Monday, November 01, 2010

Saturday Madness

I usually avoid the centre of town on the weekends but on Saturday I had to go there. Turning into the Cornmarket from the High was like walking into a rather more tame version of the Garden of Earthly Delights. In the centre of the street a crowd was watching an obviously unwell man seated in a chair subjecting himself to faith healers. A little farther down and off to one side, a slack-rope walker was playing a fiddle, swaying gently. Next, in the middle of the street, was a shouter standing behind a folding card table, bearing a sign that read "God is a lie". Beyond him a very large crowd was standing around a fire-eater. The main smorgasbord was bounded with lashings of a saxaphone player, a small band, vendors selling scarves, teeny-boppers and a few early halloween celebrants in costumes that looked slightly foolish in the broad autumn sunlight.

I have been reading Brueggemann's An Unsettling God. He is writing of the 'embarrassing particularity of the interpersonal' relationship between God and his people, and the dangers of 'final interpretations' that lead to 'final solutions'. 'Scholastic temptations in theology tend to freeze the relationship and to stifle its dynamism. Vague spirituality tends to compromise the sharp over-againstness that is generative of newness. This dialogic faith does not aspire to settlements and final formulations, though it may come to some of those (that remain provisional) through the transaction. What counts is the performance [italics his]. The performance continues to extend the transaction into all kinds of new situations,a nd is capable, always again, of surprise and innovation.' [p. 16]

"The kingdom of God is actually nothing other than the reciprocal union of the soul with all the world. This union of the soul with all the world occurs in thanksgiving, and the kingdom of God comes in this union . . . " [p. 12]

He sums up by saying that it is impossible to solve problems in relationship with technology.

Contrast with A.C. Spearing writing on Marguerite Porete:"The mind is defeated, reason is defeated, by these assertions; and my point here is that they exceed the sevenfold division into which they are forced. This is not , as we might expect and hope, a conceptual framework for the whole text." And that is one of the points I have been trying to make about these sorts of texts: they require a different methodology; we cannot approach them 'expecting and hoping' for a conceptual framework because contemplative texts are transgressing (See Hart's The Trespass of the Sign) the boundaries between the reasoning brain, which is self-conscious and very limited in capacity, and the deep brain which is not directly accessible by us (but can be influenced by intention). These texts break into a realm where expectation, hope, and evaluation have no place, where 'more than we can ask or imagine' can occur. Porete's text is precisely about breaking through all the boundaries imposed by reason and language so that grace can have free rein/reign. Her text is not heretical although it is novel and she enjoys employing extreme language. She is not saying anything that Richard of St Victor has not said or the Cloud author will not say.

We do violence to such texts when we try to analyse and confine them conceptually. We can and must approach them critically, but we will understand them only if we are willing to suspend the attitude McKendrick ( Immemorial Silence) describes: "Many of us [scholars] scoff at the ineffable, at the very possibility of ineffability." To scoff at ineffability is absurd since we know that the suspension of self-consciousness, excessus mentis, happens frequently every day in the normal course of things. It is only when it is sought that it becomes 'rare' because the paradox of intention comes into play [The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It by Marvin Shaw, American Academy of Religion, 1988]: think the word on the tip of the tongue, only in this case the seeker must learn to forget words so that the Word, more, the Spirit that animates the Word, can do its work in the depth of the soul. It is not elitism, as Spearing asserts in the following quote; it is simply that few people are willing to let go to the degree Porete reminds us is required. In studying such texts, scholars too need to let go of their obsessive ideas and methodologies and work with these texts on their own terms. They are not irrational but require both analytical and non-linear thinking.

Spearing not only seems to scoff at ineffability; ["Marguerite Porete: courtliness and transcendence in The Mirror of Simple Souls" in Envisaging Heaven in the Middle Ages ed. Carolyn Muessig and Ad Putter, pp. 120-136] the modifiers he uses and his sarcasm are quite shocking in their evident bias in what purports to be a scholarly paper [the reference numbers to the edition he is using have been omitted in this quote]:

"Reason, we have been informed, 'understands only the obvious, and fails to grasp what is subtle' [...], and Love has told her, 'Ah Reason, [. . .] you will always see with one eye only, you and all those who are nurtured by your doctrine' [...] Those who are nurtured by Reason's doctrine are, in a word, the Church—the Church as an earthly institution, described by Porete as 'Holy Church the Less' by contrast with 'Holy Church the Great', which consists of the few elite souls like herself who are moving towards union with God [...] In chapter 87 the Soul sensationally asserts, 'I am and I shall always be without fail, for Love has no beginning or end or bounds and I am nothing but Love, and this statement so appals [sic] Reason that she dies on the spot, with the soul callously commenting, 'Alas! why did she not die long ago?' [...]

Elite? Sensational? Callous? What person doing the work of silence wouldn't rejoice when thoughts fell away?

Remember John the Solitary (5th c)?

‘How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not in the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I depart from the voice, no longer remaining in things which the voice proclaims? When shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things, when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring.’ Quoted in ‘John the Solitary, On Prayer’ by S. P. Brock, The Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, Vol. XXX, part 1, 1979, p. 87.

Or, closer to Porete and influencing the spirituality of her day, Richard of St Victor, who speaks of the fainting, or falling away (deficio) of reason: "The fainting of the three disciples represents the failure of sense, memory and reason in this highest contemplation. The parallel in the patriarchal imagery is the birth of Benjamin,, which is accompanied by the death of Rachel, also intepreted as the failure of reason in . . . contemplative ecstasy. (Ch 80)" [From Grover Zinn's introduction to the volume on Richard in the Classics of Western Spirituality series]

Spearing goes on to comment: "(If the Soul's reason were to die, then she would be unable to see any reason why her reason had ever existed.) Yet in chapter 98 Reason reappears, alive and well, without a word of explanation . . .It is surprising how many commentators on the Mirror emphasize Reason's death but fail to mention her resurrection." It is amazing that Spearing doesn't seem to have any awareness that Porete is writing about a process that repeats itself; that it is through repeated "death", of yielding to the redemptive silence, that the soul is transfigured into greater life in this life.


Blogger REDdirt said...

Zen Buddhists speak of "self" death as something to be experienced over and over and over. It is by this repetition that "self's" grip finally is surrendered. What floods into the emptiness and silence of "no self" is One vast and unmistakable Joy.

I think this experience marks the beginning of faith.

12:07 am, November 03, 2010  
Blogger Janet Atkins said...

I think this is something akin to what happened to me when I first read Mechtild of Magdeburg's writing. Understand it? Well, no. Try to understand it? What was the point? But I knew that I had received from the writing something that was very important. "My dear One, do not be overly troubled. No one can burn the truth."

I loved your description of the Cornmarket. I suddenly felt transported.

2:34 pm, November 07, 2010  

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