Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Exploring Silence: Practice and History

Today begins a series of posts that are taken from the first part of a very long paper I have had to cut in half. The content, updated, will be appearing in my next book, Silence: A User's Guide. Because the passages are taken out of context the flow of the text will of necessity be somewhat fragmented, but perhaps the content will be useful.

This paper makes an historical case for the work of silence and its decline, and lays out a somewhat brutal account in secular terms of what the spiritual life is and how it works. Plaited into the contemporary language are strands from ancient and medieval authors who observed their own minds and wrote about what they found. Their findings form a consistent account of the work of silence through the ages. [1] A common model appears to underlay them, which is paralleled by recent insights from neuro-biology. Together they highlight characteristics in texts that signal when this model might be usefully applied for interpretative purposes.

There was a fundamental shift in psychology in the life of institutional Christianity in the West, that took place from the tenth century onwards, from putting on the mind of Christ, that is, self-emptying and self-forgetfulness; to imitation, which is inescapably reflexive. This shift is provoked in part by an increasing formalism, which becomes consolidated by the middle of the fifteenth century. It is accompanied by changes in emphasis from faith to belief/magic; from interior practice to external observance; from apophatic opening to controlled imagery and emotions; from a spirituality that is interiorly motivated to one that is externally driven, from using the entire mind, most of which is directly inaccessible, to confining spiritual activity to the conceptual mind and its construct of identity.

It entails a gradual move from one epistemology to another through the exchange of content for method. In the process, a foundational empirical dynamic and understanding [2] is eliminated from the institutional repertoire in both theology and praxis, that is to say, the understanding of the work of silence that had previously led monastic life and theology to be called 'philosophy' until it was eclipsed by the spreading influence of Aristotle in the second half of the twelfth century. [3] Failure by interpreters to acknowledge this shift has led, among other problems, to indiscriminate and inappropriate use of the word 'experience', which has altered meanings—in some cases, rendered opposite meanings—when these texts are translated.

This shift in emphasis progressively reduces institutional life, whether Catholic or, eventually, Protestant, to a subjectivity controlled by officially sanctioned images, formulas and stereotypes. It is in part as protest against these trends, and the need for a corrective, that writers whose subject is contemplation take the risk of setting down their varied accounts of the work of silence. As it becomes increasingly apparent that they are fighting a losing battle, some of their metaphors become correspondingly extreme—the use of annihilation language, for example, or the Cloud-author's 'destroy' (e.g., ch. 8).

[1] ' . . . the monastic Middle Ages received form the patristic era a terminology and themes and a whole vocabulary whose meaning cannot be grasped if their [patristic] source is not recognized.' The Love of Learning and the Desire for God by Jean LeClercq, Fordham Univeristy Press, 1982, p. 99. LeClercq is discussing problems parallel to those discussed in this paper, but with different emphases.

[2] 'This formative period for mystical theology was, of course, the formative period for dogmatic theology, and that the same period was determinative for both mystical and dogmatic theology is no accident since these two aspects of theology are fundamentally bound up with one another. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, OUP, 2007, p. x.

[3] LeClercq, p. 101.

Price difference!

A friend in the USA has done some research on the price of Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding:

From ABE (Book Depository--Guernsey) USD 11.85

From Amazon UK: USD 21.15

Amazon is not always the best price!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Now Available

"Maggie Ross clears away the 'white noise' that so often attends writing
and talking about faith. She invites us into real quiet, which is also real
presence, presence to ourselves and to the threefold mystery that
eludes our concepts and even our ordinary ideas of 'experience'.
A really transformative book." —jacket comment by The Most Rev'd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

"This book is intended for everyone who has had enough of 'spiritual
writing' and is looking for something that will make sense of normal human experience and integrate it into the knowledge of God through Christ." —from the Foreword by The Rev'd Professor John Barton, Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford

Friday, June 24, 2011

Yet More Word Matters

'The night is passed, the day lies open before us' is hardly an improvement on 'the night is far spent, the day is at hand.' Why does it have to be so banal?

Equally the doxology ' . . . who is alive and reigns . . .' sounds like a desperate need for reassurance by means of a magic formula. This is what happens when 'remember' is substituted for the 'behold' in the original language. In the event, Jesus is not alive, he is glorified, which is utterly different.

And then there is the hamfisted translation of Isaiah 40:1-11, used at this morning's Eucharist, in the Anglicized NRSV, which is unspeakable:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
 says your God. 

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
 and cry to her
 that she has served her term,
 that her penalty is paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand
 double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:
 ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
 and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
 and the rough places a plain.

5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
 and all people shall see it together,
 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
 And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
 All people are grass,
 their constancy is like the flower of the field.

7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
 when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
 surely the people are grass.

8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
 but the word of our God will stand for ever.

9 Get you up to a high mountain,
 O Zion, herald of good tidings;
 lift up your voice with strength,
 O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
 lift it up, do not fear;
 say to the cities of Judah,
 ‘Here is your God!’ 

10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
 and his arm rules for him;
 his reward is with him,
 and his recompense before him.

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arms,
 and carry them in his bosom,
 and gently lead the mother sheep.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Comment and Contact

Gentle Readers, it is apparent that some of you are unsure about the comment and contact process, so here's how it works.

When you make a comment on a post it does not immediately appear on the blog because I moderate the comments. Blogger sends me an email containing the comment with the option to publish or not (or mark as spam). This email from Blogger is a 'no reply' email. It does not have your email address on it.

So if you want to contact me directly, ad feminam, you need to include your email address in the body of the text and to put 'Do Not Publish' at the top of the comment. I will not post your comment, and will reply privately.

Thank you again for all your thoughtful responses.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Common Worship Crazies

Common Worship can be crazy-making in its obtuseness, and the ignorance with which it has altered texts.

The suffrages for Evening Prayer in the BCP 1979 includes the following: 'That this evening may be holy, good and peaceful.'

This has been transferred in Common Worship to Morning Prayer, but it has been changed to read 'That this day may be holy, good and joyful.'

To be horrified by this change may, at first glance, seem like nit-picking, but between the two versions there is a great gulf fixed.

Jesus said, 'Peace I leave with you.' He didn't say, 'Joy I leave with you.' The word peace is carefully chosen.

'Seek peace and pursue it' is possible. We can make peace. We can bring ourselves to interior peace, which gives us external peace, which has a ripple effect on the world around us.

But joy is a gift. It is a by-product of peace and of self-forgetfulness. Like happiness, if you pursue it, you will never find it, because you are looking for a result for yourself. Happiness and joy come unawares to those who live in beholding. And when they come they are unrecognisable because the question 'do I have happiness, do I have joy joy' is no longer possible. That is to say, the person no longer has the self-preoccupation to care either way.

In this ham-handed change to the suffrage, do I detect the dead hand of the evo-factory? It has more than a whiff of clenched smiles, vacant eyes and closed minds.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Assisted Dying

Last night, along with millions of other people in Britain, I watched Terry Pratchett's film on assisted dying, and the Newsnight debate afterwards. When this programme comes to your TV screen, don't miss it. It's kind, honest, compassionate, and addresses—and raises—the issues without flinching, and in the best possible way.

There was much that was unsaid, however, as there had to be in a film of only one hour's duration. Some of these issues were addressed in the somewhat shambolic discussion afterwards, chaired by Jeremy Paxman. It was clear that the opponents to assisted dying had blinkered agendas and weren't listening to anyone else's concerns or the larger issues. Of course there have to be safeguards, but no-one has any quarrel with that.

The disabled woman was understandably worried, almost paranoid, about disabled people being gotten rid of, to the point that she couldn't begin to conceive that there might be other questions, situations, contexts or points of view. She revealed at the end that she was far more interested in getting respect for disabled people than listening to others and responding to the issue at hand.

The appalling Bishop of Exeter—he has already caused some people I know to leave the C of E—prated on about the sanctity of life in the abstract, having told the world that he had just sold his mildly retarded daughter's flat out from under her and rather proudly intimated that she has no rights except what he deems appropriate. He said the choice of life or death was not a 'right' whereas the Pratchett film had been very careful to point out that it is indeed a right under the European declaration.

Let's look at the sanctity of life. You can't mouth platitudes about the sanctity of life when there are not enough hospices, when pain control is not guaranteed, when there is abuse in care homes, and when the elderly are ignored or treated with disdain as intractable and distasteful problems, instead of as human beings; and, further, when the elderly and disabled are bearing the brunt of the financial catastrophe caused by greedy and irresponsible bankers, who, even as the poor get poorer, are making record profits.

A recent BBC film exposed the abuse, even torture of people in care homes. I'm not saying this sort of treatment is universal, but the level of care in most of these institutions is less than basic, to say the least. It is common knowledge that many care homes drug their inmates (there is no other word for it) to make them less trouble, that there is so little stimulation, such poor staff training and monitoring that these inhuman conditions in themselves constitute abuse, passive rather than active. Diana Athill, who has written about her evidently idyllic care home (run by a charity) is a lucky woman, and the care home where she lives an obvious model, but it is the exception, not the rule.

Talking about the sanctity of life under the conditions many elderly people face is a sick joke. The whole idea of 'the market', of making a profit off the elderly—much less younger people who are sick and suffering—is obscene. In the United States people are routinely over-treated—even if they have signed living wills—just so greedy hospitals and doctors can make more money. My father was subjected to unnecessary surgery at the end of his life when there was absolutely no hope of his surviving it, and it would accomplish nothing. He had terminal lymphoma; the intestinal blockage was simply the last event. The hospital and the doctors made tens of thousands of dollars out of this unnecessary suffering inflicted on him.

As for me, I already wear a 'do not resuscitate' bracelet. I am even thinking of having 'DNR' tattooed on my chest. I have signed a living will. I have absolutely no intention of ending my life in a care home. That moment will never come, no matter what I have to do. If by the time I can no longer manage alone there is no legislation and protocol in place that guarantees a safe and comfortable process to help me out of life, then I will have to do the best I can. I will go to Switzerland if I cannot die in the UK, or if that is not possible, I will do what I have to do. I have far too much respect for the sanctity of life to subject mine to the systematic dehumanisation to which far too many elderly and dying people are subjected.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Gentle Readers,

Tomorrow, June 12, is the thirty-first anniversary of my solemn vows.

Please pray for me!

And thank you for your interest in this blog.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Hay Festival

Just back from the quite wonderful Hay festival. Although I was out of Oxford only 36 hours, I was completely disoriented when I woke up yesterday morning, not quite sure where I was or in what world. Being at the festival was so utterly different from my usual routine that my system must have had quite a shock, which my dreams—none of which I remember—tried to sort out. For the first few waking hours of the day, particularly at Matins at the cathedral, I could hardly tell which images were 'real'—that is, had actually occurred in time and space—and which were not. The ultimate sign of a good time, I suppose! But I sat myself sternly down to work on my paper for the July conference (EETS) and by afternoon, thankfully, it was steady as she goes.

It seemed to take forever to get to Hay on Saturday. The railway tracks are all torn up between Oxford and Moreton-on-Marsh so buses were put on, foolishly at the same time as the trains—and of course the running time over the roads is not the same as over the rails, and an 8 minute connexion was just too nerve-wracking to contemplate. When I bought my ticket I was told that if I came early there would be another bus—but of course there wasn't one planned, and it was only because a train was canceled and enough irate passengers insisted that they put the extra one on. I ended up having a complete tour of the Cotswolds, even passing through Honeybourne, which seemed like the end of the earth. I'd like to go back there, though, because it is home to the Domestic Fowl Trust.

We finally arrived at Worcester and in the end the wait for the train was only 20 minutes. We arrived without incident at Hereford, where Rachael Kerr, who had arranged all things Hay, kindly met me and another friend, and took us to the festival.

And what a festival it was! The atmosphere was welcoming, embracing all the paradoxical characteristics of creative thinking: intense yet low-key, laid-back yet intellectually exciting. There were thousands of people there, including a large contingent of children—who had their own festival events—but it was so well organised and designed that you never had a sense of being crowded. People sat in cafés, on the ground (in the fine weather), on the edges of the boardwalks, while others walked rapidly from event to event. There is now a 'fringe' festival in the town at the Globe, mostly philosophers, but some presenters did both festivals. There was a shuttle to and from the town.

This gemütlich atmosphere was even more in evidence in the artists area (the Green Room), where the speakers hung out. Coffee and wine always available, meal and snack vouchers, complimentary tickets to other speakers' events; minders if you wanted them—whatever made you feel at home. It was the sort of atmosphere that put even the largest ego on its best behaviour, and there was plenty of potential for big egos. Some of the people I glimpsed—or more often were pointed out to me!—were: Melvyn Bragg, Bob Geldorf, Julian Assange, Jon Snow (who in the most natural manner was fetching coffee and drinks for his assembled party). I connected with old friends and met some new ones.

At my first session on Sunday morning at 9 AM, there were, unbelievably (because it was the last day and there had been a lot of parties going on the night before), more than 100 people in attendance. Rachael interviewed most competently. I was very humbled and impressed by the quality of the questions from the floor, both at this session and at the panel at 11:30 with Howard Jacobson, Sir Roy Strong, and Peter Guttridge. At that one we talked about Genesis, the Psalms and Revelation. After the earlier session, my books sold out at the signing in the bookstore following the talk.

There were about 600 people at the second session—again, everything smoothly and competently handled. There were people to get you where you were going; then there were people to explain the geography of the venue, and format of the event, and then people to take you, when it was all over, gently by the hand (if you needed it) quietly gibbering back to the Green Room. Except that everything was so calmly and kindly done that the morning was a state of 'flow' with no jitters and no post-event paranoia. It takes great care and an immense amount of planning to create such an atmosphere, and hats off to all who played a role in that.

The only sad note was that I had no time to see the village or explore the bookstalls—or the pubs that were doing a huge trade in the most civilized way (in other words, no town square drunks). I went early to bed on Saturday night at the charming B & B, which had a wonderful, attentive hostess, and took everything with me when I returned to the festival as I had a ride home.

If you have a chance to go to the Hay festival in a future year, drop everything and go for it! It is not to be missed!

Friday, June 03, 2011


Steve Hartwell's death has renewed for me the mystery of absence. He was diagnosed after I left for the UK, and so our goodbye at the airport was my last glimpse of him—typically hospitable, loving, and engaged in an act of kindness.

Now he is gone, and it's impossible to go to his funeral.

I had a similar-but-different experience some years ago when Abbott Conway, the much-beloved scholar and vicar of Great Tew, died. Unlike Steve's death, it was sudden and unexpected: Abbott died in his sleep. Two days before it happened I had an email saying he wasn't feeling well. This was followed, the next day, by another, a perfectly normal one, recommending a book—and then, twelve hours later, suddenly he wasn't there any longer. Again, I couldn't go to the funeral: Abbott died here in the UK and I was in Alaska.

I don't know whether 'closure' is a good thing or not. In the uncertainty, their presence and absence flicker together in my consciousness, along with the intangible gifts that are their legacy, and gratitude.

At one level I still can't believe they are no longer 'there'. At another, I feel absence to the depth of my being, not just their absence, but my own absence, as I will one day not-be.