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 . . . .


Anonymous Steven Winwright said...

A fan of your published work (just re-reading Pillars of Flame) and today I come across your blog! What a bonus! Dipped into Practical Adoration, and then Remembering to Forget... Wonderful to read your writings. I shall be revisiting frequently.
Steve Winwright

2:16 pm, January 11, 2010  
Blogger Bo said...

You taught me a new welsh word today---hyfrydol = 'lovely' in a kind of old fashioned form.

Have you come across Anne Griffith's mystical hymns? Rowan W makes much of her. The Byzantine liturgy spontaneously recreated by a solitary genius in the harsh fields of 18th century north Wales.

1:24 am, January 12, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

@ Bo: yes, Ann Griffiths is amazing and should be much better known

@ Steven: many thanks for your kind comments!

9:27 am, January 12, 2010  

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