Thursday, January 28, 2010

Desert Winter

[See "Long Shadows" 23 September 2009]

This morning it is 20 degrees F., too cold for an early morning walk along the fence lines to watch the sun come up, to read tracks in the snow that will have crusted during the night, the book of creatures abroad in the borderland between day and night. The bird migration through Basin and Range is weeks in the future, though the year-round residents are much in evidence. Quail scurry under sagebrush, ravens somersault in winter games, a pair of golden eagles perch atop the wooden cross-arms of electric poles to bask in the strengthening sun, never ceasing their examination of the frosted scrub that hides their next meal. The white background makes them seem larger than life; their feathers gleam as they preen and shake out. Later in the day they will circle hungrily over my friends' chicken-and-duck yard.

Yesterday wasn't as cold; I walked for hours along the rutted icy lanes. Lingering hoarfrost rimed and gilded every twig and bud; the isolated Lombardy poplars lifted their arms white and gold in orans against the pale blue sky. The alfalfa fields are hidden; the pivots are stilled; the silent, barren land seems to shout with gladness. There's an old echo carol, Basque, as I recall, whose refrain welled up to the rhythm of my feet: "How great my joy (great my joy);/joy joy joy (joy joy joy);/ praise be the Lord in heaven on high (praise be the Lord in heaven on high)." All the sons of the morning shouting for joy.


After sunup the temperature didn't matter; the light warmed my back. Overnight the snow had fractaled—infinitely branching crystals; jewels scattering the ridges beside deep grooves of adobe and hardpan—ephemeral beauty become slush by 10 AM.

A brief hiatus for my soul to catch up to my body; to re-connect with reality after days of vans, airports, human mailing tubes. Soon to California, where pruned vines wait gaunt and black in the rain for budbreak and explosion of new life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Practical Adoration II

[NB This is the post for Monday the 25th January as I'm on a long-haul flight that day.]

We tend to speak of this trinitarian movement—the imageless silence of adoration, the outpouring of its effects, and the return to silence—as if there were three separate stages. The dualistic nature of language forces us to speak this way, but it is 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. [4] It 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 Christianity.

This overflowing and permeation of the most sublime through the most ordinary is a litmus test of true contemplation. It is in adoration that we learn that all experience, no matter how wonderful—even the experiences that lead us to adoration—is only, ever, interpretation, and therefore secondary. We need to understand that experience in itself is never direct perception, but that, like language, it is always reflexive; that is to say, it is always self-conscious and therefore self-regarding, however disinterested that regard may be. Experience is interpretation.

The narrative we create that we call “experience” always has its eye on the illusory and anxious construct we call our selves. By contrast, adoration completely forgets about anxieties and the self as well. But the two need not be mutually exclusive. If experience—the way we interpret what happens to us—has adoration as its wellspring, it can serve the same function as Wesley’s hymn, always intensifying and renewing our focus away from our selves into the continual non-experiential, non-reflexive adoration in our deepest heart, where the unfolding truth of our life is revealed.

As we search for the language to interpret what we have received in adoration, adoration itself becomes the reference point. As the Word seeks to express itself through us (logophasis), we are continually measuring these words against the “memory”—there can be no memory as adoration is entirely self-forgetful—of adoration. [5]

In this logophatic process, silence itself becomes a tool of interpretation and analysis, not only for what the Word is trying to express through us, but also for our interpretation of the events of our ordinary lives that we take into silence. What does this text, experience, or person tell me of the vision of God? Does the text resonate in the heart as only logophasis can resonate, or are these words, however well written, just a lot of empty syntax and wishful thinking? How does this text, experience, or person encourage me to enter the silence of adoration more deeply? Will this text, experience, or person create an interior storm of pleasurable excitement, or anguish and distress, clouding the mind with noisy distraction? [6] What is the quality of silence in this text, experience, or person? (This use of silence is also called “the reading of hearts.”)


[4] Adoration and contemplation are essentially indistinguishable; the word “adoration” perhaps carries more emotional energy. Both words gesture toward the realm of the unsayable; the distinction is entirely literary.

[5] What we are remembering/interpreting, perhaps, is the threshold, the tipping point at which our self-consciousness disappears. For a depiction of this process in a late thirteenth-century illuminated manuscript, search the Internet for Rothschild Canticles f.104r: click on Figurae; scroll down and click on the image.

[6] Although no sane person would welcome the return of the abuses of the Index of Forbidden Books, there is a germ of healthy vigilance behind the idea. For all of us, there are books we wish we hadn’t read, movies we wish we hadn’t seen, activities we no longer care to engage in—all of which can leave residual images in the mind that take time and effort to dissolve. Having discovered the still waters of peace, we no longer seek over-stimulation.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I have wanted to post something about Haiti, but somehow anything I might say about my responses would be presumptuous, if not inane.

But why can't we confiscate the bankers' obscene bonuses, which far exceed by many times over all the relief money sought and earmarked for Haiti, to create a trust that would provide the long-term human services, the rebuilding, reforesting, revitalizing of this country that even before the earthquake was already nearly dead from neglect?


Monday, 18 January

Régine Chassagne's remarks in yesterday's Observer expressed much, and far better, of what I tried and failed to say on Saturday. In the discarded draft I had used the word 'apocalypse' as she does, in two of its senses: doom and unveiling.

She writes "This earthquake has torn away the veil and revealed the crushing poverty that has been allowed by the west's centuries of disregard. That we must respond with a substantial emergency effort is beyond argument, but in its aftermath, Haiti must be rebuilt."

Chassagne is a Haiti survivor living in Canada. "I grew up with parents who escaped during the brutal years of the Papa Doc regime. My grandfather was taken by the Tonton Macoutes and it was 10 years before my father finally learnt he had been killed. My mother and her sister returned home from the market to find their cousins and friends murdered. She found herself on her knees in front of the Dominican embassy, begging for her life. . ."

It is stories like these that make my reactions seem banal or even self-dramatizing to me, but there is nothing I can do about them; I am helpless before them. Perhaps they recur simply because these responses are part of our common humanity. While I did not, like Chassagne, when I heard about the earthquake ". . .let out a cry, as if I had just heard that everybody I love had died," the impact of grief was so great that my insides felt as if I were in a free-falling lift. The number 200,000 flashed in my head from some deep place; the number I guessed would die; it seemed conservative.

The grief persists as a gnawing, hollow emptiness in my gut. Helplessness breeds strange ideas: there was the wild urge to use the freedom of my current homelessness to go to Haiti to be homeless and grieve with people, to sit with the dying and the bereaved—as I feel myself dying and bereaved by this catastrophe. An absurd idea, of course; I would only be a in the way, another mouth to feed, and I am ashamed that these notions might be grandiose to begin with.

But Régine has given me permission to have these feelings; she tells me they are not out of line. she writes: "This is the moment when we need to show our best support and solidarity. . . .Since Haiti shook and crumbled . . .my heart is crushed. I've been thinking about nothing else. . . .Somewhere in my heart, it's the end of the world."


The distance between Haiti and "Lark Rise to Candleford" seemed unimaginable until yesterday evening. "Lark Rise" is so lightweight that one reviewer announced that "Nothing much happens again tonight in "Lark Rise to Candleford"— though the characters are often delightful. For those who don't know this series, Lark Rise is a rural Victorian hamlet near the up-market town of Candleford. The Old Ways are alive and well in Lark Rise, and the substantial village wise woman, Queenie, is married to a disreputable, grizzled, scarecrow-thin old geezer named Twister. Twister could easily be dismissed as a lazy, ranting, often drunken old fool as he totters around in his battered and dusty top hat, but last night he had his moment.

He had "gone off" his head for a few days, as he does periodically, standing in the middle of Candleford, prophesying packets of food falling from heaven, while the amused and the gullible looked on. Knowing that Twister's state could go on for days and that the bishop was soon to arrive, the pious evangelical postman,Thomas, puffed up with piety and entirely embarrassing in his own right, was scandalized by the thought that the bishop might see Twister in full spate. This unwelcome vision provoked Thomas into more or less kidnapping him, over the objections of his new and very anxious middle-aged wife.

Left alone with Twister, Margaret plied him with plate after plate of food until suddenly he recovered his senses. "It's not the hunger itself," he declared to the middle distance in one of his familiar non-sequiturs, "it's the fear of hunger." His soliloquy was beautifully written and powerfully performed, so much so that the black hole in his mind yawned in the viewer's as he spoke. It is now impossible ever to look at Twister in quite the same way again, and the coincidence of this speech with the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake made the increasing desperation for food and water in the crisis zone palpably real.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Practical Adoration

[This article was originally published in Weavings, and is dedicated to the memory of the Reverend Professor Charles Abbott Conway, Pastor, Scholar, Friend, ✝ 26 August 2007. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels." (2 Cor. 4:7, KJV)]

The title of this article may seem self-contradictory: after all, adoration is the self-forgetful and entirely gratuitous worship of God— not for any attribute, reason, need, or thing desired, but simply because God is God. Sometimes adoration is a gift: in a moment of grace, we may be seized—visited by angels, as it were—and find ourselves face down on holy ground.

More often, however, adoration is intentional, and this intention needs cultivation and nurturing so that the hidden heart from which we live rests in adoration, in the vast and open silence in which it is healed, energized, and transfigured. 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.


The hymns of Charles Wesley give us an example of the outpouring energy of adoration at work in our everyday lives. One of his most popular is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which is an exposition of the longing of the human heart to be completely absorbed in the divine exchange, the mutual loving gaze that leaves us “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” It is a hard and stony heart that is not swept up by the fountain of ecstatic language in this hymn, which is often sung to the equally inspiring melody “Hyfrydol.” The hymn effects (performs) its content in the receptive reader or singer: it brings the worshiper to the adoration it describes.

Paradoxically, as the energy given in the silence of adoration becomes manifest through the hymn, [1] the hymn becomes the vehicle that returns us to silence. What is beyond words and images (apophatic) generates the flow of words and metaphors of the hymn (logophatic), which efface themselves even as we sing, leading us ever deeper into the silence. Martin Laird, in his book on faith in Gregory of Nyssa, describes this trinitarian process (he is paraphrasing Gregory):

John places his heart like a sponge on the Lord’s breast, the fountain of life, and is filled by an ineffable…transmission of the hidden mysteries in the heart of the Lord. The apophatic context, albeit subtle, is clearly present. But then John takes the breast of the Word, upon which he has lain, and offers us the good things he has received and he proclaims the Word who exists from all ages. An encounter which started out as apophatic has of its own dynamism become ‘logophatic.’ [2]

Wesley’s adoration becomes logophatic in the hymn, which stimulates our own logophasis. The words of the hymn elide into the apophatic even as they are expressed. The silent Word gives us voice, and the emergence of that voice deepens us once again in the silent Word. It is not a question of silence or speech, but rather that the transfiguring energy given in silence is expanded and integrated by making us attempt interpretation through speech, while in the same moment insights that arise from making speech deepen and expand us again into the silence.

We need to understand that the essential energy silence gives to speech is not limited to religion but is fundamental to our nature as human beings. The relationship between speech and silence is the foundation of the way we are hardwired to learn, whether we are poets or scientists, musicians or truck drivers.

Observing the world, accumulating data, memorizing notes or texts in foreign languages, deciding which route will be the most efficient—all of these learning activities take effort and focus. But the effort and focus are only the first step. As modern scientific experiments have confirmed, we must “sleep” on what we are trying to learn before it is seated and integrated. To put this another way, in order to memorize or problem-solve, learning must also include “forgetting”—that is, relinquishing our self-conscious ratiocination. Only then does memory become reliable, or the solution to the problem emerge. The more we learn, the more we realize how necessary this “forgetting” is to all knowledge, and most especially to integrating our fragmented lives.

The same process can work in reverse: if we try to remember the lost word on the tip of the tongue, we must forget not only what we are trying to remember but that we are trying to remember. We must trust that by forgetting, there is a chance (not a guarantee) that the word will be returned to us. This cycle of remembering and forgetting, whatever form it takes, has been called the paradox of intention. [3]

This trustful forgetting that leads to subtle transfiguration in the epistemological silence is what religious people call “faith.” The transfiguring of perception seats and integrates what we are trying to learn in memory, thereby affecting our thought and influencing our behavior.

The point here is that the education of our intention can deepen and strengthen the way adoration informs the ordinary round. The subliminal intention with which we read, write, pray, cook our meals, pull weeds in the garden, type numbers into a computer, in very real measure determines our understanding and the quality of our lives. We become what we adore.


[1] Anyone who prays is aware of this process, but until Martin Laird invented the term logophasis, there had been no way to speak of it simply. See Laird’s Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004) and the discussion that follows below.

[2] Laird, p. 32.

[3] See, for example, Marvin Shaw, The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It, American Academy of Religion Studies in Religion, no. 48 (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988).

To be continued . . . .

Monday, January 04, 2010

Maggie Ross In Residence at Bishop's Ranch

From early February to the end of May I will be "in residence" at Bishop's Ranch in Healdsburg, California. See their website for details of retreats and quiet days. Don't see what you want? Email them and ask; they are sensitive to meeting individual requirements.

Bishop's Ranch is a conference and retreat centre belonging to the Diocese of California (San Francisco) located north of Santa Rosa in the heart of the Sonoma wine country. It sits on a hill overlooking the Russian River valley towards Mt. St. Helena in Napa County. Bishop's Ranch caters to groups, families and individuals on a campus of more than 300 acres of oak savannah and woodland.

It is indeed a place where lives are changed: I began my life as a solitary there.


I will be going to France on Thursday the 7th and have no idea what the internet access will be where I am going, so there may not be a post until after the 15th.

Then on the 23rd I fly to the States for a few months; again, there may be a lag in posts.

Things should settle down after the first of February when I begin an "in residence" at Bishop's Ranch in California. See next post.


This past week there was a guest at the convent where I am staying, a very tall (about 6'5"), gentle, attractive man, probably in his late 70s, the sort of person whose very being speaks of unassuming holiness. The way his body moved, his courteous and genuine warmth towards everyone, especially the most elderly and debilitated, tore at the heartstrings. I was privileged to sit with him at a meal, and have an additional conversation yesterday.

He was entirely without bitterness, but was lamenting his uselessness, having been forced to retire from his parish because he had reached the mandatory age. He had deliberately chosen parish life over other kinds of ministry (he clearly could have been a dean or a bishop). He pointed out that there is a large number of clergy like himself who are sitting idle while the career types are servicing (the word 'care' would not be appropriate for what is inflicted on the churches) multiple parishes, chained to and isolated by their computers, while the pastoral care of presence is entirely neglected—not that anyone would really want to have one of these career clerics get too close. The sick, elderly, and imprisoned are not visited, but the incumbents are too threatened by holiness and competence to put these retired clergy (or anyone else—certainly not a layperson) to work.

There are examples everywhere. One parish that has been sequestered for nearly 100 years has a 'house for duty' priest. Until recently, this group of churches had a long line of clergy filling this post who well and graciously understood the necessity of the vicar's being integrated into the life of the villages. For several generations there was a chain of such people, an incumbent vicar spotting a likely candidate for the next-but-one opening. This chain was abruptly broken two years ago when the incumbent suddenly died without any warning. The new vicar is 'a perfectly acceptable C of E priest' who takes the services but is strict about doing no more than absolutely necessary, which means no visiting—and this rural parish badly needs pastoral care for its elderly, its sick, families in crisis and people seeking God.

There is another vicar close by who is a perfectly nice person, an adequate administrator as long as he is calling all the shots but incompetent in every other aspect of the job from liturgy to human relations. A friend of mine is on a committee that supposedly evaluates clergy, but when I asked her if there was any mechanism for critique she said, no, this group was only for support of clergy; there was no mechanism in the diocese for any but the most anodyne approach. Again, it will be two years before this man retires, and by then, once again, it will be much, much too late.

Why can't the powers that be wake up to the fact that services are worthless without service? That throwing forms and paperwork at the problem only makes it worse? And if the clergy can't be bothered or are not competent to do the pastoral care, why can't others be appointed (and paid) to do it? They wouldn't have to be ordained; in fact, the type of lovely (ordained) man described at the beginning of this post has always been the rare exception, and is getting rarer.

The diocese of Exeter has suggested that the villages choose people to be ordained. But ordination is not the answer: who in their right mind would want to be ordained into the present system to become one of the self-absorbed, self-certifying elite, separated from the rest of us, not to mention their own humanity? Why not train and license local lay people to preside at the Eucharist and do pastoral care?

The vicar at the 14th century village church I attended on Christmas Eve not only treated the small, mixed congregation of country people, scholars and toffs like idiots, perfunctory even in his bonhommie; he wouldn't even allow a local to read the lesson. Instead it was read by his officious wife—one of those people who might otherwise be perfectly nice, but who insists on inflicting their "ministry" on others. When she "helps out" at parishes when her husband isn't present she insists on doing everything: conducting the service, playing the organ, reading the lessons—the lot. Not only does such bouncing around destroy any sense of liturgical flow, it is the sign of a person desperately in need of attracting attention to herself while disenfranchising everyone else—and now this paragon is going to be ordained.

I mentioned to my hostess, who had been feeling unwell enough to be relieved that she didn't have to go to church that night, that I was shocked that this woman, on Christmas Eve, had pushed aside everyone local (not to mention the highly inappropriate and peremptory glances she exchanged with her husband as he presided and she sat alone in cassock and cotta in the tiny choir). My hostess sighed and replied that no one had the energy to speak up and that in any event, it was pointless: no one would listen.

I asked how much longer before he retires: she said, two years . . .much, much too long.

More and more I turn to Diarmaid McCulloch's felicitous phrase: 'I am not a Christian but a candid friend of Christianity.' Who could identify themselves as "Christian" in the present institutional climate? Why does it give stones when the people ask for bread? programmes and questionnaires when they seek a vision? management instead of compassion? clerics instead of human beings? I do not know the way forward for Christianity. Everywhere I turn there seems to be another religious entrepreneur trying to establish a brand by spouting tired phrases and seeking to exploit loneliness, pain and broken hearts.

While I am no traditionalist in the political sense of the word, I am a radical in reaching back to the roots. We have lost Christianity; it is doubtful if it can be recovered. It consisted not only of buildings and liturgies and manuscripts but ways of thinking, perceiving and, above all, reading and contemplating, alone and in community, with humility and respect, living the compassion that grows out of contemplation by the simple act of accepting the privilege of being-with others in joy and sorrow, trouble, sickness and death.