, no matter what happens.

I'm going to sketch it out, and then we're going to have five minutes of silence.

Silence is normative for the human person. Think about it: humans have been around for about 2 million years. For most of that time, our core silence enabled us to survive in the wilderness. We haven't lost this gift; it's the reason we are riveted by wildlife programmes on TV because as we watch the animals' core silence at work in relating to each other and the environment, we are looking at our own lost nature.

From the 11th century on, a rising tide of dialectic—and this university is founded on dialectic—coupled with the growing secular power of the church drowned the inheritance of the first thousand years of Christianity, which was more about the resurrection of the mind through the body than that of the body alone.

At this time, silence was as essential to education as the ABC. It was understood that silence helped to structure the mind. But the deaths of Aquinas and Bonaventure in the late 13th century mark the beginning of the end of scholarship that understood the relationship between silence and speech, and in 1310 Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for writing a psychologically accurate account of the work of silence, refusing to degrade it into the pious clichés of the clergy.

Let's get practical. Without silence we lose our humanity. Life and language get flat and one dimensional—life imitating not art but cartoons. Without silence, we cannot hear how words resonate psychologically, how they are layered and laterally connected—this is especially true if you have an iPod in your ears while you're studying. You may think it's helping you to focus, but it's in fact confining you to only one very narrow frequency of a feedback loop. (On the other hand, if you chew gum while you revise, your memory may improve as much as 40%.)

Shared silence is essential to deep relationships; you can read another's heart by using your own silence to read theirs. In addition, relationships that seem irrevocably damaged can often be reconciled by sitting in silence together.

You don't have to be a psychologist or a philosopher to understand how the mind works in silence. As that 14th century misogynist, Jean Gerson, observed, even women and idiots can arrive at the highest forms of contemplation. Anyone who observes their mind can understand some basic things about it.

The most superficial level is characterized by noise. There is the observing I/eye which comments on everything and can make us really miserable. There is the swirl of data coming in, which is distorted even before we register it at the second level of interpretation as "experience"—and it's important to remember that all experience is interpretation. There is something called "identity" which is a pastiche of what we surmise (usually wrongly) other people think of us, what we think of them, of ourselves and any number of other red herrings. In other words, in its ordinary state, this first level of the mind is a mess and without silence it is out of this mess that we try to deal with the day-to-day world. No wonder our lives are chaotic.

It doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to get beyond the noise to give your mind enough breathing space to sort things out. In fact, forgetting the mind for a moment, if you can simply train your body to sit upright in a chair, perfectly relaxed and perfectly motionless for thirty minutes, you will acquire an unshakeable interior stability to which you can always resort.

To include the mind, turn your eyes toward the space between your eyebrows, or look at a point in the middle distance from beneath lowered lids. Count your exhalations up to ten and start again; alternatively, you can follow a word into the silence. Allow all expectation to fall away; rest in the breath.

But meditation is only one way into silence, just the first step. You have to feed the silence with good things. There's a bit of the "garbage in garbage out" factor here. It's not that you can't get rid of the garbage—violent images, sado-masochistic pornography and the rest—but such images take longer to dissolve. Alcohol is also problematic: for every unit you drink you will have a day when meditation feels like swimming through mushy peas. But if you meditate, drink becomes irrelevant.

Other good things can come from images, texts, even smells, as Proust reminds us. Any of these, like a vast Alaska landscape, can focus your attention away from that pesky observing, commenting I/eye. You can learn to read sacred texts like Mary Poppins and Bert stepping into sidewalk chalk drawings. In other words, you can learn to read them for their "gaps" and for the paradoxical images that momentarily stop the mind that bridge the abyss between linear language and organic silence. These gaps open into silence. You can learn to fall through them into stillness.

Good liturgy, leisurely liturgy, can also be helpful to silence, accompanied by appropriate music and texts that are read slowly with understanding, with plenty of time to reflect. The rule of thumb for liturgy is every true sacred sign effaces itself. Good religion takes us always beyond itself, beyond the interpretations we call "experience" into the imageless, wordless silence, which becomes a fountain of new life.

What's going on in the silence? First of all, the mind functions in a series of narratives, paradoxes and reversals. Religious texts are written with narratives, paradoxes and reversals to mirror the working of the mind. For example, we have to forget in order to remember and we have to remember in order to forget. Scientific research has confirmed that we have to "sleep" on what we learn, that those Greek verbs you've been memorizing won't seat themselves until you've let them go out of conscious thought for a while.

Or take the phenomenon of the word on the tip of your tongue. You have no chance of recovering the word unless you forget both what you can't remember and that you are trying to remember, and even then there is no guarantee it will be given back to you. This sort of forgetting without expectation or guarantee is a good example of what religious people call "faith" but it's operative in scientists too, no matter what they want to call it, for the phenomenon is universal. On the other hand, if you're recovering from a traumatic experience, you have to remember it, look at it objectively, and stare at it until it dissolves.

In other words, there's part of the mind over which we have no direct control. We can access it only indirectly, but it will work for us in a positive way if we let it. I call it transfigurative silence. In this part of the mind, all the signs by which we live are mutated, reshuffled and reintegrated into something creatively new.

You can use this transfigurative silence to help you write essays. Say you get the assignment on Monday. Think about it for a few moments, then consign it to the silence as you go to your next appointment. During the week, phrases may start to flicker though the back of your mind; pressure will start to build up. When you sit down to write, you may find the essay partially formed or even almost finished, often with information or connections you had no idea you knew. This process works for any kind of problem solving. The more you use it, the more fruitful and efficient it becomes.

We can enter transfigurative silence more profoundly in one-pointed meditation. During this process it seems that all thoughts fall away as the mind comes to a single focus and then—if we are lucky—beyond this focus into perfect attention.

But while it may seem that the thoughts are forgotten, they are in fact falling into transfigurative silence. Within it, all the perceptions by which we live—data, emotions, traumas, interpretations, what we call "experience,"—are changed, and our lives are given back to us clarified, healed, a new creation. To use religious language for a moment, we must lose our life—our pseudo-life—to gain the real one. While it may seem that we go from one frustrating meditation to another, thinking that not much is going on and there's only noise in our heads, six months faithful practice for as little as half an hour a day can change your life.

The more you do the work of silence, the more the deep, core silence will be the wellspring from which you live. Among other benefits, this means that engagement with life no longer feels like our identity is putting on and taking off Hallowe'en costumes as we move from one context to another.

The work of silence enables us to live the truth of our selves. It's hidden within this core silence. The Hallowe'en costumes are constructs. In Salinger's language, the construct we call identity is a phony. The final paradox is that we can never know our own truth, we can only live it. When we say to someone, "Don't be so self-conscious; just be yourself," we're saying, don't look at the construct we call identity, focus completely on the task at hand and let the chips fall. It's only when we look away from our selves that we can live our own truth; "who loses life shall gain it." To put this into God language, God wants your phoniness so he can give you your truth.

Over time, if you persist with the practice of silence, you will not only engage the world from the depths and clarity of that truth, you will become whole, autonomous, incoercible, and your own interior state will cease to be of much interest. You will lose the fear of death. This is a highly subversive way to live: as Archbishop Tutu is fond of saying, "If governments knew how subversive contemplation is, they would ban it."

So now let's let the silence woo us, seduce us for a few minutes. Sit straight in your chair with your feet on the floor and your hands flat on your thighs. Close your eyes and turn them toward the space between your eyebrows, or focus into the middle distance. Take a couple of deep breaths, and then start counting your exhalations up to ten, at which point start counting at one again. Relax into it. Or choose a word or phrase such as "Jesus mercy" and simply repeat it slowly in the rhythm of your breath. If you get distracted, just gently return to counting or to the word. Your breathing will slow naturally as you follow the counting or the word into the silence. That's all there is to it. But remember, it's only a beginning. If you do the work of silence, you will find great riches and joy beyond measure even in the midst of pain, but always we must start where we are.



Blogger learning2listen said...

I have been wrestling with this for several months now. Learning to create space is opening the door to look at silence. It is SO difficult to get started but in the Sermon to Mansfield College, I see how silence and language must work together for wholeness.

12:27 am, April 29, 2008  
Anonymous G. August Deimel said...

Can you point to examples of the tradition of silence in the first thousand years of the church? You talk about how this tradition was effectively banned in the 12th-14th century, but I'm not sure I know what came before. Are we talking about church fathers? Augustine's "conversion" comes to mind. Trying to understand where this comes from...

2:41 pm, May 16, 2008  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I am using the word "silence" to point to the interior life whatever form it takes. For the Platonists and neo-Platonists, the "work of silence" was spoken of as having to do with the intellect (but was more than the intellect); in the Semitic tradition, it was "the heart" (which also included the intellect). There are of course many Christianities and always have been but yes, I am thinking more of the patristic and early medieval tradition. I hope shortly to post a potted history about the church"s shift away from silence, which began to have a real impact in the 11th century, which eventually result in a book.

To put this rather crudely, there is a shift away from understanding Christianity as putting on the "mind of Christ", to imitation—of the apostles, of Mary, of the saints. The late medieval "Imitation of Christ" no longer points to silence (perfect attention, as Simone Weil would say) but tends to become devotion for its own sake.

Putting on the "mind of Christ" is other-oriented; Imitation tends towards performance art. There is a huge difference. The first looks always for the vision of God. How many times in the modern West does the phrase even occur? But if we wish to change (continual conversion) we must concentrate primarily on the former, for even modern science confirms that behavioral change cannot take place without profound change in the mind/heart.

There are, of course, protesters against the noise of dialectic and devotionalism. The Carthusians and Cistercians are founded in the 11th century; music becomes a polyphonic war between Latin and the vernacular. The rise of the mystics at the end of the 13th and into the 14th c. is a sort of last battle against the barbarities of dialectic run amok, culminating in Julian's sublime text which, ironically comes at the moment (the Council of Constance) when the church condemns itself to sterility.

In the first thousand years, the life of the mind is implicitly understood to occur in silence, to be the work of silence, by those who write about it. But in our day silence is something extraordinary; we're afraid of it. In addition, we have so objectified the patristic and medieval mystical texts, and we have so little understanding of our own minds, that we no longer understand what these texts refer to.

There are even top scholars who refuse to discuss silence for fear of being accused of "being religious"; in consequence, their work, while good, is aborted because it is out of context. This is especially true in medieval studies. But we can talk about silence without being religious because it is the source of religion.

In our own age, we so little understand the work of silence and how religion evolves from it that we have no criteria by which to sort out, for example, good liturgy from bad. We don't know how to read the texts of our inheritance, not only scripture, but the associated tradition. Much of it refers to the simple structure of the mind that is inherent in the work of the first thousand years (and before Christianity as well, because, of course, it is a universal phenomenon.)

4:12 pm, May 16, 2008  

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