Monday, February 01, 2010

Practical Adoration III


The primary role of the institutional church is to provide a context for adoration—at least in theory. People come to church hoping for encouragement to inhabit this prayer without ceasing so that it may inform all their activity. But these days, increasing numbers of such people go sadly away, for they soon learn that if adoration is not the source of its every act, the church becomes merely one more dysfunctional group.

Contemplative union is not the private property of a sophisticated elite; it is most certainly not the preserve of clergy or so-called spiritual directors. It is a realization of our shared nature with God inscribed in us at birth, through which we receive the risen life that animates all the rest of what we do, including the impetus for serving others. If adoration is not the foundation of our service, then that service becomes predatory and degrading to those we hope to serve.

The church—in theory—is here to help us make our home in the silence of adoration and the holy, to give us courage to carry it into ordinary life, into the kingdom of noise—that is, what ancient writers have called “the world”—so that it, too, may be transfigured. “The world” in this context does not mean the creation, which is good, but rather the arena of illusion, of power struggles and conspicuous consumption, imagined in the mind but acted out in the suffering of the material creation and the body. It is this shadowy and contentious world of avidity, not the body, which Paul refers to as “the flesh.” This phantasmagorical world cannot bear silence, for silence reveals it for the delusion it is. It adores only what it can consume and lives for the adrenaline rush of power over people and things. It is this noisy world of delusion and lies that the humble Christ defeats by self-emptying silence.

The tragedy of contemporary institutional religion, preoccupied as it is with the power struggles of the clergy, is that it seems to have forgotten this task of bringing the transfiguring silence of adoration 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 their adoration in the world, turn away.

Most of the great texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, including the Bible, were written to conform to the criteria for “the reading of hearts.” Silence is so much a part of their world that these texts rarely mention it. The author of the story of Jacob's wrestling with an angel assumes that the reader will know that it takes place in silence, and does not think to use the word (see Gen. 32:24-32).

But our culture does not operate by the same criteria; silence is so alien to its analyses that it needs special mention. For this reason, it is not surprising that the essential nature of logophatic texts is opaque to modern people, scholars especially, and to religious institutions. The authors of these texts were trained in silence; in their educational system, silence was as essential as the alphabet. [7] By contrast, we are preoccupied with words and argument; our educational system is based on dialectic. Yet the logophatic texts we seek to understand have silence as their source, subtext, and end. Their sole criterion and goal is to help us to realize the vision of God, a goal institutional religion once had but now seems to have forgotten or abandoned.

Having lost these basic insights about the process of silence in the service of adoration, churches are no longer able to understand the metaphorical language of their own foundational texts. In consequence, they have frequently promoted life-denying, psychologically damaging practices, imposing rules and behavioral strictures that have little relevance to the essential. These proscriptions are often meaningless, if not frankly destructive to spiritual maturity. Holy Communion, for example, is reduced from the medicine of life for the brokenhearted to hors d’oeuvres for the ritually pure. Virginity is degraded from its meaning of purity of heart, a heart suffused with adoration, to mere genital intactness. [8]


[7] Georges Duby and Philippe Braunstein, “The Emergence of the Individual” in A History of Private Life, vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1988), 619.

[8] For further reading on such metaphors, see, for example, Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem, Cistercian Studies, no. 124 (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1992).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend and I were recently discussing about how technology has become so integrated in our day to day lives. Reading this post makes me think back to that discussion we had, and just how inseparable from electronics we have all become.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further innovates, the possibility of downloading our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's a fantasy that I dream about almost every day.

(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]R4i[/url] DS NetPostv2)

3:07 am, February 06, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I find your comment so very sad.

Memories are interpretations and these interpretations change as time passes; in many cases they MUST change if we are to grow as persons and our wounds be transfigured.

Secondly, your comment completely ignores the role of the body in memory. Do read the first chapter of Jane Hirshfielld's "Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry" to get a taste of what I mean.

2:24 pm, February 06, 2010  
Anonymous Steve Winwright said...

An observation on the reluctance of silence in our Churches: John Paul II wrote, in a letter to the Carmelites entitled: Master in the Faith (Dec 1990), of the relevance of the term dark night to our present age – a term, he says, that refers not to just a phase of the individual spiritual journey, but also having a collective character...

Is this happening; the members of the body of Christ unwilling participants in a dark night which will draw them eventually to the unitive silence? Or is this pure fantasy on my part (?)

For the moment (25 years in my case), I see contemplatives dotted here and there around the world (the technology of the internet which brings together!) until this particular dark night of noise and activity be over, and the Church, once more, returns to the adoring, creative silence where all takes place.

9:12 pm, February 07, 2010  

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